Bengali culture, calcutta, France, religion, Travel

Bong Connection 2.0 : Rediscovering Calcutta in Lisieux

As the summer time approached, we were engaged in another holiday search; the destination was as usual France, so it wasn’t too far to drive, and we could enjoy the freedom of going anywhere we wanted, and anytime. We booked a camping site in a small village in Normandy called Le Brévedent. Normandy evokes a lot of familiarities, the most significant of them is, of course, the D-day landing sites. So our choice was made, that D-day beaches will definitely be the place not to miss. The first item sorted on the list, we were gazing through TripAdvisor and Visit Normandy websites to look for other attractions. There were many places to choose from — historic Caen and its patrimony related to William the conqueror, the famous Bayeux tapestry and other museums, the Riviera of Normandy Deauville-Trouville and Honfleur, picturesque small villages in Pays d’Auge region. Amongst all these difficult choices, almost by chance, I came across Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, one of the most important places in France for Catholic pilgrimage. Our penchant for religious architecture made me tentatively put it on our list, although apart from looking at an elegant edifice almost reminiscent of Basilique de sacré-cœur in Montmartre, I had no idea about the place, its significance in Catholicism or what I’ll soon be discovering — an arcane connection between a remote catholic monastery in rural Normandy and me!

Spending most of my youth in Calcutta, the city is in my veins. A place I still call home, the city I’d not replace with any other place. In a world rapidly transforming at a lightning speed, it still didn’t bother me how Calcutta dug its heels in and held on to the character it portrayed for over last 300 years. The rickety facades along the bylanes of north Calcutta leading to an ocherous swathe we call Ganga, the fish markets of Gariahat where you desperately want to look close at the fish but don’t want the mud splatter on your new sandals, the central Calcutta with its confluence of nationalities and religions living in harmony and camaraderie, and to the swank South City shopping mall or affluent Alipore mansions — Calcutta has a vibe about it that I seldom found anywhere else. A perfect example of adopting a multilingual and multicultural personality without banishing its own inherent cultural roots and character, Calcutta is indeed a fatal attraction. And that attraction, or familiarity, is not just limited to India, but across the world. Apart from being known as the pearl of the British Empire in its heydays, and the perceived cultural capital of India, there is one person whose reputation has made the City of joy known to people from far corners of the world, not just amongst the intellectual circles, where most of the renowned Calcuttans belonged. That person is Mother Teresa, who’d soon be canonised as the Saint of the gutters. I don’t believe she cured the unknown Brazilian man long after her death, but she had nevertheless made miracles happen while standing by the poor and distressed population of Calcutta, who we never thought of while pontificating about the cultural richesse of our beloved city. Shadow under the lamp was a term we often used during our school years; Mother Teresa was the light to that darkness in a city where, despite old money from the Raj reigned, there were more and more people in poverty and destitution, especially during the war and after the partition.

It was during searching for her early life that I came across the name of Lisieux. Agnes wanted to be named after St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of the missionaries; and through her life she followed the footsteps of Thérèse, devoting her life to the service of thousands, and inspire millions. So as the opportunity came to visit Lisieux drew closer, it was no longer a tourist destination – marvelling at the awe-inspiring architecture of Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, but it was a pilgrimage for me as well, of a different kind, of witnessing the place where the journey began for Thérèse, and therefore for Teresa, one of the greatest ambassadors of the city I always call home.

The surprise didn’t end there. Lisieux highlighted another connection to Calcutta that I never thought existed. Carmel school for girls in Jadavpur is one of many high echelon missionary schools in Calcutta that boasts of excellent educational standards and alumnae. My friends, ex-colleagues, relatives — I knew many Carmelites. In fact, my own cousin is a teacher there, the familiarity is that close. I often heard their alumnae be referred as Carmelites but the term never made me delve further into its origin. Not until I learned that Thérèse joined the Carmelite order in Lisieux, a thirteenth-century order originated from monasteries in Mount Carmel near Haifa. Voilà! It was the Carmelite missionaries who were inspired by the success of the order in Lisieux, and travelled the world and opened new convents. Carmel in Calcutta is one of them. Now, there were two reasons that Lisieux became a must see place, as a place that popularised the Carmel convents across the world, and above all, pay visit to the Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux and the shrine of Thérèse, and understand who this young lady was, who made a profound inspiration on young Agnes, beckoning her to come to Bengal. I almost felt a sense of belonging to Lisieux without even being there, through the connections it has with Calcutta.

Our travel to Normandy was a nightmare involving a broken down car, rain, lost day stranded in a hotel with the entire week in jeopardy…so on the second day, when we were told that the car won’t be looked at until another day, our decision was made. With a replacement car, when we crossed the Seine on the bridge of Normandy, our holiday had suddenly become a reality again! The closest resemblance I could think of is when you wait for a cricket match and it rains, the pitch and outfield were all wet and you keep hoping that the match doesn’t get cancelled and after a long wait the sun suddenly makes an appearance, and although curtailed, it’s all ready to go ahead again. We had to shorten out plans to fit all the things we wanted to see in three days rather than four, but Lisieux was only 16km away, and en route the nearest McDonald’s; hence, our plan to visit Lisieux didn’t change.

After our trip to the nearest shopping our first day in Le Brévedent, on our way back to the camping site that I first noticed the Basilica. It was getting dark and the sky was overcast as it only stopped raining a while ago, and I had no clue where we were. But just as I looked around our car, the silhouette suddenly jumped out into our view. In that dim background, on the hill on our left situated the structure I already felt familiar, yet it looked like a surreal dream. There are moments when you see something remarkable and wished you had a camera in hand, and all I had in my hand then was the steering wheel. Yet, that view will be stored in my mind for a long time, if not forever.

Basilique St Thérèse de Lisieux

Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux

Two days later, on our way back from historic Caen, we decided to come to Lisieux. The eerie silhouette finally gained its shape, a shape that was familiar yet the size and grandeur was out of proportions from what was seen on a TripAdvisor page. The off white neo-Byzantine edifice was awe-inspiring, just as were the breathtaking intricate designs at the interiors and the crypt. The description of the building stops here as this is not a travelogue, and the rest can be found in any travel guide. On the contrary, it was my attempt to connect the dots in my mind, with a young Albanian nun starting her life of sacrifice and charity, her becoming an inseparable part of the persona of Calcutta, and therefore my existence and identity, and me standing there in the suburbs of a quaint town in Calvados country looking at the shrine of Thérèse, where this all began about 125 years ago. And another set of dots following the footsteps of the Carmelite monks, which would throw me much further back in history, at least 900 years and up to the genesis of Abrahamic faiths thousands of years ago.

And there I was, teleported to the daily life of Thérèse in Alençon, to her life in the monastery in Lisieux…walking along the sections in the crypt detailing Thérèse’s life, it started to cast more light on the early life of Agnes, and a striking similarity between the aspirations of the two women, to serve the most deprived and forlorn strata of the population…

If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of “darkness.”  I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” – Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

“I love the night as much as the day…I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. Yes, if God answers my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.” – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

That was the revelation for me. My circle was complete. It became evident that these two extraordinary women took the same trajectory of life, making small changes to people’s lives that led to phenomenal transformations. I felt like Robert Langdon standing in front of the inverted pyramid in Louvre. I was standing at the place that spiritually inspired Agnes to come to Calcutta, the city she gave all her life to, and in turn transfused the traits of her self into the character of Calcutta that I imbibed. My pilgrimage was complete — the answer to “why of all saints, Thérèse de Lisieux?” had been found, as was the answer for who the Carmelite missionaries were.

I think the natural curiosity would set me on the course for the Carmelites monks all the way to Mount Carmel in Israel. But let’s not go that far yet…let’s first wait for a discussion on Palestine!


I thought that this post would need a few disclaimers on my motivation for writing this, and here they are…
1. Is this religious post?
No, it is about nostalgia with me searching for the influences on Calcutta and its image outside West Bengal.
2. Does this make me feel more religious?
I’m as raving an atheist as I ever was. I have a hate-hate relationship with religion where I don’t know religion thinks of me but I’m all in to send it away to somewhere like Azkaban, banished forever from human contact.
3. Less religious then?
No, I never was religious to become any LESS religious.
4. Why then I still visit religious sites?
Because despite their religious origin, I see them as brilliant examples of architecture and craftsmanship, erected by ordinary men for the extraordinary greed and hunger for power for their rulers. The same applies to my interests in religious texts as well.
5. So, do I support Sainthood of Mother Teresa?
Yes and No. No, because her deed didn’t need a convoluted story to establish her miracles. She made miracles happen to the lives she transformed. Perhaps Vatican needs to reassess their policy what they treat as a miracle. Yes, because if she did this for her religion, she deserved the highest acclaim the church could proffer. And her contribution meant actually life changing transformations through care and humility, not phoney cures with lights passing through a photo or any such trash.


