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Home > 2022 > Field Notes - Distress and Violence in Rural Bengal | M.R. Narayan (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 23, New Delhi, May 28, 2022

Field Notes - Distress and Violence in Rural Bengal | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 27 May 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

Book Review by M.R. Narayan Swamy

Field Notes from a Waterborne Land:
Bengal Beyond the Bhadralok

by Parimal Bhattacharya

HarperCollins India;

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354894372
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9354894374

299 pages; Price: Rs 499

This is an extraordinary book, written with a passion about those who are not normally ignored and who, as the title reveals, live in far-flung areas where Bengal’s mostly upper-caste Hindu Bhadralok are normally absent. The book is a mirror to the hardships that continued in vast stretches of Bengal’s countryside despite three decades of Marxist rule. In some ways, the book sheds light on why the Left one day simply fizzled out from what was supposed to be its bastion.

A bilingual writer and a teacher, Parimal Bhattacharya has woven a gripping account not of a lazy, argumentative, culture-loving community who have their adda,mishit doi and Tagore but of a people who get battered by cyclones, floods and the rough hand of history which included the blood-laced 1947 partition of Bengal.

Exploring the vast expanse of rural Bengal was no joke. The author made varying trips at different times, for over a decade, by boat, bus, train, toddy-palm canoe, motorized tricycle and a motorcycle. Those who lived off the land had plenty to say about how both nature and man-driven development had wiped out the marshes and shrub jungles. An expressway did away with the land where women for decades collected mushrooms to sell in the local bazaar.

Floods were a recurring phenomenon in some areas; furious men and women could only curse the government for opening the barrage gates in the early morning hours. The authorities would claim they sounded the warning — of course in cusecs. Such was the frequency of the flood disasters that ordinary people had begun measuring them in just three terms: chest-deep, waist-deep and knee-deep. Over the decades, railways and roads damaged the region’s natural hydrology; dams and embankments meddled with the natural flow of the rivers. Each time floods lashed rural Bengal, it would turn people’s lives upside down, at times temporarily, at times for ever.

Elsewhere too, not far from the Purulia railway station, the scene was no different. Villagers showed an area where water used to flow down a stream, enabling them to have two crops a year. Twenty villages depended on the stream. Once “development” work (this one, courtesy Japan) started, the stream dried away, killing the soil. Villagers began to go to find work in Bardhaman, the paddy bowl of West Bengal. “The smoke-blue carriages of the train, packed to capacity with farmhands, reminded me of the Nazi death-camp trains I’d seen in World War movies.”

The author wondered why enrolment was dwindling with each year in some rural schools. One teacher blurted out the truth: the Left did away with English teaching at the primary level and allowed private English-medium schools to proliferate. Naturally, parents, even if they did not earn much, wanted their children to learn English. But in some schools which advertised themselves as “English medium”, instructions were given in Bangla. The teachers’ salaries ranged from 800 to 1,000 rupees a month, less than what a young female farm labourer earned.

Poverty was another major factor which impacted school enrolment. In a region where poverty level was as high as 75 percent and literacy as low as 20, where the food people grew barely sustained them for three months a year, a boy or a girl returning home with a bundle of sal leaves or firewood from the jungle was more real, and held more value, than one returning from a school.

Also to be seen were the aftereffects of well-intentioned laws that, however, made no sense on the ground. There was one school without a teacher, with neither a regular midday meal, not any teaching aid, not even a blackboard. “It sprang after the Right to Education Act was passed and had remained like this ever since. There was no toilet ... the source of drinking water was half a kilometer away.”

Another primary school sat in the middle of a forest. Again, the nearest source of water, a forest stream, was some distance away. The three-room building was incomplete. The floor was unpaved. The teacher occupied a string cot; an overturned tin drum acted as his table.

Krishnanagar, a once famous town, epitomized all that has gone wrong with semi-urban, semi-rural Bengal. It was a mess of dwindled civic amenities, collapsing power supply, encroached footpaths and homicidal roads. Unemployment was rampant. For 3,000 posts of primary schoolteachers, 45 lakh applications poured in. When the Public Service Commission advertised for 4,000 government jobs such as peons, orderlies and watchmen, an incredible 11 lakh people applied!

Another tragedy was the Stalinist-like grip of the ruling Marxists. As the author remarks, more than a quarter century of winning elections and running a government had seen the emergence of a party society where a single political party controlled all civil democratic institutions.

The author realized after talking widely that Indian communists were so obsessed with class inequalities that they often overlooked inequalities related to caste and gender. And both issues agonized people aplenty in rural areas. In one village, the author came across the CPI (M) Bengali mouthpiece Ganashakti. “No other newspaper could be found in the village — not allowed, said Gouranga-da.”

Abject poverty wasn’t the only source of sorrow for the villagers. Human greed was another. The author encountered Amin Singh, a 20-year-odl who spoke some Hindi because he had worked an entire season in a brick kiln in Jharkhand. But the contractor hadn’t given him a single paise on that assignment.

Then came a time when the Marxists went under in Bengal, coinciding with terrible violence unleashed on those who had ruled for over three decades with a tight fist. Suddenly, neighbours who had switched political loyalties went about savagely attacking those they had known for decades, turning the world upside down for many. Houses were set on fire; the flames consumed all the valuable documents the poor had collected over a long period. Many paid with their lives; many had their spirits crushed.

If you want to know contemporary Bengal better, don’t miss this gripping book.

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