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A M I Y A DEV
P O P U L A R STYLE: I N T R O D U C T I O N TO A B E N G A L I CASE S T U D Y
Every year at admissions, when we interview our would-be students and ask them that hackneyed question, who is your favourite author, we hear one name. If out of curiosity we take stock of books received as wedding presents - and Bengalis have made it a habit now to make formal presents of books we will find the same name attain the highest frequency: Shankar. If on turning the cover of his books we care to look at the printing history, we will often be astounded - forty-eight editions in four years or twenty in five months or seven in only one month. And even if the size of a Bengali edition is quite small, this record is indeed extraordinary, considering the size of the Bengali readership. Besides, four of his novels have been filmed, and two of them by the greatest Indian director, Satyajit Ray. Yet a few years ago, when one of his titles, a collection of children's stories, was announced to be " a bagful" o f him, an avantgarde fellow writer showed amazement at the idea of a bag in the matter of writing, recalling that bags were usually meant for potatoes or papayas. However, this was not unusual, for the avant-garde had always refused him the place of a writer in the proper sense. Even the establishment has begun to take notice o f him only recently. If he had been granted the seriousness he seems to claim in some o f his prefaces, he might have been by now nominated for a national prize. But would that put him in the mainstream? I doubt it. Some time ago I asked a major Bengali poet how he felt about him; the answer was not favourable. Indeed the answer will not be favourable as long as we are concerned with the art of fiction; the answer Neohelieon XIV]2
Akaddmiai Kiad6, Budapest John Benjamlns B. V., Amsterdam
will not be favourable if we think of mimetic quality. Still we must reckon with him. He is not a pulp writer - the experiences he has drawn on are all rather serious; in fact it is amazing that with such seeming seriousness he has been able to become a fast seller. We must reckon with that mystery, for the task of a literary critic is not merely to ascertain quality but also to see why certain books are read faster than others. This is a matter of reception, extrinsic as well as intrinsic. In a distant analogy of Roland Barthes, one may speak of the 'book' being a matter of extrinsic reception and the 'text' of intrinsic reception. That "bagful o f " was full evidence of the author's awareness of the former, of the book as a commodity no less perhaps than consumer goods to be marketed with necessary publicity (if one has to sell a book, why not sell it as one sells a mattress or a fan ?). No amount of avant-garde derision should be able to ruffle that awareness, reflected in the printing strategy, the bargain pricing, the often colourful cover designs, the use even of cinema stills and the calculated frequency of advertisements in the largest circulated Bengali weekly. As far as I know, the publicity is programmed by the author himself, whose long experience in public relations might have come in handy. The detailed display of printing history, exceedingly impressive by Bengali standards, is also effective publicity. The idea of putting two or three novels occasionally between two covers, with a lot of bargain implied in the price, is equally effective. Besides, the current marketing through one of Calcutta's busiest sales counters has been perfect policy, particularly since the counter is owned by his present publisher. Flawless economics for fetching fast sales, in fact the fastest at present in the language. Anyway, my interest here is not in this panoply of reception, in the 'book' in other words, but in the 'text', the intrinsic qualities that may account for such enormity; for fastsellers sell fast not merely for economic reasons - there must also be reasons that are aesthetic and are related to the readers' psyche. The texts I am dealing with are various. There are those that
A B E N G A L I CASE S T U D Y
are built around the author's past, his career as a British barrister's clerk at the Calcutta High Court, and his subsequent experiences as a reception clerk at one of Calcutta's prime hotels, the people he met and the people he saw - fictionalized memoirs with a thrust on the author himself being gradually carved out as a middle class Bengali - an absolute type in his struggles for economic survival, though not in his chance encounters with luck, who gains our affection for his innocence and honesty, so much so that we do not grudge him his bits o f luck. As the author tells us in his afterword to a later text - one of the two later filmed by Satyajit R a y - it is his own experiences f r o m his jobless days that partly crystallized into his portrayal of unemployment in that text, where he also reveals the deviousness and the immorality of the road to employment doubling up the sensibility of young Bengafis. The depiction of the flesh market lying on the fringe o f " o r d e r supplies" presupposes a righteousness reflected in the following words f r o m the afterword: I was doubtful if everyone would like this unpleasant tale of contemporary life. But I had only one aim. To leave by fictional means an authentic picture for future Bengalis of the worst humiliation and harrassment suffered in our time by the helpless unemployed young men and women of Bengal; and to remind the youth of this country and their parents that if a serious attempt is not made to solve the unemployment problem, the very foundation of our society and of individual life will collapse: The righteousness is also reflected in the quotation f r o m Sartre's preface to F a n o n ' s Wretched o f the Earth as an epigraph to the text, accusing everyone of potential complicity. Flesh features in yet another text as a bait for a good-natured Englishman in a bid to grab the management o f a prosperous British company's Indian branch, and the prime casualty turns out to be the wrecking o f an idealist scientist's dream of inventing a low-cost 1 From Svarga Marta Patal (Heaven Earth Hell) (Calcutta: Dey's, 1976).