Canonisation for Mother Teresa and Vatican’s Saint factory

I remember the autumn of 1997, when Princess Diana and Mother Teresa passed away within a span of five days. The world poured over condolences for the royal princess and obituaries were boundless. Princess Diana was still on the headlines, when on the 5th of September, Mother Teresa took her last breath. Needless to say that her demise made a worldwide news as well, but the loss of the octogenarian was not as widely mourned as was the people’s princess, who rebelled against the Royal family, her face with the famine stricken African children melted the heart of millions and made her an ambassador for humanity. I too was one of the admirers saddened by her untimely departure, but looking back in time, I just think what a petty soppy crush it was, that loss of a Royal heiress — on her all paid philanthropy missions when she wasn’t too busy spending taxpayer money shopping — overshadowed a life sacrificed to helping the lives of millions of sufferers in a far flung land, not by photo shoots but by living amongst the people she wanted to help. Princess Diana was a cover page celebrity, whilst Mother Teresa was an epitome of sacrifice, care and humanity. However, last month, when Pope Francis declared that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will become a saint, I could not but smirk at the hypocrisy and connivance of Vatican even on the 21st Century over the recognition of miracles and conferring sainthood.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa by Photographer Marie Constantin

As I grew up in Calcutta, Mother Teresa was an inseparable part of the city’s identity. Mother House on AJC Bose road, which is the headquarters for her Missionaries of Charity institution, stood tall in a part of Calcutta known for its multicultural spirit. When she won the Nobel peace prize, it added another jewel on Calcutta’s claim to the Nobel connections. The Missionaries of Charity nurses in their white outfits with blue borders would become a regular feature in the slums and other backward areas. With time, Mother Teresa started to appear more gaunt and her face looked to have developed more creases than before, yet she continued spreading the worlds of love and peace in Calcutta and to the outside world.

It is amazing how young Anjeze in present day Macedonia came to know about the miseries of the people in Bengal and decided to move to Calcutta to care for the sufferers — and during that time, there weren’t many of them helping the poor. Palliative care was almost non-existent and leprosy was a social stigma, and the sufferers were ostracised, and therefore died of maltreatment of a condition that perhaps could have been cured. From the early 1950s, when she started MoC with only a handful of volunteers, until her death when it had become a large organisation operating in countries outside India — the transformation Mother Teresa brought about to millions of lives can only be termed as a miracle.

Miracle is an interesting word. On one hand, it represents an act out of the ordinary, but taking the meaning further, it could also be connoted as phenomena beyond human capabilities. For years Mother Teresa had became an influential figure, not just in Calcutta and India through her humanitarian work, but also amongst the vast number of Catholics spread across the globe. To them, she was an icon, a shining beacon of sacrifice and care. She spread the message of peace and love, and due to her popularity in the catholic world, Mother Teresa had developed a strong tie with the Vatican and the Pope. In 20th century, where people were denouncing religion, Mother Teresa was the ideal ambassador for the Catholic Church to help believers retain their faith in the church.

And thus began a process to canonise Mother Teresa following her demise. According to the current rules, Vatican had to confirm two miracles before one can be anointed with sainthood. The first miracle acknowledged was a woman from West Bengal, who was apparently cured after wearing a talisman. However, there was no proof that the tumour was cancerous after all, and it was the medicine that cured her. Yet, against all objections, Mother Teresa was beatified for this miracle under the papacy of Pope John Paul II. This year Vatican has confirmed that they recognised another miracle as a Brazilian man was cured of multiple brain tumour when his priest asked intervention of Mother Teresa with God. Following this recognition, Mother Teresa will become the Saint of the gutters later in 2016.

I won’t waste many words for the sheer ridiculousness of the tales of miracles and Vatican’s equally ridiculous assessment process. Her first miracle subject saw a light beaming from the picture of Mother Teresa and cured her cancerous tumour, which the doctors and the hospital that treated her claimed was not cancerous at all. One of the biggest critics of Mother Teresa was Christopher Hitchens regarding the malpractices at MoC and he presented all evidences how Mrs. Besra was treated medically. Despite all such evidence, Pope John Paul II approved her beatification in 2003. The subject of the second miracle is yet unknown as the Vatican will not disclose his details before Mother Teresa was canonised as Saint.

This debate is more about whether Mother Teresa should have been nominated for sainthood by Vatican. The answer to this question has nothing to do with spirituality or religion, but with money and power. With the growing influence of the Protestant church, Catholic Churches have been losing their relevance due to failure in embracing the changing tides of time. In this time, grappling to cope with the dwindling affiliations and funds, Vatican needed strong role models. The role model needed to be someone who people could identify themselves with, not someone like Pope Benedict XVI. With the majority of Catholic supporters from the developing countries, Mother Teresa, who dedicated all her life treating the poor and diseased in dire living conditions characteristic of an undeveloped part of the world, in a far away land from her own country, was the epitome of Catholic sacrifice and spirituality. This was needed to bolster the faltering image of the Catholic Church around the world and thereby secure the fast disappearing donations. Needless to say Vatican succeeded in projecting Mother Teresa as an iconic ambassador, yet they wanted to do more so that the faith instilled in people by Mother Teresa continues to thrive and the funds keep coming. A recent graph showed the rate of Sainthood in the Catholic Churches since the Middle Ages. The trend showed that the number of sainthood recognitions have been increasing at a surprising frequency, which I’m sure is directly correlated to the discoveries in science. Pope John Paul II signed off decrees to reduce the number of miracles to be canonised from three to two. During his tenure he alone carried out nearly 500 beatifications, higher than all other number of saints combined. Pope John Paul II purportedly made Vatican a saint factory. The pomp of Vatican required the Catholic Churches carry on their collection and deposit their share to Vatican’s coffers. Also, how Pope John Paul II fast tracked the beatification of Mother Teresa, questions may be asked on church’s desperation to confer the beatification within one year of Mother Teresa’s death. It was rather expected that with medical sciences making phenomenal progress, lesser number of occurrences would be there that could be attributable as miracles, due to present extent of human knowledge failing to explain such occurrences. On the contrary, the attempt of the Vatican to acknowledge more acts of miracle and more number of saints is not only ludicrous, but also tantamount rendering the Catholicism as blind and backward as other other religions they deem inferior.

Apart from the laughable instances deemed as miracles, there are other allegations raised against Mother Teresa as well. First, that rather than helping and curing the suffering people, she was a missionary evangelist, with a motive to convert as many people to Catholicism as possible. It was instructed to the MoC sisters to baptise the dying secretly. Also, the number of branches in MoC outside India was found to be having no entity at all, apart from working as baptising centres. Sadly enough, this argument is hijacked in India by the right wing Hindu fundamentalists, who criticised Mother Teresa of converting backward class Hindus to Christianity and after her death, the state’s decision to arrange a state funeral to her. Secondly, there were numerous allegations regarding mismanagement of the funds received by MoC and their source. The financial reporting of the MoC’s funds were poor and at times non-existent, and it was alleged that the funds raised for caring the suffering people were grossly mismanaged. Also, Mother Teresa was known for her political clout in India as well as receiving money from right wing leaders across the globe, yet praising them at the same time despite knowing that at least for some, the money came from unethical sources. The apologists say that it didn’t matter how she raised the funds if the money was spent on charities, but that “end justifies the means” is not a plausible argument by any means. Thirdly, Missionaries of Charity was severely criticised by the poor living conditions of their homes and mistreatments of the inmates. It was claimed that the patients were not offered enough painkillers and the hygiene was non-existent. Finally, Mother Teresa was a staunch Catholic missionary, her views were seen being far from liberal and representative of the present times, especially on abortion, contraception, poverty etc. In the latest controversy MoC shut down their adoption centre in Calcutta after the government of India changed the adoption laws enabling unmarried, divorced or single persons be eligible for adopting a child. Also, rather than eliminating poverty and sufferings of the humankind, Mother almost condoned the poverty and sufferings as if that was gods decree. We do not know how many of these allegations were true and to what extent, but this definitely provides another perspective to the life of Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters — saviour of Catholicism in the world.

So, do these allegations make Mother Teresa a vamp — a racist evangelist who laundered embezzled money and supported dictators and mistreated the people she was supposed to be caring for? No, that is not the objective of this writing and that is not the unilateral truth, as isn’t the unblemished saintly image projected by Vatican. Mother Teresa came to Calcutta a long time ago, and devoted the city her care, her life’s work, her heart and soul. Many strains of Calcutta’s character as we now see it, is attributable to Mother Teresa’s unrelenting work. She had done a lot more for Calcutta than any other individual has ever done, clouded with their notion of caste, religion, hygiene. She has firmly put Calcutta in the world map for the common people across the world. They don’t know Ray, or Tagore but definitely Mother Teresa of Calcutta made a place for Calcutta in their hearts. I was often asked about Mother Teresa by many South American friends and colleagues immediately knowing Where I come from. And my response to them was always the same — she was one of the greatest treasures Calcutta was lucky to have, but her supposed miracles were untrue and debatable, the true miracle is her service for nearly half a century to the lepers, the destitute, the orphans, who no one else cared for. She was awarded most of the highest civilian awards from India and abroad, culminating in her Nobel peace prize. The entire world — believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians alike, revered for what she had done for humanity, albeit in the name of God. It was a miracle how she set up and ran MoC  — her greatness did not need to be ratified by phoney miracle cures. Also, contradicting the allegations on living conditions at the hostels, the majority of the claims were made by ex-sisters or journalists from the developed nations. For them, it was easy to establish that the western standard of care and treatment is not extended to the patients whilst the money is sourced from the west — or the bulk of it. However, such reports require to be accepted with some pragmatism, as the practices there was followed everywhere else in contemporary Bengal, and perhaps the level of care was still better than the state run hospitals. So instances such as food being processed on the floor, only reflected the ignorance of the media/ care workers in judging MoC practices without putting it into perspective the local culture and custom. When Mother Teresa set up MoC, the stigma around leprosy, lower class people and poor was commonplace and it took the nurses working relentlessly with these communities to reintegrate them into the society. This effort in itself is worth declaring a miracle.

