Shades of Wonderland
Life follows art. One-and-a-half centuries ago, a little girl fell down a rabbit hole. One of literature’s great accidents led to the birth of a memorable character — the Queen of Hearts. Life in Bengal-land is slowly beginning to mirror the written examples: that Queen believed in sentence before verdict. Thus was it written, thus shall it be done. There are other worlds and other examples to emulate. In a popular local classic there are tales of a land where a ticket is needed to sneeze before six and imaginary monsters are on constant guard lest someone dares to laugh. Hapless reader, if one finds oneself behind bars, remember one has been warned.But the mad, mad world of Bengali poets had imbued the natives with a sense of humour. Through famine and Partition, bloodshed and decline, the state lived by its wit. Bengal revelled in its sense of fun. Parody and satire, nonsense and madness commingled to give Bengal’s dwellers a reason for living. Even when everything else vanished, the smile remained. The tradition of wit, humour and satire in the region has a long past, from the time poets debated on politics and society in rhyming verbal battles before enthusiastic audiences. With the coming of printing, pamphlets, newspapers and books took over the task of witty, funny or sarcastic commentary.But given the condition of literacy in the state, print tended to reach fewer people. The coming of the internet has restored true democracy in communication, for everything can be shared with the click of a mouse. Democracy, though, sits uneasily with entrenched quasi-feudal attitudes. This is not the first time a chief minister of West Bengal has felt the sharp edge of cyber communication. In 1999, the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, ordered the arrest of someone who had posted nasty things about him, his son and Bengalis on a website, although it is true he did not oversee a crackdown on humour. When the politics of change takes over, however, even humour is asked to vanish. Is the laughter in the classics coming to haunt West Bengal in actual life?Worse than the crackdown on humour, perhaps, is the process of justice. A first information report is made for the gravest complaints, and it sometimes allows the police to arrest the accused for the purpose of investigation. Murder, terrorism, or equally heinous crimes would prompt such action. Yet filing FIRs at the first instance has become the rule. Before the Gulag comes the FIR raj. That the police should arrest two citizens for helping circulate a cartoon is bizarre. There are established procedures for redressal if one is defamed. The FIR is not one of them. Gross misuse of the system does not help the perpetrators of the abuse. Mamata Banerjee needs only to read the history of Bengal and remember a former chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray. History repeats itself.So, alas, does humour.