Oh To Be in Kolkata For Puja

The city formerly known in English as Calcutta (now known in all languages as “Kolkata” which is its Bengali name) is an unfortunate city. Its misfortune derives from two major sources primarily. Two of the world’s most destructive ideologies — Islam and communism — have brought a city full of promise to its knees and today it is best known around the world as the “City of Joy” and the “Black hole of India.” It breaks the heart of any culturally sensitive person — not just someone like me whose ancestors claimed Bengal as their home — to behold the depths that Kolkata has been dragged to first by Islam and then by communism.

Bengal was first divided on religious lines by the British (surprise, surpise! What else is new?) early last century into East and West Bengal. East Bengal was primarily Islamic and the West non-Islamic. At the partition of India itself, West Bengal joined the Republic of India while East Bengal joined the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. What happened to East Bengal subsequently makes horrific reading but need not detain us here. What I am concerned with right now is the part of Bengal that India inherited and of which Kolkata is the capital city.

If Islam killed the state of Bengal, it was the communists who, having ruled WB for decades, drove the nails into the coffin and finally buried it. I do not mean to imply that the job is done. Both Islam and communism are still very busy with the death and final destruction of Bengal. But for the grace of god (to use an expression), if my recent ancestors had not moved out of Bengal, I would probably have been a rickshaw puller in Kolkata, or even worse a Bengali Muslim wearing a skull cap and an Arabic beard with a few Arabic-named wives covered head to toe in portable black tents with 14 children living in a slum who went to madrassas where all they did is memorized the Koran in Arabic and bowed in prayer towards Saudi Arabia five times a day and having had no education end up dirt poor and blame the kuffars (non-believers) for their misery.

One wonders what it is in the Bengali psyche that they are so easy prey to such ideological idiocies. Did the poverty come first and then the Islam and communism, or did Islam and communism come first and only then poverty took root? Or is it that they co-evolved? Are they both cause and consequence or did one precede the other? Will West Bengal go the way of Bangladesh (formerly known as East Bengal, and later as East Pakistan) and if so, will it gradually evolve into a Bangladesh in about 20 years or will the transformation happen in a relatively short time, say 5 years? Whatever be the case, the sad inescapable fact appears to be that what Bangladesh is today, West Bengal will be tomorrow. Unless of course, the Bengalis wake up and smell the stink that emanates from every nook and cranny of their pathetic state, and do something about it.

Every year around late October, a magical transformation of Kolkata happens for about a week. We call it Puja. The occasion is the annual visit of a certain daughter to her parents’ abode. Devi Durga comes home with her brood to visit briefly and the people of Bengal lay out the red carpet like nobody’s business. To Bengalis, Durga is the divine Mother. Let me give you a brief background on who she is. In Hinduism, the universal force has two components. The male principle is represented by Shiva, and the female principle is Shakti. Parvati, the wife of Shiva, is the personification of Shakti. Parvati has many incarnations. As the Mahadevi (maha=great, devi=goddess), she is Durga and represents strength. Her other notable forms are Mahalakshmi (lakshmi=goddess of wealth) and Mahasaraswati (saraswati=goddess of learning and knowledge). So Durga represents strength, wisdom, and prosperity.

In Bengali popular iconography, Durga is shown with her children. The daughters are Lakshmi (prosperity) and Saraswati (knowledge), and the sons are Ganesh (learning), and Kartik (I am not sure what he is about but I am guessing he stands for courage.) Durga’s vehicle is a lion; Lakshmi’s mount is an owl, Saraswati’s mount is a swan, Ganesh’s mount is a mouse (nice irony there — an elephant riding a mouse), and Kartik’s choice of wheels a peacock. Durga is represented with ten arms symbolizing multi-dimensional power and she wields an impressive assortment of weapons to fight evil. She is shown riding her lion and in the act of destroying a demon. The idols are made of clay and lavishly decorated. Thousands of installations of Durga spring up in neighborhoods in Kolkata and for five days it is festival time and people pull out all the plugs. On the final day, Bijoya Dashami, the idols are taken and immersed in rivers and lakes. Clay returned to where it came from. The Bengalis wave a tearful goobye to Mother Durga for one year.

I spent the last week visiting Kolkata. Seeing Puja in Kolkata was on my “50 Things I Must Do in 2004”. Be in Kolkata during Puja: Check.

While there, I had a brief meeting with West Bengal Government Minister in charge of Information Technology, and the Secretary for IT. Here is my letter to the Secretary Dr. G. D. Gautama, for the record:

Dear Dr. Gautama:

Thank you for taking the time to meet with me and please convey my appreciation to the Minister for his willingness to engage in debate on the matter of how best ICT can be used for the rural population.

ICT for development and growth is an admirable objective. But I am afraid that powerful vested interests are hijacking the noble goal of development for narrow commercial gains at the expense of poor people. Computers are well and good for a very wide variety of purposes — from laser surgery to engineering design to cost accounting to learning and entertainment. But PCs are complex entities which require a deep infrastructure for them to be effective. The infrastructure required is not just the physical ones such as power and supply channels for all the bits and pieces that go into their operation, but also human infrastructural resources such as a trained manpower to use them and maintain them. Placing PCs in an environment where these things are missing (for whatever reasons) is counterproductive. PCs are expensive playthings that the very rich can afford to misuse and underutilize but a poor economy like India has to be very careful in spending limited resources on buying PCs which end up as expensive doorstops.

The boogey of a “digital divide” is meant to scare people witless so that they can buy the next half a million PCs and enrich the already rich who sell PCs. There are alternative inexpensive technologies which are more appropriate in the Indian context but they get short shrift because the lobbies don’t exist to push them.

