Russian Intelligence in Bengal

Mughal Painting, a Girl with a Parrot, from around 1580 (image from wikipedia)

‘How do they do it?’ I’d often wondered, back in the village in Hatiya, when villagers regularly seemed to know exactly what I felt whether I wished it or not. In the days when the heat was strong, without the benefit of even a fan to temper it, when homesick or down, annoyed or happy; when I’d try to do the Australian thing and push emotions deep inside so that, well I thought, there was not the smallest ripple left on the surface of my face, they knew. ‘They can see straight into your soul,’ I used to say, and it was true the day my aunt died in Australia and I’d wanted to ride for many kilometres on a rickshaw without purpose. On reaching the main town, the driver, who is my friend, took me to a restaurant instead, and though in those days, 1999, we could barely talk to each other, he ordered mango juice and muglai paratha, a fried egg dish, and things seemed a little better after that, as he rode home again instead of continuing to the ghat as I’d wanted and he’d refused!

I’d seen it with other people too. In those days when a boro lok, an important person, would wander into the tea shop the locals used to, out of politeness, get out of their seats and move to the back so the important person could sit front and centre. Often the local politician or businessman or whoever it was, even someone they’d never met before, would address the whole shop, and as long as what they said was sensible, more importantly caring, there was no problem. But, as sometimes happened, if they spoke nonsense or spent the time big-noting themselves, then while the locals would listen patiently, when the person left and was out of earshot, they’d say what they actually thought. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was pretty accurate.

The villagers, whether or not they’d been to school, had read widely, could read at all, had something. ‘Is there a loss when our lives are removed from the natural world around us?’ I used to wonder; and I don’t suppose I could say, but when they said someone was a ‘boro moner manush’ a big hearted person, one who was honest, good to spend time with, generous and compassionate, someone who would help the poor and disadvantaged, it was quite likely the biggest compliment they could give. It’s what was valued. There’s a kind of highly-developed Bangladeshi village intelligence and at its centre is the heart.

Wall painting of Nefertari (image from wikipedia)

Perhaps the Ancient Egyptians, something I learnt at university, would have fit in, in the village: they believed the seat of human intelligence was not in the brain but the heart. After death, in preparation for burial, Egyptian embalmers chiselled through the nose bone and using long, iron hooks and spoons, scooped out the brain, to be discarded as waste. Organs considered important were preserved and stored in Canopic jars for burial with the mummy; the most important organ, usually left inside the corpse, was the heart.

The emotional intelligence of the village, not to the exclusion of other intelligence but so well-developed, is striking. It’s not something I’d seen before.

Soon enough I’d be back on the plane; soon enough I’d be facing the yawn of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the impressive sheen of the Opera House in a land dominated by cerebral intelligence. Were people in modern Australia embalmed after death, there can be little doubt those iron hooks and spoons would be turned on the heart, with all reverence reserved for the brain.

According to the concept of Australian intelligence, what matters most when valuing thoughts are position in life and the completion of formal education, for such things are simplified to equate to cerebral intelligence. Thoughts and ideas need a pedigree; they hold employment positions and graduate from tertiary educational institutions together with their thinkers. In educated circles, the weight of a person’s words and belief are measured almost exclusively along the logic lines of rationality. Words like ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ become synonyms for ‘good’, though they have no such meaning.

Emotions are easy to hide in Australia, everyone does it, and it’s quite liberating to be able to show, most of the time, just the image you want. Emotions are private, and a weakness; so supposing someone breaks down at a party, for whatever reason, they will certainly be led away to another room where their emotions can run in the company of no more than a few closest friends, while the party continues unaffected. Emotions are embarrassing gatecrashers at a public occasion; what in the Bangladeshi village is collectively embraced.

My Harvest Home, by Australian artist John Glover, 1835 (image from wikipedia)

The problem of ignoring the heart is that the ability to understand the human condition is altogether less; psychology is so underdeveloped it offers no meaningful substitute. With the simple lines of logic unrestricted, it’s easy to justify the unconscionable, such as Australia’s infamous treatment of asylum seekers over the years, or the massive loss of civil liberties that hangs from September 11. Australians who object to such things are easily dismissed as ‘bleeding heart liberals’, for the heart has no relevance.

