Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

Calcutta Corner

Calcutta Corner

Alas, the "angul-moja" or the toe-sock, unlike the monkey cap, has never been deemed classy far less become a trendy winter statement by the Bengalis

Transfer Politics

Another top police offer has been transferred. Read punished. Read demoted. A few months ago it was Damayanti Sen, who had cracked the mystery over the identities of men accused of rape by a woman in a Park Street night club even as the Bengal chief minister declared that the incident was a concocted story. This time it’s Calcutta Police Commissioner Ranjit Kumar Pachnanda. He has been removed from his post for his role in investigating the murder of a junior colleague, Sub-Inspector Tapas Choudhury, who was shot dead this week by armed goons at Calcutta’s Garden Reach area where clashes had broken out between political gangs operating in the area over student elections at a local college. 

Nothing unusual about that. The Commissioner is supposed to investigate, to go after criminals. Pachnanda evidently did exactly what he was supposed to do. So why did he get transferred? Well, it is not clear whether Pachnanda knew that the accused in this case happened to have connections— political connections— in very high places and still went after him or whether he just didn’t know but the fact is that Pachnanda had recorded the name of a certain Mohammad Iqbal or Munna as a kingpin behind the gang operating in the area one who had fired the shots that killed the policeman. 

Pachnanda also either ignored or just didn’t understand the implications of a veiled warning from Mamata’s urban development minister Firhad Hakim the day after the shooting. Hakim had declared— from the Bengal Secretariat, Writers Buildings— that he believed that Munna was blameless. At any rate Pachnanda went after him. In fact Pachnanda launched a do-or-die search for Munna. After all, a member of his police force was murdered in broad day light, right under the noses of his colleagues all gathered there to contain a violence where the police, if anyone, were legally entitled to use firearms if the need so arose. But the shots were being fired by those who didn’t have the legal right to fire. It was Pachnanda’s duty to investigate. If he didn’t, the very police force of which he was in-charge, would be demoralized. But what Pachnanda didn’t take into account was that in this state today, you don’t take on anyone— anyone— who has connections with the powers that be. 

Mamata Banerjee has just claimed that she had transferred the CP because he didn’t make arrests fast enough. He didn’t act early enough. Really? What about the comments of Firhad Hakim, one of her right hand men that Munna couldn’t have committed the crime? That in spite of television footage showing him on the spot, inciting a group of boys and raising his hand to slap a policeman. And if anything, Pachnanda was working around the clock to make arrests. Wouldn’t the sudden transfer delay the arrest further? It has been alleged that Munna has received help from a top minister to go into hiding. And the transfer is buying time. 

Just last month the Governor of Bengal said that the state is in the grips of a sort of “goondaism”. Today he expressed his disapproval of the transfer of the police commissioner. Pachnanda’s transfer for trying to go after criminals is not a light matter. It is a sign that dangers lurk ahead for all of us because the powers that be are clearly protecting those who should be punished and punishing those who should be protected.

Who's Sorry Now?

If one controversy after another beset the state government since  they came to power in 2011, at least so far they were spread out over the two-year period with a certain amount of distance between each episode.

Mamata’s declaration that the Park Street rape was a “shajano ghotona” or concocted story was spaced at a respectable distance from that of the time that she declared a college student Maoist for asking the CM uncomfortable questions during a television question-answer session. 

And there was a dignified distance between the arrest of a professor for circulating an email caricaturing the CM and that of the farmer again, for asking the CM uncomfortable questions at a rally in his village. 

But the last couple of weeks were like a microcosm of the last two years with the controversies erupting on the scene back-to-back. 

First Salman Rushdie’s visit to Calcutta to promote the Deepa Mehta film Midnight’s Children based on his novel was inexplicably called off at the last minute. Though the state government hadn’t officially banned his entry, the buzz was that he had been issued a warning by higher ups against coming. Even before the public and press outrage over this could die down, Rushdie himself announced that it was Mamata Banerjee herself who stopped him from visiting Calcutta. 

