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The Quest for an ‘Ideal’ Identity (Review)

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Parimal Ghosh. 2016.
What Happened to the Bhadralok?
New Delhi: Primus Books
ISBN 9789384082994

Analytical categories that inform and constitute any given identity are usually vulnerable to jostling contestations and claims. A subject that has been rigorously discussed by scholars, construction of any identity is understood to have been a permeable process that is flexible and susceptible to change with time. The indigenous concept of bhadralok is one such processual category that emerged in Bengal (a state in eastern part of India) to identify a certain section of its native population. Spanning over eight chapters, Parimal Ghosh in this work uses archival material and several anecdotes from popular culture as well as his own experiences to locate the myriad meanings and practice of the term bhadralok. Notwithstanding the changing meaning of the term, the book discusses that extensive colloquial usage of the word has rendered it as a part of everyday parlance amidst the Bengali community. Elucidating the significance and usage of the term bhadralok, the author has broadly attempted to address three main questions which are, firstly, who could be acknowledged as the bhadralok; secondly, as a quintessential part of Bengali identity what constitutes the notion of bhadralok; and lastly, how the changing nature of this distinctive aspect of being a genteel Bengali along with other contingent factors eventually led to the weakening of this conceptual category.

The ‘notion’ of ‘being’ bhadralok
I refer to the term as a ‘notion’ because of the several compelling ways that the author illuminates to signify the changing meanings and characteristics of the term. The expression bhadralok, according to Sinha (1969) gained social currency around the beginning of the 19th century as an alternative expression in Sanskrit for the English term ‘gentlemen’. The term therefore was indicative of class-based ‘cultivated taste’ and ‘civilized manners’. However, with changing time, Ghosh argues for the shift of these indicators from culture towards power and wealth. Explaining a continual alteration in the notion of bhadralok, the common thread connecting the argument in all the eight chapters trace the changes in the content of what constitutes the bhadralok attitude. The author comments that while in colonial times, the term was exclusively used by upper-caste Bengali Hindus who had access to landed property and college education; by the end of 19th century, such prerogatives associated with the genteel category was observed as being freely articulated amongst the ‘socially mobile lower castes’ (p. 121).

The subject of bhadralok has been an area of scholarly interest for anyone working in the Bengal region and its native population. Building on the principal idea that bhadralok in Bengali society cannot be bracketed just as a social class based on income but of ‘cultural pre-eminence’ (Sudipta Kaviraj, 1997), the multiple arguments and definitions of the concept of bhadralok moves concomitantly with that provided by Ghosh. Referring to Calcutta – capital city of the Bengal state – as the ‘habitat of the bhadralok’ (p. 184), the author in the first part of the book sets the tone for how the category of bhadralok from mid-19th century onward dominated almost every aspect of public life and emerged as an ‘ideal’ source of cultural capital. While Ghosh argues for the strength and knowledge of English language by a certain class of Bengal’s population that placed them in the closed group of ‘being bhadra’ (civil and intellectual); Chatterjee (2015) identifies the bhadra as a progressive, liberal, and a group exhibiting less religious proclivity.

To present a critique of the ‘changing profile of bhadralok’ (p. 185), the author juxtaposes the ideological category with other types like ‘false bhadralok’, ‘old-new bhadralok’, and the ‘ideal bhadralok’. The argument produced insofar assists in identifying the bhadralok as a cohesive culturally and morally superior community that helps in sustaining the presumption that bhadralok represents ‘modernity’ (p. 69). A conscious and strict distinction drawn between the categories conveys that the bhadralok follow a superior code of conduct which was either denied or not acknowledged when practiced by others. The author judiciously uses references for each such category through a close reading of various sources ranging from fiction novels, movies, local Bengali theatre, and few pastime activities associated with Bengali ‘way of life’ in general, for instance, the game of football to provide a nuanced argument of how each category mentioned above led to the strengthening of the image of the ‘ideal bhadralok’. Narratives from fiction and other sources of popular culture here serve as an interesting methodological tool to build an argument against the much-sought fixities that the image of bhadralok produces and assiduously fights for.

