The Confession of a Young Bengal

The Confession of a Young Bengal


That, in the outward circumstances of social and personal life, English-educated Bengalis are rapidly getting Anglicised, few English-educated Bengalis will deny. The stamp of the Anglo-Saxon foreigner is upon our houses, our furniture, our carriages, our food, our drink, our dress, our very familiar letters and conversation. He who runs may read it on every inch of our outward life. We build, and fit up, our houses, according to English ideas of architectural beauty, ventilation and general comfort. Our ancestors, in building houses of any pretension to grandeur, invariably postponed all considerations of the ease and comfort of the human inmates to a pious regard for the befitting accommodation of the various celestials during their thirteen appointed visits in the course of the twelve months. The Poojah Dâlân, the apartment dedicated to the idols, was invariably that portion of the house upon which the lion's share of the whole estimated cost was spent, which was most adorned with the architectural decorations of the time, which, in its dimensions, surpassed every other apartment,—which, in short, determined by its style and magnificence, the owner's position in society. In the houses built by English-educated Bengalis, the Poojah Dâlân is conspicuous only by its absence, so much so that it would not, perhaps, be altogether superfluous to refer to a piece of philological evidence to prove that it was not always so:—in many rural villages in Bengal, Dâlân is, to this day, synonymous with a brick-built house. Chairs, tables, punkahs,—seldom meant to be pulled, American clocks, glassware of variegated hues, pictures for which the Illustrated London News is liberally laid under contribution, kerosene- lamps, book-shelves filled with Reynolds' Mysteries, Tom Paine's Age of Reason and the Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron, English Musical-boxes, compose the fashionable furniture of the sitting-rooms of Young Bengal. Not to speak of Calcutta and its suburbs, it was only the other day that the Lieutenant-Governor congratulated the enlightened gentry of Rajshaye upon what struck His Honour as the most prominent concrete manifestation of English civilization in that district,—dog-carts, to wit. The solemn assurance of His Honour that he was not joking was perfectly needless. Whatever might be the degree of confidence which said enlightened gentry reposed in His Honour's declarations touching his complete code of self-government for Bengal, there is not the shadow of a shade of doubt that their own opinion was only too faithfully echoed by His Honour's observations touching the dog-carts. We have ceased to be strict vegetarians and teetotallers. We have no objection,—on principle,—to dine on roast beef or veal cutlets, nor any, either on principle or in practice, to drink, in the idiomatic English sense and after the English fashion. Our conversation is nine parts broken English, and one part pure Bengali. We have exchanged the cumbrous forms of Bengali epistolary correspondence for those of Cook's Universal Letter-writer, and the tight-fitting jackets and loose-flowing Chapkans of our grandfathers for shirts á l'anglaise and Chapkans that are every day steadily approaching towards the shape and size of English coats, to say nothing of our English shoes, the eyesore of official Anglo-Indians.

English education, administered with the most rigid economy and the example of Englishmen, wrapped up with the threefold covering of national, political and religious exclusiveness have, in a single generation, sufficed to work these changes in the external features of Bengali Society. Paradoxical as it may seem, the second is by much the most powerful agency of the two, though, without some share of the first, it cannot have free scope for its operation. A six months' visit to England, accomplished with the lightest possible equipment of English, does far more to Anglicize one's tastes, manners and fashion than a lifelong devotion to English literature at home. Cases of conflict between the action of English education and that of English example are not rare, in which the result has proved to demonstration the superior energy of the latter.

The very idea that external life is a worthy subject of the attention of a rational being, except in its connections with religion, is, amongst ourselves, unmistakably of English origin. In spite of their emphatic inculcation of the duty of self-preservation, the prevailing tendency of our Shastras was towards a severe asceticism, founded upon a profound feeling of the transi-toriness and unreality of this world.

Our ancestors thought and felt, with the immortal poet of universal human nature, with the one man in the world's literature whose works hold up a mirror to every possible phasis of man's inner life,—

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Fool'd by those rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?

Then, soul, live, thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

No doubt, they did not,—without ceasing to be human beings, they could not,—quite act up to these sentiments; but they could never justify to their conscience any care bestowed upon food and raiment for their own sake. English civilization has pulled down the three hundred and thirty million deities of Hinduism, and set up, in the total space once occupied by them, its own tutelary deities, Comfort and his brother, Respectability.

We lack the candour and the courage to confess this change of faith, but whichever way we look at the matter,—whether by direct self-examination or by indirect study of our inner in our outer life, we are forced to admit that it is to this complexion we have come at last.

