Uttaran Das Gupta’s ‘Faded Red’ reminds us of WG Sebald’s ‘Rings of Saturn’ and Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That’. The essay that stems from the personal constantly moves back and forth as the writer takes us along in his journeys and finds memories hidden in the everyday observable universe.
Gupta calls it 'a personal essay that explores the phenomenon of ostalgie — a sort of nostalgia that residents of former socialist countries experience because of a common cultural past. The author of this essay grew up in Left Front-ruled West Bengal and experienced ostalgie while on a fellowship in Berlin in 2018.’
I lost my way in the underground U-Bahn network on my first night in Berlin. The fault was entirely mine. The friend I was going to meet had given me clear instructions: “Take the train from Anhalter Banhof, change at Friedrichstrasse, get off at Ostbanhof.” But the machine gun rat-a-tat of German words only confused me. In a couple of weeks, I would be confidently telling shop owners: “Ein mal baklava” or “Ein mal Berliner Pilsner”. However, on that evening, I missed the station where I was supposed to change and landed up somewhere else. As I stood on the unfamiliar platform, a little confused, the windows of the train I had just disembarked montaged out in front of me, revealing the name of the station: Karl-Marx-Strasse. A vortex opened: The train I had boarded at Anhalter Banhof had dropped me at Esplanade, a central station in Kolkata, the tearing-at-the-seams metropolis in eastern India. Perhaps, this was an effect of the tumbler of wheat beer I had consumed at lunch. Or perhaps, it was the yellow train in Berlin that reminded me of the underground metros in Kolkata, my hometown. The Kolkata metro, the first in India, began operations on 24 October 1984. It was built with the help of engineers from the Soviet Union and East Germany, and technology from Hungary. While the newer metros in India’s capital New Delhi or financial hub Mumbai have leveraged latest technology and provide more speed and comfort to commuters, the old yellow trains are still almost ubiquitous in Kolkata. (You might chance upon a newer train with air-conditioned coaches occasionally, but those are rare.) On that first night, the sight of the yellow trains infected me with an ostalgie fever that would last for my six-week stay in Berlin.
The word ostalgie is a neologism, deriving from the German word “osten”, meaning “east” as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany was known, and “nostalgie” or nostalgia. “Spreewald gherkins, the famous green and red Ampelmännchen traffic signals and old Trabant cars nicknamed 'Trabi'— they were all part of everyday life for people in the GDR,” writes Deutsche Welle (DW). “After the reunification of Germany in 1990, most of these cultural icons disappeared and were greatly missed by some of the people who had grown up with them. And so, the term Ostalgie was born.” Now, it has become a cultural phenomenon — inspiring films such as Sonnenallee (1999), Goodbye Lenin! (2003), and The Lives of Others (2006). There are shops that sell GDR brands and companies like Trabi World let tourists book a Trabant for a safari. “Ostalgie is a longing for the down-to-earth aspects of a bygone era, if not for the collapsed political system itself,” writes DW. This is, of course, never without ambiguity. The GDR, the countries of the Eastern Bloc, or communist nations such as Cuba or Vietnam, were never the socialist utopia they were made out to be in official propaganda. Economic and cultural deprivations were real; so was state surveillance. Yet, decades after the rollback of global socialism, ostalgie persists — affecting not only those who lived behind the Iron Curtain but also someone like me. I grew up in Calcutta in the 1990s and 2000s. The city — renamed Kolkata in 2001 — is the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, which was ruled for 34 years from 1977 to 2011 by a coalition of communist parties called the Left Front (LF). The LF operated within the electoral democratic framework of India. Led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, it won seven successive elections in West Bengal before being voted out of power. In its initial years, the leftist government launched several schemes true to its political ideology, leading to land redistribution among poorer farmers and greater democratization of village administration. It also managed to marginalize the violent politics of religion and caste that became increasingly mainstream in India.
“We can’t bring fundamental changes or work out a truly socialist or communist program,” Jyoti Basu, who served as West Bengal’s chief minister from 1977 to 2000, told the New York Times in 1988. “It is a minimum program which we have placed before the people.” The next year, the Berlin Wall was breached, signalling the beginning of the end for socialist regimes in Europe. (I was three years old.) The fall of the Soviet Union two years later made the communists in Calcutta feel that they were the vanguards to the Left’s last bastion. “The Indian communists want to take a lesson from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,” said a senior leader of CPM, Anil Biswas, to the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “(W)e want to avoid their mistakes.” The same article quoted a former minister of the LF government, Jatin Chakraborty, who had turned into a critic: “This government is corrupt to the core. There are (electric) power cuts every day. Prices are going up. Nepotism is rampant.” Along with corruption and mismanagement, the LF rule was marked by lack of industrial development, poor employment opportunities, and frequent general strikes paralyzing life in the city and the countryside. And violent incidents such as the massacre of “lower” caste immigrants at Marichjhapi in 1979 and the murder of monks and nuns of the Anandamargi order in broad daylight in south Calcutta in 1982. The second incident inspired the opening sequence of my first novel, Ritual.
The rituals of violence culminated in Singur and Nandigram, two villages in West Bengal where the LF government was trying to acquire land for factories, in 2007. When the local farmers resisted the acquisition, the government sent in the police and its army of cadres. The violence was broadcast live by news channels on satellite TV, sparking global outrage and eroding LF’s support base. Four years later, the LF was voted out. I was a young journalist at The Telegraph in Kolkata on the day the election results came in. There were only a few people in the newsroom who remembered a time when West Bengal had not been ruled by the communists. Over the next decade, the Left atrophied in West Bengal. It’s vote share plummeted from 30 percent in 2011 to 19.8 percent in 2016. In the elections held in April this year, the results for which were announced on May 2, the Left’s vote share fell further to 4.6 percent and it won no seats in the state Legislative Assembly. In the popular media narrative, the elections were framed as a contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party. The result in favour of the latter has been interpreted as a referendum on Modi’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis in the country, currently reeling from a devastating second wave. The star of the Left has faded from the firmament of West Bengal’s politics.
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has published a book of poems (Visceral Metropolis, 2017) and a novel (Ritual, 2020). He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. The travel and research for this essay were made possible by the Robert Bosch India-Germany Media Fellowship.