Five years after a stretch of it was renamed, Kolkata’s Park Street is yet to get used to being Mother Teresa Sarani. It’s early into Saturday evening and Park Street is playing true to form: Ladies in miniskirts, long-haired musicians, encyclopaedia sellers, drug pushers, well-fed happy families hand-held by paan-chewing patriarchs, pimps and prostitutes—all ready to mingle seamlessly into the night of food, alcohol, dance, music, money, sex. Park Street doesn’t seem to be in any urgent need of missionary charity yet.
As we turn the corner into Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, the Park Street cool metamorphoses—volubly and visibly—into chaos. Vehicles piled up behind a tram car that has stopped dead in its wrecked, wretched track; crowds on the road while hawkers rule the pavements, honking, shouting, screaming, jostling—urban paralysis. Luke Kenny, well known as a video jockey till he became better known with Rock On!!, is sitting next to me, I’m at the wheel, there’s Steely Dan playing and air conditioning too—comforts carried over from Park Street. Kenny is back in the city of his birth—we had got together incidentally—and sitting immobile amid the anarchy of the street, he opportunely lets one slip in: “You think the Communists have been good for Calcutta?”
I fumble through a no-yes-maybe answer, concentrating more on the back of a hand-pulled rickshaw, its frail frame trying to pass through the dysfunctional four-wheel traffic. It manages to squeeze through; they always do. Just like they survived the government’s attempt to ban them. The ban has been held up through a compact of legalese, administrative vacillation, short-sightedness, vote-bank politics, endless debates and futile philosophizing; a combination of which has also often held up the state.
Jyoti Basu welcomes Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Kolkata in 1973. Mona Chowdhury
Hand-pulled rickshaws and Communists, I reckon, are the two great survivors in Kolkata.
I was born under the sign. For good or for bad, it happened to be the hammer and sickle. In the same year I was born, 1977, and almost to the day, the Left Front government came to power in West Bengal, decisively and invincibly holding on to the pole position for the next 32 years. That’s how old I’ll be this June.
As I was flying into the city from Aizawl, Mizoram, on the day the results of the recent Lok Sabha election were declared, Kolkata looked greener than the green it is anyway. At best, it’s not red camouflaged in green any more, as Bengalis on the flight discussed animatedly the contours of an opposition-led electoral surge in West Bengal. From one seat in the 2004 Lok Sabha, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TC) tally rose to 19 seats, all the additions coming from Communist kitty. With ally Congress winning another six seats, the opposition in the state has made a meal of the Left Front, which is down from 35 seats in 2004 to 15 in the current Lok Sabha. In about a 75km radius of Kolkata, the Left hasn’t been left with even a speck.
As we drove into the city from the airport, massive billboards screamed, even if they were just an inadvertent teaser campaign, “Change is coming, get ready”. It started making sense. Party workers were busy erecting a “Congratulations Didi” poster at one busy crossing and there were many more tricoloured TC flags flying.
Later, in the docile, politically inert (by Kolkata standards) neighbourhood where I stay, I saw something for the first time in my life: a victor’s procession that was not celebrating a win with red abir (coloured powder) but with green; a long and winding file of marchers who had emerged from the woodwork of anti-Leftism, the surfacing of the chhaposa (a glamour-shunning Bengali word approximating the clerical ordinary existence, which Banerjee used to describe herself in a post-win television interview as a counter to Leftist intellectual brouhaha). Didi. Didi. Didi.
The television ad referring to Sourav Ganguly—“Dada’s days are over”—seems proverbial. Bengal has rediscovered the didi.
With the state assembly elections two years away, political pundits are predicting that it’ll only be me celebrating my 34th birthday in 2011. Nobody has forecast the fate of the hand-pulled rickshaw yet.
The Writers’ Buildings at BBD Bag, where the chief minister’s office is located. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
It was realistically possible to be a Communist kid in West Bengal. Those years in half pants are pockmarked with points of ensnarement, early entry points to the red commune. First, there were the books of Russian folk tales, abundantly available at dirt-cheap prices on Kolkata streets, which had the potential of handholding wide-eyed children from Manicktala and Gariahat to the picture-perfect, agrarian worlds of the Eastern Bloc. Elders buried themselves in Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Gorky, or stuff picked up from the Marxist literature bookstalls run by grim-faced neighbourhood uncles outside crowded Puja pandals—a godless philosophy seeking expansion through a festival of gods.
While travelling to school, words such as “imperialist”, “capitalist”, “bourgeoisie”, “proletariat” and “politburo”, which appeared all over the city as posters and wall writing, were an additional burden to contend with besides the schoolbag and homework. And then there were such issues as “American imperialistic designs on Cuba”—good enough reason for the Students Federation of India (SFI), the students wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), to call a school bandh (strike), allowing us to spend the attendance-thin school day playing football or pranks in the British-built corridors of the institution. Well, the reason for the strike could even have been Fidel Castro twisting his ankle on an imperialist pebble, but we couldn’t have cared less.
I was lucky to be in an elite, autonomous, English-medium school that firmly kept political forces outside its high walls. Every time the CPM organized a maha michil (grand procession) to the Brigade Parade Ground, one would see the less privileged students of government-run primary and secondary schools perfunctorily marching through the wide, red-awash roads, little red flags and posters scribbled with slogans we rarely understood in hand.