We are labouring in downright earnest to break down the joint-family system. We are endeavouring to raise the national standard of living and to foster independence of character. Fine phrases. Have you reflected for a moment on their real signification? You arc tearing asunder the only bond of social union in a society which has yet to learn the very first lessons in the art of co-operation. Or do you, after all, in spite of your petitionings and memorializings and the incessant outpourings of your newspaper press, really suppose that the 'Village Municipality' will, as a school of co-operation, supersede the antiquated joint Hindu family? What, again, have you to say to the inhumanity of defeating the rational expectations of your relations—expectations founded on the uniform experience and traditions of ages? To take the lowest ground, are you blind to the economical convenience—if you have an arithmetical turn of mind and some knowledge of money-matters, you can easily estimate it In solid Rupees, Annas and Pice,—are you blind to the economical convenience of dwelling and messing together to the bulk of your countrymen who are little removed from a condition of abject pauperism? You are bringing into fashion a habit of heartless isolation which, very unlike your highly volatile 'High Education', is steadily filtering into the inferior strata of the community. Fostering independence, forsooth! Do not lay that flattering unction to your soul. Your interest and your duty are so happily in unison in this same matter of fostering independence of character in your poor relations that you ought really to pause and consider what you are about. One thing is quite clear: this zeal for the formation of a national habit of self-reliance never shows itself, except in the sunshine of comparative prosperity.

We have cast away caste. We have outlived the absurdity of a social classification based upon the accident of birth. But we are not such ultra-radicals as to adopt for our watchword the impracticable formula of "Equality and Fraternity". Thank God, we are not so far Frenchified as that. We have received a High English education. Our culture is thoroughly English and we mean to reconstruct society according to English notions. Do you wish to know our definition of a respectable man? Here is one which will give you as correct an idea as any other.

Q. What do you mean by "respectable".
A. "He always kept a gig." (Thurtell's Trial)

It is the balance at the banker's which fixes a man's place in society; the cumulative humanities of a hundred generations are nothing to the purpose.

Such of us as are gifted with exceptionally disciplined minds and have appreciatingly imbibed the best and the most recent English teaching concerning individuality and non-conformity, eat, dress and condi^ct ourselves in society exactly like Englishmen, the usual allowance for the imperfection of a first attempt being, of course, made. The Bengali accent refuses to be quite forgotten, the English idiom every now and then proves quite treacherous, above all, the transmigration from 'black' to 'white' defies the existing resources of chemistry and cosmetics, but as regards the main points of first, a scrupulously exact English costume, with its collateral incidents of occasional invitations to dinner from Englishmen and occasional salaams from Railway porters and cabmen, and secondly, a habitual manifestation, by word, look and gesture, of a thorough contempt for 'niggers', their attempt is usually crowned with success. Who shall censure them? If the national costume of Bengalis has become a badge of subjection, surely the sooner it—the costume—is cast aside the better.

Our Deism, our Theism, our Brahmoism, progressive or ultra-progressive, our Comp (sic) teism—apparently an indigenous religious development, the morality of which was recently discussed, under that strange designation, with equal ability and learning in more than one issue of a Calcutta newspaper,—what are all these isms at bottom but merely so many different embodiments of a strong desire to exempt ourselves from the obligations of Hinduism. No enlightened human being can endure semi-barbarous restrictions concerning food—and drink, no enlightened human being can afford to forego the commonest comforts of life for finding means for the extravagantly expensive superstitions of benighted parents; no enlightened human being can find it in his heart to respect a man whose only claim to respect is founded on an old-fashioned ascetic purity of life, and an intimate acquaintance with a literature, full of false history, false geography and false physics; no enlightened human being can bring himself to believe in the moral excellency of perpetual widowhood; and soon to the end of the chapter of grievances. The necessary minor premises being assumed, sound logic compels us to cry with one voice, Hinduism must be destroyed.

Agreed. But the spiritual nature of man abhors a vacuum. Between our various isms, the Hindu code of personal and social ethics has been well-nigh wholly repealed, and its precepts are universally seen and felt to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Where is our new code of morality? Where is the new public opinion to enforce its rules? Where is the man amongst us who in personal purity, in meekness, in self-forgetfulness, in genuine non-political patriotic feeling, in tenderness for the least sentient thing, in lifelong and systematic devotion to knowledge and virtue for their own sake, can stand a moment's comparison with the better order of minds nurtured in the cradle of Hinduism? Let the tree be judged by its fruit.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.