Along the unquiet Hooghly
S Prasannarajan | 16 Apr, 2021
(Illustrations: Saurabh Singh)
ONE APRIL evening in Kolkata, dark clouds and distant thunder provided the metaphor the city was desperate for as competing slogans of change were the familiar noise for a while. They call it Kalbaishakhi, in English Nor’wester, a dramatic prelude to a new beginning, a louder repudiation of what was unbearable yesterday, or an exaggerated expression of hope. Poets had their play with it, and seen in it revolution’s reminder—and the ferocity of so many nameless emotions. This was an early coming, and it was not a time for poetry; it was more appropriate to read it as nature’s early interpretation of politics, which today is caught between the squandered spirit of change that once marked Bengal’s liberation from a superannuated ideology and a religious resurgence that taps into Bengal’s rich repository of cultural nationalism. It is a struggle between the redundancy of change, pronounced as poriborton in the sonorous lingua of those who seek it, and its reinvention by the politics of Hindu resentment. In the rolling resonance of Kalbaishakhi on that April evening, politics in search of initial intimations could have heard the first call of freedom—or the fate of the fettered.
Metaphors have only limited powers when reality is so overwhelming. In the city of Kolkata, reality is a comforting deception, or a necessary echo chamber, lost to the casual flâneur in this election season. It is, as the city itself—restored to the mixed aesthetics of decay, reconstruction, and the staggering perseverance of colonial remnants—is stillness in sepia pitted against the relentlessness of anger. Ten years ago, the name of that anger was Mamata Banerjee, shortened for the purpose of invocation as Didi, a lone woman in rumpled cotton sari and rubber slippers, mesmerising the masses as Our Sister of Deliverance. It was Bengal’s annus mirabilis, its version of 1989, as Mamata—spartan, severe and soaring in popular imagination—challenged the Big Lie that lasted for more than three decades, selling revolution to the sub-rural soviets of Bengal. The longevity of communism in Bengal—empires may fall and Walls may be breached but we-shall-let-the-spectre-haunt-us—had already calcified dreams. Then happened the sister, the counter-socialist, and she stole the red earth that had sustained the comrades for so long and sent the doddering grail keepers of Alimuddin Street into the irrelevance they deserved. Didi was the demolition diva. For some, she was the second most popular goddess of Bengal as she danced on the last remains of an ideology.
Once again, the passions and pathologies of Bengal will put the future of politics into sharper relief, or that’s what one of democracy’s most successful campaigners intends to achieve
Ten years on, she is still fighting—for her political life. And there is a new usurper in town, tapping into the elemental identities of the same class that once swayed to Didi’s poriborton tune. The liberator of 2011 is the victim of 2021, for she feels defeated by the visible shift in the Bengali psyche which has dared to accept the possibility—just the possibility—of an ‘invader’ who pretends to be the sole custodian of the cultural lineage of a state she, she alone, rescued from the communists. She feels threatened by the Hindu-isation of rural Bengal, her shaken citadel. She is not fighting for retaining power; she is fighting against the memory of powerlessness. Ends, in Bengal politics, are abrupt, merciless. She is the wounded daughter of the soil, and in her shrill self-portrait on the stump, she is under attack from the worst instincts of communal politics, even as she plays the guardian of one equally endangered community. Power has de-mythicised the sister; absolute power has denied her a mirror.
Someone else is holding it for her, but she is still not looking. En route the Sundarbans, and we had just left Kolkata behind, in yet another drab town of obvious Muslim predominance, she is still the liberator, a natural successor to their previous benefactor: the communists. Power has corrupted her, says a shopkeeper, whose best-selling items seem to be instant noodles. Still, he won’t dump her; the alternative is hideous—and she herself is not corrupt. It’s the dubiousness of this distinction—a corrupt regime headed by a clean chief minister—that her apologists use to vindicate her, maybe for five more years. In Bengal’s politics of deflection, the repository of evil is perhaps the most indulged nephew in Indian politics, who lives in an inappropriately named house on Harish Mukherjee Road in Kolkata: Shanti Niketan. Abhishek Banerjee has become the useful bogeyman whenever corruption becomes a conversation in Kolkata’s Mamata-friendly circles: it’s all him; she’s so pure. The purity prevails beyond Kolkata, in those parts of rural Bengal where the fear of the political Hindu adds to the consolidation of the Muslim vote, which Didi owns.