These arguments and counterarguments above only looks at the life of Mother Teresa  from different perspectives, and none alone is adequate to highlight her achievements. The criticisms and allegations perhaps taint her image to some extent; however, they only add new dimensions to the contradictory nature of her life without diminishing her lifelong sacrifice for the poor and distraught amid abject unfavourable living conditions and distrust.The debate here is not to question her greatness but to criticise the decision of the Vatican to fabricate stories to demonstrate it, through fabled miracles. The decision is unequivocally ridiculous, including the entire process of canonisation and the concept of miracle. So from that respect, to be brutally loyal to my thoughts and ideas, Mother Teresa should never be given Sainthood based on the claims of miracles, it should have been as an acknowledgement of her lifetime of work for the church and the world. However, looking at from another perspective, repeating words of Karl Marx “Religion…it is the opium of mankind…”. The vast majority of the Catholic followers are still from developing and undeveloped poverty stricken countries in Africa, Latin America and Far East. Perhaps in their despairing life, religion is the only solace and recognition of Mother Teresa as Saint would rekindle hope in their minds that miracles do happen and luminaries like Mother Teresa can transform their banal existence into an enlightened experience and beyond life a paradise will await them on the other side. To them, Mother Teresa would be God’s own Angel. Here the intent of religion and realism becomes blurred by what people believe, and whether to shatter the idea of a spiritual placebo that religion is. The millions of lives Mother Teresa helped dream, transform and will continue to, or the hundreds of thousands of lives she directly influenced through her Missionaries of Charity — thinking of them, however absurd the process might have been, the declaration of sainthood for Mother Teresa perhaps would be a fitting tribute for her lifelong dedication to serve the suffering. To me, she will always be Mother Teresa, not Blessed or Saint, but as one of the greatest icons of Calcutta whose life will remain a shining example of sacrifice, humility and empathy. I am proud that I lived in Calcutta at the time of Mother Teresa, and for the miracles she carried out for over 50 years, Vatican’s seal of approval was not necessary to vouch that.

Mother House in AJC Bose Road, Calcutta

Mother House in AJC Bose Road, Calcutta

Intolerance in society, Politics, religion

Aamir Khan controversy – growing intolerance in society through the mirror of Lord’s Prayer ban

“Yes, I am a traitor, if you are a patriot, if you are a defender of our homeland, I am a traitor to my homeland; I am a traitor to my country… if patriotism is the claws of your village lords, … if patriotism is the police club, if your allocations and your salaries are patriotism,… if patriotism is not escaping from our stinking black-minded ignorance, then I am a traitor” – Nazim Hikmet

There are two pieces of news circulated in the media, at two different corners of the world, last week. In India, the famous actor, producer and director Aamir Khan stated in an interview that his wife Kiran was scared of the future of their children due to growing intolerance in the country. On the other corner of the world, cinemas in the UK refused to broadcast Lord’s Prayer before the films, for the period building up to Christmas festivities. Both these news caused uproar and debates in social spheres and the media flared the gravity of the incidents beyond proportion, creating national headlines. Although the two pieces of stories are seemingly unrelated, they are intertwined by the concept of intolerance, and social vigilantism. This is an attempt to analyse first incident using the latter to demonstrate that intolerance is not only limited to the confines of a region, religion or country. 

Aamir Khan is one of the most gifted mainstream actors of Indian film industry. After featuring in films with resounding success, Aamir moved into directing his own films and made films on contemporary issues in the Indian society. One of his recent films, PK, based in the religious vaingloriousness of the humans, became a big hit in India, despite the ultra right-wing Hindu groups threatened closure of the film and vandalised the cinemas in a number of cities. With a huge fan base, gained since his first film around 1989, Aamir is also one of the most successful Bollywood actors. Despite being nominated for the national awards a number of times, Aamir refrained from attending as he had no faith in selection procedure for the awards. In a recent interview, he admitted that despite living all is life in India, it’s the first time he is concerned about the future of his children as there appears to be a growing unrest and intolerance in the country. I only came across the news the next morning by the tempest in the teacup, as the Facebook was found flooded with condemnation and criticism, mostly personal attacks on his ethnicity and religion. Aamir instantly became the target of social media witch hunt, a traitor and a Muslim sympathiser of terrorism. It wasn’t only limited to the overzealous public venting off their feelings, but other celebrities weighed in as well. This affair culminated in Aamir releasing a public statement. The statement was more of a clarification of his interview rather than a reconciliation to the growing media pressure, expecting a public apology. The nation is still enraged, and the abuses are continued as observed in social media. 

Poster for the film PK, which became the biggest grossing film in India

Poster for the film PK, which became the biggest grossing film in India
Source: UTV

I may have heard the Lord’s Prayer before, but wouldn’t recognise it. Some of the words are like this-“…Give us this day our daily bread,and forgive us our debts,as we also have forgiven our debtors.And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from evil…”Church of England made an ad on Lord’s Prayer and wanted to broadcast it in cinemas before the films started. Majority of the cinemas including Odeon, Cineworld, Showcase have refused to play the short film due to their policy. A public uproar ensued in the island nation, with a dismayed portrait of Archbishop of Canterbury featuring front pages of nations newspapers, BBC tirelessly garbling out angry reaction from public to celebrities. A public petition started on the official parliament website to overthrow the decision by the cinemas, whilst the conservative media and politicians launched a scathing attack on the cinemas management policy. The petition gathered momentum throughout the weekend and by Monday it received enough signature to be debated in the parliament. Three days later, as I’m writing this, the petition has been officially rejected citing that forcing the cinemas to play the ad does not come in the jurisdiction of the parliament, it falls under the Digital Cinema Media, so all disgruntled Christians should write to the DCM, if they wanted the decision overturned.

Church of England Lord's Prayer and #JustPray Ad (Source: YouTube)

Two separate incidents, two geographically contrasted locations, yet one inference could be drawn from both is the growing social vigilantism and the intolerance of the public. Starting with Aamir’s interview, it lasted about half an hour, where many constructive points were discussed regarding Indian society and its progress, and after he mentioned about the heightened intolerance in India, the journalists asked him a number of questions regarding his views on double standards of politicians as well as his views of terrorism incited by Islam. Aamir aptly clarified that he criticised the extremist mentality that is in the rise, regardless of the community, and the terrorists carrying Quran, did not legitimise their Muslim belief. However, the sensationalist Indian media only scooped the section that would produce the most uproar, and they succeeded brilliantly. Overnight Aamir became victim to a nationwide hate campaign, with the most lenient ones blaming him of heresy and betraying the country he built his career on, whilst the more vociferous ones went way further, from proposing to throw him out of the country to declaring 100,000 Rupees for someone to slap him in public. Even after Aamir released his statement people are maintaining their stance that he did an about turn facing such a strong public reaction and he insulted the country and de facto, its 1.25 billion people. The debates continued, and people promptly responded to the call for unsubscribing the android app Snapdeal, which Aamir is a brand ambassador of. However, this is neither the beginning, not the end of the debate around growing intolerance in Indian society. 

The right-wing parties such as the present ruling party BJP and its ultra right sections such as Shiv Sena, Visva Hindu parishad, Bajrang Dal as well as BJP’s youth corps Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha or RSS, took over the role of protectors of the interests, culture and heritage of India’s Hindu population, and any attempt to criticise, satirise, question any of the centuries old practices and custom was met with severe and at times violent reactions. Apart from being the self proclaimed harbingers of Hindu identity, their stance was severely anti-Muslim, the second largest ethnic group in India. Not much later than the Rushdie affair involving Satanic Verses, the renowned Indian painter Maqbool Fida Hussain was criticised for his depiction of Hindu deities in nude, especially his painting of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, similar as Minerva of Athena in Roman and Greek mythology. The death threats, court petitions for defamation, ransacking his art exhibitions hounded Hussain until his death, and after, although the paintings were done in ’70s. The fact that Hussain was a Muslim helped the right wing hooligans in their anti-Muslim agenda provoking racial hatred in the spheres of art and creativity. The next incident, where the Hindu fundamentalists felt their feet trampled, was not so straightforward when it came to apportioning the blame. In 1996 a film was released by Deepa Mehta, “Fire” that portrayed a married woman’s lesbian extramarital relationship. Adultery and homosexuality, both were deemed damaging to the fabric of Hindu ideology and was vehemently criticised by the BJP and its extremist factions, calling for public apology from the director and instant ban on the film. The next film on the sequel, “Earth” in the partition of India and the ensuing communal violence also attracted cries for shutting down the film. The third film, “Water” featuring an affair of a widowed Hindu woman in the holy city of Benares, was met with vehement opposition from the right wing Hindu nationalists citing defamation of the sacred city as well as tainting the characters of widows, who, regardless of their age, are expected to lead life if a recluse. The production of the film was halted several times, as the mob attacked the film sets. The release was much delayed than the planned release around 2000-01. The then cultural minister of West Bengal offered Deepa to have the film shot in Bengal. However, the double standards of the communist government came to light as they offered Deepa Mehta to shoot Water in Bengal to snub right wing parties, trying to prove that the left is progressive, but in case of Taslima Nasreen, the exiled author from Bangladesh. Despite providing asylum to her in Calcutta, the government stance soon did an about turn, in face of growing protests from the Muslim communities in Bengal, harbouring the blasphemous author. The hypocrisy of various governments’ at various times in order to protect the free speech always affected the Indian societies. In recent past, the right wing factions began to promote a Hindu lead actor in Bollywood such as Hrithik Roshan, in order to diminish most of the public support divided amongst the three Khans, Aamir, Shahrukh and Salman. Incidentally, all three of them being Muslim, caused ire of the right wing Hindu supremacists.

