Bursting at the Seams
A couple of weeks before Durga Puja the roads that you normally take to and from your work place, suddenly without so much as a by-your-leave, can become the locus of a pandal for the deity and you find yourself stuck, not knowing what to do. This is what happened to me this evening while driving back and I found traffic which normally takes this route come to a complete standstill. As I waited for something to happen, I had a chance to scrutinize the expression on the faces of people on the road, most of whom were returning after a day’s work: Angry. Irritated. Exasperated. Resigned. Multitudes of people, just waiting on the sides of the road for some sort of transportation to take them back home.
People were trying desperately to scamper onto buses that were already packed to capacity. Pushing, shoving, shouting, swearing. People ran after taxis that zoomed past, hoping against hopes perhaps that maybe they would get lucky and find one that wasn’t already occupied. Fat chance of that happening. People were pleading with drivers of three-wheelers—which can legally only accommodate four passengers, and illegally about 6 or 7 (when this happens the driver can be seen practically spilling out of the front seat!)—to squeeze them in. This is the way most people travel to and from work every day in our city. The local trains, the subway rail, the trams, and even the rikshaws…they are seemingly always bursting at the seams during the morning and evening hours. If you’re in a private car or a motorbike, it doesn’t make you any less angrier—not to mention guiltier—to realize how little “the powers that be” thinks for us.
But who exactly is the relevant “power that is” in this case? Is it appropriate to hold the entire state government —or successive governments—responsible for this chaos, this suffering? Is it the lack of urban planning? Is it the lack of population control? Are individual cars taking up space that should accommodate more efficient public transport? Maybe we should all cycle to work? They do it in parts of Europe. I’ve often thought that as a solution to Calcutta’s traffic—not to mention pollution—problem. As I was thinking this I noticed the streams of cyclists on either side of the road. Yes, I would say about 10 percent of Calcutta does cycle to work, but somehow we don’t notice them. Maybe because those who do belong more often than not to the lower economic social strata and they cycle to work not because it’s fashionable or “socially responsible” but because it’s cheaper than owning/driving a car. Our office peon Sachin cycles nearly 17 kilometers to work. Babulal, the man who is painting my mother’s house cycles to all his assignments at distances that range from 7 to 70 kilometers. In our smug class-conscious ignorance we fail to appreciate their contribution in alleviating at least some of the burden of Calcutta transportation woes.
This week another attempt was made by an ‘intruder’ to try and ‘reveal’ a recent photo of Suchitra Sen—Bengal’s very own Greta Garbo—who, like the legendary Hollywood actress, herself withdrew from public life and became a recluse nearly three decades ago. Over the years curiosity about what Sen—once considered one of the most virtuoso—and beautiful—actresses in Indian cinema—now looks like has grown in leaps and bounds. Paparazzi and others whose professions revolve around prying into the private world of celebrities and the like, have been attempting—mostly in vain—to try and click photos of her. Then one day about half a dozen years ago Sen fell ill and was admitted to a city hospital. A television anchor of a reputed Bengali electronic channel saw in this an opportunity and sneaked into the hospital pretending to be a patient. He claimed to have had not just a good look at the aged Sen but told viewers that he also had taken photos of her. He said however that to respect her privacy the photos would not be splashed on screen. But he revealed that she was just as beautiful as she always was, only older.
