Samar Sen

The Sense of Commitment-II

Partha Chatterjee

[Following is a speach delivered by the author in Bengali, at Sisir Mancha, Kolkata, on January 13, 2015, on the occasion of the publication of two volumes of Samar Sen’s diaries. Translation by Anirban Biswas.]

Not long ago, I had the occasion to see the play Jara Agun Lagay (Those who commit arson) translated by Nabarun Bhattacharya, directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay and staged by Tritiya Sutra. Since then, I am haunted by a thought. This play, written by the Swiss playwright Max Frisch, has a subtitle, A Moral Tale Without Morality. What is that?

The play contains all the ingredients of what is called 'morality play' in English. In every scene, the fire brigade, like the Greek Chorus, appears before the spectators and tells the essence of the scene, along with what is going to happen next. But the core of the moral proposition in the upshot cannot be understood. Who does the playwright warn us about? Such a European play seems to give the impression of an anti-fascist play at first. Frisch was never a communist, but he had a deep friendship with Bertolt Brecht, whose influence on his play is very much evident. But the theme of this play cannot be Fascist or Nazi aggression, because in the very beginning, the playwright writes that its place is Europe and the time is the present, ie the year 1958 when the play is being written. In 1958, with Fascism defeated and the age of post-War democracy and capitalist prosperity ushered in, who could set fire to our houses?

The tale is straight and simple. Herr Biederman is a thorough bourgeois gentleman. The town where he lives has for some time witnessed a sudden and frightful rise in the number of mysterious fires. The fire brigade cannot bring the situation under control. Suddenly one day, three unknown persons come one by one to Biederman's house and want to stay there. Biederman feels distressed and embarrassed, but cannot refuse them for the sake of his dignity. Sometime later, he discovers that quite a few drums full of petrol had been stored in his house. Although frightened, he could not muster enough courage to say something. He lived quietly and had no quarrel with anybody, and there was no reason why a few unknown persons would do harm to him. Then incredibly enough, those persons borrow a matchbox from him and set fire to his house. The fire brigade, as usual, reaches the spot late, and can do nothing. The peace-loving gentleman made continuous appeasing gestures because he had wanted to avoid trouble. But finally he was not saved.

There is an epilogue to this play, which is not usually staged. In it, it is shown that after their death in fire, Mr and Mrs Biederman come to heaven. They sit in the office of heaven for long hours but in vain. Finally they come to know that the place where they had come was not heaven but hell. They naturally protest and say that they had never committed any crime or wrong; then why were they sent to hell? There must have been some mistake. But they find nobody to pay heed to their protestations, because the officers of hell were then in a mood of extreme excitement. For a long time, big criminals who had come to possess wealth and power through many acts of theft, deception and murder were no longer sent to hell. Enormously powerful dictators, power-hungry generals, corrupt politicians, blood-sucking merchants—such people were no longer seen in hell. All their crimes were pardoned and they were being admitted into heaven. Only petty pilferers, pickpockets and unemployed, misguided political volunteers demonstrating in the streets were being sent to hell. The authorities in hell had decided that they would now find a final solution. After consultations among themselves, Satan himself comes out to announce that an indefinite strike was going to be called in hell, and the hell would remain closed from then on. Prisoners of hell, including Biederman, were told, "You please go back to earth and you will see that new resplendent mansions had been erected in place of burnt down houses. Tell the human beings of the earth that from now on, nobody will have to come to hell. You yourself have now to sit in judgment between right and wrong, and you should disturb us on this issue no longer."

Frisch has here added a new dimension. Human beings could no longer be kept on the right track by scaring them with the possibility of being condemned to hell after death. The worst criminals could also ensure a passage to heaven only if they had money or power. Then would there be no distinction between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood in human life? Would anybody be empowered to set fire to others' houses at will? When the traditional theory of morality is rejected, can there be any ‘Moral Tale Without Morality’?
Let me come back to Samar Babu. He had no boss. Yet why did he continue to bring out the paper in the face of so much physical distress and mental anxiety? What was his sense of duty? To what was he committed?

In Bengali language, the word daybaddhata is a new one, not to be found in the dictionaries compiled by Gyanendra Mohan Das or Haricharan Bandopadhyay or Rajsekhar Bose. But the word has recently been widely in vogue. The term 'day' here means duty and responsibility. There is a word 'vocation' in English, which means not only occupation or career, but also the pledge to fulfill some greater responsibility. In this connection, the word 'calling' is also often used, which means being ordered or instructed to do some duty. Needless to mention, here the analogy of missions preaching Christianity comes in.

