A familiar pre-exam ritual in my childhood involved my grandmother narrating a lore about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar—the one in which he spent nights studying under a street light as a child. He tied one end of a long string to the tuft of hair on his head and the other around the lamp post. “That way, if he ever nodded off, the rope would pull on his tiki and wake him up and he’d start studying again,” my Dida would say with great flourish, as my mother slammed down glasses of Horlicks before us.
Sleepy, and huddled in one corner of our wooden bed, which took up most of our dank, ground-floor room in a rented south Kolkata house, my brother and I often translated our mother’s glare as her silently screaming, “I am sure no one ever fed him Horlicks, you ungrateful mutts, and you can’t even pass in mental math after all this.”
Vidyasagar appeared in an average Bengali child’s life much before most other cultural icons of the country could — in the form of a book called ‘Bornoporichoy’, which literally translates to ‘introduction to alphabets’. During our childhoods, even as we tried to watch Superhit Muqabla and Chandrakanta, fables around Vidyasagar often popped up as essential reminders of perseverance against assorted chyangramo — a wholesome Bengali word for fatuousness.
Stories passed down generations of Bengalis—specifically the ones with the privilege of access to education and fortunate to escape casteist oppression—often projected his character as the ultimate middle-class ‘success story’. A poor man whose only wealth was education was the kind of ‘fairytale’ that generations of Bengali parents wanted their children to grow up on. Unlike most other cultural icons, Vidyasagar’s ‘achievements’—social reforms such as education for women and widow remarriage—weren’t just impersonal pages in history books for many Bengalis.
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For every story that I heard about my grandmother’s aunt, whom both my mother and grandmother called ‘Didi’, a Vidyasagar reference was almost certainly a footnote. Every time my mother spooned an extra helping of mango chutney on our plates or gave into our demands for an extra brinjal fritter, she would remind us of how they’d never squeak before Didi and ask for ‘more’. “If Didi had decided we’d get one spoon of kul er achar, that’s how much we got. No kid got more or less,” my mother would say, rolling her eyes at the half a bowl of pickle we had demolished.
Didi’s story, my grandmother insisted, was one of the lesser bleak ones from her generation. She was married to my grandmother’s uncle when she was nine, and her husband 17. A year later, her husband, a medical student in Burdwan district in Bengal, died of typhoid, which very few people survived in the early 1900s. At 10, Didi was a widow, her head tonsured and her wardrobe restricted to starched white sarees which, my late grandmother often said, she wore till she died. “She was a child then, here, just as small as you, I am sure. Can you imagine?” Dida used to say, tapping on my head.
In their family, however, Didi later became a matriarch, who took on the reins of a family with 13 children and very little means, which meant she spent her life rationing everything from food to clothes, bringing up her brother-in-law’s kids with tough love. Both my mother and grandmother, however, often wondered what Didi’s life would have been like if widow remarriage was an accepted social practice back then. These stories often ended with a sort of reflection that had it not been for Vidyasagar, who began raising his voice for widow remarriage in the 19th century, the reform process would have begun much later. Though it took decades for the changes Vidyasagar pushed for to take firm root in Bengal, it’s safe to say that without his contributions, it would have taken even longer.
In their elaborate speeches across Bengal, while BJP leaders often hailed Swami Vivekananda and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Vidyasagar—a cultural reformer closer to Bengali sentiments than the other two—was rarely mentioned. Maybe one reason for this was that while the party was trying to foist an unfamiliar religious narrative on the state, Vidyasagar’s legacy was a reminder of the flaws of the very religion they were trying to piggyback on for votes. Mentioning Vidyasagar would barely be convenient in the project of manufacturing widespread feelings of Hindu victimhood, considering the story of his life—at least the way it exists in populist narratives—is a critique of Hinduism’s excesses.
During Modi’s rally in Brigade Parade grounds in Kolkata last month, hundreds of people — mostly men — inched their way across Central Kolkata shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in loud, belligerent bursts. At the sidewalk near the venue, I met Bongshidhor, a handicrafts vendor from Bongaon in West Bengal, who said he had recently joined BJP. As groups of men laughed, tittered and screamed past him, I asked him what festivals he usually celebrated back in his village. A ‘festival’ around Ram was not among the dozen Hindu celebrations he recounted.
What about the cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ around us? “That’s a BJP slogan. Not a Bengali one,” said Bongshidhor, clearly indicating the chant was a political slogan for him, not one that mirrored his religious beliefs.
A group of young boys, who had just taken a break from yelling ‘Jai Shri Ram’ to crowd around a cucumber vendor, took a while to remember what festival related to Ram they ever celebrated. “Kali Puja, Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Saraswati Puja, Bishwakarma Puja,” they rattled off, before I repeated the question. After a short pause, one young man said that they have ‘begun’ celebrating Ram Navami. The declaration was followed by laughter and a spirited round of chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
Weeks later, the Modi-Shah duo would give ‘Jai Shri Ram’ the last desperate, political push it needed before the polls—they claimed Hindus were not allowed to chant the phrase and dared Banerjee’s government to arrest them. On Facebook, hundreds of Bengalis disagreed, pointing out that ‘Jai Shri Ram’ wasn’t a familiar refrain even for the most religious, devout Bengali Hindus. A journalist friend even listed the number of times Bengalis colloquially use the word ‘ram’ — usually to indicate an extreme manifestation of anything, for example ‘ram chimti’, which would mean an extremely painful pinch.
BJP workers deny that they had any role in destroying Vidyasagar’s bust in a college named after him on Tuesday, even as multiple videos show people in saffron clothes taking a blow at it. Whatever the truth is, the symbolic significance of the BJP’s Bengal push coinciding with the destruction of the statue is undeniable.
The BJP’s insistence on foisting a completely alien religious narrative on the state, and at the same time dismantling cultural icons precious to Bengalis, beg the obvious question: BJP wants Bengal, but does it really know it?