• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Rabindranath Tagore | Essay
  • I/We/They : Sourin Bhattacharya

    I/We/They: An Essay by Sourin Bhattacharya


    Sourin Bhattacharya

    Society is a collective, composed of individual members. As entity the collective is different from its members. The society, therefore, cannot be identified with its members; nor the members, taken individually or collectively, can be identified with the society. This is true even when the members taken collectively include all the members. The members qua members are different in nature from the other entity called society.

    What then constitutes a society which is not to be identified with the members that compose it? That is its structure. Think of an ordinary space composed of a number of points. The space may be supposed to be entirely filled with these points. The points are infinitely many in that case and the space is said to be continuous. If the points are taken to be finite in number then the space looks like one having holes in it. This is a discrete space. The space in this case is in fact a collection of points. The points are the members of the collection. They may be said to belong to the collection. Instead of a number of finite points now think of a collection of which the members are a number of things or articles. As an entity the collection is different from the articles.

    Let this be the metaphor for our society. The society is the collection and the individual members belong to the society and through this belonging they constitute the society. What then is the structure? In the case of the physical space the structure may be conceived in terms of the spatial relations that obtain between the points or the articles. Suppose the articles are all arranged linearly on a horizontal line. That would be one structure of the space. If they were arranged on a vertical line that would be a different structure. Similarly, one could imagine any number of different structures that can be generated by changing the mutual spatial relationships among the articles. So is the case with our human societies. The individual human beings that constitute a human society may have various kinds of relations among them. These relations constitute the structure of the society.

    Two difficulties are to be entertained at this stage. One for the possibility of the emergence of a third entity and the other for the existence of two possible aspects of the relations involved. The third entity may be called groups. Groups are composed of subsections of the members of the society. They may have special connotations. What is known as classes in some systems of thought are groups with specific connotations. Our society is now more complex. This is somewhat parallel to the developments in the biological world. Life in monocellular form gradually rises to multicellular structures. The relations defining the structure of the society now involve the relations between the individual human beings, the relations between the different groups and also the relations that obtain among members within and across the groups. Note that the structure is now substantially more complex.

    Further, to get closer to the social aspect of the structure the relations need to be factored into two subtypes--- the social and, let us say, the personal. Some of the relations obtaining between some of the members may not have any bearing on anybody other than the ones involved. The involved ones may be called the insiders. The relations involving them are inside relations. The inside relations reduce to what we normally recognize as personal relations when the number of insiders is small, marked by relations showing personal bonding. The other kind of relation (maybe obtaining between these same members) may have clear bearing on even others. There may be different degrees of extension of the scope of these 'others'. These are truly social relations. The social relations, therefore, transcend the personal. The division between the private and the public may be taken to roughly correspond to this distinction between the inside relations and the ones that transcend the inside.

    The society is a structured collective entity. The structure is given by the network of relations. The relations emerqe in the course of the evolution of the society. The story of evolution of the society is in most cases the story of changes in the structure of social relations. This sometimes appears to be the natural way the society is evolving. That is to say, the natural way in which the relations are emerging. The relations in other cases may be imposed by any other agency operating in the society. In even other cases they may be attributed or imagined to be attributed. These latter cases are more important in theoretical explorations, constituting hypothetical ideal cases.

    The society we are constructing has three levels of elements--- the individual members, the groups and the collective. Now a fourth element. These are the institutions. The institutions are ordered arrangements of practices. They may encompass the individual members singly or in groups in various possible combinations or directly the groups and ultimately also the collective as a whole. The institutional practices may have legal sanctions or they are sanctioned by traditions and customs. The state is an overarching institution in our time. There was church at one time, the village authorities in some other societies at some other time. There were feudal institutions in different forms in different societies.

    While modeling a modern society one may have to introduce many more elements of complications. As we are now doing this modeling exercise to understand Rabindranath's approach to universalism we may leave out some other elements describing our society in its domestic aspects. But there must be an element of transcendence, that should enable us to cross boundaries. Boundaries, after all, limit ourselves in that they may force us down to our nationalities, our communities, our castes, cultures, traditions and many other things perhaps. They need to be crossed in our life's journey. That process of becoming involves basically a moral journey. Our being realizes itself in its becoming, We are what we are because we have become what we have become. 'arnar milan lagi tumi ascho kabe theke': Since when I know not you've been coming to unite with me. This journey, seemingly spiritual, appears almost as a leitmotif in so many contexts in so various ways that such images assume almost a typicality with Rabindranath. The other side of the story, the fulfillment that is the result of a reverse journey perhaps is also as real. 'Tumi je turnii ogo sei tabo rin, ami mor prem diye shudhi chiradin. That you are you yourself binds me in a debt that I seek to repay throughout my life. The being is rich here in its consolidation. It has assumed its authentic dignity. It is just the richness of that being that makes it an eternal creditor. The spirituality associated with these lines may somewhat repel a modern mind.But they can very well be extended to our social concerns, to the ordinary dailyness of our lives.

