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Fighting history, fixing labels

The average Bengali feels he has ‘fixed’ the Marwaris with a stereotype: the medo, writes Paramita Ghosh.

delhi Updated: Jan 13, 2008 00:10 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

Racism is not always a direct hit. In Bengal, it’s more about falling back on old reflexes, a constant dredging of certain memories — not just personal but of a community. The way a Marwari and a Bengali remembers the past, is, of course, different. For one, it’s a story of slow power and possession. For the other, of loss and displacement.

The problem, graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee says, is essentially Bengali. “Bengalis celebrate their victimhood. They feel they were done in by the Britishers, the Sindhis and the Marwaris. The truth is, they drank their fortunes away and had too many heirs.”

The average Bengali has his own way of fighting history. He has, he feels, fixed the 12 lakh Marwaris in and around Calcutta with a stereotype: the ‘medo’ are a people whose skill in money-making is matched by their lack of cultural appetite, they say. Sundeep Bhuthoria, secretary, Rajasthan Foundation, however, points to the city’s auditoria built with Marwari money. But not everybody is impressed. “By and large, Marwaris are not interested in the fine arts. Will they ever organize a Dover Lane music conference or a theatre festival?” asks playwright Bratya Basu.

In September 2007, the death of a Bengali Muslim Rizwanur Rahman made the headlines of Kolkata. His father-in-law Ashok Todi, a wealthy Marwari businessman, in his version of events to a local daily, said that he couldn’t bear his daughter marrying a Muslim. “This shook the ‘progressive’ middle-class Bengali who will never say that,” says Shantanu Chacervarti, an NGO activist. “Anti-Marwari feeling was not the over-riding feeling but it may have become a component in the protests on the streets as a result. If Todi wasn’t a Todi, but a Roy Chowdhury or a Bannurje, the case’s outcome would have been different…Conservative Marwaris put family first, it began to be said.”

Author of the Sahitya Akademi award winning novel, Kalikatha via Bypass, Alka Saraogi, reads these differences historically: “The Bengalis definitely looked down upon the Marwaris with their gallery of great writers. Even during my graduation from Loreto College, the basic division was created by the post-colonial hangover of English —it divided us into those who could speak English fluently and those who could not, rather than the successful Marwari enterpreuner’s daughters and the relatively poor but culturally superior Bengali girls.” That attitude has changed to a large extent due to commercialisation of sensibilities in Bengal in general today. Sanjay Lohia, a stockbroker, says 95 per cent of his clients are Bengali. “Everyone wants to be rich. In Bengal, everyone’s singing that song.”