The roots of Bengali racism and discrimination are watered by the stupendous sense of self of the Bengali cultural elite and their applauding, aspirational fan club of the Bengali middle classes, one feeding off the other in a congratulatory loop. Of course this is an ultimately fragile imagining where, by diminishing others the Bengali diminishes himself – herself too, certainly – in obtuse xenophobia our women are frequently out there with the men.
But of all the not-Bengali who live around us and among us, special ill will is reserved for the Marwari, the transplanted trading and compound-interest wizards who have travelled the subcontinent and beyond from a patch of the western Indian state of Rajasthan. This relationship is more complicated, the Bengali arguably less gratuitous with rudeness. Indeed, disdain and a sense of superiority may actually flow the other way – from the Marwari to the Bengali. The flow from the Bengali to the Marwari could even be a feeling of hatred drizzled with envy.
The East Bengali will usually say Maura, the West Bengali Mero, with a hard rolling “r” closer to a “d”, but both mean the Marwari, ubiquitous in Kolkata and other cities of Bengal, the traditional business community that in so many ways controls Bengal’s economics and has played a prominent part in it for several hundred years. Maura or Mero is a self-contained curse.
I would hazard a guess that the hatred of the Marwari probably goes back to the time of the boy-king Siraj-ud-Daulah and his run- in with the legendary bankers, the Jagat Seths, and their collusion with the East India Company representatives to undermine the influence of that nawab of Bengal. As always with “John Company” there was commercial reasoning: the young nawab had, after a series of disputes, withdrawn concessions given to the Company, limited its sphere of activity, attacked its eastern bastion of Fort William in Kolkata and had several Britons locked up in a small, suffocating room – leading to their death, and the dramatic birth of the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. The nawab had to go. The Jagat Seth at the time, Madhab Rai, with a cousin, Swaroop Chand, who held the title of maharaja, evidently threw his lot in with the eventual rulers of Bengal. Jagat Seth – banker to the world, a title given by the fading line of Mughal emperors in Delhi, but here was grandeur backed by acumen, by flourishing practice.
As much as the bitterness that exists in contemporary and subsequent Bengali sources, mostly Hindu, about the petulant nawab and his mistreatment of people, in the Bengali imagination, Shiraj, as we sometimes familiarly refer to him, is seen in popular imagination as the last hold out against depredations of John Company, and its subsequent humiliation and domination of Bengal and the Bengali. This was a gigantic step in the embellishment of the British East India Company and the British Indian empire that would follow a hundred years later, in 1857, after the great mutiny (if you’re a textbook Indian nationalist feel free to call it the First War of Independence), when the Company’s administration was taken over by the British government.
The Company’s general, Robert Clive, conspired with – indeed, partnered – the Jagat Seth, effectively treasurers to several nawabs of Bengal, to sway Siraj-ud-Daulah’s traitorous general Mir Jafar, and had Polashi – Plassey – go against the nawab. Ergo: for the Bengali it marked the end of Bengal, all because of a greedy Mero to whom poysha, coin, will always ring truer than morjada, pride, and honour.
This oral and written history of stigma has passed down to generations of Bengalis since Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757. It was repeatedly reinforced in times of crisis. “The Marwaris were the ones to make the most out of the disruption of normal trading channels during wartime,” the journalist and economic historian Harish Damodaran writes of Marwari acumen during both World War I and World War II. In the Bengali scheme of things this is a gentle estimation. The “speculative profits” Damodaran writes of were made in commodities like jute and cotton. But none probably hurt the Bengali mind, body and soul like the speculation and hoarding of rice during World War II, precipitated by British policies to stave o a possible Japanese invasion. Along with a few stalwarts of the ruling Muslim League in Bengal, the Marwari is implicated, historically and, perhaps more damagingly, in the public imagination, in denying vast swathes of the Bengal countryside of grain. Up to three million dead is a fair number for complicity, and Marwari heroes, visibly and invisibly close to Mohandas Gandhi, providing moral support, underwriting parts of the freedom movement in a delicate balance of Crown and conscience, haven’t quite been able to escape Bengal’s Nuremberg of the mind. The famine of 1943 was our Holocaust till the war for Bangladesh twenty-eight years later. And then we had two.
