In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the two buffoons Stephano and Trinculo present us with a curious conundrum. Exposed for the first time to the half man and half fish Caliban, their initial fear and abhorrence give way to a curiosity which they want to channelize into a business venture. Disregarding all practical considerations as to how they might escape from the island and return to their native Italy, they are busy hatching a plan as to what they would do, with the strange creature they have encountered in the island. Their master-plan, if one might use a colloquial term, is to take back this marvel of nature back to “civilized” society and present it/him to the European society as a “wonder” of the “new” world and earn money. Behind the apparent preposterous nature of this plan and the laughter that it elicited from the audience, lay a deeply rooted racist European worldview. It is not surprising therefore that this scene becomes almost prophetic, in the sense that in the late 19th and the early 20th century, there existed in Europe, “human zoos”, where African, Caribbean men/women/ children were showcased as exhibits for the rational/ educated/ civilized European audience as almost freaks of Nature. A voyeurism of a different kind, it seems to survive and outlive the days of the colonial past and may in a way said to have made an entry into the lives of the average Kolkatan in the last week or so.
But before we step into the problematic world of the human desire to create comfortable binaries of the rational/ irrational, civilized/ barbaric and social/ anti-social, for people of the sociological and literary background it is imperative that we acknowledge the existence of the one in the other. Conrad’s narrative of the journey into the heart of darkness was much more than a physical expedition and much has been said about Marlow’s adventure since its publication over a century ago. But the point remained, that once the shackles of the societal structure and expectation came off, MAN found him/herself capable of unthought/ unheard- of cruelty. Just to make a point, during riots or during occupation of one country by another, the perpetrators of violence and apparent justice have time and again brought out the darkness and primitive selves which lie hidden and buried under the cloak of acceptable societal behaviour and norms. Or for that matter, sexual violence in Prisoner of War camps, or just physical mutilation all point at the existence of a “self” whose presence we would want and choose to deny in our everyday social roles. But how does one react to the emergence of the dark side of the moon in the society around us, a society so obsessed with social media that it seems not to blink twice before sensationalizing a sensitive issue like what has been termed the “return of Hitchcock’s Psycho” by the Bengali media over the apparently macabre findings in Robinson Street.
As a citizen living in the city and reading the proliferation of reports, opinions and conspiracy theories doing the rounds, one is appalled by the lack of maturity and sensitivity at the handling of this incident. If the average Bengali mind is perplexed at what might have gone on in the apartment where the skeletons have been recovered, at the exact nature of the relationship that existed between its family members, whether incestual or supernatural, and how this could flourish in a well educated family belonging to the economically creamy layer ( as if that disqualified financially stable and educated people from indulging in societally disapproved acts) it would still be less of a bafflement and cause for worry and anger. But what has been as terrible and shocking as the incident, if not more, is the nature of our reaction to it.
In an age where Selfies, “Likes”, Instagram are the buzzwords, the crime/ death scene has almost become a pilgrimage for people with a camera/ smart-phone in hand. Instashare, Instauploding/ hashtagged pictures are swarming the social media and one cannot but wonder at the new age Stephano and Trinculos who are not after money, but something more sinister. A selfie with the Robinson Street apartment in the background has become the ticket to acquiring a vicarious pleasure in instant virtual celebrity-hood. The number of “Likes” that such pictures and images have generated not only acts as an ego-massager but somehow also ends up exposing the hollowness of our present generation, underlining the lack of responsibility of the people in charge of reporting this incident. This insensitivity towards the acknowledgement of the uncanny has made the family a household name, and the day is not far when the name of Partha Dey would enter the colloquial jargon replacing mad/insane/strange/pervert and the site of the discovery of the remnants of the family members a tourist attraction. The skeleton is out of the cupboard, and it is a very scare sight, for the skeletons look so much like us.
– Sayan Aich Bhowmick