Apart from the creative media, the propensity to disfigure the truth has never been so blatant than what was used by the BJP and the other right wing Hindu factions. The 1992 Babri masjid demolition was a first demonstration of the blind malicious side of the right wing nationalist parties to a republic. They also tried to stop celebrations of the Valentine’s Day as the true celebration of love was expected to be the birthday of Shri Krishna, a Hindu god with 16000 wives. BJP and their crony bunch of intelligentsia have been and still is instrumental in claiming the invention of numerous modern day best practices in medicine, science, astronomy, politics to be rooted in ancient Indian civilisation, which they proclaimed to be world’s oldest at 5500 BC, contrary to the archaeological findings and most factual historical findings of around 2000 BC. The latest addition to the hilarious claims was made in 2014, when the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the full head transplant was invented in ancient India deriving from tales in ancient Indian mythologies. BJP also tried to manipulate the educational system and the history by portraying Shivaji as a national hero because of his Hindu origin, and also introducing Saraswati Vandana, a prayer dedicated to Hindu goddess of wisdom Saraswati, to be recited in every school, rather than the national anthem. In 2007, a major sea canal project between India and Sri Lanka was permanently stopped, due to relentless disruptions by the right wing Hindu activists claiming the sand shoal in the shallow waters spreading between the two countries was in fact made by Lord Rama, another mythical character, purported to be a true person. The assassination of the renowned Karnatik author and free-thinker M.M Kalburgi in recent times, only proved the fact that the BJP and its other right-wing Hindu extremist factions would go to any length to promote their version of Indian history and culture and pulverise, not by logic and information, but by brutality, any voice of reason contradicting them.

As I said before, Aamir’s case did not start with his interview last week, but is rooted far deeper. Whilst Indian market opened to the world in late nineties, bringing the much needed deregulation, it was at that time, when the Hindu radicalism was on the rise. As exemplified above, along with state sponsored violence observed in riots in ’92, Gujarat riots on ’02 and many other individual attacks spreading communal violence, BJP and its cronies used their propaganda to promote Hindu nationalism, and any view that questions their superiority would be criticised and castigated. Their agenda also included the idea of Hindu supremacy, and hence by side-lining the Muslim population, apart from the one trump card they used to gain Muslim votes, by supporting Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam for the role of the president. With the rise of social media, apart from the right wing mouthpieces like newspaper, party pogroms etc, BJP also had another platform to permeate its agenda of nationalism. It was evident from the election campaign in 2014, which shared numerous photoshopped images of PM candidate Narendra Modi, as well as denigrating the free thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore. With such a background, it was expected that the general public would refuse to bring a tyrant like Modi, who has blood on his hands, to power. Yet, no other opponent proved to be strong enough to stop the NaMo juggernaut, as public voted by the glamorous election campaign, and exasperated by the fading Congress’ nepotism, corruption and sycophancy to the old Nehru empire. After BJP was elected with absolute majority, it was clear that the  propaganda machinery will be in full motion, promoting Hindu supremacy from day one. Aamir’s statement about growing intolerance in last 6 months, therefore, riled the BJP, and the media reported the case to the Indian population portraying Aamir as a heinous character, that he is ungrateful that all his films are made in India. Aamir was an easy target, his surname is Khan, and his fear of the growing intolerance in his surroundings is something that could be presented in a manner making him an unpatriotic person.

Having lived by first 30 years of my life in India, the only way I could summarise it is chaos. Chaos – not in a negative way, but the country is in a state of chaotic equilibrium. Nothing is perfect, yet everything works. Trains run late, yet the Indian Railways, world’s second largest public office, runs like a clockwork to make the unimaginably complicated system work. The dabbawalas in Mumbai deliver packed lunches to millions of people without a complicated IT system, and so does the dhobiwalas cleaning the laundries for millions of people, yet achieve a remarkably high accuracy. India is a curious place, a conundrum for the outsiders, a quest to the ones who know the country, how are we so different, yet there is a common emergence of a unique national character? This is why I revered India, but never fell into the glorious trap of patriotism. India was, and still is, my country, but never my mother, the bharatmata. India is also a land of contrasts — not just two, but many different contrasts at various degrees intermingle at every instant, and hence, stereotyping India is a difficult task. Indians are driven by boundless aspirations, trying to keep abreast to the tides of change modern time is bringing, yet in adherence to the archaic custom and cultures which has no place for coexistence. It’s not a dilemma between old and new, but instead of progress against regress.

This conflict between the two has always existed and still does, and it shapes our thought process and logic. When we speak about unity in diversity, that diversity mainly focusses upon the regional, cultural, linguistic diversity; although the religious orientation of all such diverse constituents is still Hindu. Despite a large number of non-Hindu communities residing in India, Hindus still make nearly 80% of the population, and therefore, any image projected of India largely constitutes portraits of a country for the Hindus, and as the second largest minority, Muslims. Other minorities, although they are part of an incredible India, their stories often go unheard. The Muslim fishermen on Kerala, or the Chinese shoemakers in Calcutta, or the Jewish and Parsi communities in Bombay, or a Gurkha tea plantation worker in Darjeeling – they remain away from the limelight of the Incredible India vision. As do the multitude of tribes spread all across India – from the central plateaux to the North-Eastern provinces to the Andaman & Nicobar islands. A majority Hindu population creates in public mind vision of a state with Hinduism at the centre of its raison d’etre.  Impaired with this vision, anything that contradicts the key dogma of Hindu faith, the disagreement is often seen as the blasphemy, and denouncing the Hindu identity is tantamount denouncing India. Majority of the Indian population are reactionary, and therefore, easily manipulated. The right wing parties, irrespective of Hindu or Muslim, capitalise on this mob tendencies, along with a lack of clear thinking and decision making abilities. The lack of analytical thinking causes the mind to be easily led, to believe anything they read or listen or see, and whether that image fits to the preconceived notion of a Hindu India. With such warped concepts, a Hindu is also seen as an Indian, whereas a Muslim Indian is still a Muslim, a Hindu Bengali is a Bengali, but a Muslim Bengali is just a Muslim. The borderlines between nationality, regional identity and religion are blurred and intersect with each other – making a complex maze of identities. This fuzzy identity lies at the centre of the Aamir Khan scandal, which was started as a question on growing societal intolerance in India, but flared up as saying India is not tolerant, and that statement coming from a Muslim actor, his Indian identity is promptly ignored, and the debate is portrayed as a muslim insulting India.

The biggest pride I have in India is that since early days of independence, it is a republic and remained a republic state. A republic gives every citizen to express his/her opinion without fear, hesitation and discrimination. In Tagore’s words, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/ Where knowledge is free/ Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls”—the vision of India portrayed in his poem is far from the reality as observed in the twenty-first century India. What Aamir alluded to in his interview, about growing intolerance in the society, was only a fear, for the lives of his children.  Yet, the following few days, and the mob witch hunt that was witnessed since then, only strengthens the truth in Aamir’s statement. The public reaction claiming Aamir’s statement as an act of insult to the country, heresy and treason, is no different than Saudi states — the intolerance of free speech is still the same. The concept of constructive criticism is of course non-existent in the sub-continent, where parliament session means the ruling parties and opposition shouting at each other, throwing abuses, often breaking into fights, and the smaller insignificant parties walking out. Many circulations and re-posts are going around in social media since Aamir’s statement, yet I have not seen a single person come up with simple logical facts to refute his claims. The biggest criticism was, what if Aamir said something about Islam? If India was intolerant, can he think what would have happened to him if he was in Saudi Arabia? The answer to these questions are, may be a lot worse, but that is an absolute ludicrous way of dealing with a criticism. It’s as silly as explaining why you failed a test to your parents saying ten other students failed as well. We call India a democracy, we say it’s a diverse country, but of course it’s easy to state that being the majority, of course Hindus can claim to the world that they live in harmony with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jains, but can those minorities say the same with equal ease? Can they say that they enjoy equal opportunities and are not marginalised? Can they boast of the unity in diversity? They can’t, because the moment they do, they will be branded unpatriotic, be subjected to the harassment Aamir has been through in last one week. As a republic, we have a lot to learn, a long way to go before we can truly boast of our diversity which does not depend on numbers but everyone believes in it.

