As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Amar Sonar Bangla (January 2020)

Welcome back, welcome to Resilience Term, and welcome to that period of the year that we call Resilience for a better tomorrow. In this assembly I’ll quote some poetry – or, at least, the words of a poet, if you want to draw a distinction; I’ll tell a story from my past and let some of you laugh at my lack of linguistic prowess; I’ll link the poet and the story to a piece of history and thence to some modern politics; and finally I’ll tell you what Resilience for a better tomorrow means although why it’s called that I’ll leave to those who come and ask.

Let me start with that poetry – with one of my favourite lines of all time – a line I enjoyed so much that in my previous school I wrote it on one of the corridor walls. “Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.” I think it’s a beautiful metaphor and reflects a mindset that is at peace with the vicissitudes of life. Vicissitude is a wonderful word, stolen by English in the seventeenth century from a word in Latin or French, it means an unpleasant or unfortunate change in circumstances. Shakespeare doesn’t talk about the vicissitudes of life, instead he has Hamlet describe the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The poet behind the clouds line is not Shakespeare, but Rabindranath Tagore – a great answer to a great quiz question: who is the only person to have written the words to two national anthems. Jana Gana Mana is the Indian national anthem, written in 1911, adopted by the National Congress in Kolkata, and sung for the Emperor (George V) who was so delighted with the line “Hail the leader of the hearts and minds of all people” which he thought referred to him, that he awarded Tagore a knighthood in 1915 to go with the Nobel Prize he won in 1913. Tagore accepted both but renounced the knighthood in 1919 after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – an event described and analysed in one of my favourite books of last year: "The Patient Assassin" by Anita Anand.

Tagore was from Bengal – the bit of the Indian subcontinent that lies round the mouth of the Ganges – and he wrote in Bengali. In 1905 he wrote a song: Amar Sonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) to protest against the move of the viceroy, Lord Curzon, to divide East and West Bengal. The partition took place broadly along religious lines with East Bengal being Muslim and West Hindu but it only lasted until 1911 when the next viceroy, Lord Hardinge, gave into popular opinion, reunified Bengal and moved the capital of British India from Kolkata to New Delhi (part of the point of the partition having been to decrease the power of the Bengalis who were the most numerous group in India).

Bengal was partitioned again in 1947 as part of Indian independence and the creation of the state of Pakistan. East Bengal became a province of Pakistan – separated from the rest of the country by a thousand miles of India and from the prosperity of West Bengal by a new national border. The night of partition was one that made millions homeless as they left their country of residence to move to the one that matched their religion. In the Punjab in northwestern India – also split on religious grounds – this led to violence and hundreds of thousands of deaths. In Bengal there were fewer casualties and the migration took place over decades rather than months but it still caused a great deal of hardship. Having two parts of a country divided geographically is rarely stable (Alaska seems to be an exception to this rule – I imagine because polar bears are not terribly rebellious), and the Bengalis were not happy about their domination by West Pakistan. There were calls for Bengali independence and in 1971 these were put down by the Pakistani army in what may have been a genocide and which certainly led to a war of independence. By the end of the year, what was now the Bangladeshi army had won, at the cost of 50,000 military and somewhere between 300 000 and 3 million civilian lives. There is a lot more to be said about this sorry episode, but not today because I have promises to keep and need only to pause here to say that the new nation of Bangladesh adopted Amar Sonar Bangla as its national anthem, and to quote another line of Tagore, a prayer written in 1916: “Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.”

The story takes a personal turn as I tell you about my visit to Bengal. My last school made a partnership with a school in Kolkata – in fact, one of the art teachers signed up to a partnership with the school in Kolkata and the first any of the rest of us knew was when the headmistress turned up in reception demanding to be shown round. We managed to get through that social awkwardness and found that the British Council were keen to pay for two teachers to make a return visit and, being the last deputy to come up with an excuse, I found that I was to accompany the rather scatty art teacher. Actually, I was delighted to have the opportunity to go to India and immediately set about trying to learn some of the language. I bought a Teach yourself Bengali book and CD and spent time every day working through a series of useful phrases with which I regaled, and perplexed, the office staff. Organising the trip took quite a bit of time and so I had worked through all of the basic chapters and got onto the conversations and onto reading and writing the Bengali alphabet. I’m normally quite good at languages but Bengali is hard – there are, for starters, four different letters that all sound, to my ears, like “t”. Anyway, having made the trip and forged an unlikely alliance with the Art teacher who navigated the social situations brilliantly, leaving me to make such strategic decisions as which Bengali alleyways we wouldn’t be heading off down on our own, I found myself with the opportunity to try out my Bengali.

