Toward Calcutta—late July:
A city turbulent, jittery, easily upset. It is twenty years since my last visit, yet the memory of this city is a vivid one. Calcutta is the home of Indian terrorist nationalism, its people quick and volatile, forever dissatisfied and demanding. The thing to find out would be the effect that partition, that deep wound separating Bengal into West and East, India and Pakistan, has had upon its people. Never had the Bengali dreamed he would see his land divided in two, nor had he expected the day to come when 5 million of his fellows would be forced to flee and be shunted like nomads through different parts of India.
Twenty years ago Calcutta was militantly organized behind the ultranationalist leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose and his “Forward Bloc,” its dissatisfactions centering largely around the failure of the Congress movement to move with sufficient rapidity toward independence. The city felt sure of itself in those days. But Bose perished mysteriously while allied to the Japanese. And I knew the controlling forces and passions of the war period were, of course, gone.
Waiting for the Calcutta plane at the Patna airport, I overhear a dialogue of the deaf. An American woman, in her sixties, on a flight to “visit friends” in Singapore, is describing her husband’s wheat farm in Nebraska to my friend S., the bhoodan guide who is seeing me off. Half a mile wide, about ten miles long, totally mechanized, valued at about $300,000. S. counters with a description of the average family farm in the Ganges basin, 2 to 4 acres, operated by arm, leg and back power, valued at under $1,000. Neither grasps the other’s description. “Why are all you Indians so spindly in the legs?” the Nebraska lady despairingly demands. S. smiles politely and explains, there are so many of us.
Some hours later we reach Dum Dum, airport north of Calcutta. Calcutta is very much alive; it is, in fact, in the midst of a general strike (hartal). The hartal is a popular protest strike of Bengalis in support of people from West Bengal who now live and work in the state of Assam, over toward the Burmese border. It is caused by the “language issue,” a problem tormenting India’s unity since independence. The reports from Assam are unclear, but sufficiently detailed to indicate that uncontrollable violence and mob hysteria are on the loose, a violence directed by Assamese groups against the powerful linguistic minority of Bengalis in their state. Of particular significance is the fact that, for the first time to my knowledge, Indians from one part of the country are apparently unsafe in another part of their own country. The hartal which has utterly paralysed the city is due to end late that afternoon; until then no busses or cars dare move.