Calcutta Diary

Deng Puffs 555
Kolkata and Calcutta—jealous mistress and dutiful wife; city of joy and megapolis of despair; arrogant about her intellectual prowess yet unsure of urban regeneration; glitzy malls and imperial colonnades cracking at the seams; brilliant beams of light in uneasy coexistence with quasars. Remember the infamous black hole? To use former West Bengal finance minister and author Ashok Mitra's memorable analogy: more poets per square km than even football fans. Rajiv Gandhi was wrong. The dying city got a new lease of life. On to Calcutta's new icon after Satyajit Ray, who has helped Buddhadeb Bhattacharya become what he is. Yes, Mamata Banerjee. Don't believe me? Look at the figures put out by the EC, the same statutory body that has injured 'Bengali pride' by conducting elections in the state over five days and made Left Front chairman Biman Bose fret and fume beyond his normal belligerence.

The jhola-carrying lady with her trademark rubber sandals failed to gauge the mood of the electorate. Though S.S. Ray, former West Bengal chief minister, former Punjab governor and former Indian ambassador to the US—or Manu da, as he is affectionately called—campaigned for her, she failed to consolidate the anti-Left vote. Now that she can no longer blame CPI(M) goons for scientifically rigging the polls, the question is whether '06 is the beginning of the end of the political road for her. MB and her one-woman show managed to come through relatively unscathed in Calcutta proper. The Left barely increased its vote share in the city from 42.3 per cent to 42.5 per cent and won nine instead of eight seats. So much for the media hype that the city's upper and middle classes had finally given up their pathological dislike for the reds and see in BB the ultimate 'new Left' leader, a Deng with a capitalist heart in a communist body.

Phis And Banter
Adda (the act of conversing without an agenda) and fish are the two things the Bong cannot survive without. Apprehensive of my broken and rusted Bangla, I tried to relearn my mother tongue for a TV programme only to be spoken back to in heavily accented English. The state government had scrapped English in primary schools but has since reversed the decision. The Ananda Bazar Patrika front-paged a photo of Buddhadeb being garlanded with a delectable-looking hilsa. Please pass on, one pis phis dis.

Prem Goes Public
The Bengali beauty could be a figment of the beholder’s imagination, but she now smokes more openly in public that she did a decade ago. Bourgeois morality be damned. But what took my other half by surprise was the sight of couples canoodling along the Dhakuria Lake and on boats at Nalban, quite impervious to the stares of passers-by. The regressive Bong male remains a study in contrast. A popular singer-turned-television anchor went into a wild rage when this correspondent impolitely suggested he would be better off minus a few kilos and his cancer-sticks. He wanted me to react to his outburst and was most upset that I did not.

Vote, Voter, Votest
The media scene in the city is vibrant. Four 24-hour Bangla TV news channels are vying for eyeballs. You can hardly travel half a kilometre without a hoarding of TV anchors staring at you. "Vote, voter, votest," said one. As for the English press, The Statesman is a pale shadow of its old self. The Telegraph, launched in 1982, leads the circulation race but every other national newspaper has launched a local edition. The big buzz in Calcutta’s media circles concerns a certain media group that has, of late, gone overboard singing paeans to the 555-puffing CM, in the process putting to shame Ganashakti, the official mouthpiece of the CPI(M). True, BB is nearly thirty years younger than his nearly 93-year-old predecessor JB and lives in a flat less than half the size of the house where the party patriarch lives in upmarket Salt Lake. But why this love from a ‘card-carrying’ capitalist? If rumour-mongers are to be believed, the gentleman is not exactly on the best of terms with his sibling. Should a formal split take place and financial institutions have to take sides, he’ll need the friendship of the powers-that-be in Writers Building.

From Saira Bano To Haridasi
Why the Trinamool refused to part ways with the BJP (which has never had much of a presence in Bongland) though the Congress bent over backwards, only MB knows. A former confidant of hers, erstwhile Calcutta mayor Subrata Mukherjee, quipped without naming her: "When I saw her coming from a distance, I thought she was Saira Bano, but when she came closer, I realised she was Haridasi (plain Jane)." Mukherjee, who has formally regained his distance from the Trinamool, ended up third from Chowringhee after the CPI(M) candidate who, incidentally, happened to be a Marwari income-tax lawyer!

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