The teach yourself book had taken an idiosyncratic approach to idiom and so I found myself with a lot of disconnected phrases and the ability to take one half of a conversation with a vegetable salesman. The line “Amra Bangali Nui” – we are not Bengali – was true and relevant but fairly obvious. It would also be immediately understood, in purpose if not mechanic, because it turns out that my accent (or possibly my textbook) is so egregious that none of my phrases make any sense to Bengali speakers – which is where I apologise to those of you who are gifted in this area and explain that I propose to go through several more of my favourite lines and hope you can keep your giggles to yourself. “Dan dike orta ki?” was a useful line from the vegetable conversation, meaning “What is the one on the right”. “Era mach mangsho, kichui Khanna!” is an expression of surprise that “they don’t eat meat or fish!” that I never quite found a home for, but the jewel in my Bengali crown was “Amta shundor, kinta tok” which I’m promised is a literal translation of “The mango is beautiful, but sour”. Fortunately our hosts, and all the children at the school, spoke excellent English.

Our trip to Bengal took place in January – a month carefully chosen for climatic benignity, but which also had the advantage of meaning that we were there for Republic day – the anniversary of the day that the Constitution of India came into effect, making the country (in the words of the preamble) a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic. The celebrations of this were quite a thing at the school. The students and staff all gathered in a huge courtyard around which the buildings loomed and the honoured guests – the art teacher and me – sat on seats on a stage alongside the formidable headteacher, facing the audience. As I sat there I had a very deep and troubling realisation of race: apart from the art teacher, every body in that courtyard was Indian – and nearly all of them were Bengali. I didn’t really want to be the guest of honour, to be seated on the stage, to be addressed (despite correction) as Sir James. I liked being there, I liked seeing the celebrations, I liked having been invited but I very much wanted to sit at the back and be ignored. This wasn’t an option so I stayed put and awaited developments.

The developments turned out to be a succession of students who came to the front and told the story of the struggle for independence from the British Rule before raising their fist in triumph and shouting Jai Ho – let there be victory. It was a deeply troubling experience – one that made me ashamed of my country and embarrassed by my skin colour. The first part of that is something that everyone who is honest in their patriotism will have to experience at some point – the second part is something that nobody should have to go through (and I am very aware that I have it easy in this regard – I’m telling a story, not making comparisons or claiming special status). In a letter of 1908, Tagore wrote: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live,” and I wholeheartedly support this sentiment – which is echoed in the last words of Edith Cavell which I’ve quoted from here before.

The current piece of politics is also Indian, and, like the partition of 1947, relates to the displacement of refugees. In December, last month, the Indian parliament passed a law relaxing the rules on illegal immigrants becoming citizens. The contentious issue is that the law was not that it was relaxed only for refugees from three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but that it was relaxed only for non-Muslim refugees from these countries. For an avowedly, constitutionally, secular nation to make a religiously specific law has created disquiet – the concern being that this is the thin end of the wedge, the first law in a series that decrease the citizenship of Muslim Indians.

And this brings us to Resilience for a Better Tomorrow – the half-term set aside in the school calendar for events which bring us closer to understanding our collective humanity, to setting aside differences of sex, sexuality, race or religion, for accepting our collective heritage, for recognising wrongs, both past and present, and for standing up, together, as a school, as a community, for each other, and against hatred, prejudice, injustice, and abuse. You’ll find that assemblies focus on this theme rather than our normal introspection on school life and scholarship (although I don’t accept that there is a clear distinction) and there will be other events: Tirah have organised a sequence of events that started yesterday and I hope other societies will do similarly. My last words, and a lead in to the last piece of Tagore I have for you today, are that what you make of this is up to you – if there are stories you want told and issues that you want addressed then please don’t leave it up to others to fill the gap – organise an event, tell that story, raise that issue. Your form tutors will help, as will heads of house, and you may find allies in Tirah, or the Intersectional Feminism Society, or Intelligent Believing, or GSA, or Act. Don’t complain – do something, or as Tagore says, much more beautifully, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”