    Now come to the pronouns used in the title of this presentation. The pronouns provide us with a moral space. When I am talking about myself using “I” , I am in fact talking about myself. But when I am talking about myself using, say S.B., instead of the first person pronoun, the erstwhile “I” immediately becomes a third person showing different grammatical behaviour. Think of this switch between a noun and a pronoun denoting the same substantive subject. The switch involves a shift in moral positioning covering the entire range of shades of meaning from intimacy to acquaintance to friendship to different degrees of distancing, even up to the unknowns, to the strangers, to the aliens, to the immigrants, to the residents and non-residents.

    We are now near our contemporary world. A question of social distance is all important now. Although the world is a closer place today, the social distancing seems even greater. It is closer, yes in a physical sense. Social distancing is partly traditional and customary and partly moral. The traditional customary part is also morally reproducible. Take the case of caste boundaries in our societies. They are tradition bound. To transgress the limits one needs to make moral assertions, which in its turn is contingent upon the existence of sentient human beings. The social distance is meaningfully operative only in a moral space. In human terms the social distance customarily replicated, often through ages, may raise its unwelcome head only when the moral guards are low, at least not strong enough. The negotiation that is involved here is a moral negotiation.

    Samaja in Rabindranath is morally constituted. In Rabindra context this is not a generic term like "society". In its specificity "sarnaja" is not to be translated as society. Samaja is cohesive, the members there are to share a sense of bonding, in which lies its inner strength. Rabindranath makes a sharp distinction between the changes that take place at the level of the state and those that take place at the level of the samaja. The series of foreign invasions that this country has experienced in her long history meant changes, often quite momentous perhaps, at that level of the state and may be at some thin upper crust of the society that remain linked to the state in various ways. Even outside the network of the state level transactions there has always remained a vast area of social life that would constitute samaja for Rabindranath. The samaja life is more closely knit, based on relations of bonding. This life is more communitarian. Forces of individualism may be, one is afraid, somewhat subdued. With this in mind this Rabindra vision is often criticized and looked upon with suspicion that it may end up being atavistic. This life smacks of tribalism. A tribal society, it is argued, leaves hardly any room for ratiocinative reasoning on the part of the individual. Things are tradition bound and practices are custom ridden. This does not go well with a modern way of life.

    The moral space of pronouns is of utmost importance here. One has to exercise one's judgement in using the pronouns when describing' one's relation with the rest of the community/group/society. Is it "our" or "their"? This is a question of self-image or perceived identity. The moral agent as sentient being has his choice built in him. Oder Sathe melao jara charai tomar dhenu. Make me unite with them who tend your cows. It is this approach of melano, to be united, jog, union, that can be gradually extended and at the same time felt within to ultimately lead to open doors that normally prove constraining in our social and cultural being. Think of Gora. The doors were opening at the end. He got back his bharatbarsha, his desh, his motherland, his ma, his anandamayi ma. And that was the world for him.

    Rabindranath's sharp distinction between nationalism, jatiyatabad and swadeshikata needs to be taken into account here. His critique of nationalism is well known. But his swadeshikata is less well understood. It is often treated as emotional. He is taken to be a romantic visionary, an idealistic dreamer, far removed from the hard realities of life. This inadequate understanding needs radical re- visioning. His swadeshikata involves a deeper identification with the life and the people of the collective that one can describe with the pronouns "my" and "our" instead of "his" or "their". 0 amar desher mati, oh the soil of my country - reference to the country need not be necessarily constrained to one's own motherland. This land is my own not because I have been born here. This can be my own if I can make it my own, through my identification, material, spiritual and emotional, and experiential feeling and the consequential redemption of the debt to the land. This redemption may take the form of constructive swadeshi. It can be based on so intensely intimate a personal urge that your social work may be a way of your personal expression. YOLI express yourself through that kind of work, as you express yourself in your creative compositions in art, literature and music. You are on a moral journey now.

    This moral journey may take you to cross the boundaries of your nation, your country, your locality, your family and in fact all those entities that bind you narrowly to particular limits with narrow identities. Your moral journal is to emancipate yourself from all the constraining binds. While thinking of Rabindranath's ideas on sarnaja we need to take note of the fact that he would almost throughout his life naturally place himself, would like to see himself thrown into a cosmological order. It was not only his use of the haunting nataraja image, but also the recurrent references to graha, surya, tara, planet, sun and stars and galaxies, and the milky way and aI/ strewn in a neat order would give him a sense of awe in the over powering mystery that is this universe. The approach to this grand cosmological order was also so personal. Je dhrubapada diyecha bandhi visvatane, the truth in the ultimate order you have instilled in this world music. This could become so real with the poet because it was so intensely personal. Placed within such a grand cosmolngical design, one's inner self becomes ennobled and enlarged. This ennobling emancipation of the self may be caused by even such small things as a thirsty mendicant asking for drinking water from an innocent lower caste village girl. It was this range of thought and emotion that was really extraordinary and the clegree of personal aesthetic intensity that could be sustained for so long was amazing. The clue to his journey towards universalism seems to lie in a kind of moral identification with the animate and inanimate in our environs. The samaja conception and the metaphysics of spirit are not separable categories in Rabindranath.

    © Ketaki Kushari Dyson

    Published in Parabaas April, 2012.

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