In Bengal’s politics of deflection, the repository of evil is perhaps the most indulged nephew in Indian politics, who lives in an inappropriately named house on Harish Mukherjee Road in Kolkata: Shanti Niketan
This kind of ownership is, in the hoary tradition of simulated secular politics, noble, empathetic, and even a historical correction. And suddenly, someone says, it is not, Bengali exceptionalism is not Mamata’s brand of Bengali selectivism. The exact words are not used, but her challenger has questioned her right to rule, on moral, cultural and administrative grounds. There is no one within the state to stand up to her and dare, and some of them who want to were at her bidding till the other day. Narendra Modi, Mamata’s antagonist in Bengal, has changed this election from being a local referendum into a national vote. Once again, the passions and pathologies of Bengal will put the future of politics into sharper relief, or that’s what one of democracy’s most successful campaigners intends to achieve. Modi is relentless in highlighting Mamata’s redundancy, and he is directly asking her to go. Even if he doesn’t dwell too much on it, the natural instinct of Bengal politics makes his party an easy alternative to Mamata’s TMC. The only trouble is Bengal is the countryside, and it’s too poor to stress the cultural content of this election, which is left to the sophisticates of Bengal Club. Still, Modi, with his white beard blowing in the wind, as if he has just stepped out of an illustrated book of Bengali renaissance, in his stump speeches is gleefully confrontational, and he exudes the determination of a man who cannot afford to lose time in bringing a sense of fullness to the poriborton he started in 2014. Without Bengal it’ll remain culturally insufficient. Mamata refuses to pave the way, rhetorically at least, unaware of the reckoning.
As you drive towards the Sunderbans, you have to return to Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. In one of my favourite passages, “It [the tiger] seemed to have been following the storm’s eye, like the birds, resting whenever it could. It became aware of their presence at exactly the same moment they spotted it; although it was several hundred yards away, she could tell that it was an immense animal, so large it seemed incredible that the tree could sustain its weight. Without blinking, the tiger watched them for several minutes; during this time it made no movement other than to twitch its tail. She could imagine that if she had been able to put a hand on its coat, she would have been able to feel the pounding of its heart.” Ghosh’s tiger knew the storm would return. I thought this fictional diversion was what we needed when the triteness of a political portrait was pervasive: Bengal’s incumbent as a wounded tigress. The storm was coming, and she would not have missed it had she been modest enough to realise the fragility of me-alone mythology. She is faced with a counter-theology of salvation, and the gospel is being spread by Indian politics’ most charismatic proselytiser. The name of the storm rhymes with hers.
“I rekindled my Bengali roots which had, predictably, been blunted by decades of cosmopolitanism,” says Swapan Dasgupta
Sometimes, we need to step out of the hyperbole of poriborton to appreciate the cool reason of a future BJP promises, and the temple town of Tarakeshwar, a two-hour drive from Kolkata, provides the perfect backdrop. Candidate Swapan Dasgupta—a name that cannot be unfamiliar to the readers of this magazine—sums up the sanity and sophistication of the argument on the Right. His anglicised conservative mind has given the Right the kind of interpretation that dwells less on kitsch but more on ideas that shaped India’s cultural evolution. He was there even when writing on politics with a Hindu accent was seen as an intellectual freak show. He endured the loneliness of the right-wing columnist. In his book, Awakening Bharat Mata, published on the eve of the 2019 General Election, he wrote: “Change in India has always proceeded at an unhurried pace. Nehru was able to nudge India away from its Hinduised nationalist legacy because he ruled without any opposition for fourteen years…
The forces of Hindu nationalism will need much more time, elbow room and even a greater show of political imagination before India can acquire an alternative common sense.”
