By Swapan Dasgupta
A year ago, West Bengal chose to re-negotiate the terms of the Great Bengali Consensus. After 34 years, it resoundingly voted out the Left Front and chose, in its place, a grassroots leader whose signature tune, ironically, also happened to be "struggle". Not since Subhas Chandra Bose became the lost leader and the stuff of legend, had Bengal reposed such absolute trust in one individual. From 'Party' to 'Didi' wasn't merely a simple electoral swing of enormous magnitude. It symbolised a larger churning, the ramifications of which are yet to be felt.
There was a time, not that very long ago, when travelling through the streets of Kolkata was an unending and compulsive political conversation. It was the heyday of political street graffiti, executed with stylised, artistic professionalism. Whether large wall paintings of muscular proletarians with a red flag marching alongside determined sickle-carrying peasants or bold announcements of the next rally at the Brigade Parade Ground, Kolkata conveyed the unmistakable impression of a city weighed down by its romance with "struggle"-an evocative term left tantalisingly undefined.
Kolkata as the nursery of revolution was a caricature that persisted for more than 50 years-a long enough time for the rhetoric to negotiate a seamless shift from the worship of the "barrel of the gun" to the quasi-mystical invocation of "Ma, Mati, Manusha".
To be Bengali necessarily involved being permanently aggrieved. Prickliness and angst marinated well with endless cups of sweet tea, cheap cigarettes and a visceral distaste for material success. A good Bengali had to mirror the competitive celebrations of "struggle" on the walls of his beloved city. Those with other ideas took the expedient way out: They bought themselves a one-way ticket from Howrah Station. Kolkata became a great place to get out of.
Then CM Jyoti Basu addressing a rally in Kolkata in 1988. (Photo: Saibal Das)
Among the first things to strike a visitor to Mamata Banerjee's Kolkata is its steady incorporation into the melting pot of Indian urbanisation.
What had made Kolkata distinctive in the past was its sheer hellishness-the congestion, the overcrowding, the inhumanity of street life, the disruptions, the stench from garbage mountains, the potholes, the power cuts and, of course, the kaleidoscope of "struggle" on the walls. It was a Kolkata that was somehow tailor-made for the saintliness of a Mother Teresa, the stark cinematography of radicals who found beauty in suffering, and the ghoulish voyeurism of white connoisseurs of disaster tourism.
It's also an image that refuses to go away. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to combine her visits to the Victoria Memorial and La Martiniere school with the by-now obligatory celebration of initiatives for the uplift of sex workers. It prompted Sandip Ghose, a senior manager in a multinational, to remark on Twitter that the "Lapierre-esque portrayal of Kolkata, including parading of Sonagachi sex workers to foreign dignitaries, is sickening"
Sickening or reassuring, it doesn't correspond to the fact that Kolkata has ceased to be an urban nightmare. Indeed, for the average middle class resident, the city has become a rather attractive place to live. The new Chief Minister's contribution has not been insignificant. Thanks to the thousands of cactus or trishul-shaped lamp-posts installed on the main roads and even side streets, and funded from the mplads grants of Trinamool Congress's Rajya Sabha MPs, Kolkata must surely count among the best-lit cities in India. Coupled with the improvements in the quality of roads, an elaborate metro network and the mushrooming of modestly-priced flats all over the city, Kolkata is experiencing a new normal, centred on the re-establishment of civic order.
Why, if Trinamool Congress MP Derek O'Brien's claim is to be believed, the administration has pressed into service 14,000 people to clean the streets of Kolkata each day. If true, it is something that hasn't happened since the time the redoubtable B.C. Roy was chief minister between 1948 and 1962.
Last year, a restaurant serving Bengali fusion food opened in South Kolkata's Ballygunge. A new eatery in a city that is obsessed with good food isn't news. What was surprising is that the new eatery was located, of all places, on Bondel Road. Till only the other day, Bondel Road was a godforsaken connector linking Ballygunge Phari to the grim locality of Tiljala, on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Today, it houses a restaurant whose Saturday afternoon clientele could just as well have been transplanted from New Delhi's Khan Market.
