‘Generation Gap’?

Receding Bengal

Bibekananda Ray

If an urban or rural resident of West Bengal had gone into a coma, or long sleep, bitten by an African Tsetse fly, and miraculously woke up now, he would see, like Rip Van Winkle, his ambience and State much changed- The hero of Washington Irving's story saw an 'utterly changed' Catkill Mountains in New York State in 1819-20, waking up after 20 years, but his replica in Bengal would amaze at the changes in the physical, mental and spiritual ambience, once familiar to him. In fact, elders above 70 constantly bemoan these changes in their life-time. Critics call it nostalgia, or 'generation gap' which makes them say, "In our time, everything was better than now", but this can go to ludicrous extreme. Elders in a suburban town, 60 kilometers north of Kolkata, sued their municipality for pruning a large banyan tree in a park,wbose aerial roots they used to hang from, in childhood. All over the world, man's familiar milieu is always changing; how can West Bengal or India be an exception!

Change is the law of Nature, said all great thinkers from Gautama Buddha to Einstein, and Stephen Hawking in modern time. They spoke of the irresistibility of change in the world and the universe. Human bodies change, all the time, for growth or decay. Cells die, new cells take their place. The flora and the fauna grow, decay and die. The earth and the soil change in quake and flood. Rivers, seas and oceans change their contours and courses, erode shores and encroach on human habitats. The universe is constantly expanding; stars and planets are growing, shrinking and falling into 'black holes'. In the human world, systems of governance and regimes change, or collapse too, in a historical process on which man has no control.

In the last 5O years, the recession of familiar Bengal has particularly hurt elders. Democracy that was sown by the 190-year British colonial rule, has since sprouted and grown into a tree on whose leafy branches a variety of birds have nestled and chirp. In West Bengal, a 34-year-old Left regime collapsed, 27 months ago, and was replaced by a faction of 128-year-old Congress party. With this, a momentous change is coming over the society. Gone are the days of incessant political strife, taking toll of political and apolitical people by carnage, abduction, or secret murders. The ousted ruling coalition's once puissant and militant cadres have been deflated by vengeful attacks of the activists of the present ruling party. Peace has returned to disturbed and strife-torn areas like Jungle Mahal in three western districts and development has begun. The new regime's style of governance is different from that of the ousted, but is tainted by whims and prodigality, despite a massive internal debt bequeathed by the previous regime.

What then is receding from the old familiar Bengal? Technological revolution is sweeping India; West Bengal is no exception. Mobile telephones have become ubiquitous; even poor families own more than one. Ease of electronic communication is furthering social relations, trade and crime. With hunger and starvation receding, young people's libido is rising, leading to love marriages, rapes and other assaults on girls and women. Rapes are as old as mankind, but never before they occurred or were reported, more. Kolkata where women out of homes were safe up to midnight, can no longer boast protecting and honouring unescorted females. Western practices of 'live-together' and premarital sex are being aped by urban youngsters; divorces soon after marriage are no longer uncommon. Honour killings of spouses involved in inter-caste marriages and perpetrating violence on young wives compelled Parliament to legislate and put culprits behind the bars even before trial. Traditions are falling to commerce and convenience ; greed for property is taking a toll of young wives whose parents could not give ample dowry.

Familiar Bengal is receding in other spheres too. Compared to 5O years ago, more schools, colleges and universities have come up in rural and urban Bengal, where more boys and girls study for degrees that lead to well-paid jobs. Many more students qualify in first divisions and classes, scoring 80% or more marks, but they compare poorly with matriculates and graduates,50 years ago. Few go for courses that make them learned in humanities, like Philosophy and Sanskrit. Commerce has become the prime mover in education. Many newer kinds of jobs and careers are luring graduates and post-graduates; so many of them go for business administration and computers that very soon there will be a glut. Who had thought that TV channels would require so many jockeys, compeers, actors and actresses in riff-raff serials? Nevertheless, unemployment and under-employment are rampant and arising cost of living is ruining many families with no, or meagre, incomes. Fifty years ago, higher education was restricted to fewer students and employment in educational institutions and private sector was not as elusive as now.

Elders rue the steep rise in population and scarcity of basic amenities. Safe drinking water is still a mirage with State programmes and projects not meeting the demand and easy access. Rural well-off families are now sinking submersible pumps to draw subsoil water within homes; for 24-hour power, they can even afford inverters. A semblance of prosperity is seen in many villages; austerity is no longer a virtue. The beelines in shopping malls and multiplexes in Kolkata, Durgapur, Salt Lake City and Haldia and hefty purchases of consumer goods of the salaried and business classes amaze sociologists and change their notions of India. The media division of residents in 'Bharat' and 'India' is gradually disappearing. Denizens of 'Bharat' are aspiring to leap into 'India' with the rising income of young family members. In villages, farmers' sons refuse to live by farming and boys in Brahmin families are aspiring for secular professions. The fences between classes are breaking under the impact of an upward mobility. Many more girls go out of homes, these days for study or jobs, risking personal safety and modesty. Hundreds of them go to schools, or places of work, in bicycles, scooters and bikes, after managing domestic chores.

Impacted by technology, agriculture is changing too. Cultivation by spades and ploughs is giving way to power tillers or tractors, owned, or hired. Threshers, and winnowers are no longer novelties. Hybrid seeds have ushered in a new generation of crops, enhancing yields of vegetables and cereals. 'Lab to land' researches have led to new varieties of pest-resistant crops, requiring low irrigation. Still agriculture has become unprofitable because of rise of cost of fertilisers and pesticides and too many middlemen in the retail chain, which goads farmers' children step out of family profession.

Thus, the recession of Bengal should not be moaned by elders, because it has a bright side too. Well Rip Van Winkle will amaze at changes in 50 years, but many of these are for the better. Nostalgia is a sentimental feeling but reality may not be all that bad.

Frontier, Autumn Number
Vol. 46, No. 13-16, Oct 6 - Nov 2, 2013

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