“Time gives the pictures; I merely speak the words which accompany them.” —Stefan Zweig
SIGHT. SOUND. SMELL. SMELL: BURNT rubber; leather and canvas for shoe uppers. Sound: hooter and hoot—the siren summoning legions of bicycle-riding workers; on the odd winter’s morning, the blast of a ship’s horn sailing upstream to the Kidderpore docks or heading downstream for Diamond Harbour. (Winter morn because the sound wouldn’t have travelled far without the drier air—when we still had winters.) Sight: tracks and trees disappearing in a tapering perspective, unlike the treeline across the muddy waters—defiant, in a different district. Smell: mango blossoms, rotting blackberries, kaath golap (Plumeria alba), garden rose. Sound: the clickety-clack of trains on the track, the whistle to warn stray quadrupeds and careless bipeds. Sight: Mohun Bagan and East Bengal hopefuls in tracksuit warming up at first light.
How do you memorialise a place that exists in space but not in time? It’s not enough to make memory speak.
The mind doesn’t process everything the eyes see and the ears hear. More often than not, you remember because your senses haven’t forgotten. For instance, there were two bends in the river. Across one, I could see the Second Hooghly Bridge aka Vidysagar Setu in the distance. Across the other, on a very clear day, I could make out the faintest hint of the Howrah Bridge. And yet, when I look at the map, there was no way I could have seen the Howrah Bridge from where I stood. Sometimes, the mind remembers what the eye didn’t see. Or did it?
Welcome to Batanagar. Once a pretty little industrial town (no sarcasm intended) built by the Czechs, then killed by the militant Left, now being resurrected by real estate.
Back then, it was a Sunday picnic spot for Calcuttans in search of a weekend escape from city pent. Now, it’s where Kolkatans buy luxury apartments with a view of the river. Building a city to escape a city from dusk to dawn. Back then, the little suburban town was Bengal’s de facto football capital. Not an exaggeration, given the names and numbers it has contributed to the Calcutta clubs and the Indian national team. Now, if you don’t get a riverview penthouse, you can always look the other way—down at the golf course for the incoming gentry.
There used to be a statue of Tomáš Baťa atop the boys’ high school. But it’s unlikely that the founder of the Bata shoe company had anything to do with the town, named after his company like several others. Tomáš Baťa died in 1932. It was his half-brother Jan Antonín Baťa, who had taken over the Bata establishment, that built Batanagar, officially beginning in 1934, moving the tiny production unit set up earlier in Konnagar in Hooghly district in 1931-32. Now, was it really Tomáš Baťa up there on the high school? One can’t say since the statue is long gone and the more you ask the oldtimers, the more they impose their confusion on you. (Maybe I got it wrong and they always meant Bata Jr?) In any case, nobody pronounced the name “‘tomaːʃ”. Everybody said “T-h-h- o-m-a-a-s”.
The Batas, among the first multinationals and now with a 90-year-old presence in India, were victims of the 20th century’s two big totalitarianisms: in 1939, Tomáš Jan Baťa aka Thomas J Bata aka Thomas Bata Jr escaped to Canada soon after the Nazi invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia and rebuilt the company. (Before the occupation, the company had tried to save its Jewish employees by posting them at Bata concerns outside Europe.) After World War II, the communists nationalised the company and grabbed its factories across East Europe. And before all of that, Bata (the company) had revolutionised not only the shoe industry but also the practice of industrial management. In that sense, Batanagar was our very own Zlín, the Moravian town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire where it all began as the archetype of “Baťaville”—a single industrial town that housed not only the manufacturing unit of the end product but also all or most of its ancillary industries as well as a complete working and living experience for the employee, from housing and school to department store (or cooperative shopping complex in this case), hospital, cinema, library, clubs, etc.
The Batas were pioneers of employee welfare, but Tomáš Baťa had taken it further as one of the first industrialists to bring every employee on board with a stake in the company through his profit-sharing scheme. At about the same time, his historic price-halving in the post-World War I slump, when one by one his competitors were shutting shop, made the company a near-monopoly in the market for affordable shoes. It wasn’t all heroic though. The taint of collaboration with the Nazis was more than a rumour. Jan Antonín was blacklisted by the US (where he was living) and the UK and moved to Brazil. The post-war Czechoslovak government sentenced him in absentia to 15 years in prison as a traitor, although he was a financier of Edvard Beneš’ government-in-exile. Worst of all, the Arbeit at Auschwitz-Birkenau reportedly couldn’t have started without Jewish slave labour used by the former Bata factory at Chełmek. Then again, that factory in occupied Poland was already in Nazi hands.
At the factory set up by these victims-refugees-exiles-collaborators, refugees from another cataclysm sought and found employment. Leather being laden with caste implications and notions of purity, the Bata factory was a sort of anathema to the locals who predated the arrival of the Czech behemoth by a good century or more when the first houses had come up by the river which was the only means of transport before railways and roads. Staring at the emaciated façade of such a, often abandoned, house I could only wonder about its past and imagine history as lived on dark, lamplit evenings battling swamp mosquitoes by the widening Hooghly as it coursed its way towards the Bay of Bengal. (There’s an inherent sadness about Bengal’s riverfronts at sunset.) But post-1947, the East Bengali refugee, too desperate for an income to be constrained by prejudice, readily found work at Bata. The sociology and demography recast, it was next the turn of politics.
