Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been trying for years to make us believe that agriculture is a vast marshland in which a huge population is stuck ankle- to neck-deep and it is his duty to rescue them.
“But Didi,” I asked Mamata Banerjee, “if you become chief minister, do you really think you will be able to usher in this ‘Golden Age of Bengal’, this new era that you have promised? We are steeped in so much rot. How will you clean it up alone?” (I said ‘alone’ because, even back then, it was no secret to anyone that she was the sole decision-maker in her party and that others’ contributions to the ‘poriborton’ or ‘change’ that she was proposing was of little or no significance).
It was 2010, a year before the historic assembly elections in Bengal, when Mamata swept away thirty-four years of uninterrupted Communist rule and came into power with an overwhelming mandate from the people. We were sitting around a rectangular wooden table—that looked like a rich block of dark chocolate—in the study of former Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Manuda, as Ray was called, and his wife Maya, were perfect hosts and endless cups of steaming black coffee and trays of cupcakes kept arriving from the kitchen upstairs. I had interviewed Ray several months earlier for Outlook’s November 2009 issue on Indira Gandhi. Manuda had asked me to write his biography—a project which remained unfinished after his death—but for several months, I went to his house after work for discussions.
Manuda insisted on keeping the security presence on his premises to a minimum; only a couple of guards manned the gates. “I am no longer the chief minister and as far as I know, no one is trying to kill me,” he would joke.
So, when I parked my car in front of his house one winter evening, and saw a white Ambassador with a flashing red beacon on top—the trademark vehicle of VVIP Indian government officials—outside his gate, and Z-category security personnel standing sentry at the entrance, I knew something out of the ordinary was going on. I asked someone who was visiting Manuda. “Mamata Banerjee,” was the reply.
In those days, many would utter ‘Mamata Banerjee’ like it were some kind of a magic spell. As though chanted together, the phrase would work like a powerful mantra that could chase away all evil. She had been deified by the masses. “She is Durga incarnate,” a villager once told me.
The buzz, both in Bengal and the Centre, was that this homespun, diminutive, frail-looking woman in an old cotton sari and rubber flip-flops was going to take down the Left establishment single-handedly and breeze into the CM’s office at the Writers’ Buildings. In those days, the people of Bengal came out in droves to attend rallies addressed by ‘Didi’ and thronged the streets to follow her on her many ‘foot’ marches and stood in endless queues for hours just to catch a glimpse of her.
For those in the media, an exclusive interview with Mamata Banerjee was nothing short of a feat. A select group of senior journalists, who were mainly associated with Bengal’s biggest vernacular print media and electronic channels, were privileged to have access to her, sharing, no doubt, a symbiotic relationship, in which they would be privy to the inner, political world of the rulers of the not-so-distant future (not to mention use her star power to sell papers or boost ratings), while she would benefit from the wide reach of these media throughout the state. The rest of us had to be content with sneaking in a couple of questions at some public press gathering or other. So, naturally, I considered myself rather lucky to have already had a solid interview with her under my belt.
In those days many would utter ‘Mamata’ like it were some kind of a magic spell. She was deified by the masses. ‘She is Durga incarnate’, a villager told me.
I had been among many journalists from across the country (and the around world) who had gathered in Singur during Mamata Banerjee’s hunger strike. She granted interviews to just a handful, calling them on to the makeshift stage. I waited patiently for my turn to speak to her when Madan Mitra, one of her closest party colleagues, called on me. I remember walking over to where Mamata Banerjee was sitting, crouching on the floor of the stage and thinking that in her crushed white sari and dishevelled hair, she appeared slighter than even her television images, in which she always looked tiny anyway. Her face was dark and her eyes bright. That was the first time I was, as they say, ‘up close and personal’ with Didi, and my first thought was, ‘this woman is actually shy!’ To my considerable surprise, when I spoke to Mamata Banerjee one-on-one, I found her to be nothing like her relentlessly confident—even arrogant—public image. She was not tentative, but certainly not aggressive either. Rather, she was diffident. She was polite, soft-spoken and personable. As we spoke, someone called her to take the stage. Suddenly, she was transformed. She leapt to her feet, strutted to the middle of the stage, grabbed the microphone, and in a tone that I can only describe as authoritative, she declared, “CPI-M! Onek hoyechey, aar na. (CPI-M! enough is enough. Not any more.)”
So, when I heard that she had shown up at Manuda’s house just as I was parking my car for the usual evening chat with him, I had no reason to think of her as a particularly forbidding person to approach. And, needless to say, I—like most journalists then working in Bengal—was itching for a chance to speak to her again, as so much had transpired since I had last interviewed her. Still, standing outside the house, I wondered if it would be appropriate to barge into what I imagined would be a very weighty and meaningful meeting between a former chief minister and a future one. I called Manuda on his cell phone. “Where are you?” he asked. “Why are you standing outside? Come on in. I want you to meet someone.”
There she was. The familiar vision of the crushed white sari and dishevelled hair, settled into a chair next to Manuda. At the edge of the table where she was sitting was a basket of fuchkas and a bowl of tamarind water. Mamata Banerjee had dropped in on Manuda and brought these with her because he was fond of them, as was she, evidently. I found the two of them munching away. Manuda smiled. Mamata stifled a smile. I thought she wanted to. But she wasn’t sure if she should. She appeared to be at once aware of her own humbleness as a people’s politician and her growing stature as one of the most influential figures of the times. And I remember thinking Mamata Banerjee was an enigma shrouded in contradictions. She exuded a commonness that was not accessible. She was passionately committed to her cause, but the cause itself was amorphous and undefined. She was an open book that you could not read. As the evening progressed, Mamata gradually became warmer. She must have trusted me. She trusted Manuda. And Manuda trusted me.
After the fuchkas were consumed, coffee and cupcakes arrived. I had so many questions to ask the future chief minister of West Bengal. Finally, in the midst of a casual conversation, I asked, “But Didi, if you become chief minister, do you really think you will be able to usher in this Golden Age of Bengal, this new era that you have promised? We are steeped in so much rot. How will you clean it up alone?”
She said—and there was something so inexplicably inspiring in the way she said it that it made me shudder—“I believe that one good person can change all the evil around him or her.”
That was a year before she became chief minister. One year after she had been in power, I asked myself another question: ‘Has all the evil around changed the one good person?’