Years later, I got to meet one such Communist schoolkid of West Bengal. A group of us were on our annual visit to Kankrajhor, an idyllic hilly nook in rural Bengal, and were staying with Mahato, the village patriarch who had earlier fortuitously played a role in a popular Bengali film Char Murti and built himself a two-storeyed mud house. As we sat outside his house, one of his grandsons—all of 14—recounted why he was all for the “lal party”: After the teenager’s first visit to Kolkata to participate in a Congress procession, the local CPM unit had not only taken him there a second time, but the “tiffin” included an extra dim aar kola. His allegiance to the red brigade was cemented on the basis of an egg and a banana. Within a year of our last visit, Kankrajhor would become a hotbed of Maoist activity. Change here too, even at gunpoint. Redder still.
Along with Cuba, the other buzzword was aposongskriti. If you, like me, had this word chasing you right till your university days, you wouldn’t trip on it. It’s Bengali for decadent (apo) culture (songskriti). The coinage gained currency when the sari-clad pop singer Usha Uthup had a dhoti-clad Left Front minister scurrying for cover during a government function. Here’s the breakup: sari-clad pop singer = apo; dhoti-clad Leftist minister = songskriti. Repeat it a few times, and the word will easily roll off the tongue.
There was an attempt to ban the singer. She survived. So did the word, used as a baton every time the moral minders wanted a clampdown on this-and-that, a proposed Dr Alban concert for instance. Poor Dr—he never got to sing his one big hit, It’s My Life.
And bourgeoisie. That was the fun word, ever since the young SFI intern in college interrupted class to deliver a lecture on Marx and market forces, in the process skidding on the crux word. When he finally managed, the word emerged as “bour-joys”. What joy. In the SFI-dominated college, classes would be broken up for 15 minutes each day so that cub cadres could go around the campus in a revolutionary file, defiling the day’s choice of class enemy. And here was this intern, breaking into an excruciatingly dreary classroom lecture and delivering such (bour)joy.
Going by their definition, I’m sure to have exhibited all the symptoms of being the class enemy, a “bourjoy” at any rate. For many of those college-university years, I shared the core colour of the CPM. It wasn’t the primal and romantic red of the revolution, but that of cheap, industrial rum. We would meet at a musician friend’s neighbourhood on the northern fringes of the city, the erstwhile industrial epicentre of India, now a vast ghostly scape of factory sheds, silhouettes standing bleak and bleary from years of gheraos (protests), go-slows and consequent trade union-enforced lockouts. Inside the premises of one such factory, entered through a gaping hole in the boundary wall, we would dope on false hope, sing three-chorded songs of U2, CSNY and Mohiner Ghoraguli, the red of the rum and the red of the revolutionary flags stuck at the factory gates the only patches of colour in the surroundings. With sundown, jackals would start a long, pining chorus; a wail from the emptied insides of industrial West Bengal.
Jyoti Basu, it was widely reported, hated that cry. The former chief minister, at the helm for 23 of West Bengal’s 32 years of Communist rule, had ordered the shooting of a lone jackal that howled through the night and broke his sleep.
(Left) March of the masses: An ‘anti-imperialism’ protest by CPM workers in Kolkata in September. (Jayanta Shaw / Reuters). A young supporter of Mamata Banerjee after her party’s win in the recent general election. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Basu slept in a palatial house in Salt Lake, the roads outside it barricaded to keep out the public—a property that had once hosted his arch rival, former prime minister Indira Gandhi. By the time he gave up office, Kolkata was cheering even a pimply neighbourhood flyover as a sign of development. Basu continues to sleep at Indira Bhavan, the erring jackal having been taken care of long ago. Passing through the area one night, one of us would gingerly place a drained-out bottle of rum in a vacant police kiosk, a step away from Basu’s home. His kinda red salute in XXX.
In 2007, seven years after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee became chief minister of the state, which resonated with his revisionist ideas and Nike-like slogan of “Do it now”, I was on a journalistic trip to Nandigram. This was a day after the 14 March massacre of 14 villagers, among the thousands protesting the proposed forcible takeover of their land. It was a sea of red till Khejuri, a stronghold the CPM had then retained for being outside the demarcated area of the proposed special economic zone, or SEZ, to be developed by the Indonesia-based Salim Group. It was in Khejuri that I spotted one of the wall writings from my childhood, not too freshly painted but not too old either: “Markin samrajjobad nipat jak (Down with American imperialism)”.
At the grassroots level, that slogan still has currency, a strong residual hangover from three decades of political indoctrination, mogoj dholai (brainwashing), Satyajit Ray fans would say. And it is the grassroots that is being sought to be uprooted from the land they had been taught to love. To contextualize Neil Young singing in Unknown Legend, do-it-now Bhattacharjee, even when he might mean well, is colliding with the air he breathes.
And there is Mamata. Yet another buzzword from those growing-up years—dragged in and kept afloat by Communist folly. Between them, thankfully, communal and caste-based politics is yet to gain a foothold in the state. For years, she was the hazardous part of the script: her tactics and politics seeming like a by-product of the Left. Part destructive, part comic. And now, riding high on anti-Left votes, she is the didi to us all and a possible replacement for the dada-comrades at Writers’ Buildings. On television, she has vented her plans for reintroducing English from class I at government-run schools by reciting two lines from a Bengali rhyme which “our children will learn” while “their children will learn ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star...’”—a brief pause—“‘… are theirs’ five-star kids or what?’” In the battle between the chhaposa and the comrade, it’s the ha-ha that gets my vote for now.
Finally, change—the recent addition to the everyman lexicon after 32 years of constancy. My drink is a clear and transparent vodka these days, and Smirnoff isn’t a Russian company either. I’m even willing to toast a Cabernet Sauvignon to that. Sure, let’s all change. Why not?
Shamik Bag is a Kolkata-based independent journalist and writer.
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