After meticulous research that would make the likes of Ashis Nandy and Sunil Khilnani want to go back to school, I have come up with a theory (uh-oh) about how Calcutta manages, despite what all of you saw on telly on Wednesday, to have no real ‘Hindu-Muslim’ problems. There will be well-meaning spoilsports who’ll point out that the Hindu Bengali approach to Muslims is rooted in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1882 novel Anandamath, where the real enemy is not the ‘brutish British’ but the ‘malicious Mussalman’. The fact that bona fide Bengali terrorist groups in the first decade of the 20th century were very, very suspicious of Muslims joining, largely because of Muslim reaction to the 1905 partition of Bengal (naturally positive, considering that the split along the communal line would enable the administration to focus on the uplift of socially and economically sidelined Muslim Bengalis) was remembered by Hindu Bengalis well after the reunification of Bengal in 1911. The run-up to the 1947 Partition didn’t help matters.
But all that was quite a while ago. Since then, Bengalis (Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Brown Sahib) have thrown hostile-to-condescending glances at ‘other’ people, so what if the latter may have lived in Calcutta for generations. These looks have been directed not so much along religious lines, but along those of ethnicity, that anaestheticised word that everybody uses for ‘race’ these days.
Take the Calcutta Marwari. The traditional depiction of the Marwari in Bong movies as the crafty, money-piling Sethji (see Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath for his Maganlal Meghraj of Varanasi) was pretty much how Calcutta’s Bengali middle-class has seen the likes of the Birlas and the Neotias right until the late-1980s — that is until they started to realise that the Birlas and the Neotias were the ones keeping the city from falling down in one gigantic heap. (You may count that last bit as subtle brown-nosing on my part.)
With the advent of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s New Bengal (read: Funky Hindi-ised Kolkata), Mitra-babu, from his ground floor three-room wreck at Narkeldanga, may still look down on the Dalmiyas on the sixth floor at V.I.P. Road for not knowing the difference between Derrida and Manik-da. But with Mr Mitra visiting the City Centre mall at Salt Lake with Bablu’s Ma, Bablu and Mithu ever so often these days, he finds his earlier derision-cum-envy turned into moderate amity. After all, Narayan Jain became the first Marwari candidate — a CPI(M)-nominated one at that — during the last assembly elections, coming second, ahead of ex-Calcutta mayor Subroto Mukherjee. Notwithstanding the Rizwanur Rahman case and Taslima Nasreen being booted out of ‘Arrey baba-ouee-are-leeberal-but-not-thaaat-leeberal’ Calcutta, Hindu Bengalis and Muslim Bengalis live moderately happily together. And that’s because the Calcutta Bengali still finds it unsettling when confronted with another ‘other’ who lives among them: the Anglo-Indian.
The Bengali notion of ‘Anglos’ being a ‘strange lot’ is also not based on religion. Bengali Christians are seen as being as much integrated with their Bengaliness as their Hindu or Muslim counterparts. Via Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane and Anjan Dutt’s recent Bow Barracks, not to mention generational journeys through convent schools, the average Calcutta Bengali has viewed this community as people who keep framed photos of Princess Di and Prince Charles in their living rooms, who traditionally engage in Western social customs such as dating and dancing (rather than engaging them ‘radically’ like the ‘modern’ Bong), who make good musicians, who have English as a mother tongue, who socially prefer to stay away from Bongs, and who ultimately end up settling in Australia — thus the (offensive) term ‘Ding’.
With the Anglo-Indian community eliciting a mix of condescending curiosity (that comes from not knowing much about them beyond the classrooms and trips to Ripon Street) and a feeling of smugness (that comes from the belief of belonging to a ‘culturally authentic’ group), the Calcutta Bengali has had no real need to worry about Hindu-Muslim faultlines. So for Calcutta calming down quickly after Wednesday don’t thank the army. Thank, for starters, the D’Souzas of Park Circus. It was Mrs D’Souza who taught me in 1977, the year that Jyoti Basu first became CM, that having a sense of humour doesn’t make you less of a Bengali intellectual (sic).