agricultural aid. But the true turn in that text comes when the mastermind behind the grabbing operation, a crooked and highly sought-after legal adviser who was once denied the bride he had wanted for poor practice, and who has all these years built up a thriving business as if in revenge and as if to prove to society that he had been worthy of that bride, finds out to his utter dismay that the victimized scientist is his one-time hoped-for bride's son - a surrogate son, that is. The price for his nomination to the company's chairmanship is paid with his own surrogate flesh - poetic justice indeed. A more effective instance of such justice is available in a text which deals with a business magnate and owner o f an ever-packed commercial theatre, who after long favours from the lead actress is now bent on taming a younger actress-cure-dancer, independent and of the new breed, and who, being denied by her, out o f vengeance has her killed in a seeming accident, but also loses his son, to whom the actress had turned to be delivered from the father's clutches. Success has ever been his forte - how could he lose to a young thing? But he did not know that he would have to pay the toll with his own flesh. Along with these texts on justice, and as portrayals of employment of the most coveted kind, are texts dealing with company executives whose sole ambition is to rise higher and higher. A variation on the bourgeois ideal o f success, the management ideal is 'drive': if one cannot summon it one will simply be pushed out. " I n all men sits an archer", says a newly circulated executive motto in one text. ~ In another, an experienced manager who has taken in hand a sick company as a sheer challenge, preaches that the ancient Indian gospel o f the right to action but not to its fruit has been the bane o f modern Indian production. In yet another, a young executive takes his first stride by putting aside his one-time ideal, Shakespeare, as a mere meddler in an executive brain. But however good and moral, however self-confident, however harmoniously 2 From Tirandaj (The Archer) (20th edn., Calcutta: Dey's, 1985).
A B E N G A L I CASE S T U D Y
geared to career, one has to pay for ambition or for a moment's weakness, one has to take a fall. Nevertheless we tend to commiserate with him, for he too is a victim of a success race and is capable o f a little cleansing conscience. Beside these texts and beside those on crooked success touched off by poetic justice, we have a cluster on integrity, idealism and sacrifice symbolized in the figure of a scientist or a sculptor. His heroization is immense, inevitably ending in tragedy, either in the f o r m of a terminal cancer or death in the laboratory, or of the wife dying f r o m an utter vacuum. The deeper the tragedy, the greater our admiration for the hero and the lesser our regard for material happiness. There is some incidental heroization in the case o f an industrialist as well, courageous enough to stick to his native state in the face o f sure industrial disaster and intending to offer social honour to a working girl who had accepted his protection for providing for the family and for her brother's education overseas - the courage that society surreptitiously answers with assassins' bullets. Apropos o f working girls, a text deals with a young unmarried woman, newly inducted as a junior officer to a c o m p a n y taken over by the government, depicting her diligence and her frustration at the end, when through manipulation private business retrieves the company. Its companion in a two-text b o o k is however, a b o u t the plight of unmarried girls in middle-class homes, the utter humiliation o f the display of the future bride to the g r o o m ' s party and its attendant perplexities, particularly if her complexion is not fair, and the eventual despair, often unto death. In his preface to the two, the author says in his characteristic righteousness: This book was born of an allegation from an unknown woman reader from North Bengal and of the anxieties of a dark unmarried girl from South Calcutta . . . [the book] is done with the hope that though an author like me does not have the power to solve their problem, he has the right to commiserate with them. Oh my countrymen, arise, awake, be informed.~ 8 From Tanaya (Dau#hters) 9th edn., Calcutta: Dey's, 1978).