This brings the discussion back to the Lord’s Prayer debate. Like India. Britain is a democracy, and it is a country with majority white Christian population, although, unlike India, a large number of Christian born population do not identify with Christianity any more, they are confirmed atheists. Christianity has been and is part of the main fabric of the country; although Britain can boast of a widely diverse demography in present days, Christianity is an undeniable part in forming the popular custom, language and festivities. Christianity shaped the UK in its present form as we know it. So the public may celebrate Yom Kippur or Chinese New Year with equal excitement, Christmas and Easter is still the biggest festivals of the season. Considering the vast majority of the confirmed Christian individuals are not church goers, and don’t live their lives by the Ten Commandments, it is surprising how a refusal to pray Lord’s Prayer before the cinema made it to the national news! The numerous public figures blaming the decision to be shambolic, right wing parties licking their lips finding a topic to win supports on their white supremacy agenda, the petition seeing an avalanche of supports to overturn the decision — what we saw is a reactive intolerance, from a large number of the public in one of the epitomes of democracy and multiculturalism. The British public, who cried out loud “bring our country back”, never cared what Church of England was doing, but with that refusal, they are all united in protest again, against policymakers implementing  multiculturalism, against a harmonious society. Whilst in India, general public is too blasé about the feelings of the other minorities, in Britain, the general public is, although more liberal, too uncomfortable to be seen of having any prejudices. However, instances like this present a rare glimpse of the undercurrent of the prejudices that run deep in people’s psyche, and the outcome is not the finest example of tolerance. That Britain is a democracy and irrespective of the background, the common sense that playing Lord’s Prayer in the cinema is plainly unacceptable — it hasn’t permeated through the minds of the people crying wolf. To them, this is a sacrilege that the country isn’t a Christian country any more, the country is being taken over by the immigrants, who dictate how the country should be run. Britain has never been a Christian country, when it became a democracy and brought in the immigrants to run the country better. But of course only a logical mind would think this. For the rest, if you are not born British and Christian, you are expected to show allegiance to the country in every step — revere the Royal family, celebrate Christmas, wear the poppy. The allegiance to the gimmicks became synonymous to adherence to the values.

As I started this discussion to analyse the incident of Aamir khan’s statement about intolerance and the reaction of the Indian population in light of the Lord’s Prayer ban in cinemas in the UK — both these incidents show us an undercurrent of intolerance, of different degree and manifestation, but identical in its concept. The boundaries between religion, ethnicity, language and nationality is blurred and all is brought under the same canopy of patriotism, the almighty word that tells you if you love your country. You must be a patriot, support your country in every deeds to make your existence in this universe meaningful! What’s the life worth it doesn’t want to sacrifice itself for the country? The tales of heroes and martyrs emerge, tales of great heritage, but wasn’t it how a Mein Kampf was born?! The intolerance that exists in the society is omnipresent, as does the tolerance. One cannot exist without the other, otherwise “to err is human” would have no relevance in our lives. Intolerance is not limited to the boundaries of a country, or religion, or ethnicity. It is our inherent fear and tendency of distrust the others. Being intolerant does not mean that people are not tolerant at all, it only alludes to the fact that they are not 100% tolerant. What needs to happen is acceptance of the intolerance and to address the issues constructively, not by declaring sums to slap a person who raised some concerns, nor by saying the country is taken over by immigrants.

This brings to two other factors that are vitally important for the discourse related to intolerance in the society. First, the role of the media. In these two incidents, apart from people’s shortsightedness about tolerance and its meaning, media is the next biggest culpable factor. In their rat race to increase ratings, media twist the facts in such a manner that it creates a headline, unconcerned of whether the facts are true, semi-true or blatant lies. The hype Aamir’s story received is completely due to the fact that they repeatedly broadcasted only two minutes of an interview that lasted half an hour, where a number of other social issues were discussed. Just in the same way BBC and ITV telecasted repeatedly the same news of CoE ad ban for next few days. Especially for India, with lower literacy rate that hinders the analytical reasoning, media needs to play a more responsible role than fuelling mass hysteria. The majority of Indian and british working class and uneducated sections don’t have the time nor luxury to delve into arguments and counter arguments, and perhaps draw an informed conclusion analysing all the facts. They probably take every news on its face value as seen of heard in the media. The flippancy of media observed in both these cases only made a much detrimental effect in maintaining a diverse society. The other factor is of course the role of the minorities in eradicating the intolerance from the society. Just by saying that the ethnic majority is intolerant, it doesn’t mask the fact that it runs in the minorities as well — illustrated by a gathering of thousands of radical Muslims in protest when a captured terrorist in India was hanged or people seen celebrating Paris attacks. Like BJP and its Hindu supremacist cronies, undeniably there are radical Islamist groups in India as well, as does separatist mujahideen outfits fighting for independent Kashmir, or militants in the north east. By being a free thinker, a voice of reason, one doesn’t have to stand up for minorities in every occasion, right or wrong. The question of right and wrong, good or evil eluded us since the early days of civilisations. We still form our opinions based on our understanding of the social filaments, our views towards life. It is a continuous struggle against ourself as well, where we need to break the stereotypes and paradigms layered over the years. If the reaction to Aamir khan’s statement was termed intolerant, my analysis is intolerant as well, as it represents intolerance of such intolerances.

A photo shared on Facebook on everyone becoming moral guardians of the society

A photo shared on Facebook about increasing vigilantism in social spheres

So, what does the balance sheet look like, of the Aamir Khan controversy last week? Media gained, of course, with their heightened TRP and circulation of extra newspapers. Aamir lost a few dedicated fans and may not have his Snapdeal contract renewed. But he also won, although a handful, of admirers for speaking out the truth while the others shied away. Aamir’s wife Kiran has suffered the full brunt of public wrath, for having no opportunity to defend herself as Aamir did. Snapdeal, the company Aamir was brand ambassador for, despite losing nearly 100,000 memberships, gained in rating due to increased interest on their website for the controversy. But the biggest winner, from this debate is BJP and the PM Modi, as no official reprimand was issued through government of India. This is a surreptitious way BJP let its far right factions do the dirty work for them, such as maligning Aamir, his achievements and personal life; yet officially kept a safe distance from them to project an image of neutrality. Of all the involved sides, Modi’s image emerged as a leader who is calm and stoic, unperturbed by the scandal, his incredible India and swachh Bharat remained untarnished — much to the dismay and disconcert of any liberal person, as sycophantic praises poured in all over the media and Internet. In few weeks all will be forgotten, but this controversy will hush all the voices willing to ask questions, or point fingers at the government. The returning of national awards by scholars has already been much politically polarised, and their protests were degraded by the predatory right wing activists and Modi sympathisers. With Aamir added to this list of quarantined personalities, this paves the path for an unrivalled Hindu indoctrination of the country. The brooms of swachh Bharat movement will swiftly brush away the voices of criticism. India will be promoted as a country for its space programme, IT and manufacturing prowess, but the dark sides of caste system and discriminations, sectarian violence and intolerance, honour killings and female foeticides will be neatly tucked away. One may even ask at this juncture that if an actor is worth three billion rupees, is there really a concern for his children regarding social intolerance? If he is rich enough to possibly buy an entire security company, was there any ulterior motive? Will Modi go to the media with grand gestures of pardoning Aamir as part of Indian tradition and other similar nonsense, boosting his image up as the results don’t show the achchhe din or the good days he promised is imminent? We’ll never know this…

It’s been over a week now, since both these scandals broke out. People have now gone back to their daily humdrum life away from the uproar. Perhaps the nerves are still a bit raw in India, as the Aamir story still dominates internet and social media. In Britain people have forgotten about Lord’s Prayer already and engrossed in Christmas shopping spree. The guise is back, in both worlds, until the time something else flares up, when the fangs and talons will lash out again, baring our primitive instincts. Until then, we are all back to our pretentious social harmony, back in our sheep’s skin. 

Full interview of AAmir Khan at RNG Excellence Award
(Source: YouTube/Indian Express Online)

Bengali spirituality, religion

বাঙালী জীবনে ধর্ম ও আধ্যাত্মচেতনা

এবার মনে হয় লেখা শুরু করার আগে একটা disclaimer দিয়ে রাখা প্রয়োজন। আমার কৈশোর, ছাত্র আর কর্মজীবনে অনেক লোকের সাথেই পরিচিতি হয়েছে কিন্তু সংখ্যাটা তেমন বিশাল নয় যা থেকে পশ্চিমবঙ্গবাসী বাঙালী জাতির ওপর সামগ্রিক উপসংহার করা যেতে পারে। আমার লেখাগুলোকে তাই বাস্তবের চেয়ে বেশী কাল্পনিক, নিদেনপক্ষে সীমিত কলকাতাভিত্তিক বাস্তব অভিজ্ঞতার দূরদর্শন (extrapolation) বললে যথার্থ হবে। কারও যদি তাই কোন অসঙ্গতি ধরা পড়ে সেটা সম্পূর্ণ সীমিত অভিজ্ঞতার কারনে, সত্যিকে অতিরঞ্জিত করার কোন উদ্দেশ্য আমার নেই। 