Leave Them Alone
However, the television anchor’s magnanimous act of not displaying the photos notwithstanding the Sens were not pleased at all. Suchitra Sen’s daughter actress Moon Moon once told me that she found the particular television anchor’s action utterly tasteless and wanted to have nothing to do with him ever. However, she did say that the owner of the channel was a dear friend of hers and would continue to remain so. I was thinking, “But wouldn’t the owner know what the anchor was up to?” And “Didn’t the owner tacitly give his nod to such a TRP-grabbing piece of news?” But I didn’t want to add insult to injury by asking such rhetorical questions and let it pass. Then some months later a short video clip with the streamer “exclusive” splashing on screen was aired repeatedly for two hours on the same channel which showed an elderly woman wearing a frumpy housecoat pacing up and down a room. Her thin short hair, completely grey, was tied in a pony tail and her face was adorable much the same way that a grandmother’s usually is. It was Suchitra Sen. The television channel opened phone lines for viewers to call in with their reactions. One agitated man stated, “I am crushed. My image of her as an eternal beauty is completely destroyed. I can’t believe she looks like this!” What I couldn’t believe was this viewer’s reaction. What did he mean that he couldn’t believe she looks like that?! She’s nearly 80, for God’s sake! The same sort of hullabaloo reared its ugly head again this week after Sen was hospitalized for a wrist surgery. But this time apparently daughter Moon Moon was there by her side throughout, keeping vigil. So much so that when photos of an elderly woman on a hospital bed was posted online claiming to be those of Suchitra Sen, few believed it.
Sadly, it is becoming a common sight once again (reminiscent of the Left’s last few years)—members of Bengal’s civil society coming out to protest against some government action or another. On Friday, stalwarts of Bengal’s theatre circle such as veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee, thespian Rudraprasad Sengupta and others sat in on a street protest in front of one of Calcutta’s iconic cultural centres, the Academy of Fine Arts. There was a 200-strong crowd, mostly from the world of theatre but also included other prominent members of Calcutta’s cultural circle. They were protesting against an assault on theatre actor Bimal Chakraborty allegedly by Trinamool Congress (TMC) activists. Chakraborty was reportedly roughed up when he intervened and tried to save a fish vender from being attacked by alleged TMC activists for participating in a Left Front rally last week. The street protest was compared to the civil society protest after the Nandigram massacre during the Left rule. When the TMC swept to power in Bengal, in the Assembly Elections of 2011 it was more than just an anti-incumbency wave. The people of Bengal believed that Mamata Banerjee was a savior who would deliver Bengal from the darkness into which the Left regime had plunged the state. Among her biggest supporters were members of the civil society who first shed their pro-Left stance openly after the Nandigram massacre and came out in droves to lend their weight behind the rebellion led by Banerjee, then in the opposition. Unfortunately, once in power, the TMC administration too, like the Left, have not kept up the standards by which civil society judges a ‘just’ society. Excesses such as the arrest of professor Ambikesh Mahapatra have been alienating Calcutta’s civil society. From celebrated author Mahasweta Devi, who had backed Mamata to the hilt to musician Kabir Suman, who joined Mamata’s movement, the new government’s ally-base is gradually eroding. In all this, the only reassuring thing is that we have a civil society which is not politically-motivated (with a few exceptions) and which takes sides based on which side they think is ‘just’ or ‘right’. Because civil society, like the media—the fourth pillar of a democracy—is our conscience keeper.
For some time now the Left has been a bit confounded. They couldn’t quite figure out exactly how to deal with Mamata Banerjee. The deft politician that she is, she has been usurping their ideologies, policies and strategies like a pro right from under their noses leaving them stunned and somewhat frustrated. Her populist stances on a range of issues from land to FDI in retail are all traditionally Leftist ideas, so the Left could hardly oppose her. But since she is their arch enemy neither could they publicly express support for her stance on any of these issues. Finally this week, a senior Left leader—CPI’s AB Bardhan—came up with an articulate enough phrase to express what she has been doing. Ruling out Mamata Banerjee’s involvement if ever a New Front comes into being, he called her a “pseudo Leftist” saying that she has been “mouthing Left slogans” because the Left has understood what the masses in Bengal want and she is only copying them. This reminds me of lines from an Alexander Pope poem the gist of which is: “This was often thought but never so well expressed.”
Words of the Prophets
Written behind a rickshaw: “Keo karur noy re mone…shob beta beiman” (no one is anybody’s…everyone’s dishonest”