By Swati Sanyal Tarafdar Apr. 29, 2016
Kolkata's most strident political conversations brew at its local addas. As polls enter the final stages, we eavesdrop on four friends debating poriborton over chai and biskoot.
Arunangshu, fondly called Aaru by his friends, reaches the local tea stall of his hometown to catch up with his friends at their old adda. Aaru, home from the UK, where he’s been working for the last five years, is in Kolkata to enjoy his vacation, and also to cast his vote. Although he has kept himself abreast of the happenings in his home city in between teaching at a college in Reading, he is looking forward to discussing all the changing political dynamics in West Bengal with his old friends.
Shishir and Sunil join him soon. A few excited greetings later, they settle on creaky benches and Aaru asks good old Nibaronda to serve them tea in clay cups, along with rustic biscuits, like old times. As they wait for the tea, Aaru begins, “Tell me now you two, how is Didi faring?”
His simple question has the reaction of an explosion. Startled, his friends stand up and Nibaronda stops cold in his tracks. They exchange meaningful glances. Shishir holds Aaru by his arm and drags him homewards. “Let’s go, we can have tea and adda at home.”
Flustered at this change of plans, Aaru allows himself to be dragged away.
Aaru and his generation of Bengalis played a big role in ushering in “poriborton” five years back, sincerely voting for Mamata Banerjee, and her symbolic “jora phool”, and ousting the communists. CPI(M)’s strength and ground-hold was not easy to deal with, and even the most apolitical person in Bengal was desperate for a change. Didi sailed on this wind easily. Now, after five years, it was time to reflect on Didi’s tenure and once again, cast their vote.
Aaru drops himself on the Mukherjee family’s heirloom sofa. Shishir, his childhood friend and current owner of this ancient mansion in North Kolkata, switches on the fan and huddles on the sofa facing him, while Sunil, the third of the trio, closes the windows behind them. Aaru finally gets the chance to vent.
“What was that all about? I was looking forward to catching up at Nibaronda’s, like old times.”
“Old times have changed Aaru da,” says Binita, Shishir’s sister, carrying a tray of Bengali goodies and tea. “If you have to speak your heart, it’s safer to do it behind closed doors these days.
There are not too many alternatives to Didi, with the Left finally and shamelessly tying up with the Congress, and the BJP filled with opportunists.
“Luchi is coming,” she adds with her usual good-natured wink and leaves the room. Aaru lights a cigarette. Outside, the city comes lazily to life on this quiet Sunday morning. The assembly election in West Bengal has finished its fourth phase and in every corner of this politically active city, conversations about Didi are playing out over hot breakfasts of luchi and aloor tarkari.
Sensing Aaru’s impatience, Shishir begins to explain. “A couple of weeks back, a few Trinamool Congress (TMC) goons attacked a group of youngsters at Nibaronda’s stall. They were discussing politics, among other things, just the way we used to do. They may have criticised Didi and even before they had finished their chat, they were roughed up; one of them is still nursing a broken leg. They have been warned that if there’s a next time, no one will find a trace of them. Nibaronda also suffered some losses and has been warned. It’s not like old times, Aaru. It’s not safe to discuss Didi and politics publicly.”
Aaru is flabbergasted. This scared silence is new to him. “But, this is our para, and it’s custom to deliberate on every little thing at Nibaronda’s. Who are these goons?”
Sunil intervenes. “Most local clubs these days receive favours, in cash and kind, from the TMC leaders. Naturally, they are now sold to them. Often members of these club, mostly unemployed and impressionable kids, are at the beck and call of these leaders.
“The polls have been marred by violence. The EC has placed Trinamool’s Anubrata Mandal under 24X7 surveillance for intimidating voters; there were shots fired, bombs hurled in Birbhum, and so far, three CPM activists have been killed.”
Aaru interrupts, “This is absurd. West Bengal has always been vocal about politics, arts, and everything around us. Didi can’t ditch like this. We all loved her; we brought her to power, prayed for her win. Remember how we sat together, hundreds of us, cheering for her on counting day, beside the Ganga in Babughat?”
Shishir tries to placate his friend. “True, but now love alone can’t keep her in the hot seat. There are not too many alternatives to Didi, with the Left finally and shamelessly tying up with the Congress, and the BJP filled with opportunists.”
“So? If she has no opposition to worry about, why should she be so insecure and bar people from speaking out,” Aaru asks, stubbing out his cigarette angrily.
Shishir and Sunil exchange glances and this time Sunil takes the lead. “Goondaism is not new in Bengal, and anyone who sits on the throne employs some defence. During the CPM rule, party cadres falsely vouched that they are powerful, promised help, and then bluffed the public. Took credits for jobs done by others. We have grown up seeing booth-capturing, terrorising, casting of fake votes, manipulation of officers during elections.”