I put forward so many things while speaking of Samar Babu because the time has come to answer my earlier question. The question was: What was the pledge for which Samar Babu went on bringing out his paper by courting so much trouble till the last day of his life? His paper was not the organ of any political outfit. He was not even an adherent of any specific political doctrine, which he propagated through his paper. Being the editor, his task was that of a journalist. As a journalist too, he did not expect fame or commercial success. Remember that he was not interested in a big-budget paper. He took journalism as a vocation. As a journalist or editor, his decisions regarding duty and responsibility were taken not by the order of a proprietor or boss, but by his own sense of judgment in consideration of the space afforded in the real world. Even when he was holding a job, he was committed to that greater responsibility.

Why does such sense of commitment seem so rare to us? Is it such an exceptional event for an educated middle class person to have a vocation while remaining in service? Since when have we been witnessing such a phenomenon? Definitely in childhood, all of us passed through such days when we felt disinclined to sit down to study or to go to school. We sometimes uttered in self-defence, "Why, didn't Rabindranath stop going to school?" Inevitably we were scolded, " Oh, you have already begun to think of yourself as another Rabindranath? Put a stop to your flippancy and learn your multiplication tables first." But indeed through that customary school and college education, there have come out so many generations of bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors and teachers. They never accepted their profession as meek obedience to their bosses, but admitted some higher responsibility as their commitment. Samar Babu too did it. Yet why does he appear to us today as a super-hero of an absolutely exceptional type?

If our general duty, the qualities to be acquired by everybody, the responsibilities of all of us are declared as exceptional symptoms of rare super-heroes, we are relieved of our burden. There is a big advantage in hero-worships. We may go on telling in one voice that since we are mere service-holders taking salaries, spending them on our sustenance and doing our duties at the behest of bosses, such commitments to noble vocations should not be expected of us. Thus we can dispense with the additional burden called vocation, while paying our tribute to great men. That Samar Babu has become such a rare and exceptional man to us is less due to his own greatness than to our sense of narrow self-interest and reluctance to accept our responsibilites, which in a word means our overall impotence.

Many caustic remarks made by Samar Babu on the narrow sense of values of Bengali middle-class life are well known to us. But there was a time when many of this class, the fruits of Macaulay's poison tree, could, by virtue of the impetus of nationalism or of the arrogance of higher education, after becoming bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors or teachers, keep their shoulders straight and say "It is my creed to fulfill my duty and responsibility. If I instead adopt a subservient attitude, it is tantamount to the sacrifice of my self-respect." They tasted the model norms of modern bureaucracy and learnt that what was important was the office rather than the person. The post could never be treated as an avenue of self-seeking. Obeying the order of a higher executive was the duty of a bureaucrat, but the greater duty was to obey the law. Obeying an unjust order was not part of one's duty. We know of many prominent bureaucrats who, owing to their adherence to this principle, lost the opportunity of promotion or resigned their jobs but did not give up their sense of self-respect. They believed that elected leaders representing specific interests owing to political reasons would come and go through elections, but the main responsibility of protecting the overall interests of the state lies with the permanently installed bureaucracy. Yet today we find bureaucrats (it is needless to say that they want to remain anonymous) saying openly, "As you can well understand, it is our task to obey the orders of political leaders. They give orders, and we obey these without violating the law as far as possible. It is not our duty to think whether it does good or harm to the country." The condition of police-officers is more deplorable because they have the power to use force on behalf of the state. At the order of political leaders, they have sometimes to apply force in an unjust manner, and sometimes to forget their duty and remain silent spectators. Not only that, they are even incapable of fighting for the defence of their own dignity in the face of organized offenders, and have no option but to take shelter under their tables or take to their heels for keeping their jobs.

The social importance of doctors is always greater because modern science has given them the ability to bring back patients on the verge of death to life. Hence it should be much easier for doctors to work with self-respect even when in government service. Yet there too we find that the inclination to be subservient to leaders and ministers is no less. The mind refuses to believe when we find that a mentally unbalanced young man is beaten to death on the mere suspicion of committing a theft, but no physician-teacher or the Principal informs the police station of the incident and does not help in the least in police-investigation. When asked about the reason, they simply say that such a step on their part would ruin the careers of the students. But none of them asks the plain question whether students who can beat somebody to death on mere suspicion are really worthy of a medical degree, or whether they would ever accept such a noble profession as the medical one as a vocation.

About writers and artists, we knew that it was their creed to live in penury and cultivate art and literature. Rabindranath Tagore was a singular personality and there will be only one such man. But why shouldn't we expect any litterateur or artist to remain committed to the creed of literature or art? But where is that commitment? For quite some time, there has been in vogue a trend of wooing political leaders or parties for obtaining titles and accolades from the government, membership of government institutions or committees and in some cases for being members of the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. Its negative impact is bound to fall on literature or art. Earlier, it seemed that such things created an aversion towards these post-crazy self-seekers among litterateurs and artists, their co-brethren. Now-a days I doubt even this.