There is a new Kolkata, bereft of the wall graffiti and the incessant bandhs, that is rapidly emerging. It is a city that is also re-learning something it forgot ever since the "troubles" began in 1967: The ability to enjoy itself. The Christmas lights reappeared in Park Street last year, there's always a wait for a table at Mocambo, Shiraz at the Park Circus crossing has undergone a face-lift and club life is booming. Even the College Street Coffee House has changed. "I went there after a long time," said a long-time Kolkata resident, "and I saw students gorging on plates of chowmein." Revolution R.I.P.
Mamata didn't create the change. The transformation had begun to be evident in the last years of the Left Front. Her advent and her over-stated claim of turning Kolkata into another London have reinforced a pre-existing trend. For five decades, Kolkata revelled in being contrarian; today, it is embracing normalcy with infectious enthusiasm.
"It's a bit like the freedom that prevailed in Russia between the end of the civil war in 1919 and the takeover by Stalin in 1927," suggests historian Rajat Kanta Ray, former vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University and, now, emeritus professor at Presidency University, the upgraded version of Presidency College.
The analogy may well be a trifle recondite but in the past one year, West Bengal is witnessing an uneven process of depoliticisation-a reaction to the intrusive, over-politicisation triggered by three decades of Left dominance. Since 2009, when the vulnerability of the Left was first exposed, the creative juices of Bengal have started flowing more generously than at any point in the past 50 years.
The lifting of the Bengali spirit may have more to do with the decline of the Left than with the advent of Mamata, but there is no doubt that the new environment of political non-involvement has acted as a trigger. "What is being witnessed is a generational change," said Gouri Chatterjee, a life-long resident of Kolkata who was till recently the editor of a magazine devoted to the performing arts. She attached importance to the entry of the "English-medium educated Bengalis with contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibilities" into films and theatre. Far removed from the generation that was inspired by subtitled European films but who were burdened by the trauma of Partition, this breed of artistes are not burdened by either pretentiousness or even a 'cause'.
Anik Dutta's Bhooter Bhabishyat (Future of the Past), which has been running to packed houses, is cited as one of Tollywood's best offerings-one which addresses contemporary themes without morbidity and which straddles the divide between Kolkata and Calcutta. Ironically, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the lead actor of Bhooter Bhabishyat andKahaani-a Bollywood film in a Bengali setting-is the grandson of Ritwik Ghatak, whose films helped define an earlier genre of Bengali films with definite political sub-texts.
Yet, it is impossible to escape from politics altogether. Bengal is probably the only part of India where public intellectuals are not only taken seriously but also perceive themselves to be politically consequential. It is a far cry from the days of the Coffee House when self-professed intellectuals split hairs, engaged in rarefied banter and proudly flaunted their fringe status. Thanks to the advent of energetic Bengali news channels, the ambiance of the Coffee House has been transferred to the studios-with interesting consequences.
The CPI(M)'s excesses in Nandigram and Singur first brought the public intellectuals into the limelight. They certainly played a major role in undermining the legitimacy of the Left Front and transforming the image of Mamata from a stormy petrel to that of a liberator. On her part, Mamata assiduously cultivated and wooed the public intellectuals-although her first preference was always Tollywood stars with mass appeal-who, on their part, injected her slogan of Poriborton (Change) with a dose of gravitas.
Any alliance between a hard-nosed politician and ponderous individuals with equally rigid certitudes was destined to be ephemeral. Within a year of assuming power, Mamata has antagonised many of those who flaunted the banner of poriborton. The Park Street rape and the arrest of a Jadavpur University lecturer for disseminating the "vanished" cartoon proved to be the flashpoints of estrangement. From being liberator, she was abruptly dubbed fascist and spiritedly denounced in modest-sized protest rallies and TV studios. The administration's crackdown on the ultra-Left-inspired squatters' agitation along a stretch of the Eastern Metropolitan bypass even inspired the iconic international rent-a-cause celebrity Noam Chomsky to protest.
The net outcome of the revolt of the buddhijibis has been two-fold. First, the intellectuals, always ill at ease with a lady who played by her own rules, responded to peer group pressure and reverted to their cosy corner as the conscience-keepers of the few. Secondly, the intellectual class was split between those who saw Mamata as a female Caligula and thebiddyajan, berated as captive intellectuals, who felt that she ought to be given more time to settle down.