Intellectual cerebral intelligence is compact and neat; it’s a straightforward system: add a few brush strokes of logic and all is fine, because there is no morality, no values and no vision; being free from these things is considered its virtue. It is after all a matter of simple science, and who could argue with that?

In educated Sydney circles, the biggest compliment might be ‘he or she is brilliant!’ which means they have a responsible job and the airs of someone with a few qualifications to their name.

And for me that would be about the extent of things but for a simple kitchen in a small Soviet-built apartment in eastern Ukraine, in the city where I was lucky enough to live in 2002. We used to sit there in that kitchen, my Ukrainian friend and I, with the constant companionship of delicious Ukrainian food and discussions, often heated, that could stretch from early evening until morning. My Ukrainian friend was as eager to know what someone from the other side of the world thought of well, everything, as I was.

One day she said she was having trouble with the English concept of intelligence, asking if it was solely cerebral. It took me by surprise, even after the Bangladeshi village, having never before properly questioned it.

She explained that in Russian, the language of that city, the noun ‘intelligent’, also to be found in Ukrainian as ‘inteligent’, meant someone who was not only good with their brain, but also possessed a certain refinement, a certain decency in their behaviour towards others; a respect towards not only other people, but all creatures. A type of intelligence with incorporated moral values is what she described.

According to the internet, the Russian intelligent is an educated person who comes from any class or background, with the term itself stressing democratic principles, thus making no distinction on the bases of class, gender or race. The term includes an ability to be flexible and self-sufficient, with a consciousness to the needs of others and a willingness to meet those needs; and a penchant to be truthful to one’s opinions and moral principles in meeting everyday life challenges. As a result of these qualities, the Russian intelligent often finds him or herself in opposition to autocratic government, and undertakes activities to help achieve enlightenment, education and the protection of human rights. In other words, compared to Australian norms, the Russian version of intelligence is an altogether bigger thing.

It is from the Russian indeed that English has adopted the term intelligentsia, but in English it is not really engendered with the full range of qualities outlined above.

In the House of Artistic Creation of Old Ladoga, by Russian artist Vsevolod Bazhenov, 1977  (wikimedia image)

So is it a matter of Russian intelligence in Bengal? Well, yes and no; Bengali intelligence is undoubtedly a unique creature, and a multifaceted one. In Dhaka in particular the intellectual cerebral intelligence has its sway, where formal education counts for a lot, where it’s well-documented how much emphasis parents place on the academic schooling achievements of their children.

But like the Russian version there is behaviour in it too; think of the bhadralok or gentlemen, a word that in Bengali combines a high education with gentility in behaviour, unlike the English translation with its greater emphasis on etiquette than education. Or is Bengali intelligence of the village, including the emotional intelligence that could easily be dismissed as something less in Sydney, as instinct or intuition, because there it is something less?

It may be that Bengal intelligence, uniquely, has a spiritual component. It’s not the ‘he does namaz or prayer five times a day so he is a good person, intelligent etc.’ Rather, perhaps something deeper, stemming from prayer or religious practice, regardless of the religion.

I don’t have a definitive answer, but in considering what ‘intelligence’ means in Bengali culture, one thing is clear. It cannot be wholly cerebral; else there would be no respect for Lalon Shah, and Nazrul Islam as national poet would be unlikely, given his lack of a formal ‘cerebral’ education; indeed in Australia there are no such icons attracting that kind of adoration. In Bengal there is something more.

The brain alone can delude as well as enlighten. In denying the contradictions and complexities of emotion and human tradition, well it’s not even that the answers are wrong; it’s that sometimes the questions are not even the ones worth asking.

Chimpanzee brain image (from wikipedia)

It's also worth considering if life isn't about a salt lake in Cyprus, a pretty river in China, or even an over-sized wheel.  Just saying.

This article is also published by Star Magazine, here: Russian Intelligence in Bengal

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