The urban myth of the ‘simple villager’ / The convenient fiction of the ‘simple villager’ / Urban legend of the simple villager[ Daily News and Analysis, 11 Nov 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Nov 2013 ; Echo of India, 12 Nov 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 12 Nov 2013 ]
Our family hails from Patuligram near Jirat, in the Hooghly district of Bengal. We have been there for at least four centuries and our clan has deep ties with the place. This ensured that I accompanied my parents to our ancestral village home once or twice a year. By no stretch of imagination can I claim myself to be a village boy but it was not an altogether alien thing to me. It was not ‘exotic’ or many other things apparently villages in the subcontinent are. That there are as many types of villages as there are villages is something I learned slowly, but that is another matter.
In my childhood years in urban Bengal, ‘Boshe Ako’ (Sit and Draw) painting competitions were a rage among the pre-teens. Anecdotes gathered from others make me think that this was prevalent in many areas of the subcontinent. Today, the definition of ‘coolness’ does not include such things, especially among the more Anglo-Americanized segments of society, but that was then and there. A ‘village scene’ figured among the most popular themes that one would draw.
A typical ‘village scene’ would include a focal hut and sometimes a few huts in the distance, a river, a few coconut trees, a lot of empty paper to signify open land, sometimes a few human figures to denote villagers, and most curiously, a few sharp triangles in the background that might have signified hills with peaks, with the sun peeking out from behind, much like the electoral symbol of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Most villages of the subcontinent do not look like this. This was an idea of the village generated in city-spaces populated with the scions of a generation that could not completely deny their erstwhile origin from villages but were mostly clueless about what it might look like. The tiny producers of these kitsch villages have grown up and gone on to form that generation that wears rootlessness as a badge of honour.
That urban kid of yesteryears was expressing a very distilled form of an ideology. The same kid would draw many more articles in a city scene, make it a much more ‘active’ site of human activity. The village was of one type – undifferentiated. Simple. So were the villagers. Of simple mind. The lack of a human connection with the village (as opposed to the ‘exploration’ tourism type of thing that some urbanites now do) enabled the construction of a certain idea of a village and the villager. Now that rural lands are the primary targets for the unsustainable and parasitic urban expansion, this idea comes most handy. Especially in a development discourse, the simple villager idea helps getting consent and support from crucial urban sectors for land grabbing and urbanization.
The creamier part of this sector is shameless enough to partake in ‘traditional cuisine’ in an ‘authentic’ village setting, set up false ‘village-like’ props during their marriage ceremonies, de-stress at ‘traditional’ spas (the notorious ‘Vedic Village’ is one such) and seek a pollution-free ‘green’ life ‘away from the city’ – one’s private concrete ‘ashiyana’ in a manicured make-believe ‘village’ setting. The obscenity of it all is probably beyond these urban denizens but is not lost on the evicted villagers who often hover around their erstwhile homes and lands as menial help. It is my suspicion that they hover around the Rajarhats and Greater Noidas of the subcontinent even after death.
But the villagers were not so ‘simple’ even in the recent past. Though literary representations are a poor approximation of life itself, for what they are worth, the villagers in the works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Munshi Premchad or Rabindranath Thakur are far from simple. The ‘simple’ villager fiction would not have sold amongst folks whose fathers and grandfathers were from the village and were not quite simple. Manmohan Singh grew up in a village during his ‘impressionable’ years before adulthood. Whatever be his virtues, ‘simplicity’ is not one of them.
The ‘simple’ villager is a useful product of propaganda, which dictates that villagers need to be protected against their own ‘simplicity’. The ‘simple’ villager is most commonly invoked when an obstinate and rooted one does not give up one’s land. His ‘simplicity’ makes him impressionable. He can be easily excited to protest against the state by manipulative ‘outsiders’. He, thus, has no agency. His opposition is false. His protest is false. His simplicity is true. Under these false ideas, we find the ideology of power at work, that always saves people from their own ideas. The simple village was born in a complex metropole without an umbilical cord but a voracious appetite.
The objective of this infantilizing of the village is not nurture but infanticide. The paintings of our urban childhood were not that simple after all.