In a Bangla short story, Bostrong Dehi, Nabendu Ghosh, a prolific author and noted screenplay writer in Bombay’s film industry, captured the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist rage and revolutionary tonality of the times, the prayer in Sanskrit (Vastram Dehi) an invocation for being blessed with cloth, to be covered, in this context, to cover one’s shame. Even more sharply in this context: Please donate cloth (with which to cover the dead).
I read it in a collection of short stories published in early 1946, just months before Direct Action Day, in a Bengal already charged with religious tinder, and starved, ragged after the deprivations of war and induced famine, a time when basic cloth, even shari, was rationed, sold against a permit. The poor wore the generally coarse cloth when they could get it; the better-off used it to cover quilts and cushions. A black market thrived even for such low quality cloth.
The villain in the story is Chhaganlal Marwari, who after arriving from “faraway Rajasthan” to “this forgotten village” to trade in cloth, worked hard for years to arrive at his station. Now he lives in a two-storey house in the middle of the bazaar, lording over the village, “in the same way English merchants arrived with just one ship full of goods to trade and slowly built fortresses along the coast”. Chhaganlal – Sheth-ji – meets the impoverished farmer Teenkori, who is desperate to replace the one worn shari his wife Horimoti has, which she wears all day and then removes at night to cover herself with a short cloth so the shari lasts a little longer. As the plot unwinds, the Sheeth-ji implacably exploits Teenkori’s situation, denying him cloth for his wife, until, driven to desperation by his wife’s condition and his own helplessness and shame, he steals cloth from the businessman. Teenkori is caught, jailed – and ultimately released as villagers beg the Sheth-ji’s benevolence. Meanwhile, tormented by guilt, the farmer’s wife Horimoti kills herself. Nabendu Ghosh ends the story in this way:
Are a people in shackles to be treated like animals, so weak, so helpless – so very helpless? Monish (a local angry young man) wonders as he looks at Horimoti. Such tragedy for just a piece of cloth? Monish averts his gaze. The crying, the wailing, Horimoti’s half-naked corpse, makes him ashamed to even be called a man.
And Teenkori? A terrible wildness comes to his eyes, a rage and hatred a soldier feels when he confronts the enemy. It is as if enemies beyond counting have gathered around him, invisible and yet visible. He wants to tear them apart with his bare hands. He stands there, his bloodlust, his rage at the tip of his fingers, ready to leap, ready to destroy.
He won’t cry.
The Birlas, Goenkas, Poddars, Bajorias, Khaitans, Sekhsarias, Somanys and Jhunjhunwalas and several thousand of their blood brothers in Bengal may today own much of the state and vast areas of commercial India to which they spread with their capital nurtured and expanded in Bengal – even as they employed Bengal, paid Bengal salaries and perquisites. With their wealth they may own enormous political reach. They and their kind may even be among the greatest patrons of art and culture in West Bengal, in India; Marwaris even funded Satyajit Ray’s breakout movies, and his more successful ones. Some may even dress like a Bengali jomidar with all the social nuances of the perfect bhodrolok, sleeves of the panjabi perfectly crinkled – gili kora, as we say it – the dhuti exquisitely woven and worn with panache, with its front sharply pleated, like an accordion, and the end of it either folded elegantly over a wrist, or discreetly tucked into the pocket of the panjabi. All this could happen in grand mansions owned by the Marwari in Kolkata, or spacious bagan-bari in the suburbs, or villas by the Hooghly – country houses and “garden estates”, former accoutrements of colonial and Bengali grandees.
But for most Bengalis they remain Mero. Maura. Whatever, as long as it’s derogatory.
Excerpted with permission from The Bengalis: A Portrait Of A Community, Sudeep Chakravarti, Aleph Book Company.