[Swapnamoy Chakraborty is one of the finest fiction writers and essayists of contemporary Bengal. This article appears in the recent Special Issue on Intellectuals in the Bangla magazine Anustup, Pre-Saradiya edition, 2013. Our thanks to Anil Acharya for allowing HUG to translate and publish it.]
I have no clue when the word buddhi-jibi got an entry into the Bangla lexicon. I am not much of a scholar. But this much is apparent that it tries to draw equivalence with the word intellectual. Just found out from my English-Hindi dictionary that one translation for intellectual in Hindi is buddhi-baaz. But it is not in use. Sometimes buddhi-jivi is used—true, but not widely enough and besides, it smacks of something stilted and quasi academic. I know that in Oriya the use of buddhi-jibi is a Bangla influence, for good or bad.
Intelligentsia is an English word. It is well in use. Intellectual is French. It possibly comes to French tongue as antellectual. This word has lost credence in Bangla and has turned into the pejorative antel, used in its many contours:
Look, there goes an antel—Noun
That is an antel film—Adjective
Antels sport a beard on their chin—Pronoun
There ought to be a limit to this kind of antlami/antlamo –Verb
Suppose you hear such expressions—“The boy has an antel antel tendency’ or that “He is antelossho antel” , they are bound to remind you of a face that is not very enthusiastic about shaving, prefers black coffee, is mostly unhappy with whatever is happening around him and conjures up dour and sour expressions out of nowhere. We call this kind of people antel but they themselves will hardly be happy with such a description. They do not admit of their being antel—this is one feature that marks the antel. True—no one is born antel or wakes up one fine morning transformed into one. We often get to hear this line in Hindi films: “Mein ma bannewali hun.” (I am about to be a mother). That condition ensued by some strange stroke of happy work. But no one will say “Mein antel bannewala hun.” (I am about to turn into an antel). Bannewali is also very much on.
To become an antel is a process. One pickles into one. There is almost a Pavlovian ambience to this slow change that transforms one into an antel. Say, the percentage of antels you will see among the students of Jadavpur University will surely be far more than what can be traced in Gour Banga University? The number of antels in and around Dover Lane will far outnumber those that one might stumble upon at Gulu Ostagar Lane? But how does one measure such intellectuals? There is no antelometer, akin to a barometer. So you have to look for symptoms; like one seeks them out in a malarial patient.
Those who regularly visit the Rabindra Sadan area, impelled by oodles of freely available affection, have nicknamed the place Sadan. Yes, just Sadan. Unadulterated Sadan (like there is no Stephens but only College, or just Post and no Washington Post). There are a few odd ‘pockets’ in this Sadan. In one such niche you can spy the television serial folks, in another—sundry elocutionists & recitation artists in a huddle and yonder, the obligatory poet’s corner! And then the ubiquitous band-singers and the gay rights activists. So that’s where our antels meet up in Kolkata.
Of course, old school folks still like to stroll up to the Indian Coffee House on College Street but that’s kind of degenerate now: a dugout for the ‘frastu’ or ‘frusth’, as they say. Going downhill, in spite of the refurbishing and so on. The Sadan is in its ascendency. Then there are other antels whom you can trace at Tollygunj or in some other city studios. Honestly I do not know these joints. Such folks were not really among buddhi-jibis. They have turned themselves into being antels, of late. The way King Ballal Sen, by his magic wand, had crafted some groups as kulin and others as jal-achal-shudra. They turned into buddhi-jibis during the pre-parivartan days by such a magic wand wielded by our jana-netri—people’s leader. And some odd, juvenile filmmakers have ever since joined the bandwagon. Yes, Tollygunj also produces some ubiquitous experts these days. They opine.
But antels abound in the bars regardless. Olympia bar is the signal one—once again affectionately called Olypub. The antels have long abandoned the desi liquor joints, like Khalasitola, quite popular in the sixties. Freshly minted antels do not take such a chance. Why? Take a guess, if you want!
