So, um, turns out that when the English were traipsing around India, and particularly the heart of British India, Bengal, they had very particular ideas about Bengali men. These men, according to the English were the epitome of emasculated colonial subjects. Most (in)famously, the Right Honorable Thomas Babington Macaulay reserved some rather choice epithets for Bengali men, noting (in the 1830s) that:
Whatever the Bengali does he does languidly. His favorite pursuits are sedentary. He shrinks from bodily exertion; and though voluble in dispute, and singularly pertinacious in the war of chicane he seldom engages in personal conflict, and scarcely ever enlists as a soldier. There never perhaps existed a people so thoroughly fitted by habit for a foreign yoke.
Macaulay’s characterization of Bengali men was quite influential, and served to justify, argues Mrinalini Sinha, the social ordering of colonial Bengali society as one essentially subordinate to the British. After all, if these men were rather effete, then it was in their nature to require the strong hand of British rule. Eventually, there grew a kind of common wisdom among the British about the archetype of the “effeminate Bengali babu.” But Sinha notes:
If in the past effeminacy loosely characterised all the inhabitants of Bengal, in the second half of the [nineteenth] century it was used quite specifically to characterise the Indian middle class, or a section of this class identified as babus…. effeminacy came to be associated only with a small percentage of its total population. The majority of Bengalis, the labouring classes, and certain low-caste groups … were quite specifically exempted from the charge of effeminacy… Over time, effeminacy had evolved from a loosely defined attribute associated with the entire population of Bengal, and sometimes by extension all of India, to an attribute associated very specifically with Western-educated Indians, a large majority of whom were Bengali Hindus.
So basically, this was a class of Indians who were educated by the English, literate, and rather overtly intellectual in their preoccupations, and yes, bourgeois. (Ironically, they invoked Western liberal ideals in support of Bengali nationalism). If I might extend the stereotype, this was the Indian version of the English dandy, but one who romanticized a particularly pastoral, nature-oriented, and men-who-work-the-land ideal of Bengali nationhood even as they avoided the illiterate laboring classes in Bengal like the plague. In other words, they were Orientalist Orientalists.
What I find interesting is that to this day, Bengalis of a certain type, still labor under the caricature of the hyper-intellectualized poet types. And let’s face it, there’s a bit of truth in this caricature. The Bengali (Bangla) word for poet is “kabi” (pronounced kobi). But when you say kabi kabi in rapid succession, it evokes a particular type of person, a Bengali deep in thought, smoking a cigarette at a tea shop, staring deeply into space, perhaps composing poetry, undoubtedly pining for unrequited love from both a woman and from Bengal itself, and plotting some utopian revolution without having moved an inch from his tea shop. (Needless to say, Lenin would not have approved).
I do not intend to say that Macaulay was right. He was a flaming racist. But one wonders whether all the stuff that Macaulay and others said about Bengalis was eventually accepted and perhaps even a bit internalized by some Bengalis. Was this the secret power of Western Orientalists? That they were able to convince The Other, i.e., the subjects of their rule to take on the very stereotypical qualities that the Westerners wished the colonial subjects to have?