What is interesting, and runs counter to the impression that Mamata is a stand-up comic, is that the Chief Minister continues to enjoy the confidence of those who seek to use her tenure to detoxify the state's institutions. The Mentor Group entrusted with restoring the quality of Presidency University has functioned without political interference, and its efforts to attract members of the Bengali diaspora back to the city's academic life are at an advanced stage. Yet, there are fears that the present wave of negative publicity may actually deter people from abandoning tenured posts overseas and in other parts of India.
The recovery of Bengal was a term that was first heard in 1972, after Siddhartha Shankar Ray gave the CPI(M) a bloody nose, using means that wouldn't have stood the scrutiny of human rights today. Since then, Bengal has undertaken many recovery ventures and has seen each one coming unstuck. Will Mamata's enterprise be any different?
Hoping for instant results is patently unrealistic. Mamata made a laughing stock of herself at an investors' meet by taking a roll call of the assembled worthies and demanding to know whether or not they will sink their money in West Bengal. After what happened to the Tatas in Singur, it is unlikely that the state will ever be the first choice of manufacturing industry. The mentality of the state has undergone a definite shift from the cholbe na ('won't do') days but there is still an under-utilised army of professional agitators who see every capitalist venture as a blood-sucking exercise. Their numbers may be small but their capacity for obstruction is considerable. There is a disproportionate political price a government has to pay for pressing the accelerator of economic growth.
Harsh Neotia of the Bengal Ambuja Group and one of the biggest investors in the state may have a point when he warns against comparing Kolkata with Delhi and Bangalore. In Kolkata, ambition invariably takes second place to the quality of life, with lots of civility and oodles of culture. In a competitive world, this makes the city a wonderful retirement home-affordable domestic help, modern healthcare and a compassionate environment.
Kolkata began life as the East India Company's foremost trading outpost. Today, it is trade and its ancillary services that keep the city vibrant. Yet, every chief minister since Independence has tried to bolster industry among a people who have developed a temperamental aversion to the rat race. Mamata isn't a great champion of capitalism as a historical process. Unlike Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who imbibed classical Marxism, she scarcely understands its dynamics. Ironically, it is this liberation from ideological profundity that may better equip her to guide a state that is most content seeing itself in the light of Bhutan's innovative Index of National Happiness. No wonder Rabindranath Tagore, and not Karl Marx, has remained the guiding force for a city that is rediscovering its lost soul.
(A critical response by a former Kolkata resident, Upal Chakraborty, is reproduced in full)
Swapan Dasgupta and his penchant for the ‘ridiculous’.
Swapan Dasgupta , a “Delhi-based political columnist and a member of the ever-growing Bengali diaspora” actually needs no introduction. A familiar face on News Channels, is famous for his rather outlandish views. Not many Neo-Liberals will have the gumption to openly state that in view of the staggering Fiscal Deficit, Food Security Bill should be delayed !!! That’s Swapan for you. A dogmatic believer in Free-Market Capitalism - the poor can starve while the rich enjoy tax breaks .
Swapan was fairly close to the BJP but gradually drifted away. The root cause I guess lies in the fact that the BJP’s economic policy is no longer in sync with his brand of Milton Friedman / Tea Party style Right-Wing Cowboy Economics. After all , unlike him, BJP has to face the hustings once in five years !!!
Swapan of course continues to retain his membership of the Narendra Modi Fan Club in spite of repeated defeats at the hands of Mani Shankar Aiyer .It is thus strange that in spite of Mamata’s known ”populist” stand on economic issues – anathema to the likes of him – he does not hesitate to display unalloyed admiration for her . We are referring to his article lifted from the latest edition of “India Today” . It seems that for Swapan and his ilk, any stick to beat the Communists with is good enough so long it's a stick.
The title itself betrays naiveté . Suffering from Bush's Either-Or syndrome (am not comparing the Intelligence Quotients here) , for him it’s either Tagore or Marx. Am reminded of a recent ET article authored by Shiv Viswanathan’s from where I quote just one sentence : “The Indian mind seems full of different ideas which cohabit happily, but do not converse with each other.” Tagore and Marx can of course not just coexist but converse and enrich themselves through mutual interaction.
