DIDI!

Mamata Banerjee is already being iconised into a hyperbolic mother/goddess symbol. Can she overcome the deadweight and thwarted aspirations of 34 years of Left rule?
Partha & Priyanka Mukherjee Kolkata

"Kolkata is like a parrot. It never losses its 'green' whatever be its age," wrote a poet. I mocked at this portrayal, called it too lyrical, away from reality. But May 20, 2011, proved my cynicism wrong. 

Truly, it is. At least, anyone present in the city on that day would find it flooded with the colour of grass (trinamool: grassroot). A foreigner friend of mine remarked, "Wow! I thought Kolkatans rub their shoulders only with 'red'. What a fool I am!" 

Anyway, red is out, green is in, and time will tell what matches the city best. 

"We have had enough of red, and the green take-over is almost imminent," said Sardar Inder Singh, a cab driver, who reckons that the spirit of the city and that of the person coming to rule it would blend with one another. "Also, red reminds us of energy, valour and victory, provided it doesn't gather the rust of time - the rust of ruin," mentioned a homecoming clerk of Writers' Building, before he could manage to step on the footboard of a ramshackle minibus caught in the congestion of traffic. 

Though 'Didi' was reported to have expressed her resentment against the way other cars were stopped to give way to her convoy, the city police, engaged in traffic control, rose to the occasion with renewed vim and vigour. "Anyway, a change is in the offing," said a bearded 20-plus crushing the stub of his cigarette under his sneaker. 

Youth is when you seek newness in everything - it is this that sets the wheel of change apace. Now, this youthfulness is not statistical. No matter whether your hair has turned gray or not, you might have remained green within. For Kolkata, change is a constant static - a contradiction in terms. The city defies growing old.

It's been 34 years since the Left Front government, headed by late Jyoti Basu, assumed power. In the beginning was the word. Basu addressed the crowd waiting tirelessly in front of the Writers' Buildings in Kolkata, and assured them of an egalitarian state government which would be responsive to the aspirations of the poor. People returned home with a fresh lease of hope. They literally went gaga over the concept of a change which was overdue in West Bengal.

What did the city look like those days? We had already seen Pratidwandi ('The Adversary') by Ray which was released in 1972. Then, Calcutta, had been undergoing a cultural shift; the Bengali intelligentsia was caught in the crossfire of aping the West and maintaining their eastern traditions. The Naxalite movement, though not at its crescendo, was yet in its whimpering beats; Indira Gandhi had lifted the Emergency; Presidency College, turned into a political cauldron of young, spontaneous uprising; the closure of Calcutta University for the first time in its 110-year history; the assassination of police personnel and suspected informers in broad daylight on the streets, the organised killings of young rebels and innocents in fake encounters, arrests, brutal clampdowns. 

The city was like a hot tin roof. Amid this, a college-going girl in her early 20s seemed to be doing her ground work. She had been running the office of the general secretary of the state Mahila (Women's) Congress. Stories reveal that the girl was not keen on annealing herself in the flame of 'momentary', revolutionary upheavals; rather, she wanted to pave her way to 'constructive affairs of State' that would bring 'change' in West Bengal. 

Despite her spell of tantrums dubbed as 'infantile delinquency' by some in the city, the girl showed signs of becoming a stormy petrel in the future. With the passage of time she grew more coherent and consistent, but not shorn of blast or histrionics. Yet she remained steadfast, in her resilient struggle against big brother CPM, against all odds, in almost an Orwellian scenario.

"So majestic is she that we forget our existence before her!" said a hyperbolic party loyalist of Trinamool Congress (TMC). "She appears to have emerged as Goddess Durga to slay demons and save our lives," declared a besotted woman hailing from Arambagh, "We don't look at her as a politician, to us she is a mother, trying to steer a boat caught in a heavy gale, to help us reach a safe shore," says an optimistic icon-worshipper, a woman from a sub-division that was once a stronghold of the Left Front, even as sweat trickles down her face amid the swelling crowds in this humid heat.   

They had no pass to enter Raj Bhavan, so they remained content with chalk instead of cheese. A big screen was set up for 'common people' to witness the historic moment. It deserves mention that the new chief minister wanted the swearing-in ceremony to be held at the Brigade Parade Ground instead of the four walls of a 'palace'. "Ma wanted to share her victorious moment with her children, but they (security personnel) did not allow it. Perhaps, considering the vastness of the crowd, let's inhale the aroma of her success from the distance," says one Mrinalini Debi from Uttarpara. 

Mamata Banerjee is already being iconised into a mother/goddess symbol. Thousands file past the barricade to have a glimpse of the leader as her motorcade moves along the tar macadam of the grand old city.  

Clad in her trademark white sari and rubber slippers, a beaming Banerjee waves to her followers before her car swings into Raj Bhavan. "She has become a metaphor of simplicity with grace - a new expression of elegance!" exclaims Nibedita Sen, a sculptor. "Attire or the adorned, who becomes of whom?" Sen searches for an answer. 

"There comes out an incandescent image of hope from the dark cavern of despair!" rings a line in the air. I turn my head around to discover the speaker. Those cutouts of a beaming mass leader sway in the breeze. 

The city has had enough of tall claims. The next five years shall show whether the new chief minister of West Bengal lives up to her promises or not. Banerjee must go a long way to prove herself worthy of this euphoria surrounding her. She has many promises to keep, several expectations to meet, and a series of obstacles to overcome. Can she overcome the deadweight, suffocation and aspirations of 34 years of Left rule?

Indeed, for Kolkata, freedom stands redefined, and the city is redolent with the sweet whiff of victory. As the new chief minister waved to the crowd from the window of the Writer's Building on her first day to office, the red building stood overwhelmed by the vigour of green. At this moment, this green looks, feels, speaks, experiences, truly grassroot. Lik'e great seeds of hope swinging in the wind.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011

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