Bathed in dull red under a storm-tossed sky, the weather–worn house is pretty if you take the time to look at her up close. All of three storeys with blue wooden window shutters, she is tucked inside a bafflement of north Calcutta alleyways in Hatibagan, untouched by the gogo-growth around town. The main door leads to a spacious, high-ceilinged and neat living room that doubles up as office/guest accommodation with a couple of chairs and a bed. Portraits of Marx, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Sibdas Ghosh, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) founder, and their Indian comrades watch over one and all from the walls.
This home defies easy explanations and inside her lives a parallel society filled with meaning. This is a commune—called a ‘centre’ by the comrades, a ‘mess’ by its neighbours, and founded on the communist-socialist ideology that swept through West Bengal and shaped its history for decades. This home in Hatibagan uses history as a mirror to show how things were then. This is also a vanishing vestige of collective living that dotted a leftist Bengal—until Mamata Banerjee, supermarkets and IT parks happened.
Time seems to have stood still here, or even moved backwards. Yet, dot at 5pm, Chaya Mukherjee, the 82-year-old central committee member and national president of SUCI’s women’s wing, takes her seat for tea and an evening ‘tiffin’ of piping hot vegetable pakoras and puffed moori rice. The meal (like all meals) is shared and this time over a weekend powwow with the 11 members of the commune. “Our centres are based on the Marxist idea of community, where no material possession is personal. Living together with people from diverse social and religious backgrounds and building affectionate relationships is the idea. I have been living in a commune for 50 years since I joined the SUCI student wing,” says Mukherjee, fondly called Boroma, or elder mother, by her adopted, extended family of 11 that includes four couples and a three-year-old child. The only contradiction to the communist self-abnegation is an air-conditioner that keeps Calcutta’s sultry heat away.
It’s a throwback to the Mao era, when, six decades ago, the communist leader launched the first communes in the Chinese backcountry with the Great Leap Forward, an effort to spur the economy that instead caused a famine that killed 30 million people. In Bengal and elsewhere in India, communes were established because of a pressing political need—to shelter underground comrades and those who have relinquished everything personal, including families, for communism. Later, these became an integral part of communist parties. These were everywhere—in hundreds, spread over the vast land—and hosted legends such as Jyoti Basu, E.M.S. Namboodiripad. M. Basavapunniah, Muzzafar Ahmad, Promode Dasgupta et al. But only a handful of these homes survives today. Over the years, as the political scene changed with the Left Front in power, many returned home while some comrades and apparatchiks chose to remain—give up worldly pleasures and work for the party.
Among the survivors are the SUCI’s three in Calcutta, with the oldest in Tala, which opened in 1948 after the party’s inception. “Sibdas Ghosh spent his life in the Tala centre. It is a commune…better than living a narrow personal life in a household. Life in the commune is more enriching,” says Amitava Chatterjee, state secretariat and central committee member of SUCI, a fringe party members doggedly commited to their cause. Fifty years ago, these were everywhere, in every town and village, but now they are just a few in the district headquarters, and like the one hidden in a bylane of north Calcutta, informs Sujata Banerjee, daughter of former Left Front minister Subodh Banerjee, who lived and died in the Hatibagan commune that was founded in 1968.
These communes stand on the intersection of a way of life from a bygone era and a generational divide shaped by a growing market economy. So what is the hook that still persuades people to such “collective living”? The answer perhaps lies in the home where Chaya Mukherjee is the materfamilias. She shares eight bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen and a ‘meeting/sitting’ room that often becomes the guestroom for comrades visiting from the countryside. Her family comprises Sapna Dasgupta, 65, Bina Samanta, 68, Shipra Halder, a 28-year-old member of the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation (student wing of the SUCI) and an MSc in physics, her husband Suphal Kayal, 33, Atanu Nayiya, a 40-year-old farmer from a little-known village in Purulia, Moumita Saha, a 28-year-old physical science teacher at the centuries-old Scottish Church Collegiate School, Imtiaz Alam, 45, his wife Chirtita Banerjee, 32, and their daughter Rifah Tasnia, 3, and 50-year-old Srirupa Banerjee.
“In our communes, we do not allow comrades to have individual possessions. Commune members donate all their earnings to the party. Unlike the CPM and CPI communes, SUCI encourages couples and their children to live in its communes. But we do not encourage mothers to shower special attention on their children,” says the matriarch. Agrees Amitava Chatterjee, who has converted his private home into a commune at Baranagar on the northern fringes of Calcutta. “We run the communes by collections, taking private tuitions and from donations of party and party members.” The CPM also ran such communes but for members of the party, the luxuries of life which comes after being in power for 34 years were too much of a temptation. The communes were later shut down.
The commune may have its flaws, but the people living there genuinely believe in its aims. Life is alternately good-humoured and haunting—almost hermitic. Life has been undisrupted despite cataclysmic occurrences. The benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks. “The typical family atmosphere makes the commune a unique concept of a collective living,” say Alam as 65-year-old Sapna Dasgupta discusses the no-frills dinner menu with Moumita Saha. Preparing meals, running errands and doing routine chores are collective responsibility as the commune has no duty roster. “We know every member’s taste. But we prepare the food according to the ration we have,” Dasgupta says. Peering out of stacks of books, documents and records in a small library, Sujit Bhatashali, 76, who edits the SUCI mouthpiece Ganadabi, throws more light on the one subject that triggers friendly banters and light-hearted guffaws in the commune. “The meals were mostly vegetarian, with an occasional serving of fish.”
The food, however frugal it has been, tells the state of the “mess”—the community kitchen, the common home. As it lives surrounded by modern trappings, this keeper of an age-old philosophy—simple living and high thinking—struggles with the harsh reality that it will become distant memories in a not-so-distant future.
By Probir Pramanik in Calcutta