A few months back, we had the fortune of attending a mellifluous rendering of “Shesher Kobita” by Soumitra and Sharmila Tagore . The recital, organized, by a Charitable Trust, was preceded by a short speech by its President, a middle-aged and dignified lady .She was narrating an incident a few years back on the occasion of a presentation by a Lat Am poet of his Spanish translations of Tagore at Kolkata . The erstwhile CM had requested for a few minutes at the end to recite from his favorite poem “Africa” also recited in Spanish a while back. Swapan of course is the last person expected at such events but then it's common knowledge that a BB speech hardly concludes without a Tagore quotation . So Marx and Tagore can actually coexist !
It is true that Tagore’s songs were not played at traffic intersections those days – most of which have in any case stopped working. There are myriad ways to display one’s love and admiration for Tagore and all he stood for – some sober and others frivolous.
For him, “struggle” is a romance – not a battle of existence for the have-nots, “suffering” is “beautiful” ,the slogan ”Cholbena” not a call for protest against Injustice but an occupation for an “army of professional agitators who see every capitalist venture as a blood-sucking exercise” To the Stephanian of the early seventies known for his Leftist views those days, the recent incidents in Greece, Italy, Spain and even the US have eluded him.
A Restaurant opening in Bondel Road is newsworthy as Kolkata seemingly gears up as a “normal” city to forsake contrarianism while striving to become a London ! Unfortunately, apart from the CM and her incorrigible sidekicks , he is the only person who believes that this is possible. In the process he does not mind throwing elementary Economics out of the window.
In one year, “ Kolkata has ceased to be an urban nightmare. Indeed, for the average middle class resident, the city has become a rather attractive place to live. The new Chief Minister's contribution has not been insignificant.”
In what way?
“Thanks to the thousands of cactus or trishul-shaped lamp-posts installed on the main roads and even side streets, and funded from the mplads grants of Trinamool Congress's Rajya Sabha MPs, Kolkata must surely count among the best-lit cities in India.”
He either displays pathetic ignorance or is indulging in falsehood for Kolkata , even in its worst days of power cuts and Infrastructure breakdowns dating back to the Eighties , carried its reputation as a brightly-lit city. When our Company shifted base in 1991, the MD , a resident of Vasant Vihar, an upmarket locality, used to fondly remember Kolkata’s brightly-lit streets. Another senior colleague had an eye problem and refused to drive after sunset which he used to do freely while in Kolkata.
He continues :” Coupled with the improvements in the quality of roads, an elaborate metro network and the mushrooming of modestly-priced flats all over the city, Kolkata is experiencing a new normal, centred on the re-establishment of civic order.” Even the Metro Network and modestly-priced flats all around (which even the best Civil Engineer of the world could not have constructed in less than in a year) are touted as achievements of the present regime!!
The symbols of enjoyment ? Garish Christmas lights in Park Street. Thousands of revelers stalking Park Street for 34 years during the Christmas – New Year week never really enjoyed themselves because the lights were not as garish.
And there was no creative juice flowing for 34 years – no Satyajit Ray, no Mrinal, no Buddhadev Dasgupta, no Rituparno, Rudraprasad, “Galileo” , Shombhu Mitra , no Film Festivals, no “Nathabati Anathabath” , no “36, Chowringhee”no Kabir Suman, Bhoomi or Chandrabindu.
Creativity had to wait for 35 years till D-day - Eden Gardens on 28th May, 2012 .
No – he has not finished as yet .The last punch will surely hit you under the belt . “Even the College Street Coffee House has changed. "I went there after a long time," said a long-time Kolkata resident, "and I saw students gorging on plates of chowmein. Revolution R.I.P.” Chowmein-gorging students symbolize for him the end of Revolution !!!!!!!
It is only towards the end that he injects a modicum of sense into an otherwise banal essay “Ironically, it is this liberation from ideological profundity that may better equip her to guide a state that is most content seeing itself in the light of Bhutan's innovative Index of National Happiness.”
He does accept – albeit unwittingly - that there are ways other than crass consumerism to attain happiness . And it is this inherent feeling of happiness that will see Bengal through. I guess it does not need sagely advices from the Swapan Dasguptas of the world.