In the midst of this breaking news, the Bengal chief minister whipped up another controversy by publicly chiding the head of her personal security cordon and telling him, "Chabkano uchit apnader [You should be whipped]". Though the police official at the receiving end of this angry outburst didn’t show if he was offended or not, it was once again the press and the public that were outraged. Page after page of newsprint was dedicated to dissecting the legal implications of insulting or threatening a police officer and television debates on local Bengali channels put the spotlight on the event from every perspective possible. From what led the CM to lose her temper publicly—one panellist suggested that she was stressed out and so should take a long break—to the personality of the man who faced her wrath (it was said that officer Dwivedi was one who would lay down his life to protect the person whose charge he was given and that he had been awarded a medal of distinction for his services barely a few months earlier by Mamata herself). 

And then, before this brouhaha had died down, one of Mamata’s ministers Firhad Hakim made a public speech  proudly proclaiming that, yes, people like Salman Rushdie should indeed be banned from entering secular Bengal because their entry would fan communal disharmony. 

If all this wasn’t enough to keep the daily evening news unfolding like potboilers, a couple of local television channels broadcast two interviews with the former Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in which he lambasted the present government and put a question mark on the heretofore virtually established truth —that Mamata Banerjee was a “shototar protik” or paragon of virtue. If all hell hadn’t already broken loose in Bengal, this one did it.

All Mamata Banerjee’s men—and a few of her women—took it upon themselves to each outdo the other in attacking Buddha for his comments. The former CM was served a legal notice for defamation at his office at the CPIM headquarters. Counter attacks were launched and aspersions cast on his own reputation (by the way he is also known for his honesty)—“When he was CM, whom did he meet in the evenings at Nandan (the cultural centre for the arts and a favourite haunt of the former CM)?” asked one TMC MP as he addressed a public meeting demanding Buddha to apologize. 

In the meantime there were suggestions that Mamata too should apologize to the police officer (though the latter seemed least bothered). Indeed the past two weeks saw a plethora of demands for apologies but last heard no one had said sorry about anything.


The last couple of weeks also saw the famous Calcutta Book Fair come and go. Though recognized as the oldest book fair in the country, it saw itself being catapulted to national—even international— media glare by inadvertently being at the centre of two of the above controversies that broke out in the last two weeks—the Salman Rushdie entry ban and the Mamata Banerjee angry outburst. 

One of the major draws of the Calcutta Book Fair since last year has been the Kolkata Literary Meet, which, modelled on the Jaipur Literary Fest, has been bringing together authors from across the world to participate in a host of discourses, on a range of topics. Calcutta’s booklovers were eagerly awaiting a chance to meet the author—who was of course on a promotional tour for the movie based on his book—at the literary meet. “It was perfect timing,” observed a disappointed fan at the book fair. “The launch of the movie based on his book and the literary meet coincided. It would have been such an opportunity for those of us who love his books.” 

Mamata Banerjee’s infamous angry outburst too put the spotlight on the book fair with a slew of television and print journalists descending on the book fair grounds to reconstruct the story. It was reported that while the CM’s car was waiting at the VIP Gate Number 3, Didi had—as she is wont to do—strolled around the area paying little heed to the path charted out for her by her security men. Then she decided to walk out of Gate Number 1—meant for the Aam Aadmi—where it was not possible to bring the car around in a hurry. While television news cameras recreated the path that Didi took on that hapless evening, it was also reported that her main destination was the stall that was set up to showcase the publications of  Jago Bangla—the TMC publication.

Musician and former journalist Kabir Suman, an avid reader and an intellectual who has been known for his love of literature much before he became known as a TMC MP, was asked by a reporter if he visited the TMC Jago Bangla stall which showcased the works of Mamata Banerjee. Even if he hadn’t had a falling out with Mamata, which he has, a man not to mince his words he would still perhaps have retorted as he did: “Why should I read the works of Mamata Banerjee? I have great admiration for great literature and great authors but Mamata Banerjee is not one of them.” Appearing aghast at the suggestion, he ended the television interview with a resounding “chi” (as if to say, “what a ridiculous thought!”).

Act Zero

The latest Gautam Ghosh film Sunya Anko (Act Zero) is yet another addition to what I think can now safely be called the “Maoist problem” genre. That is the body of work—films, books, paintings and poems— that has sprung up around the Maoist issue in the nation. I think most artists—including authors, poets, painters, thespians—living in today’s India have their own Maoist story to tell. Their version of the intricate and delicate and complex and nuanced problem posed by the issue of Maoism. 