However, what stood out for me in this work was an attempt by the author to comprehend narratives from everyday activities of the city, specific to the bhadralok that lent and built the social life of the city to highlight the sense of camaraderie amongst them. For which, the author explicitly draws our attention to why it is also vital to understand the attempts at self-representation of bhadralok as rooted in their everyday life experiences. Analysing ‘the landscape of the city and the citizens’ (p. 137) as text, the author takes into account both the tangible material aspects and the perceived or the ‘felt’ immaterial presence of obligations and responsibilities that the people of a certain class or neighbourhood experienced. Drawing parallels between how changes in the urbanscape has affected social currency of such ideological categories, the author interestingly draws our attention to the problematic undercurrents of urban social relations and the involvement of marginalised groups into the overall social and political structure of the society. For instance, by alluding to the unconscious adoption of a panoptic and disciplinarian gaze by the bhadralok of the para (neighbourhood) (p. 164) Ghosh suggests that the changing composition of para over time has led to the transformations in the meaning of the locale (p. 163) and community, which in turn have resulted in an altered understanding on whom the label of bhadralok could be conferred upon.

Can there be another bhadralok?
Several scholars studying this concept argue for the label of ‘being bhadralok’ as a vital and cherished source of Bengali identity. Riddled with several stereotypes carrying positive value – such as intellectual, cultured, and civilised –  bhadralokness has long been a matter of discussion and debate to comprehend who deserves to be included in the bracket. However, given the several criteria of marking a bhadralok, the study questions if there can be a non-Bengali ‘other’ bhadralok. Starting with an understanding that ‘there is a divide between bhadralok and it’s other in the Bengali society’ (p. 2), Ghosh bases his argument on how as a distinctive category, joining the ranks of bhadralok community meant one had to be morally, culturally, and socially separated from those – the chotolok (p. 187) – whose everyday lives did not fit the moral gauge of the upper-class people.

Citing several sources, the book discuss the factors that helped a certain section of Bengal population gain massive competitive advantage in colonial Bengal’s economic and political milieu, which further enabled them in some sense to stamp their preferences and cultural ideology onto the broader landscape of the city’s culture. While discussing the positive and negative characteristics in common imagination to identify the Bengali community, the book presents a concise review of scholarly literature, unvaryingly emphasizing on the idea of inclusiveness and marginality that such characterizations lead to.

The vulnerable ‘ideal gentry’
Although the argument presented in this book justifies using of the concept of bhadralok as an analytical tool, to gauge what Zachariah (2006) elsewhere in his study on the bhadralok community calls the ‘ideal type’ amongst the Bengalis, the book loses out on the potential to discuss the presence of several migrant communities in the city while talking of the ‘others’ in the city. The migrant bodies although could not easily ingrain this subjective quality, but their growing presence challenged the native Bengali to measure up, in turn, motivating the native to secure its boundaries from the distinct ‘other’.

One understands the concept of bhadralok to have been tested, treated and, rendered various hues at various points of Bengal’s history. The transformation of the city space, change of its sociopolitical setting, incoming of the ‘others’ and the creation of a categorical ‘us’ and ‘them’, consequently reflected in the growing access to resources previously reserved for a small section of population, enabled many to come under the fold of bhadralok. Although the bhadralok demography was seen to be expanding, the author argues it was bereft of the cultural tradition and that ‘the new bhadralok [could] claim their place under the sun only as the inheritors of bhadralok tradition’ (p. 183). Ghosh concludes with dismal hope for the survival of the subjective qualities of the bhadralok as the ‘harbinger of the new age’ (p. 3), thus reiterating what the literature refers to as fixity of the concept which it lacked in practice.

The book as a fine account of the vulnerabilities and anxieties that any identity experiences, would not only interest researchers interested in understanding the dynamic ways in which any identity is constructed, claimed and secured; but, also catch attention of readers who find nostalgia as an important instrument to understand the vicissitudes brought about by change in time and social practice.

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