Amita (nee Pandey) Sen

Senior educationist and Head of Special Learning in a North London American School. She is the granddaughter of Nepal’s Raj Guru, the late Hem Raj Pandey, whose private library contained the founding document of the Bengali language, now housed in the National Library of Nepal. Amita has lived in Iran, the US, India and the U.K. while her late father served as Nepal’s Ambassador. She is married to the ex-LSE Bengali academic, Dr. Gautam Sen.

Almost every Bengali has apparently become conscious of the failure of their state to live up to its promise as a society and economy. The recollection of its deterioration from the dizzying cultural heights of the nineteenth century and beyond to the second quarter of the twentieth ended with the last truly great Bengali cosmopolitan, the unsurpassable, film maker Satyajit Ray. After that nothing, nothing to make one sit up in awe. It is the story of Bengal its renowned eccentric writer, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, once Secretary to Sarat Bose, likened to the magnificent German composer Schubert’s ‘unfinished symphony’. The economy of Bengal also suffered, I am given to understand, unprecedented decline since the later 1960s too. Although I am not a Bengali myself, I have become familiar with this story as the Nepali wife of a Bengali intellectual of formidable antecedents and prodigious intellectual interests that I would wish to share with you. It is the story of some ordinary Bengal people to whom I am related by marriage that drew my attention because they’re a poignant reminder of the promises unfulfilled by the waning of the once great civilisation that was Bengal.

The first person I vividly recall is my late father-in-law, Keshab Chandra Sen, grandson of the pioneering historian and litterateur of Bengal, Rai Bahadur Dinesh Chandra Sen. From being an Intermediate graduate behind a railway counter he reached BHU, through the good offices of Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, despite missing the deadline for applicants, to eventually become India’s leading metallurgist of the 1950s, working for Sir Biren Mukherjee at Martin Burn, producing the cheapest steel in India by initiating technical breakthroughs that puzzled the industry. He had turned down the actress Suchitra Sen as a young bride of sixteen to marry a refugee form East Pakistan to keep his promise to her. He had reached the highest reaches of the corporate ladder by his late forties. But he fled to England to escape assassination attempts, since he was a leading corporate executive taking hard decisions, authorised by once erstwhile family supplicant of Dinesh Chandra Sen, the chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. This was the promise unfulfilled that died alone in Swiss clinic in his mid-80s though quite uncomplaining about his fate.

The other two individuals I met are a truly remarkable couple, my uncle in-laws, whose fate mirrors the failure of the state of West Bengal to live up to its promise and allow committed and talented Bengalis to fulfil their potential. One of them turned ninety-two in late March 2021 and his story is emblematic of the unfulfilled promises of the land to which they dedicated a lifetime of unquestioning service, with only modest reward. Even now they feel no sense of justice for their fate, such is their dharmic sense of the self and duty. He was a metallurgist at the Martin Burn foundry that has along since succumbed to the vagaries of West Bengal’s turbulent politics and self-destructive leftist pipe dreams. Quite remarkably, he stood within yards of the foundry furnace, supervising its operations for forty years without missing one single day owing to illness. He retired with a modest gratuity that was shockingly tiny after such long years of service but he was grateful of the small nest egg that would allow him to eat and live in a small dark flat. He has never felt hard done by and his skills in mathematics never quite fully put to use still allows him to play bridge with panache. This is the person which a flourishing West Bengal economy would have been able to put to better use for the advance of the state.

But it is the late wife of the metallurgist, standing daily proximate to the fierce furnace that is awesome to recall. A well-educated woman from a modest background married the metallurgist of humble origins but enjoying a wonderfully rewarding relationship until she died decades into the marriage. She rose to become the headmistress of one of Calcutta’s most highly respected schools, gaining fluency in Japanese which she taught herself. Such were her skills in mathematics and languages that had she originated from a different family with contacts and money or lived in a state that possessed the ability to reward talent, she would have ended up at Oxford or Columbia to write a Ph.D. in Japanese literature, leading to an international career of renown and fulfilment.

This is the generation of squandered talent and selfless devotion to karma that West Bengal could not nurture and reward. It is also a reminder of the selflessness of the generation, born before Indian independence, ready to dedicate themselves to building the country, which is indeed what they attempted to do in the circumstances they found themselves in. It is now essential for the West Bengal, poised to be re-born, to live up to its promise and keep faith with the many in whom dharmic motivation resides. It this microcosm of the individual’s fate in the larger macrocosmic picture of West Bengal that should not be betrayed again.

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