A couple of months ago, on the 24th of January to be precise, the local paper here in Shillong ran a front page photo that caught my attention. It had been taken the previous day and depicted a group of kids formed up in several lines, waving placards. The occasion was the birth anniversary of anti-British freedom fighter (fighter in the literal sense, unlike the parasites of the so-called non-violent Indian freedom movement), Subhas Chandra Bose.
Set alongside a picture of the Governor of the state laying a wreath at the foot of a statue of Bose, the placard waving kids had taken part in the same function. Normally I’d have passed on by without even a pitying shake of my head at the tokenism of the whole thing, but the placards…the placards caught my eye.
A few of them were in fairly bad English, but the majority of them were in Bunglee (for those of you who don’t know, Bunglee is what I call the [specifically Indian] Bengalis, for whom my contempt is fairly boundless); and all of them were along the lines of “Banglar Gorbo Netaji Shubhash Chondro Boush.”
Now, Bose, often called “Netaji” (a direct translation would be Führer, incidentally) would have certainly risen up in righteous wrath at the idea of being called The Pride of Bengal (from here on to be referred to as “Bunglistan” for the purposes of this article). The man had his faults, many of them, but there wasn’t the slightest trace of parochialism in him. He thought nationally and acted nationally. To him, quite explicitly, all inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent were one. And here were these Bunglees calling him the Pride of Bunglistan.
But if there is one thing that marks out Bunglees, it’s their mindless parochialism. They aren’t even ashamed of it; quite to the contrary. To the Bunglee mind, the only heroes India has ever produced are Bunglees, and anything Bunglistan does today, the rest of India will do tomorrow. And because the reality around them is precisely the opposite, with Bunglistan a sorry mess, Bunglees do what they do best; look to the past, and weave conspiracy theories.
I’ll leave the conspiracy theorising for another occasion, because Bunglee Conspiracy Theory is a thesis-level topic and needs a post to itself. Looking to the past also takes two distinct forms; worshipping the so-called Golden Age of Bunglistan, another topic that needs a post to itself, and worshiping bygone heroes.
Ah, those heroes.
I don’t remember who it was who said “Pity the nation that needs heroes”, and frankly I can’t be bothered to look it up; but he might have meant the quote specifically for Bunglistan. Yes, other Indians have their heroes and act fairly ludicrously about them. The Marathis, for instance, have a bizarre, almost fetish-like love affair for the warrior king Shivaji, to the point of naming anything and everything after him. The Tamils love to claim any connection, anything at all, to the early twentieth century mathematician Srinivas Ramanujan, even if it was only that their great grandfather once played marbles with him. But none of these even begins to approach the Bunglees.
The Bunglee worships precisely two heroes who are germane to this discussion, both of them dead for upwards of sixty-five years. The first of these is Nobel Literature Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 and whom the Bunglees venerate as KobeeGooroo (in Bunglistani Bunglee, that’s how you pronounce Kabi Guru, guru of poets).
They’ll obsessively defend their KobeeGooroo against even the mildest criticism, criticism the man himself (who was no mean literary talent) would have shrugged off with scarcely a second thought. They will fly into a foaming mouthed rage at the thought that anyone could ever dare say that, for instance, Tagore could be stupefyingly boring at times. (Well, I have read Tagore in the original, and I say it here: he could be brain-numbingly boring when he wanted to be.) They’ll defend Tagore without ever having read him, just because he was a Bunglee. Imagine defending, say, Charles Dickens not because he was a great writer, but (without even reading him), just because he was British. Does that sound logical to you?
But who accused Bunglees of logic? Not I.
But at the same time, of course, they couldn’t be bothered with Tagore’s actual legacy. The university he set up, Santiniketan, is crumbling from rampant mismanagement. His manuscripts and early editions are falling apart from neglect. Even his Nobel Prize was stolen from its Santiniketan museum a few years ago, and has never been found.
So much for the Bunglee love of Tagore, then.
But if you think the Bunglee attitude towards their KobeeGooroo is crazy, you should check out their attitude towards the aforementioned Subhas Chandra Bose. This isn’t the place for a detailed biography of Bose, but suffice it to say that he started out as a nationalistic student leader, became a prominent Congress party politician, in which role he came up against the jealous machinations of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (usually miscalled “Mahatma”), then escaped from British house arrest and made his way to Nazi Germany in 1941.
There he organised volunteers from among the Indian prisoners of war taken by the Germans into an Indian Volunteer Legion, one of the auxiliary formations the Nazis loved to set up from amongst prisoners (there was even a British Free Corps). Bose later travelled by submarine to Singapore and then to Japan. Another Bose (no relation; this one’s name was Ras Behari) had helped organise a two-division force from among the Indian prisoners of war captured by Japan, called the Indian National Army, and he handed over charge to the newly arrived younger Bose. Subhas Bose led this INA as part of the Japanese invasion of India in 1944, but it was defeated and quickly disintegrated. Subhas Bose, trying to fly to the USSR to continue the struggle, was killed in a plane crash in Taiwan on 18th August 1945.
Maybe not a Simon Bolivar, then; but at least he was a brave man who believed in a cause, a doer and not a talker, as far removed from the “non-violent freedom fighters” of the Congress as the dark side of the moon.
Now, Bunglees will not allow the poor man even the dignity of death. Though repeated commissions of enquiry since Independence have confirmed Bose’s death, Bunglees refuse, officially and individually, to admit he died. The Japanese army doctor who attended him in his last hours was interviewed by the commissions and confirmed his death, and its details, but the Bunglees won’t admit he died. His ashes lie in an urn in Renkoji Temple in Tokyo, but Bunglees have turned down suggestions of DNA tests to be done on the remains…in case they turn out to be Bose’s, you see, they will have to admit he died and won’t return (at the age of 111 as I write this; Bose was born on 23 January 1897) to redeem them all.
It gets even more bizarre. Bose had married a German woman, Emilie Schenkl, and had a daughter with her, who is now Anita Bose Pfaff. But Bunglees resolutely refuse to believe he married. How could the man who dedicated his life to the struggle possibly have such fallible human emotions as sexual desire and love for a family? The woman Schenkl must have been (for whatever twisted reasons of her own) lying; and as for the Bose Pfaff woman, it would probably be better to pretend she doesn’t exist.
And I’ve not yet touched on the most farcical part of it. In the 1980s, there was a TV series on the Indian liberation struggle (basically a collection of hagiographies). One of the episodes was on Bose, and showed the actor playing him sipping from a glass of amber liquid.
Bunglistan went ballistic. There were official protests, threats of violence and so on. How dare the national TV network show Bose drinking alcohol? No matter that the people who knew Bose said he did sometimes enjoy a glass of whiskey; Bunglistanis wouldn’t even permit the print of the serial to be retained in the TV studio archives.
And the contents of the glass which had caused all the thunder and lightning?
Bunglees. You’ve to meet them to believe what they’re like.
Incidentally, for those of you who are wondering at my fitness to write this, I’m a Bunglee too.
[ Word of explanation of the title of this article: There was an old Hindi film song, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, much popularised by erstwhile Bollywood great Raj Kapoor. It means “Even so my heart is Indian.” I simply made it more accurate as far as Bunglees are concerned.]