মূল প্রসঙ্গে আসি। আধ্যাত্মিকতার ধারনাটা খুবই গভীর সাধারন মানুষের সেই অতলে তলিয়ে ভাবনাচিন্তা করার না আছে সময় না আছে সেই নির্মোহ দৃষ্টিভঙ্গি।  আধ্যাত্মিকতার মুল ধারনা কোথাও পড়েছিলাম আত্মানং বিদ্ধি যার মানে খুব সম্ভব নিজেকে জানা। সে বিদ্ধি আমার নাম কি, বাবার নাম কি বা বাড়ি কোথায় জাতীয় বিদ্ধি নয়, বরং মনের গভীরে ডুব দিয়ে নিজের জীবনের উদ্দেশ্য, এই বিশাল মহাবিশ্বে নিজের অস্তিত্বের উপলব্ধি এই প্রশ্নগুলোর উত্তর খোঁজার প্রয়াস। প্রশ্নের উত্তর যে পাওয়া যাবে একদিন তা নিশ্চিত নয়, বরং যত গভীরে যাওয়া যাবে ধোঁয়াশা ততই বাড়বে, যত না নিজেকে জানা যাবে তার চেয়ে বেশী বোঝা যাবে কতটা জানা নেই বা জানতে বাকী আছে। অনেকটা আইনস্টাইনের (নাকী অ্যারিস্টোটল?) জ্ঞানের সমুদ্রতীরে নুড়ি কুড়নোর গল্পের মত। যত বেশী নুড়ি জমা হবে কত মনে হবে জ্ঞানের সমুদ্রের পরিধি ঠিক বঙ্গোপসাগরের মত নয় সেটা বাড়তে বাড়তে প্রশান্ত মহাসাগরে দাঁড়িয়েছে, ফলে আরো অনেক নুড়ি কুড়তে হবে সমুদ্রে ঝাঁপ মারার আগে। এরূপ জটিল তত্ত্ব ভাবার বিলাসিতা খেটে খাওয়া সাধারন মানুষের কাছে আকাশকুসুম কল্পনা। আধ্যাত্মিকতা তাই তার ভূমা থেকে ছোট হতে হতে পৌত্তলিকতা আর আচারবিচারে এসে ঠেকেছে। আর এই সঙ্কীর্ণতা থেকেই আধ্যাত্মিকতা এখন ধর্মের সমার্থক, আধ্যাত্মিক হতে গেলে ধার্মিক হতেই হবে, কিন্তু উল্টোটা তেমন খাটেনা, বেশীরভাগ ধার্মিকই গড্ডালিকাপ্রবাহে গা ভাসায়, তারা বিন্দুমাত্রও আধ্যাত্মিক নয়।  ঠিক যে কারনে নির্মোহ দৃষ্টিভঙ্গি অতি অপরিহার্য আধ্যাত্মিক হবার জন্য। 

ছোটবেলার একটা ঘটনা খুব মনে আছে যদিও বয়স তখন ছিল পাঁচের কাছাকাছি। বাড়িওয়ালি দিদার মেয়ের বন্ধু হ্যাংচুপিসির কাছে মুখচোখ পাকিয়ে বলছি কৃষ্ণনগরে কালীবাড়ির পাশে সিঙ্গারা ভাজে ছোট ছোট, টাকায় আটটা, বললে দশটাও দেয়। তারা তো শুনে হেসে গড়িয়ে পড়ছিল কেমন গাল ফুলিয়ে বড়দের মত কথা বলছি বলে, কিন্তু ভেবে দেখলে এভাবেই ছোট বয়স থেকে ধর্মচেতনা আসে বিভিন্ন প্রতীকের মাধ্যমে যার সাথে আধ্যাত্মিকতার তেমন যোগাযোগ নেই। তাই সেই বয়স থেকে শুরু করে নাস্তিক হবার সিদ্ধান্ত অবধি আমার কাছে খাবার আর ধর্মের এক গভীর যোগ ছিল, সে কালিঘাটের প্যাঁড়া আর ঢাকাই পরোটাই হোক বা পাড়ায় শনিপুজোর পর তামিল ধোসাওয়ালার তাওয়ায় ঠংঠং খুন্তি বাজানোই হোক। সেভাবেই ধর্মীয় আচারের সাথে জড়িয়ে রাখা হয়েছে গুরুগম্ভীর সংস্কৃত মন্ত্র যাতে মানে কী বুঝলাম না বুঝলাম এসে যায় না, তবে শুনতে বেশ ঘ্যামা লাগে। বিভিন্ন ধর্মীয় আচারে তা সে পুজো পৈতে শ্রাদ্ধ যাই হোক না কেন, পুরোহিত যখন মন্ত্র আওড়াতে বলে মনে হয় অনেকটা ক্রেডিট কার্ডের Terms & conditions পড়ার মত, বুঝলাম কিনা জানিনা তবে পাতার নিচে সইটা করতেই হবে। 

আমরা বাঙালীরা চিরকালই হুজুগে। তা না হলে আমাদের সেরা উৎসব দুর্গাপুজা হয়? দুর্গাপুজা দেখতে গেলে প্রায় শুরু থেকেই একটা বানিজ্যিক ব্যাপার, রাজা কৃষ্ণচন্দ্র রায়ের বৃটিশদের অনুগ্রহ লাভের মাধ্যম বই অন্য কিছু নয়। তার পর উনিশ শতকে সেটা দাঁড়ায় তাঁবেদার জমিদারদের পয়সা ওড়ানোর আর সেই সাথে বৃটিশ সরকারের দৃষ্টি আকর্ষন, এককথায় একটা marketing campaign. তাই আজ যখন পুজা সমিতি গুলো কোটি টাকার বাজেট করে পুজা করে ভিড় টানার জন্য, তখন “দিনকাল উচ্ছন্নে গেছে, এখন সব টাকার খেলা, বাড়ির পুজোগুলো কী ভাল ছিল” জাতীয় নস্টালজিক ভাবনাগুলো যে আসলে একটা মিথ্যের ওপর ভিত্তি করে তা বলাই বাহুল্য। 

আর এক উদাহরণ হল সন্তোষীমা, যিনি আদপে কোন বৈদিক দেবীই নন তবে কাতারে কাতারে মহিলারা যে সন্তোষীমার পুজা শুরু করলেন সেটাও দেখতে গেলে কোন  খাঁটি ব্যবসায়ীর কল্পনাপ্রসূত আর পুরোহিতরাও টাকাকড়ি কামানোর উদ্দেশ্যে সেই হিড়িকে তাল মেলাল। অনেকটা অটোতে বাড়তি যাত্রী তোলার মত বিভিন্ন মন্দিরে সন্তোষীমার জায়গা তৈরী হয়ে গেল আনাচে কানাচে। অর্থনীতির চাহিদা আর যোগানের যে সমীকরণ বাঙলায় ধর্মেরও সেই হাল, মতলববাজ পুরোহিত আর মন্দির কমিটিগুলো তেত্রিশ কোটি দেবদেবীর পসরা সাজিয়ে বসে আছে, আর অন্যদিকে হুজুগে পাবলিকও সেই হুল্লোড়ে গা ভাসিয়ে তাদের খেটে রোজগার করা টাকা পয়সা জলাঞ্জলি দিচ্ছে। তাই যখন দেখি কোন মাথামোটা কালিঘাটের কালীর জন্য সোনার জিভ গড়িয়ে দেবার ঘোষনা করছে, মনে হয় ফিরে আসুক নক্সালরা, লুঠে নিক এইসব বকধামর্িকদের সম্পদ আর বিলিয়ে দিক প্রান্তিক অভুক্ত মানুষদের কাছে। 

এর সাথে যোগ হবে রাজনৈতিক পাড়ার লিডারদের মাস্তানি যার নিদর্শন হল শিব আর শনিমন্দিরের বাড়াবাড়ি। আজকাল বিজেপির কল্যানে অনেকে ঘ্যানঘ্যান করে যে মোড়ে মোড়ে মসজিদ বানানো হচ্ছে তাদের এই শিব আর শনিপুজোর ঘটা নিয়ে কেমন প্রতিবাদ নেই। কলকাতায় মনে হয় অন্ততপক্ষে যতগুলো বাসস্টপ আছে ততগুলোই শিব আর শনিমন্দির রয়েছে, প্রতি স্টপে বাস থেকে নামলেই মন্দির, ভেতরকার অলিগলির কথা বাদই দেয়া যাক। এই বাড়বাড়ন্তের কারন যে তোলা আদায় চাঁদার নামে আর সাপ্তাহিক প্রনামীর হিস্যা নেয়া, এককথায় অন্যের মাথায় কাঁঠাল ভেঙে খাওয়া সেটা না বললেও সবাই জানে। তবু ঘটা করে বাতাসা নকুলদানা শসা সহযোগে পুজো দিতে যাবার উৎসাহে ঘাটতি নেই মানুষের।  তার ওপর মন্দির একটা খাড়া করে দিলেই হল, তারপর তার চারপাশে আস্তে আস্তে জমি দখল চলতেই থাকে বছরের পর বছর ধরে, সেইসাথে পুকুরপাড়ে মন্দির হলে পুকুর বোজানো এসবই চলে প্রকাশ্য দিবালোকে, প্রশাসনের নাকের ডগায় তবু তারা থাকে সম্পূর্ণ উদাসীন। 

