[ Excerpted from An Intimate History of Bengal, Pritam Bhattacharyya, Wordsmith University Press, 2009 ]
Behind every fortune, there is a Crime – Balzac as quoted in The Godfather
An intriguing Question
In 1800s and onward, a small group of native fortune hunters in Bengal acquired legendery wealth through land, trading, managing businesses and becoming the investor (angelic and banking), secretary, interpreter and cross cultural consultant of the architects of the British Indian Empire. They were the diwans and they were a class wholly new in India. Two hundred years later, as a class, they resemble that of the contemporary IT-barons of India – notably Mr. Murthy, Mr. Premji and now behind bar – Mr. Raju. Most of these diwans made their wealth through trading, speculation, investment and catering to the various needs to the traders who were waiting in the wings to become the ruler of the vast sub-continent. However, all of them re-invested their gold and paper wealth into buying land and soon they became zamindars and wealth of few were too high to be contained by the title zamindar, so they were called Rajah or king. It is easy to consider why they re-invested their capital into land – to get social status or as Mumford says – to get access to the social ladder and elevators.
Historical records in the form of diaries of both the English and native people of the period, newspaper articles and literature, urban legends indicate that this legendery wealth dissipated itself without laying the foundation of more lasting and interlocked wealth generation schemes. For example, what are the reasons of those rajahs or diwans leaving dynastic legacies of institution like Kuhn, Warburg or Morgan although in terms of shrewdness, cunning, industry, greed and acumen, they were no less than those individuals? So what are the reasons? Nationalistic, anti-imperialistic, anti-all-except-my-faith group has standard reasons: British Imperialism and its designs. Since childhood, I was fed this theory in different variants and I believed it. But as I grew up, doubts arose and as I met more and more people of Bengal and ived as a resident, I was convinced that this theory is not only partial and biased, it has its shades to put many uncomfortable things under the carpet in name of self-love and nationalistic fervour.
This short book would formulate this query within a historical backdrop and then end with a real story of a Bengali wealthy family in the time period of 1975-1995.
The East and the West
There is an increasing trend to belittle the achievements of white men and to amplify the negatives. Unfortunately, a dangerous form of historical amnesia has pervaded Western academia – both in Europe and United States and a guilt syndrome is slowly leaking to make young white men and women either weak and apologetic or senseless and libertine. It appears that the ‘shopkeeper’ inside Anglo-Saxon character has got better of the whole Man. In Bengal, the apology and guilt gets inverted and one finds a continuous whining and complaining. This forces me to re-utter my rebuttal in response to the generally accepted theory by the ‘intellectuals’ of Bengal that British made us learn English to make us clerks – ‘As if, it were not, instead of becoming English speaking clerks, we would have launched another Maurya Empire?’The judgement of history is beyond foreclosure.
Back to our intriguing question: Why did the fabulous wealth of a small pool of people in Bengal have dissipated inspite of having the promise and potential of laying the foundation of much broader and influencing wealth and power? For example, why did the wealth of Prince Dwarikanath (grandfather of Tagore) vanish in fifty years instead of being diversified into other areas?
For economic and other reasons, one can see the works of the career historians or professors and they have lots of theory and propositions. In Marxist and Marks and Spencers Bengal, there are more exotic theories going under the name of feminist, sub-altern etc. There are plenty of well-read and well-intentioned people there to analyse this question.
I would carefully avoid this path. I would dare to say this that most of these theorists (save some exceptions) have done little sadhana to qualify to handle this question. Most might not have even read চৈতন্যচরিতামৃত – ignoring this as a kind of quasi-religious text. But this same text gives an exact description of their enterprise: They don’t do গ্রন্থ-অনুভব and are পড়ুয়া-অধম। The text written some three four hundred years ago could foresee as why one day, premier educational institutions, including Dwarik’s grandson’s বিশ্বভারতী would become such a nasty চন্ডীমন্ডপ consisting of mostly পড়ুয়া-অধম।
My answer to this question, in its essence, is to ackowledge a fact which is the most critical aspect of Bengal’s history: There is a fundamental difference between an Eastern mind and Western Mind in relation to t everything of significance. It is not possible to determine which is better or superior, it can only be analysed as which one is suitable for a certain historical time. Hence, any Bengali of having slightest originality or original thinking considered west as a partner and appealed to the whole Man of West. Conversely, the more চন্ডীমন্ডপ oriented a man is, the more little man, hollow-man one is, he appeals to the small man of the West. Swami Vivekananda, Tagore, Srila Prabhupada: three Benglis of last two hundred years have a commonality: they all architected a functional organization of global scale and scope. All three, inspite of varying and antagonistic world-views and visions could choose their workmen from both the East and West.
