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.

Mamata lives in Kalighat, not far from the famous Kalighat Kali Mandir, and throughout My Unforgettable Memories she links her life to the Goddess Kali’s: “Since 1979, we have been celebrating Kali Puja in our house. But there is a history behind this tradition ... One of my brothers was born on a new moon night on Kali Puja so he was named Kali ... [He] made some small idols of the warrior goddess Kali and sold all of them except one. He then asked our mother if we could have a Kali puja at home with his idol.” When refused permission, he “sold his idol for Rs. 16”. Mamata continues: “A couple of months later when Kali was visiting our maternal uncle, one night, an awful din woke everyone up in the middle of the night. Our cousins saw Kali standing stark naked, sticking his tongue out like the goddess, and shouting, ‘Look at me ... look at the silver bells round my waist and on my ankles ... How could you sell me off for only Rs. 16 instead of worshipping me ... was the money more important than devotion?’ ... We always use a small idol that Kali makes himself or at least puts some finishing touches on”.

This signals the emergence of a new secular imagination in Bengal, a political space constituted by religion and ritual, not divorced from it. The days of an antiseptic atheist culture that gave a seemingly sophisticated angularity to the Bengali’s persona are gone. ‘If you walk into Alimuddin Street, the sombre, imposing portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin greet you. Inside the Trinamool Congress Bhavan, a big painting of Kali hangs above a door at the entrance of a party functionary’s office on the first floor. These visual motifs are subtle indications of the kind of changes occurring in the political landscape of Bengal today,’ Gupta writes in Didi.

Of her collection of English poems, Motherland (1998), Amit Chaudhuri wrote in his essay “Motherland—As She is Written”, published in The Telegraph a decade ago, that it “takes on the official, secular line of the party she abandoned (or which, she’d perhaps have it, abandoned her), and begins with an optimistic tautology: ‘Severance cannot divide Hindu-Muslims.’ That persistent hyphen is striking, as if the two communities were Siamese twins conjoined at birth, unable to pursue their independent and respective lives.” In her Bangla poems, she repeatedly rephrases the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s famous song “Mora ek-i brintey duti kusum Hindu Mussalman...” (We are two buds on a single branch, Hindu-Muslim)” in various scatty versions; a nominality is evident, similar to the one favoured by Indian filmmakers who will conjoin a good Muslim friend with a poor Hindu student, and so on. When religion is a colour filter, there’s always a good Muslim-bad Muslim binary playing itself out, but almost never a good Hindu-bad Hindu terminus. But Didi’s tokenism is of a different measure altogether: How else does one explain the recent declaration of an honorarium and gifts of land and houses to imams in West Bengal?

Mamata’s interpretation of the constitutional ‘secular’ can be understood with the help of an analogy—muri, her favourite snack. (Watching her at The Telegraph National Debate dinner last year, where “a mix of upper-five-star catering and the house’s own legendary Bangla ranna” had been served, Ruchir Joshi writes in his book Poriborton: An Election Diary (2011), “After a while, looking carefully, I notice Madam is eating something—every now and then she takes handfuls of dry muri, puffed rice, from a bowl, and flicks it into her mouth”. It is a sight Bangla television beamed to the world on 13 May 2011—the victorious leader of a food-loving people eating what must be the one of the most inexpensive foods in the world.) Just as puffed rice forms the base, with accompaniments like onions, green chillies and boiled potatoes added as per taste, so too the place of the minorities in her majoritarian Hindu-secular discourse: “The Gita, Bible, Koran and Hadish/ The affection and benediction of the unified melody/ And in the dazzle of the tune, music chimes/ To be able to change habits is an achievement” (‘Transformation”).

Amit Chaudhuri describes her approach to her aesthetic effectively:

The titles of many of the poems—‘Motherland’, ‘The new generation’, ‘Hindu-Muslims’, ‘Casteism’, ‘Arrogance of power’, ‘Hunger’, ‘Determination’, ‘Achievements’, ‘Cowardice’, ‘Politics’, ‘Corruption’—declare, unequivocally, that Ms Banerjee might have agreed with Wilfred Owen when he said, ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.’ For Owen, the ‘pity of War’ was both his subject and medium, and poetry an incidental offshoot; for Ms Banerjee, the subject that overpowers mere poetry is not so much political engagement as that amorphous area covered by the heading, ‘the burning issues of the day’.