পাড়ার একটা ঘটনা মনে পড়ে গেল। আমাদের ওপরতলায় থাকতেন পরিমল দাশ, খুব সম্ভব গণশক্তির সম্পাদক ছিলেন এক সময়। বিচক্ষণ মানুষ ছিলেন তার ওপর কট্টর কম্যুনিস্ট, এদিকে চারদিকে তখন সিপিএম ছেয়ে রয়েছে আশির শেষের দিকের কথা। এই পরিস্থিতিতে সরস্বতী পুজোর চাঁদার জন্য আমাকে পাঠানো হল ওনাদের ফ্ল্যাটে। কী চাই বলতে উনি পত্রপাঠ জবাব দিলেন “আমি চাঁদা দিইনা”। পরে জানলাম উনি কোন পুজোতেই দেননা চাঁদা। পাড়াতেও সব সিপিএম, যারা চাঁদা তুলতে যেত তারাও, তবু মার্ক্সীয় দর্শন মেনে পুজোর চাঁদা না দেয়ার জন্য আড়ালে গালিগালাজ করতে দ্বিধাবোধ করতনা। মার্ক্স মশাই যদিও বলে গেছেন শ্রেণীহীন মানুষ রাতারাতি ধর্মকে ত্যাগ করবেনা বরং সেটা আসবে সময়ের বিবর্তনের সাথে, সেদিক থেকে দেখলে এই দু নৌকায় পা রেখে চলাটা অস্বাভাবিক কিছু না কিন্তু এই একটা ঘটনা থেকেই বোঝা যায় যে ধর্মের শিকড় আমাদের মানসিকতায় এতটাই গভীরে যে বামপন্থী আন্দোলনের ঢেউও এই জগদ্দল প্রতিষ্ঠানে চিড় ধরাতে পারেনি। 

এই দেবদেবীর লিস্টির ওপর থাকবে দলে দলে বাবা আর গুরুদেবের দল রাম ঠাকুর অনুকুল ঠাকুর লোকনাথ। এঁদের বেশীরভাগই আবার গৃহী মানুষ তাই অনেকের কাছে এদের কদর প্রচুর এই কারনে যে আর পাঁচটা লোকের মত সংসার করেও আধিদৈবিক ক্ষমতা থাকতে পারে এই বিশ্বাসে। অন্যদিকে এই বাবাদেরও পোয়াবারো ঘরকন্না করে গাছেরও খাচ্ছে আবার আম জনতাকে টুপি পরিয়ে কলাটা মুলোটা নিয়ে তলারও কুড়োচ্ছে। খোদ আমার কেমিস্ট্রি স্যার, সমস্ত বিশ্বব্রহ্মান্ড যার কাছে ১০৫ টা মৌল আর প্রোটন-ইলেকট্রনের খেলা তাঁরও একখানি গুরুদেব ছিল যিনি কিনা আবার কোন দুঃস্থ মানুষের বিয়েতে আকাশ থেকে রাশি রাশি ছানাবড়া হাজির করেছিলেন। এই বিশ্বাসকে বিজ্ঞান টলাবে কেমন করে? এখন কেবল টিভির দৌলতে লোকজন খালি বাঙালী ঠগবাজদের কবলেই নয়, দেশজোড়া জোচ্চোরদের খপ্পরে পড়েছে সে রবিশঙ্কর ই হোক বা বাবা রামদেব ই হোক, রেহাই কোনভাবেই নেই। তাছাড়া রয়েছে হাজারো ওঝা-পীর-বদর-জলপড়া-তেলপড়া-তান্ত্রিক-কাপালিক-ঝাড়ফুঁক-তাবিজ-মাদুলি রক্তবীজের দঙ্গল। 

এ তো গেল নিচ্ছে কারার দলের গল্প। দেখা যাক দিচ্ছে কারা এবারে (যদি দিচ্ছে কারা আর নিচ্ছে কারার সাথে আলাপ না থাকে ধরে নিন শোষক আর শোষিতের তফাত)। আশি নব্বইতে কমিউনিজমের চক্করে পড়ে বাঙালীর ধার্মিক সত্ত্বা টলোমলো। একদিকে হাজার হাজার বছরের বস্তাপচা হিন্দুধর্মের রীতিরেওয়াজ, না মানলে সমাজচ্যুত হবার আশঙ্কা, অন্যদিকে মার্কসের দর্শনে ধর্ম মানুষের আফিম, দৈনন্দিন সমস্যা থেকে নজর ঘোরানোর সস্তায় পুষ্টিকর খাদ্য ধর্ম। ধর্ম মানলে আবার লোকাল কমিটির চোখরাঙানি পার্টি থেকে বার করে দেবার। যাঁরা কমিউনিজমের সমর্থক নন তাঁদের এই টানাপোড়েনটা ছিলনা তবু বাকী অন্যান্য সমস্যাগুলো সবারই কমবেশী সাক্ষাৎ হয়েছে। 

বাঙালি সাহিত্য সঙ্গীত লোকাচারে ধর্মের উপস্থিতি অনস্বীকার্য।  রবীন্দ্রনাথের পুজা পর্যায়ের লেখাগুলোতে ঈশ্বরচিন্তার প্রাচুর্য থাকলেও সেই ঈশ্বরচিন্তা যে “ভগবান আমার অম্বলটা সারিয়ে দাও সামনের পুজোবারে হরির লুট দেব” জাতীয় চিন্তা নয়, বরং ঈশ্বরকে নিজের মনের মধ্যে খোঁজার চেষ্টা ছিল প্রকট। কিন্তু সে জাতীয় আধ্যাত্মিক বিশ্লেষন না করে আপাতদৃষ্টিতে রবীন্দ্রসঙ্গীতের সাথে ভগবানের একটা যোগসাজস খুঁজে বেড়ানোই আমাদের মূল লক্ষ্য হয়ে দাঁড়ায়। তাছাড়া রয়েছে শ্যামাসঙ্গীত রামপ্রসাদী কীর্তন জাতীয় বিভিন্ন উপাদান যেগুলো সময়ের সাথে হাতবদল হয়ে আসছে প্রজন্ম থেকে প্রজন্মে। সাহিত্য আর ঐতিহাসিক কারনে এগুলি অমূল্য হলেও লোকে সেই দৃষ্টিকোণ থেকে না দেখে, দেখে ধর্মের প্রতীক রূপে। ক্রিটিকাল চিন্তাভাবনা যা মানবজীবনের বিবর্তনের এক অবিচ্ছেদ্য অঙ্গ, সেই দৃষ্টিভঙ্গি দিয়ে এই সৃষ্টি কৃষ্টিগুলোকে বিশ্লেষণ করার চেয়ে আমরা গতানুগতিক রয়ে গিয়েছি এগুলোকে দৈববাণীর মত অমোঘ ভেবে নিয়ে কারন সেখানে নেই সব চিরাচরিত ধ্যানধারনাকে ছুঁড়ে ফেলে দিয়ে নতুন ভাবে গড়তে বসার অনিশ্চয়তা। 

এরপর যে দুই ব্যক্তির কথা উল্লেখ করবো তা নিয়ে অনেক তর্কবিতর্কই হতে পারে। বাঙালি জীবনে তাঁদের প্রভাব যে প্রশ্নাতীত সে নিয়ে কোন দ্বিমত নেই কিন্তু সেই প্রভাব ইতিবাচক কিনা সে নিয়ে তেমন কোন আলোচনা কখনো দেখেছি বলে মনে পড়ছেনা। এই দুই ব্যক্তি হলেন রামকৃষ্ণ আর বিবেকানন্দ। আমরা কিছু কিছু মানুষকে প্রায় ঈশ্বরের আসনে বসিয়ে রেখেছি সর্বশে্রষ্ঠ বাঙালী হিসেবে, তাঁরা সকল সমালোচনা বা যুক্তি-তর্কের ঊর্দ্ধে। এঁদের কাজকর্ম বা অবদান নিয়ে প্রশ্ন তুললেই সব স্থান-কাল-পাত্র ভুলে জোট বেঁধে রে রে অর্বাচীন বলে তেড়ে আসে। এটা শুধু বাঙালীদেরই ব্যাপার না, বীরপুজোর চল সব জায়গায়ই বজায় আছে তা সে মুসলমানদের মহম্মদ নিয়ে হোক বা ফরাসীদের নাপোলেয়ন, বৃটিশদের চার্চিল-থ্যাচার। আমাদেরও সেরকম রয়েছে রামকৃষ্ণ বিবেকানন্দ রবীন্দ্রনাথ নেতাজি সত্যজিৎ। বাঙালী বলে এঁদের নিয়ে গর্ব করেই ক্ষান্তি নেই, এঁদের সমালোচনা হল রাজদ্রোহের সামিল। সাধারন বাঙালী ঘরে দেয়ালে আর কিছু না থাকুক একটা রামকৃষ্ণ বা বিবেকানন্দের ছবি টাঙানো থাকে, তাঁরা অর্ধেক দেবতা রূপে পুজাও পান। বিবেকানন্দ রচনাবলী আমার পড়া হয়নি তাই বেশীরভাগ তথ্যই বিভিন্ন মাধ্যমে কোন এক সময়ে দেখা বা পড়া। বিবেকানন্দ রচনাবলী উনিশশতকে লেখা বাঙালির self-help বা chicken soup জাতীয় বই। সেদিক থেকে এর গুরুত্ব বা সুফল অনেক বিশেষ করে আত্মনির্ভর হবার জন্য। চরিত্র গঠনের ক্ষেত্রেও বিবেকানন্দের লেখা অনুপ্রেরনা যোগায়। কিন্তু অন্যদিকে তাঁর আদর্শ সমাজে হিন্দু জাতীয়তাবাদের ছাপ প্রকট, অন্যান্য জাতি ধর্মের মানুষ এই সমাজে থাকবে বটে কিন্তু সমাজগঠনে তাদের কোন ভুমিকা নেই, হিন্দুরা থাকবে ত্রাতার স্থলে। বিবেকানন্দের আদর্শ সমাজে মেয়েদের স্থান নিয়েও প্রশ্ন জাগে। মেয়েদের সমাজ তৈরিতে কিছু নির্দিষ্ট কাজ ঠিক করে দিয়েছেন কিন্তু পুরুষদের মহিলা সান্নিধ্য থেকে যতটা সম্ভব দুরে রাখা যায় সেই উপায়ও বাতলে গেছেন। সময় এবং স্থানের পরিপ্রেক্ষিতে এই প্রস্তাবগুলো দৈনন্দিন জীবনে প্রযোজ্য ছিল কিন্তু আধুনিক জীবনেও সেই মতাদর্শগুলোকে অক্ষরে অক্ষরে পালন করার চেষ্টা যে গোঁড়ামো তা বলার অপেক্ষা রাখেনা কিন্তু এই মতবাদগুলোর সমালোচনা করারও যে জায়গা নেই সমাজে  সেটাই আক্ষেপের। সেই প্রেক্ষাপটে দাঁড়িয়ে কেউ যদি প্রশ্ন তোলে বিবেকানন্দের মতবাদ বা প্রতিপাদ্যগুলো বর্তমান বাঙালী জীবনে কতটা প্রাসঙ্গিক তাহলে তাকে বেয়াদব বলে কাঠগড়ায় না দাঁড় করিয়ে যদি প্রতিবাদ করতে হয় তবে যুক্তি তর্কের সাহায্যে নস্যাৎ করাটাই পরিনত মানসিকতার পরিচয়। আত্মীয়পরিচিত অনেকেই মিশনের সদস্য তাদের থেকেই জানা যায় কীভাবে মিশন তাদেরকে কীরকম মগজধোলাই করেছে। 