But the real problem with this genre is that by now all the views that are expressed sound so exactly alike that there is  little originality in the works of art—whether film, book or journalistic essay—which are produced. Unlike Arundhati Roy, most artists take the easy way out and even while empathizing with the cause and the ideology of the friends of the poor—the Maoists—they condemn (or depending on the degree of the artists’ empathy with the cause they disapprove of) the violence of armed struggle. Most artists of course at this point feel it necessary to define the Maoist armed struggle as “counter violence” (in fact I remember in an interview with Koteshwar Rao: every time I said violence, he would correct me and say, “counter violence” and since then to this day, when I mention Maoist violence I feel compelled to add that it is, at least according to them, “counter violence”). 

So when Gautam Ghosh takes us to the interiors of the jungles of Chhatisgarh to examine how and why the Maoists have been able to set up base there we know the story. The bauxite reserve that is being eyed by the greedy government and the corrupt companies without giving a  damn  to the danger that this would pose to the tribal people—in terms of displacement—not to mention the environment. Yes, it’s a familiar story replete with the characters who must necessarily play a role in such a plot—the journalist (Konkona Sen Sharma), the company manager (Priyanshu Chatterjee), the doctor (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who treats the poor and obviously doesn’t distinguish between a Maoist and a non-Maoist, the rebels and police and paramilitary forces. 

A parallel plot allows the story to take breaks for the exploration of other themes—like romance, love, sex, loss—and introduces us to other characters— like the company manager’s wife who is bindaas but bothered by her husband’s relationship with the journalist. Then there are are characters of the elderly couple who run a homestay at Manali. Through these characters the director examines another set of nuances—how a perfectly lovable human being can be equally and dogmatically communal and how a perfect gentleman can be a computer hacker though for a good cause. 

Gautam Ghosh doesn’t deal with new or explosive matter in the film, but what he does effectively is that he brings out the nuances and dichotomy of characters, of situations and of life itself, with an eye for detail which makes it all seem so real, so easy, so familiar. Overall, the film gives you a feeling of re-reading a good story to understand and internalise more closely much that you already know and have already felt. 

There were a few faults—one was the jarring references and literary allusions (Lady McBeth’s ’Out damned spot’ speech is for instance irksome especially since it is applied to a situation that it does not appropriately represent) which came across as false and over-the-top. 

But it is the simplicity at which Gautam Ghosh excels. My favourite dialogue in the film is when the journalist tells the company manger—who is not an out and out bloodthirsty capitalist but a human being with a conscience and on whom she has a mild crush — “Why not just leave the bauxite in the ground? Why must we take out everything from the earth?” Simple words but those which powerfully sum up all the works of art that belong to the Maoist struggle genre.

As winter gradually moves out of Calcutta and shawls, sweaters, not to mention monkey caps disappear from the streets, it is appropriate to talk about another essential Bengali winter accessory, which has always kept pace with the all important monkey cap but has been largely overshadowed by the more famous Bengali headgear. 

From Head to Toe

While the monkey cap has earned the slightly dubious distinction of being the Bengali’s best cold weather friend, there is another winter accessory that Bengalis have virtually patented and which is as ubiquitous as its head-y counterpart, but has been grievously underreported. It is the ‘angul moja’ or toe sock. It is a sock that has the section of fabric where the big toe falls separated from the fabric where the rest of the toes fall with a few stitches. This allows for the Bengalis to wear sandals and chappals with socks and this is the way they have been literally stepping into winter for years. 

All this becomes even more relevant because recently when Mamata Banerjee casually told reporters at the Bengal secretariat that since she has a slight fever, she—who never wears socks—may wear a pair of socks, it left little doubt in people’s mind that it would be a pair of toe socks. “She only wears chappals so obviously she can only wear angul moja,” speculated a reporter. Alas, the toe-sock, unlike the monkey cap, has never been deemed classy far less become a trendy winter statement. Also hopes that if Didi is spotted sporting they may actually become ‘in-fashion’ don’t hold ground. That way the chappals that she wears would have caught on long ago. Sign of the Times

Written behind an auto:

Prithibi tai jali Kaaru pocket bhari,  karu saala khali This world is fake Some pockets are heavy And some remain empty...