I have looked at the happenings in the world of education from very close quarters. In our country, all layers of educational institutions mainly subsist on government grants, and hence it is impossible to run these institutions without regular contacts with persons in authority in the departments of education of the central and state governments. Yet, despite many complexities of the rules and regulations, educational institutions have the opportunity, even within the official system, to preserve their autonomy. But how far that opportunity can be effectively used depends, in my opinion, mainly on the teaching community. For example, we have heard much about the poisonous intrusion of political parties into the educational world of West Bengal during the last three decades. In other states, I have found that although the hue of politics is different, the situation is almost similar. All sorts of appointments in colleges and universities from vice-chancellors to teachers and employees, their promotions and facilities, quantum of grants, unjust show of power by students' unions—everything fits into the familiar picture. In some cases, the situation is even more frightening than that in West Bengal. Making queries, I have learnt that the basic malady is not so much due to the craze for greater power on the part of politicians. It is more due to the practice of frequently inviting political leaders to educational institutions in order to mediate in the mutual quarrels among teachers or to outdo other institutions in respect of government grants. Had teachers been more conscious of preserving their autonomous rights and remembered that teaching was not only an employment, but also a vocation, such degeneration would not have taken place so easily. There is no use blaming the politicians, because if the opportunity to expand their power is handed over to them, why should they refuse it? Rather we, teachers, have been caught into the net of realizing our narrow self-interests and are now paying for it. Hence when we see that students of a university have been agitating for four months and the teaching staff is supporting them, and that classes and examinations are held only with the difference that students are refusing to register their names in attendance registers, there is a glimmer of hope that they are committed to some higher duty. Even if the dealers in politics impose from above a spineless, worthless vice-chancellor, teachers and students can unite and preserve the autonomy of the institution.

As I write, the tale of the tram conductors narrated by Samar Babu, comes recurrently to the mind. These conductors only perform their assigned duty and shift from one union to another according to convenience. Samar Babu was not mistaken in his surmise. The theory of augmentation of profits by the capitalist through the exploitation of the labour of workers and employees is strongly ingrained in leftist class consciousness. Compared to that, the tale of independent creativity of labour is almost absent, as if the end of capitalism would automatically turn the worker into a creative being. The leftist movement of our country has never recognized with importance that commitment to productive labour is something that has to be built up as a component of the movement against capitalism and that it is part of the preservation of independence of the working class, of its social commitment. The consequence has been as it was destined to be. Leftist workers' organizations, stagnating in the cul-de-sac of movements for better pay and interests of workers averse to work, did not hesitate to change their banners with the change of political power. Why should an employee, unless he is committed to some greater social values, think of anything except immediate self-interest? He has not been taught anything else.

We shall be mistaken if we examine Samar Babu's life in the light of traditional morality. The question is not of virtue and vice, or of morality and immorality. It is not that all of those who are about to set fire to our houses are agents of the Devil himself. Had they been so, the problem would have been much easier. They often set fire, in the belief that burning out some spots would be beneficial for society, and their belief is shared by many. Sometimes they set fire unwillingly while doing that in a spirit of doing good. Hence if it is considered necessary to oppose them, instead of appeasing them as Biederman did, it is necessary to have a strategy that is realistic, flexible and yet firm. In one sense, to court martyrdom by fighting wrongs heroically is a much easier deed. It is much more difficult to undertake, as Samar Babu did, a life-long struggle, while remaining conscious of one's limitations and taking the familial and social burdens on one's shoulders. It is instructive because it is difficult.

Samar Babu had a perpetual aversion to hero-worship. Many of you can perhaps remember the episode of his visit to Santiniketan in his youth, along with literary figures like Buddhadev Bose etc. He acquired a bad name there for addressing Rabindranath Tagore as Rabi Babu. He himself has written that he, after making a guess of the feebleness of the Poet's eyesight, went as near as possible before throwing away the cigarette he was smoking. It is true that such a person is now rare among us. Still, if we, instead of enthroning him as a Great Hero, can assimilate the qualities of his character in our lives, we shall perhaps be able to pay our real tribute to him.

I.    Samar Sen, Babu Brittanta (Kolkata, Asha Prakashani), p.77
II.   Babu Brittanta, p.66
III.  Babu Brittanta, p.67
IV. Babu Brittanta, p.79
V.  Babu Brittanta, p.68
VI. Babu Brittanta, p.73
VII.          (Bundiler Katha), Aprakashita Samar Sen (Unpublished Samar Sen): Dinlipi O Jujuke (The Daily Chronicle and to Juju), (Ed) Pulak Chanda, (Kolkata, Dey's, 2009) Pp.176-78
IX.  Aprakashita Samar Sen, p.141
X.   Tram Theke Thanay (From the Tramcar to the Police Station), Babu Brittanta, pp.102-3.

Vol. 47, No. 36, Mar 15 - 21, 2015