AMIYA D E V
However, at the end the idealist working girl goes in search of a better world in England, perhaps a better life as well, with an honest Englishman, away from her one-time boy friend, who had not only ditched her and married money, but now, working in the same company as she, has become an accomplice, as she finds out from an official inquiry, to underhand deals jeopardizing the interests of the company. Those that can go overseas seem to acquire a right to happiness. But there are complexities as well: what happens if your parents and brothers and sisters are all dependent on you, and while earning money on the North American soil you plan to marry an American girl ? Will the girl be able to adjust? Or the aged parents approve the marriage? The happiness of a family is thus threatened through an inevitable sociocultural outcome of Indians staying overseas. The best that can happen is that the Indian settles overseas and when his son grows up, sends him in search of his lost Ithaca. Judging by these texts, eighteen out of a total of twenty-eight, and taking cognizance that the other ten are of a similar temper, it is quite obvious that we are not dealing with a romance writer spewing out easy fantasies by the dozen. On the contrary, our author is seriously concerned with some of the major issues of the day, social and economic, and admittedly writes either to expose or to condemn. There can be no doubt about the extent of his righteousness - by revealing the pitfalls of success and the immorality of social ambition he can claim to be executing the full responsibility of a socially conscious writer. But since a literary text is a construct and not just a signature to the author's intentions, intentions are no final judge. Nor are themes, for theme minus treatment can at best be an index even the staunchest student of thematology will accept that. We have to take a closer look at the texts themselves, that is, at the filling out as such of themes. Now that can be done structurally, in terms of the orchestration of narrative sequences, but perhaps more immediate results could be achieved for the explanation of the enormity of our author's reception - by a stylistic approach. Bestseller, fastseller and kitsch criticism in
A BENGALI CASE STUDY
general would also probably endorse that - the surer pull is in the style than in the structure. An analysis of sample passages, which I do not propose to enter into here, a would show that readers buy these wares because they feel at home with them, for the author has - consciously or unconsciously - written for immediate reader appeal. Now, all creative style is to a point geared to effect, all creative writing is to a point rhetorical. One does not write in an absolute vacuum, one aims at readers. However, it is one thing to write on a subject hoping for readers, and quite another thing to write on a subject in a way wholly geared to reader response. In the first case the emphasis is on the subject, and the nature of the style is determined by the nature of the subject as one perceives it. If the subject is dialectically perceived, the style will show that dialectic, and if unitarily, the style will reflect that unitariness. Contrariwise, in the second case the emphasis is squarely on the reader, and the nature of the style is determined by assumptions as to what the target readership will or will not easily take to. In English, this method can be conveniently demonstrated by a collection of typical Harold Robbins phrases and sentences like the following: "the big time"; "it was better than brandy after dinner"; "twice I tried to speak and twice I failed" (a curious Miltonic echo); "had found herself again"; "you were the greatest"; "one of the big rough faces that you usually associate with an outdoor, hardworking guy"; "Two things I specially liked. Eggs for breakfast and showers in the morning"; "What is a convertible if you don't put the top down" (couldn't this be a Ford convertible advert?); "It had all the patient tolerance of the very young for the very old" - and so forth. The reason why this kind of language goes down rather well with the average American reader is that it is a good catch, I have done it in another version o f this paper which I gave a conference at the Northern Regional Language Centre, Patiala, the proceedings of which have been published as Language, Style and Discourse (New Delhi: Bhari, 1986). 14
that it approaches things from that reader's point of view, though it may have little to do with the complexities of any subject. My argument, for which Robbins is as good a case in point as Shankar, is that there are two basic styles, one subject-oriented and demytkicizing, the other reader-oriented and mythicizing. An author does not necessarily use one style only; he or she can very well write in both. My concern here is not with which style an author writes, but in which style a piece of writing is. And I would call the reader-oriented or response-oriented style 'effective' for the simple reason that is sells. If anyone likes to call the other style writing degree zero, then I would call this style writing degree one hundred. And what average reader can resist a persuasion so full and big?