Mamata Banerjee turned 17 on January 5, 1972. The very next month her world came crashing down—her father, Promileswar Banerjee, died on February 9 at PG Hospital, barely a kilometre away from their Harish Chatterjee Street home, at the age of 41. The West Bengal chief minister recalls that he died “because of the lack of medical treatment”. This, her first brush with a callous healthcare system, is what still motivates her to make frequent, unannounced visits to government hospitals after coming to power. Known as Panditmoshai in the neighbourhood, her father was a government contractor, but the family couldn’t pay for his treatment because various departments failed to clear his pending bills. His friends—whom he had gone out of his way to help—didn’t come to his rescue either, rues Mamata. A cheque for Rs 60,000 arrived the day after he died. “The cheque was useless; it couldn’t bring my father back to life,” says the CM. “Only God is witness to our trauma and our struggle for survival after Baba passed away.”
The CM says that many people are under the impression that Subrata Mukherjee, the ex-Congress leader who is now her panchayat and rural affairs minister, inducted her into politics. “But this is not correct. The persons who helped me the most when I was a political greenhorn were Partha Roy Chowdhury, Ranjit Ghosh, Ranada and Dilip Majumdar.” The Congress was in power in West Bengal from 1972 to 1975. “But in those days we did not go to the homes of our leaders to lobby for positions in the party or ask for other favours.”
By all accounts, dabbling in politics apart, Mamata led a different life from most of her college-mates. After her father’s death, her mother sold 12 bighas of land they owned in Rampurhat and handed the money to her eldest son, Ajit, to invest in business so that the family could have a regular income. But it was Mamata—the second eldest—who held the family together. She woke up at 3.30 am every day to cook for her four brothers and a sister and mother before going to college. She recalls gazing in bewilderment at her college friends when they passionately discussed clothes or films—luxuries she couldn’t afford to even think about in those days.