When I meet him, the candidate is steeped in the pastoral picaresque of the debutant, sunburned but soothed by the smiles—“and I get a lot of them.” That is encouraging. The candidate, too, is smiling, for good reason.
“What’s it like, contesting your first election?”
She is not fighting for retaining power; she is fighting against the memory of powerlessness
“When I was informed by Amit Shah that I must contest from Tarakeshwar, I was nervous. The fact that I had not ever been involved in grassroots politics added to my trepidation. Tarakeshwar was a new area for me, although I was familiar with other parts of Hooghly district. However, the warmth of the ordinary party supporters overwhelmed me and allowed me the luxury of jumping headlong into the campaign. I had barely 15 days to make myself known in the sprawling rural constituency and I had to work overtime. I worked incessantly, travelling in the remotest areas. I think I managed to visit some 90 per cent of the booths. My being an ‘outsider’ did matter. I had to convince people that my commitment to the constituency was genuine and that I would be accessible to people. People want their MLA to be accessible, to hear their complaints and suggestions, and to visit them periodically. I think I did succeed in telling people that once I accepted the responsibility, it came with a sense of duty.”
“You think it’s a moment of transformation for Bengal, politically as well as culturally—and are you thrilled being part of it?”
“I see this election as a watershed moment for West Bengal. I think people are anxious to break out of the stereotype of the ‘difficult Bengali’ and the ‘cussed Bengalio’. The youth in particular want opportunities to grow. I think the entry of BJP has given them a platform and Modi is an inspiration. The people are keen to move away from violence and conflict. They want to move ahead. There is also a widespread recognition that Bengal has fallen behind in the national league. This recognition does not conflict with the sense of Bengali pride. Both exist concurrently. I think contesting the election is a transformative moment for me. I liked the fact that I was now a significant part of the change. I rekindled my Bengali roots which had, predictably, been blunted by decades of cosmopolitanism. I was also struck by the fact that underneath the veneer of Bengali radicalism, village society in Bengal was firmly rooted in the Sanatani culture of Bengal. These are abiding values.”
As I leave him, a worker comes and whispers to me, “We like him, he is unlike us.” Bengalis have not abandoned the good habit of romancing fellow Bengalis who are smarter than them.
Tapping into what Dasgupta calls the Sanatani culture of Bengal’s village society takes a grassroots offensive. One of the party’s national general secretaries, Arvind Menon, is out there, mobilising the villages to “make Bengal golden again.” One early morning over phone from a border village, he recites to me in alphabetical order the glossary of corruption he uses to educate the last village believer in Mamata. Add to that tutorial the ditty of “Krishna Krishna hare hare/kamal phool ghare ghare”, you have got one more convert, he tells me. One more vote to the tally of 180 to 200 seats he hopes BJP to win. Doesn’t matter whether it’s irrational expectation or a reflection of Bengal’s telluric churn. This confidence is a far cry from the paranoia of the sister raging against the invader with an easy access to the Bengali Resentment.
Modi, with his white beard blowing in the wind, as if he has just stepped out of an illustrated book of Bengali renaissance, in his stump speeches exudes the determination of a man who cannot afford to lose time in bringing a sense of fullness to the poriborton he started in 2014. Without Bengal, it’ll remain culturally insufficient
By the stoic Hooghly, as you savour a pre-noon coffee from the balcony of The Denmark Tavern, a hidden heritage hotel with a rich backstory, resentment is not what the river, which carries within its depths more dramatic stories of invaders and conquests, conveys. It flows with the knowing abandon of a witness to changes bigger than what today’s slogans can contain. The Hooghly is still indulgent.