Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Mati and its manush

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 01, 2012 19:42 hrs

Being unfashionably ignorant of cricket, I feared I would be out on a limb in thinking Mamata Banerjee and her government went overboard over Shah Rukh Khan. Public pleasure over the Kolkata Knight Riders (not that the extravaganza was about the cricketers) I could understand. It was the squandering of official time, energy and resources to further inflate the profits of an acutely commercial Bollywood operator I deplored. Imagine my delight then to find a veteran Cricinfo columnist, Jayaditya Gupta, writing that “the post-match celebrations … overran the limits of good taste and induced cringes in all thinking people watching the show”.

Gupta is a bright young man on the cusp of the future rather than a jaded old hack like this columnist. Moreover, he was writing of Chennai’s exuberance before Kolkata went berserk.

He made another fundamental point, albeit in passing for his interest is sports, and that relates to the delicate question of identity. It had occurred to me that the KKR lot were a bunch of outsiders riding a name. Gupta says that’s wrong. “It’s been said that this Kolkata team had no Bengali stars,” he wrote, “but that is both incorrect – Shakib Al-Hasan is as Bengali as Ganguly, only from across the border – and an irrelevance.”

Incorrect? Irrelevant? Here we wade into deep waters. Some Bangladeshis (Ziaur Rahman’s favoured term to underline a distinctive new identity) claim they are better Bengalis than the people of West Bengal who surrendered to Hindi imperialism. Some West Bengalis hold a Muslim can’t be a Bengali. And even in Bangladesh, last refuge of Bengali-ness (if an equivalent of Kashmiriyat, defined as “the ethno-national and social consciousness and cultural values of the Kashmiri people”, exists) some elite socialites speak proudly of Persian or Arab ancestors.

Of course, one can be many things. The late A B A Ghani Khan Choudhury was quintessentially Bengali. Yet, he was descended from one of the 18 Afghan horsemen who liquidated the last Bengali (read Hindu) kingdom in 1204.

Is ethnicity irrelevant? One thinks of “the barefoot Bengali lads” who wrested the IFA Shield from the East Yorkshire regiment on 29 July 1911. Then, too, Kolkata exploded with light and sound, with some urging the victory procession to storm Fort William. That was a Bengali triumph. KKR’s win was Kolkata’s triumph. Gupta touched on the difference. “Kolkata was not built by Bengalis alone; one of the first truly global cities, it was built by Scottish traders, by Marwari moneylenders, by Greeks, Armenians, Jews.”

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, undivided Bengal’s last premier, advanced just that argument to claim Kolkata for Pakistan. The city “and its environments,” he told Mountbatten, were “built up largely by the resources of foreigners, inhabited largely by people from other provinces who have no roots in the soil and who have come here to earn their livelihood, designated in another context as exploitation.”

Foreigners can be assimilated. Gupta claims his Marwaris, Greeks, Armenians and Jews “were all adopted as sons of the city — as, no doubt, will Knight Riders’ rainbow coalition. A Kolkata team owned by two Bollywood stars and a repatriated NRI Gujarati businessman and captained by a Delhi boy — that’s sport in the 21st century for you”.

That’s also contemporary urban reality. Angela Merkels might fume multiculturalism has failed, David Cameron tamely echo her, and the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik take their objections to a murderous extreme. But whether we like it or not, big cities reflect the mingling of races and cultures. A British diplomat, Sir Michael Pike, with a Malaysian Chinese wife, insists his sons don’t regard themselves as English, Chinese or Malaysian. “They’re Londoners!” An entire generation of young men and women, not necessarily of mixed blood, has no roots outside London. They aren’t Cockneys born within sound of Bow Bells. They are inhabitants of the modern geopolitical entity that is London.

By that token, Manoj Tiwary and Laxmi Ratan Shukla, from Shibpur and Lilooah respectively, are natives of Kolkata. But what should they be called? “Calcatian” had a precise meaning: a Bengali who was not from East Bengal. “Calcuttan” never caught on and anyway is now obsolete. “Kolkatan” hasn’t been tried. “Kolkatawallah” sounds too much like bikriwallah. Miss Banerjee must appoint another panel of tame intellectuals to think of an adjective. For if Kolkata’s cosmopolitan inclusiveness resembles the London of her dreams, it must boast an easily pronounced, instantly identified equivalent of Londoner.

Meanwhile, the KKR triumph allowed her merrily to fob people off with a circus when what they need is bread.  

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