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Discreet charms of the philistines

Bullied by obsessions and pretensions, Mamata Banerjee and Nicolas Sarkozy are on a high culture diet. Abhijit Majumder writes.

india Updated: Jul 24, 2011 21:57 IST
Abhijit Majumder

If you are Bengali or French, being the leader of your people is not good enough. A question will keep needling you when you are looking at yourself in the morning papers or staring at the ceiling in post-coital blankness at night: "Am I cultured? (Or, at the very least, am I seen as cultured?)"

That question, which in these two cultures has the potential to drive you to Prozac, undoubtedly stalks Mamata Banerjee and Nicolas Sarkozy as well.

The former - an otherwise raw, fiery woman widely attacked by her rivals for being 'unreconstructed' and 'lowbrow' - pops up on Google search these days as a 'painter-politician'. The latter has weaned himself away from Gallic gameshows and Sylvester Stallone movies to read Maupassant, Balzac, Céline and Sartre!

With diving popularity ratings and an election year coming up, he has realised that it would take more than a cultured wife to win over the eccentric French, who accord rockstar status to their intellectuals and hold bitterly-contested national debates over the future of the semi-colon.

"Where else but France can you declare, with a perfectly straight face and without fear of actual bodily harm, that your profession is 'thinker'?" writes John Henley in the Guardian.

This cultural pressure to be cultured can be as daunting in Bengal. If you do not believe me, go to a Bengali wedding and greet any elderly person.

"What do you do, young [pronounced 'yong'] man?" "Business."

This would be followed by a sudden, awkward silence, or at best an alarmed "oh". The person would size you up as if you are infectious. Telling them you are a poet would elicit more respect, with some sympathy thrown in for the lifelong financial torment you have chosen for yourself in your artistic pursuit.

Business obviously has to be borne out of "baba-r taka" or father's money, invested on you because you are an "apodarthho", or utterly useless. It also means you are loaded with "kacha taka" (loosely translates to 'liquid cash'). Basically, you are moneyed as well as its twin evil, "uncultured". Not an easy scandal to live down in Bengal.

Banerjee has eschewed every criticism, bullying and even physical violence from the state's former Leftist rulers. She has proven to be more Left than the Left in being in touch with the grassroots. She is modern Bengal's best-known street fighter. But I doubt if the CM is free from the immense pressure to measure up to the academic air of her predecessors - eminent doctor Bidhan Chandra Roy, lawyers Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu, and certified, Pamuk-loving intellectual Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee - in the eyes of the culturally chauvinistic Bengali.

Within two months of coming to power, Banerjee has given dozens of interviews on her artistic and literary side, announced an international Rabindranath Tagore complex integrating Kolkata's various cultural and film hubs on the lines of cultural centres of London, New York and Brussels, and a R410-crore Kolkata Museum of Modern Arts project to preserve, acquire and exhibit a national and global collection of fine arts from late-18th to 21st centuries.

In Kolkata or Paris, you can drive like a lunatic freshly escaped from an asylum, but you cannot run over the long tail of culture without being arrested and shamed.