He continues, “See what’s happening in Jorasanko. When the Vivekananda flyover crashed, every party focused on appropriating the political benefits. Did you all notice how the voices around such a major crisis died down? It didn’t even take a week for the media to pull a blanket over the issue.
Shishir adds, “And of course now, the flyover has become an election issue and Didi is taking full advantage. When people in that neighbourhood go to cast their votes, someone invariably tries to bring up the issue hoping that reminding people of the crash will sway their opinion. But to be fair, Didi did warn them on their casual approach in giving out the contracts for the flyover.”
Aaru absorbs all this information silently. “I still don’t understand this new dictatorial attitude…”
“Well, I think distrust bothers her. It’s become her basic tenet. She has suffered a lot. Remember how she was physically abused and hit in the head by CPM cadres in Bantola? We were very young then to understand all of it, but I remember even our pro-CPM elders condemning the attack.”
Binita walks in with four plates of mouth-watering luchi and aloor tarkari and immediately joins the conversation. “And that horrendous attack and a few others probably robbed her of gender sensitivity.”
For a while, the adda pauses. The first serving is finished amid silence, and then comes another basket full of piping hot luchis. Gradually the conversation picks up again.
“What were you saying about gender sensitivity,” a satiated Aaru asks Binita.
Binita says, “Actually, not sensitivity. Insensitivity. Didi seems to have lost all values, all compassion, and warmth for the people around her, especially for women. Otherwise, how could she consistently brush aside every rape accusation in the past few years and call them trivial? Hundreds of girls, my college friends, each one of us has felt let down.”
Aaru is at a loss for words. He looks pensive. While browsing through Bengali e-newspapers in Reading, he never felt any indication of this heat of discomfort and anguish that his friends and relatives were nursing. Finally he mumbles, “But weren’t her starting days at the helm very exciting?”
“Oh yes. No doubt. There was indeed a lot of drama, Anil Kapoor’s ‘Nayak’ style. She visited government offices and hospitals, took attendance of employees, sacked a few. She made headlines for 30 consecutive days after taking charge. It was an eventful start. We hung by each word the press used to describe her actions. A lot has changed really. There are functional street lamps, all the public buildings have got a coat of paint – their colours changed to white and blue – there is food for the poor, bicycles for rural girls to ride to school, unemployed youth and widows get concessions, bus stops have become cleaner, even MLAs are spending their funds to revamp their localities. There have been many positive changes in the state’s infrastructure – roads, hospitals, water supply, and maintenance of the canals…”
Aaru: “That’s impressive!”
Sunil agrees. “For long, the state was stagnant. She has broken that jinx. The ball is rolling, but there are a few things that she needs to work on as well. She is hardly open to feedback. Everybody is scared of her and sometimes she turns a blind eye to her party men’s folly. Accepting that everything can’t be perfect at all times, we might have to just bear with it…”
Aaru sighs. “Looks like Didi’s men are using muscle power like the CPM. Who is the better of the two? It’s like choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
“Didi, of course,” everyone choruses.
“See, Aaru, “ Sunil explains, “there aren’t many options. And she deserves to have another term – another five years to get more done, maybe to find her tempo. West Bengal has tolerated the Left for 35 years, five years of TMC isn’t too long compared to that.”
“But what about the CPM and the Congress alliance? Don’t you think together they can challenge Didi?”
Shishir shoots Aaru an amazed look. “Why? Do you want CPM to return?”
“Oh, not in a hundred years!” Aaru is quick to assure them.
“I don’t think this CPM-Congress gathbandhan can harm Didi in any way. Maybe she will lose a couple of seats. You might not have seen those clips, but videos of Congress leaders being chased for life by CPM supporters were played for days on regional channels until four years back. And now, the same leaders have joined hands. The public might have a short memory, but not so short that they will forget so easily the antagonism between the two parties. Their alliance has only corroded our trust toward them.”
“What about the BJP,” Aaru asks.
At this point, Sunil starts laughing out loud. “I teach in a school in one of the remotest parts of Bengal. Although there are a few saffron flags here and there, the real saffronisation is happening in grocery shops and people’s kitchens – through Patanjali products, and the scantily dressed model – Baba Ramdev.”
Rolls of laughter follow.
Aaru shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe it’s not so hard to decide, isn’t it? Yes, freedom of speech and tolerance are what I will fight for, but there’s a lot to be said for progress too. I guess that’s what’s happening at the Centre also.”
“So what will you do, Aaru? Vote for Didi?” Binita teases him.
“I guess so. But this time I may not stay up praying for her win,” Aaru smiles back sadly.
The comments above are the result of interviewing real people living in Kolkata. They have simply been rearranged for narrative flow.
Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a journalist and writer who is easily intrigued and inspired by the human spirit of selflessness and positivity. She writes about development and sustainability, health, environment, food and culture, and some soft takes on Bengali politics.