The Lost Wealth
One Bengali author and historian – Mr. Binoy Ghosh has been singular in asking this question of the lost wealth or the missing opportunity of Bengal. I would like to extend his theory, while in agreement with his core hypothesis that the opportunity was lost because of the social situation – a part of it was due to British imperial interest. British imperial interest tenaciously blocked any futuristic investment by the natives in the area of railways, steel, shipping lines, telegraph and aviation. But this is not the whole picture. I would like to put the following causes, more intangible and relate to the fundamental difference of East-West mind as mentioned earlier:
- The climate of Bengal: it never challenges, it only soothes.
- The fertility of Bengal: Bengal’s prolific fertility of the land made biological living a very easy affair.
- Bengal’s climate’s motherly pull could never trigger any feeling of ‘ruling and subduing nature’ – without this spirit industrial revolution would not have been possible.
- The concept of God for Bengal was Nature and Nature’s God as soon as Buddhism went weak. With this conception, to subdue Nature in any form did not have the full sanction of the inner consciousness.
- In all historical ages, power for an ordinary Bengali was the entity that could provide law and order – hence it even allowed the excesses of those entities that could provide it, as long as bearable.
The absence of the attitude to ‘subdue and control Nature’ never brought to the minds of the wealthy any vision to plan and continuing to control nature, i.e future as well. This attitude in the best minds gave rise of most of the unifying ideas and in worst minds – a kind of fatal resignation and তামসিক homeliness. Hence, every Bengali of any worth shines so brilliantly in the general তামসিক homeliness. The climate and ethos also provided the Bengali men with a high pitch romantic spirit. In higher individual this has given rise to one of the greatest lyrical and passional literatures. To the lesser and degraded ones, it has created a crave for sensuality and কামুকতা (not raw lust or rut or burning flesh) for opposite sex and in some cases, high degree of neutering of manliness. Outsiders, even simple professionals in our IT factories can even detect this neutering of manliness where the termagnet of a wife controls the whole house as well as the poor man’s everything, including his purse and will to donate.
To conclude, Bengal has been the feminine womb in which all virile civilization has been forced to inseminate in all historical ages. She has been a womb of great fertility but she commanded a terrible price as well from the inseminating agencies: lack of vigour. Its last inseminator has been International Communism and to a sober mind, well versed in the way how Communism propounds the theory to subdue nature and its interpretation of power, Contemporary Bengal is a living example as how the seed has lost the vigour and power by the mellowness of the womb.
The Story of a Wealthy Family in Industrial Bengal – 1975-1995
A three brother family came to an iron-coal-steel industry dominated area in the 1950s – immediately after the partition from East Bengal. Three brothers made a fortune by becoming Government suppliers of men and material for the industry by early eighties. Their fortune owe its origin into three factors: Nehru and independent India’s massive drive for nationalized industries, volatile and nascent communist rule in Bengal, raw vigour, enterprise and a will, unparalysed by moral qualms to succeed in terms of cash-power, social-power and local controlling power. They succeeded in all the three. There was strong arm as well – acquired, cultured and cultivated and which in turn was used to secure contracts, becoming the de-facto HR of many of those industries, controlling local police and law apparatus – a mini, more open and less ambitious Mafiosi – The Family. The whole entrepenerial energy of a generation flew into the channels of securing Govt contracts, licenses and greasing the palm of officials at all levels. The newly anointed communist leadership found its lion’s share of cadres from this group whose only opportunity, as long as they are based in the geography was to somehow become related with the Government – either as an agent or as a double agent.