Among other things the nature of the Panjabi (kurta) defines the category. Panjabi over jeans, somewhat jaded—aspiring poet most certainly. Panjabi over jeans, colourful with some artwork—film or television wallah. And in case the hair is ponytailed—surely editor or photographer. Though the union minister and actor Ajit Panja would also sport a ponytail (he would act in the role of Ramakrishna.) But then, he was a man of action, of a different kind. Then there are other panjabis, made prominent with blazing verses. These are vachik artists. Deeper colours and embroidered panjabis would mean vocal artists or musicians. Lefties used to don khaddar at some point: panjabi and pajama. Not anymore. I often see CPM folks in safari suits. One cannot distinguish people of that ilk anymore. At one point everyone used to be CPM. Landlord and tenant. Jotedaar and peasant. Factory owner and millworker. Bus owner and khalashi. Dialectical relationships all. Each drew their subjectivity from their obverse and everyone was hurtling towards the world spirit of CPM. Then we had derivative CPM fellow travelers: total CPM, still CPM, dissenting CPM, anti CPM, all defined by the unifying base term.
But the TMC fellow travelers and buddhi-jibis can be detected by their definitive clothing. White panjabi, collar raised. With attitude. May be sometimes green instead of white. That you cannot be called a buddhi-jibi worth your salt with your collar upped is a bygone concept, totally passé. Madan Mitra has a certain potential for theatrics; quite evident, that. So also, this Anubrata Mandal. Actor Tapas Pal has been able to relate his vocation to the life-world: melodrama with an interesting dollop of slyness. Astute move, so far. And then the lawyer Kalyan Banerjee or Bikashranjan babu. Now that is a legitimate profession for being a buddhi-jibi, isn’t it? Lawyerly. All you have to do is to appear on the idiot box with that ‘unputdownable’ monotony. Evening after evening. And then midnight reruns.
Does it seem that I am not very respectful of this class of people? But it is not me. I follow language and usage. As I have said, when buddhi-jibi had first made its appearance in the Bangla language it indeed came with a certain gravitas associated with it. Not anymore. Like the Bangla word jhhi—which used to mean daughter, and in a very pleasing manner too. Now we don’t even use that word openly, lest it sounds incorrect to designate the maid as one. We use kajer lok—working woman, trying to fool ourselves. Fazil is another such word, used to be an honorific bestowed by the madrasa. Now it means a garrulous or a frivolous speaker. The language itself realized that the words like intellectual or buddhi-jibi have undergone a linguistic subtraction. And with it, a concomitant value erosion of the very concept itself.
So, a search order was given. For a new word, that is. That word duly arrived—bidwat-jan. The media frenetically tried to give it currency. But people (customers if you like) soon sensed that the folks presented to us under this rubric were severely odd: mostly dishonest and selfish yes-men and-women. So, another equivalence was summoned: shushil samaj, a literal and make-believe translation of civil society. Naturally, that sounded lame. Plus, in Bangla it soon began to be pronounced as Susil samaj with an emphasis on the sibilant. That was the last nail. It is in its death throes now, I am told.
Anyway, the word buddhi-jibi is still in use. A good alternative is yet to be discovered. But still: using buddhi—intellect—in order to characterize someone’s work and being sounds positively pompous and odd to me. It also implies a lack of emotion? Can we say Rabindranath was a buddhi-maan, intelligent, man? The word pragya rather fares better in this direction. But pragyawan seems very affected. Such weight! Suppose we designate Dev-Chiranjeet-Haranath or Dipendu Chakarborty-Anil Acharya-Swapan Chakravorty as pragyawan, will they happily accept that?
In an essay written for the magazine Samatat, Ahmed Sharif from Bangladesh had remarked that many from the arts—singers, musicians, artists, writers—often work for the establishment, in some form or manner. They are general order suppliers. Let us call these order suppliers—buddhi-jibis too, given the circumstances.
For a brief period from 2005 there was this word making the rounds in Bengal: Buddha-jibi, designating those art practitioners who wished to be counted among the close ones to the then chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya. The detractors felt that these people actually ‘managed’ Buddhadev’s image or acted as a buffer for his misdeeds. May be some of them did, but they were not all yes-men. They were other kinds of being, dredged from the adi-Ganga. Some of them have now become Mamata-jibi. Many are components of some new-fangled committee. There is no more rail committee of course, but then what about Care-taking Committee, Yatri-suraksha Committee? Salary is on. And work? Search me.