I am afraid that West Bengal is not immune to the seductive theory that if only every villager had a PC, WB will magically become a developed state. PCs are neither necessary nor sufficient for development. Going down that route will not only bring financial ruin, it will also delay any hope of development which currently exists.

I will follow the development of WB with great interest as it is a test case for how development should not be done. There are very interesting lessons to be learnt from pathological cases as well.

Best wishes,


7 thoughts on “Oh To Be in Kolkata For Puja

  1. Raj Thursday October 28, 2004 / 2:23 pm

    Keep us posted if you do get a reply.


  2. sukhdev Thursday October 28, 2004 / 2:28 pm

    this very nicely and harshly presents the truth. i wonder how could atanu be so straightforward in mentioning the truth this time only at the cost of being branded fundamentalist i fear. all the intellectual fear this subject and stear clear of commenting on it. i think it should be debated more often rather than only crying about pathetic condition of Bihar et al.
    although he mentioned Islam I hope he will elaborate on this subject in future.
    but off late WB’s image has started to change and media reports suggest that some positive action is taking place over there.
    even centralgovernment is about to follow thier model of disinvestment.
    any comments atanu?


  3. Anant Friday October 29, 2004 / 2:14 am

    Hi Atanu

    One conception that I would like you to clear: I have seen you quite often talking about “digital divide”. Does DD refer to the differences that lay between the East and the West or does it imply the distinction between the rich upper class and the abject lower class of India.

    If it refers to the former, I am sure we need to bring in more and more of the ‘PCs’ (as you call it) to keep up with the development of the country. You might agrue that in the retrospect, there were no computers or IT but the countries still developed…but I guess we always talk about development relatively. We might be a third world country when you compare ourselves to the west but we are far than developed when it comes to Bangladesh or Sri Lanka or for that matter Pakistan.

    And in case you deliberate for the latter, we would still remain under-developed no matter you buy or sell PCs and make the richer rich and poorer poor.


  4. uspeed Friday October 29, 2004 / 5:47 am

    Excuse me for butting in, but I cudnt resist 😀

    >> Does DD refer to the differences that lay between the East and the West or does it imply the distinction between the rich upper class and the abject lower class of India

    It refers to the divide caused by the lack of digital/silicon technology. On one side of the divide is efficiency, information at your fingertips, easier access to knowledge, business, government machinary. It is the preferred media using which people across the world are connecting with each other. On the other side of the divide, we have people whose universe is restricted to what they can see, or where they can physically travel to. IMO, progress does not come to a place that chooses to shut its doors to the outside world, or is constrained by something (Idealogy, lack of infrastructure, language/cultural barriers) that prevents the outside world from coming to it.

    That being said, there are many ways to transfer information (which is what its all about, really). For example, PC penetration in India will take about 20 years or more (my guess is as good as any body elses I guess) to catch up with the amount of TVs that we have. Yet, I find it very surprising that we still dont have a channel (and associated software) dedicated to education, primary health, better farming practises and so on. Instead, education depts and govts. take the easy way out by plonking PCs in villages without electricity. While govts spend enormous amts of money on sham computerisation, they would get much better bang for the buck if they try to use existing channels to bridge this “digital divide”. I actually prefer the word, Information Divide here. A TV or a radio also has substantial amounts of silicon/digital technology in it, you know.

    For instance, A lot is made out of villagers reading say, Soy futures on the NY and being able to adjust their prices to get more money, or fishermen being able to track schools of fish using sat updates from the internet, but the same information can be delivered using a TV/radio across a much wider and deeper audience – and with lesser investment. Almost all of the sunk costs are already invested and there are no last mile problems, all we need to do is to produce the software.

    This is not to say that computers are not useful, but they can be only one part and considering our economic situation, a very marginal part of what should be a multipronged strategy to bridge the Information Divide.

    We are still a very poor country and can not afford to be profligate.

    btw, AMD has come out with a sub-300$ PC, will be interesting to watch how the simputer-PC debate goes on.


  5. uspeed Friday October 29, 2004 / 5:55 am

    btw, we are not “better” as compared to Sri Lanka. The Lankans, inspite of constant civil war have a higher per capita GDP, literacy and HDI figures.


  6. AD Friday October 29, 2004 / 10:40 pm

    I don’t know why money is being spent on the name of Digital Divide and why intelligent people waste their time discussing this topis for India. As Atanu points out its not ITC or computers that can develop India or help rural people. I would say the money spent on providing farmers with some information by computer, networks and all that should be spent on providing them with warehouses, irrigation, pesticides and other important stuffs which I guess must have priority over computers. I think our leaders don’t understand about proirities before spending public money. Once farmers can grow enough and have resources to save their production, store and transport easily then I guess comes the point of having information. (for ex. if a farmer gets the information with all expensive technology that he can get more moeny for his crop if he sells it after 3 months but there is no proper wareshousing facility what is the use of that information because he will have to sell his crop immediately). What do you say Atanu about priorities of India???



  7. Pritam Bhattacharjee Wednesday June 29, 2005 / 12:59 am

    Dear Atanu,

    Thanks for your views. I happen to draw my descent from my mother side from East Bengal ( Sylhet to be precise) and started the Portal on Sylheti Documentation.

    Started a Co-Operative History Writing Project entitled An Intimate History of Bengal (Project AIHB) which can be seen here at http://personal.vsnl.com/syhlleti/aihbpreface.htm

    Looking for Contributors, Reviewers and Translators. Invite you to have a view and re-view.


    // pritam


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