One of the scions of the Family narrated me the story of the family – a 40 odd member House consisting of near relatives, domestic help, drivers, workers, security men and an entourage of men coming and going for various purposes. The brothers remained as a HUF (Hindu Undivided Family) with a patriarach commanding Don like status. Two brothers were like capo regimes or commanders. Common threats were Income Tax Raids, Dacoits, an unbending officer in the steel factory, an honest Police Officer, some political boss gone against for some ommission. Allies were none except those who come for their own interest. A whole bathtub filled with some 10 kg fishes were brought because some boy wanted to eat some fish. A truckload of cold drinks was brought because some bouma felt thirsty. There were many charities, help, and celebrations – all on personal levels (and non-institutional), many instances of of a large heart in helping a needy person in the form of cash or kind. Family grew – boys who were happy catching fish from the make-shift pond now were grown up to get a piece of action and independence. The patriarch found that the wives of the brothers were asking, via media as what happens in the future. The kingdom either needs to be divided with proper power structure or there would be no end of a subterrenean unrest, apathy and suspicion. The patriarch and other two brother’s vision were too concentrated, too focussed on the small area on which they were comfortable, powerful and unchallenged. They did not diversify their funds nor tried to cultivate influence in Calcutta, the last resort of all the ambitions of a Bengali with some amount of vigour and life.
By early nineties, as soon as Indian Economic Liberalization started, one of the basic pillars –closed economy and its attendant safety from all external entrants The Family was divided and the old guards were not having any idea as how to tackle the new situation. There was another formidable and strange cash flow opened up: American Dollar in terms of software and IT export. The multiplication of * 45 and rather clean money were in stark contrast with the money coming with coal-dust, iron rust and slime. The Family had no diversified business. The allies of interest became double agents and seed of discord sown. They played both ways and benefitted both ways. Many business secrets were leaked intentionally and then money for silence was asked for. In few years, most of their business contacts were not sure whom to rely and how long. In parallel, litigation sprang like mushrooms.
The foot-soldiers of the business learnt this from their higher-ups and by 1996/97, the decisive blow was struck. In couple of months, the old patriarch lost his prestige; successors instead of looking towards the future with rapt attention nostalgically remembered the good old days like the ঠাকুরদা story of Tagore. Few left the House and went outside Bengal to make a career (my narrator was one such) and many lived in the old mansion, surrounded by more powerful relatives and many tangled litigations. From 1975 to 1995, in the twenty years, from a House, the family transformed into another address in a street which once upon a time was identified by postman and policeman by the surname of the House.
Moral of the Story: Behind every Fortune, there is a crime
In the height of their power, their asset in terms of today’s value of money could have been some 100 crores of Indian Rupees. In 1980s, they could have easily diversified into Calcutta, Bombay or in other areas. But they did nothing of this kind. The money and muscle they had could have easily given them access to more fertile areas but enjoying the local and immediate power did not allow them to see it.
Secondly, there was no institutional idea behind the business or business assets. It was a royalty which depended as much as on the prestige of the Head as well as on his and successor’s capability
Thirdly, there was the বাঙালী চন্ডীমন্ডপ in the form of immediate external environment which has little capability to envision anything but extremely adept to guide the powerful in a way most suitable to its own খুচরা and petty interest.
Finally, the romantic and emotional streak in Bengal which in its pure form is heavenly and angelic. But as soon as soon as the situation demanded leadership, vision and very objective stand – these virtues became vitriol to injure one another.
From Particular to the General
I started with a question as why legendary wealth of Bengal oligarchs dissipated itself without any trace or significance in future. I provided some outline and my core thesis that it is in the nature of things in Bengal (East) and cannot be counteracted. I tried to narrate and penetrate a real story of real people of a real geography. I tried to draw some parallels and I leave the rest to the readers and also to the scion whose story and lunch triggered this whole book to be written, somewhat in a hurry.