See, I am digressing big time. I still cannot structure this article. Actually the word intellectual has confused me. These days, as we see, Bengal is at its spiritual best. Deeply nationalistic. So you would see photographs and pedantic words of wisdom from big thinkers abounding—whom we call manishis. Sharp philosophical wit in public spaces have gone for a toss. You are bombarded with baani everywhere. You buy a ticket on the metro for Khudiram. The blood donation camps are now replete with nationalistic and bombastic songs. All day. I heard an auto-rickshaw guy singing the other day to his heart’s content: ‘Bharat amar bharat varsha, swadesh amar swapnadosh.” No one is doshi, not to be blamed actually. It’s pure zeitgeist.
Enough. Let me get back to my subject. Buddhi-jibis will rather die a thousand deaths than let go their sweethearts: construction and deconstruction, hegemony and genre. A very snooty lot. Used to smoke Charminar, but I have no clue what they do now as far as doping goes. They are a singularly joyless lot, I iterate. Can’t even sleep with ease at night. So they pop sleeping pills. His features are very close to what Bankimchandra had marked for the category of Babu. But then I tend to go back to the classic intellectuals. Did we ever imagine a buddhi-jibi with a hat? Now that is on too.
Intellectuals can be categorized according to their political aesthetic social position of course. But in Bengal every one of them thinks he is the last remnant of the genuine left—shesh khalifa. The new dispensation with Mamata Banerjee is convinced that they represent what constitutes the authentic left. And therefore, with vigour, they practice ‘rasun’—that is, the ever succulent spice comprising Rabindranath-Sukanta-Nazrul. There are processions and dharnas where each group tries to trump the other based on, ummm, not even good polemics. And plenty of subterranean childish ego clashes. Every bit is hilarious. Every bit is a television serial. Plus, we see the same faces over and over again. An oft repeated distinction must be made here—experts have indeed supplanted the buddhi-jibis, if there are any left.
One more thing: I don’t see too many doctors, scientists and such professionals among the television brand of buddhi-jibis. If Bhola Moira or Binodini Dasi were alive, would they qualify as intellectuals? Actually I do not think intellectuals themselves have a clear idea who might qualify as a buddhi-jibi in spite of tantalizing possibilities offered to us by the likes of Gramsci or Said or Czeslow Milosz. Bhabatosh Dutta had once brought up this point that if people who earn their living with their intellect are intellectuals, shouldn’t an accountant or a share market middleman also qualify as a buddhi-jibi? Though Buddhadeb Bose had penned long ago:
“Buddhi-jibi all alone, closed-room/ Hypnotized, working away, to his gloom.”
All that I have rambled on so far has been acutely captured by Kabir Suman in his almost-frivolous dialogue in a song exchanged between a father-son duo:
“Baba, when will I grow up?/When you start spurting buddhi-jibi stuff/Who are the buddhi–jibis?/Whom we can measure with buddhi/Where can we find them?/In sarkari committee my boy /And pray, what is a sarkari committee?/Whatever mushrooms after every change, that’s what.”
But this is not the end of the tale. There are still learned, courageous and plain speaking people. May be the likes of Moushumi-Tumpa from Kamduni are not so well read but their courage and nerve to stand up to authority have brought back the belief in the very idea of principled opposition to knavery and utter mediocrity.
The golden lands of America and Japan have not yet been able to pillage and rob our depths of all treasures. There are still some thoughtful people here who will tell you the truth unambiguously. No muffled utterances. Without hedging. These people, walking ramrod- straight, heads held high, have not fully disappeared from Bengal too. There are still little magazines, people associated with the stage, scientists and other professionals, immersed fully in their work and social duty alike. This word buddhi-jibi actually is a misnomer. It confuses us. May be we need a new word that will come spontaneously from the rough and tumble of the language itself and which might help us find such people who are enlightened with a conscience and who work with passion. A class of people whom we can respect and follow.