লেখার শুরু করেছিলাম বাঙালী জীবনে ধর্মকর্ম এবং আধ্যাত্মিকতার চল নিয়ে, যেখান থেকে অনেকটাই সরে এসেছি। একবার দেখে নেওয়া যাক সাধারন জীবনে এই দুইয়ের প্রভাব কতটা। আধ্যাত্মিকতা তো বহুদিন আগে লোপ পেয়েছে, তার গন্ডি সীমিত একটা শ্রেনীর মধ্যে। তার বাইরে যেটা বর্তমান তা হল বিভিন্ন রূপকের মাধ্যমে ধর্মীয় আচারের অন্ধ অনুকরন। সেই অনুকরনে আজও চলতে থাকে কুমারী পুজা, বলি, বারবণিতার দোরের থেকে মাটি নেওয়া, কন্যাদান ইত্যাদি মধ্যযুগীয় প্রথা। মানুষও পরম্পরার নামে এই আচারগুলো মেনে নিয়ে চালিয়ে যাবার পক্ষে, সময়ের সাথে ধর্মেরও খোলনলচে না বদলালে তা মানুষের অগ্রগতির সহায়ক না হয়ে বাধা হয়ে দাঁড়ায় সেটা জেনেও কেউ তা পাল্টানোয় উদ্যোগী নয়। এখনও সেই “What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow” জাতীয় কথা ভেবে নিজেদের শ্রেষ্ঠতার বড়াই জারী আছে কিন্তু তার কোন ছাপ ধর্মীয় পরিমণ্ডলে নেই, সেখানে রয়েই গেছে গতানুগতিকতা বাকী ভারতের মত।  তাই ধর্ম মানে এখনও সকালবেলায় লক্ষ্মী কালী সহ সব দেবদেবীকে প্রনাম ঠুকে বাড়ি থেকে বেরনো, নতুন গাড়িতে পুরোহিতের স্বস্তিক আঁকা, আলতা সিঁদুর শাঁখা পলা, বেণীমাধব শীলের পঞ্জিকা, দশকর্মা ভান্ডার, শনি মঙ্গল কালী বৃহস্পতিতে লক্ষ্মীপুজা, কালীপুজার চৌদ্দপ্রদীপ আর বাজি পোড়ান – বেশীরভাগটাই রূপকের মধ্যে দিয়ে যা জন্ম থেকে বেড়ে ওঠার সাথে সাথে জীবনের অঙ্গ হিসাবে জুড়ে যায় তাই সেই নস্টালজিয়ার ধোঁয়াশার বাইরে নতুনভাবে ভাবার, সব ঘেঁটে দিয়ে আবার শুন্য থেকে শুরু করার ইচ্ছা আর চেষ্টা কোনটাই সহজ নয়। একইভাবে ঈশ্বরও আমাদের কাছে এক প্রতীকমাত্র, প্রনাম ঠুকেই যার প্রতি আনুগত্য শেষ। সব বুজরুকি বলে মূর্ত্তিগুলোকে টান মেরে ফেলেও দিতে পারিনা আবার ঈশ্বরকে এই মহাবিশ্বের কেন্দ্রে রেখে যে আধ্যাত্মিক চিন্তাভাবনা করা যেতে পারে তাতেও আগ্রহ নেই, কেবল আছে বিভিন্ন আচারবিচার কুসংস্কার ইত্যাদির বাহুল্যে গা ভাসানো। 

যে কোন জাতির অগ্রগতি নির্ভর করে সময়ের সাথে সার্বিক জ্ঞানের উন্মেষে যা মুক্ত চিন্তার চাবিকাঠি আর সেটা আসে শিক্ষা এবং সমাজ সচেতনতা থেকে। সাধারন বাঙালী জীবনে এর কোনওটারই অভাব নেই, যা নেই সেটা হল সেই জ্ঞান সংশ্লেষ করার আগ্রহ। যারা কলেজজীবনে গরু খেয়ে প্রমান করতে চেষ্টা করে তারা ধার্মিক নয় তারাই আবার এক দশক বাদে অষ্টমীতে নতুন পাঞ্জাবি বা শাড়ি পরে অঞ্জলির জন্য লাইন লাগায় কিন্তু এই দুটি বিপরীত মেরুর কোনটাই দৃঢ়সঙ্কল্প হয়ে নয় আর সেটাই আধ্যাত্মিকতার চেয়ে ধর্মকে বেশী প্রাধান্য দেবার ফল। আত্মানং বিদ্ধি কথাটা যা দিয়ে লেখা শুরু করেছিলাম তা যদি দৈনিক জীবনের অঙ্গ হতো তবে মানুষ খানিকটা হলেও নিজেকে জানার চেষ্টা করতো আর জীবনের এই বিভিন্ন প্রশ্নগুলোর উত্তর না জানলেও কোন পথে সেই খোঁজ শুরু করবে সে সম্বন্ধে ওয়াকীবহাল থাকতো। 

বাঙালীর সাংস্কৃতিক রাজনৈতিক উৎকর্ষের সেই ঊনবিংশ বিংশ শতাব্দী এখন বিগত। এই নতুন শতকের প্রজন্ম পুরনো ঐতিহ্যের তেমন অন্ধ অনুকরন করেনা। ইন্টারনেটের যুগে তথ্যের উপর ভিত্তি করে যুক্তি দিয়ে বিচার করার প্রবনতা অনেক বেড়েছে। এরা আবেগে গা ভাসিয়ে “আমার পুরনো স্কুল পুরনো বাড়ি পুরনো পাড়ার পুরো শহর” এই জাতীয় নস্টালজিয়ায় না ভুগে জীবনে এগিয়ে চলাকেই মুলমন্ত্র হিসাবে বেছে নিয়েছে। মুক্ত স্বাধীন চিন্তার বিকাশ যা পশ্চিমী সভ্যতার মুল ভিত্তি সেটা আজকের বাঙালি সংস্কৃতিতেও বিভিন্ন মাধ্যমে প্রকাশ পাচ্ছে। তবে পূর্বের ঐতিহাসিক সাংস্কৃতিক পটভূমিতে পশ্চিমের অন্ধ অনুকরন যেমন সর্বনাশা হতে পারে, তেমনই পশ্চিমী চিন্তাধারার সুফলগুলো থেকে অনুপ্রেরনা নিয়ে নিজের জীবনে তা প্রয়োগ করলে ধর্ম, জাতপাত, বৈষম্য এজাতীয় অনেকক্ষেত্রেই জীবনবোধ সঙ্কীর্ণতার গন্ডি পেরিয়ে অনেক উদার হবার সম্ভাবনাও রয়েছে। তফাত শুধু কোন চিন্তাগুলো গ্রহন করা হবে আর কী পরিমানে তার ওপর। তবে এটা আশা করা যেতেই পারে যে, যেমন পশ্চিমী সভ্যতা পূর্বের ধ্যানধারনার সাথে নিজেদের আঞ্চলিক সামাজিক সাংস্কৃতিক পরিচয়ের সম্মেলন ঘটিয়েছে, একইভাবে সেই পশ্চিমী চিন্তাধারা ও জীবনদর্শন আমাদের ধর্মীয় গোঁড়ামি আর কুসংস্কারের জাল কাটিয়ে নিজেদের গভীরভাবে জানতে সাহায্য করবে। আর জোর করে কুইনিন গেলানোর মত ধর্ম বা নাস্তিক্যবাদকে স্থাপনা করে নয়, সেই নিজেকে জানার মাধ্যমেই আসবে উত্তরন। কতদিন লাগবে তা হতে? ভগবান জানে…থুড়ি, কেউ জানেনা।