Batanagar has had one of the goriest experiences of Naxalism. There were enough young men willing to be lost to an early death. But there was also the proverbial story of friend killing friend that I grew up with. The street wisdom of the 1970s: you just walked past, you didn’t look, no matter who was knifing whom, lest you be killed yourself. I hardly had an older family member who hadn’t seen or heard something, firsthand. There was, for instance, a notorious Naxalite (actually a goon) whose MO was gouging his victims’ eyes out. When they got him, finally, they went, literally, an eye for an eye. Apparently, the walls inside the men’s toilet on Platform No 2 of the railway station were still stained by his blood. Or so my grandmother had said. I had taken a look, sometime in the late 1980s, out of a 12-year-old’s curiosity, but couldn’t tell given how filthy the toilet walls were anyway, let alone the years that had passed. But Batanagar by the river was, above all, an escape route for those fleeing the police.
The bloodshed was before my time. What I remember is the factory hooter falling silent one day in 1988 with the lockout. Years of militant trade unionism and management intransigence had finally shut the workers out. It made national and subsequently sustained state news. There was no big Puja and fair that year on the Newland grounds—Newland is the name of the larger Bata township that used to be dotted with single-storey red-and-white Czech-designed employee ‘quarters’—and children missed the annual carnival while their parents weighed the past against the present with little hope for the future. Not being ‘Bata people’ (or not in the company’s employment), we nevertheless saw friends and family go through a difficult time on both sides of the occupational divide. When the hooter sounded again, perhaps more than a half-year later, the sense was one of relief on all sides. The management mellowed but with the upper-hand; the union temporarily chastened. It was said that “Bata Saheb”—Thomas Bata Jr who was a periodic visitor—had been loath to cut his losses and close the factory for good since he had a sentimental attachment to this particular one, Bata’s first in India. However that might have gone down, the Newland Puja was back with a bang, the crowds swelled in 1989, almost in an unwitting imitation of the multitudes in the Batas’ homeland and elsewhere that year who were putting an end to Stalinism in East Europe.
The next all-consuming bout of excitement I remember was when Lata Mangeshkar came to town, for one of her biggest late concerts, in the winter of 1992/93. There was a backstory: in April 1991, on a roadtrip to the seaside resort town of Digha, my uncle became obsessed with Lata’s ‘Chale Jaana Nahin’ which he kept playing in a loop (rewinding the tape, of course). Staring at the evening sea from the hotel balcony, he declared: “I will bring her to Bata.” After months of networking and nearly working himself to death, the ads started coming out in the Calcutta papers, the ticket prices were announced, and soon my classmates at St Xavier’s were talking about it. Before Lata, there had been Hema Malini, though I’m not sure when and for how big an audience. A reportedly regular star visitor was Kapil Dev— with his own Bata connection. I was directed to a particular speed-breaker at a Newland busstop once and told that when his car had slowed on it, a bunch of local youths had stuck their necks in through the window. Kapil had asked with a smile: “Kya hai? (What is it?)” The reply: “Kapil, tera yeh daant mujhhe de de (Kapil, give me those teeth of yours).” So much for Bengali wit and good-natured irreverence, but did it happen at all? At the time of the 1962 war, KM Cariappa had come on the government’s collection drive for voluntary donations of jewellery, etc. (The ageing former Commander-in-Chief, according to an eyewitness account, had put a hand on the back of an uncle of my mother’s who needlessly walked with a stoop and straightened him, chest out, without a word.)
But the biggest of them all? That would be Diego Maradona. He didn’t set foot in Batanagar per se but was at a stone’s throw with the kids in Maheshtala, the sub-divisional area encompassing Batanagar. The experience of being touched by greatness, and passed over, had perhaps begun on February 19, 1897 when Swami Vivekananda took the train from nextdoor Budge Budge—later of the Komagata Maru memorial—up to the city, after getting off the boat from Madras via Ceylon, having begun his return voyage post-Chicago 1893 in Naples the year before. (In 2017-18, Eastern Railway had commissioned a special commemorative train.)
Hours spent on Google Maps can show how much a place has changed, even though you couldn’t have known every inch of it. You see two towns. The uber-posh highrises jumping out of the screen as against the humbler dwellings flattened to the green. What satellite images won’t tell you is that it was always two towns, two peoples, and not just geographically. The biggest outsiders were those at the innermost core, the so-called “Saheb Quarters” aka “The Colony” where very senior managers and their families lived, walled in and cut off from the rest of town. We, the non-Bata people, marvelled at this socio-psychology playing out between the two sets of “Bata people” whereby a child bettered at sport or a fistfight would cite their father’s rank as the last resort.
Batanagar was our very own Zlín, the Moravian town where it all began as the archetype of ‘Bataville’—a single industrial town that provided a complete working and living experience, from housing and school to department store, hospital, cinema, library, clubs, etc
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The Puja ground and the Bata Stadium (which had nurtured many a footballer of note and also hosted Lata’s concert) have moved; a happy fact since they didn’t simply disappear to make way for the residential towers which, rest assured, are a necessity even as one more house goes under the hammer. A 7.5 km-long flyover was built to cut travel time between Bata and the city to a few minutes. You have to re-imagine a place; you must utilise space; you must create jobs, keeping an eye on the green aesthetic and the water bodies. That trite formulation is, at least, the ideal. That’s why I don’t look back like “il ragazzo della via Gluck”. There was no Lyckliga gatan.
It was the “Batashire” of my imagination as a university mate would later put it. I would prefer the Bataville of reality. A microcosm of post-Partition Bengal, a place not without history, and another one that we won’t preserve even the memory of. What doesn’t change is the “Welcome to Batanagar” signage in one avatar or another.
Perhaps what mattered most was the sound of the Puja dhaak travelling across the river. It’s always better on the other side. Till you get there.