We Are All Mamata Now

Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal is a cultural wasteland marked by pastiche, nostalgia, blind faith and two broken languages

28 June 2012

Does Didi wear a bra?” asks my maid with a mixture of caution and curiosity. It’s the Bengali’s equivalent of the more personal question, “Is she a virgin?” “Is she a widow?” asks my driver one day. “Why else does she wear a white Mother Teresa sari at all times?” But such curiosity must remain unsatisfied. The closest we get to an image of what Mamata Banerjee might have been before she let herself be appropriated as Bengal’s Didi (elder sister) is the first photograph in her book My Unforgettable Memories (2012). The young girl is wearing a blouse and a skirt that ends above her knees—it is clearly not meant to be a miniskirt, but rather one that is now old and therefore too short for the tall girl. She stands beside her mother, who sits on a mora, smiling at the camera. Among all the images in the book, this is the only one in which Mamata is looking at the camera. The mélange of photographs shows her with figures such as Satyajit Ray, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Amala Shankar, George Fernandes and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but in all of them she has somehow become oblivious of the photographic moment. Quite curiously, or perhaps not, given her deep sense of victimhood, a majority of these photos show Mamata in physical pain: She is being beaten up, manhandled, recuperating in hospitals and nursing homes, with a broken arm, on a fast—but in all of these states, she never looks at the camera. The viewer is clearly within her eyes, not outside it. The realisation that she is her own and constant audience perhaps helps us to understand where her tendency for babbling comes from.

The pieces in My Unforgettable Memories (the tautology being not just a lapse on Mamata’s part but a Bengali tic) were originally published in Bengali magazines such as Akante, Uplabdhi, Trinamool, Nandi Maa and Keno Anoshan. She writes about the circumstances in which she was born, her ‘supernatural’ experiences, her days with the Congress, her relationship with Rajiv Gandhi, the birth of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, the totalitarian Left regime in West Bengal and her coming to power. The articles have been edited and translated by Nandini Sengupta; with a foreword by the painter Shuvaprasanna. Meanwhile, Monobina Gupta’s recent Didi: A Political Biography (2012) aims to situate the person between opposing poles—and succeeds. “Ma-Mati-Manush” is the alliterative anthem that won Mamata the 2011 West Bengal elections. As Gupta writes, “‘Maa’ [is] synonymous with Bengal, which to Mamata, was always supreme; ‘Maati’ standing for ‘land’ not just in an economic sense, but as something people are wedded to, around which their lives revolve; ‘Manush’ referring to humanity, to humanism, which Mamata believes to be her only political ideology in the face of the brutal state repression and killing.” At the same time, “people had watched her oscillate between shouting her tormentors down and breaking into Rabindrasangeet; braving a hail of bullets one minute and ... applying her paintbrush to the canvas the next. She is emotional to a fault, yet ruthlessly dictatorial; a people’s person who could once have passed off as the queen of histrionics ...” Mamata has been likened to Muhammad bin Tughlaq for her contradictory political and personal gestures. Gupta’s book is useful in understanding that bipolarity.

The cultural ‘pastiche’ that Mamata offers stands in stark contrast to the Left’s great cultural lineage, from home-grown heroes to Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg ... the philosophy of Ramakrishna Paramahansa [was] among the most prominent influences of Mamata’s life. If the Left’s cultural idiom has been shaped by the philosophy of class struggle, the Mamata brand of culture is heavily reliant on Rabindranath, religious leaders like Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Vivekananda, and spiritual texts like the Gita.

Mamata writes: “Often, you come across experiences for which there is no logical explanation. Some people believe in the supernatural, some do not. For those who believe, no proof is needed. For those who do not, no proof is enough. As for me, I believe because I have faced enough situations in my life to convince me that some things cannot be explained by science or logic.”

On the day her father died, Mamata and her mother were resting in the afternoon, exhausted. “Suddenly Ma woke up and started combing her hair. I asked, ‘What happened? It’s only 2:30 and we will go to the hospital at 4.’ She replied, ‘Listen, just now I saw your father and spoke to him. He said I’m going, look after the children.’” A phone call from the hospital just a little while later confirmed that her father had indeed passed away at 2:30 pm.

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. She is online at www.sumanaroy.com.