What also plagues these poems is alliteration (“Bulldozer, Boot, Bonduk” or “birawl bishawonjer bishwojoy-ey”). Satyajit Ray memorialised this compulsive disorder of the Bengali in the character of Jatayu in his Feluda detective stories, where Jatayu is a bestselling novelist whose novels always—but always—have alliterative titles: Honduras-e Hahakaar, Borneo-ey Bibhishika, Sahara-ey Shihawron, to recall three titles at random, the names of places followed by an alliterative word that conveys a sense of adventure.

Indira Gandhi made “Roti, Kapda, Makan” her election slogan. In spite of her repeated invocation of the Ramakrishna dictum of ‘work-is-worship’ in her political speeches, reading Mamata’s poems one notices something unique, something so private and seemingly irrelevant that no political leader has ever made a case for it: sleep. In poem after poem, she extols its virtues, regarding it the just reward of a moral act, talking about the benefits of rest, cursing those who wake up the child from its peaceful slumber, occasionally touching upon the inevitability of the everlasting sleep, but all the while never forgetting to relate it to a political ethic. The CPI (M) doth murder sleep, she says. And so Bengal needs sleep.

Her poems commemorate and celebrate people and historical events, they are odes to Bengal, they aestheticise and even glorify poverty, they criticise apparatuses of power, they even describe the beauty of the sea, but they never become personal. Many poems are titled ‘Shishu’ (‘Child’), but the child is used as a suction to draw out our pity, always a victim of Red-created circumstances. And so when Mamata mentions the death of some of these children, there is little effect. Such bland records of deaths in her poems have less power than even statistics.

Anyone who has watched Paglu (2011), Romeo (2011) or Khokababu (2012), to name three recent Bengali films, would know that, like Mamata’s poems, dialogues in these films lack soul; they are just accumulations of words that keep the visual narrative going. Emotions, once said to be Bengali cinema’s whip, do not even make a guest appearance. Just as Mamata’s poems are a pastiche that work within a certain religious and literary framework, these films are grand installations of pastiche—Europe, Mumbai, occasionally Kolkata, are their headquarters; their sensibility is that of the churning machine that mixes everything together without context. Mamata’s poetry, referencing titles of films (Sabuj DweeperRaja, Shap Mochan), political slogans (“Garibi Hatao”), Tagore and Nazrul songs, children’s rhymes, adverts, Bollywood Hindi, is her ultimate democracy: all are equal, all is equal. The poems, the films, the conversations—the physical world of the Bengali has completely been lost. As songwriter Anupam Roy writes in a recent song, in which he uses the trope of the ‘fresh’ refrigerated spring onion, the Bengali’s world is now an embalmed one, a museum one visits and engages in a monologue with. This is the ultimate revenge of the Bengali’s much-worshipped Abstract—the loss of the physical from the cultural imagination.

Mamata’s politics is most obvious in her poetry, just as in her political speeches we see the (adlibbing) poet Mamata. And both survive on pop-nostalgia. The past is summoned to be deleted and rewritten, history backstabbed with the backspace key. Mamata’s speeches and gestures give the impression of turning Bengal Future into Bengal Past. Besides the violence inherent in such a desire, there is also a mathematical error: Mamata’s yearned-for past is the 34 lost years of Left rule, though her ‘Sonar Bangla’ is a late 19th-century Bengal; both are beyond recovery. In her history laboratory, renaming water tanks in Salt Lake after Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekananda and Aurobindo, turning the dilapidated homes of famous people into heritage buildings, organising a mentor group of past pupils of Presidency College to create the new Presidency University are all experiments whose results are unimportant. “We will revive Bengal’s past glory,” she says in all her speeches. Here is her formula for nostalgia: Tagore, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Nazrul but along with them in a hand-me-down version, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s words put through translation engines.

“Trinamool is the highest stage of CPM,” wrote a friend on a Facebook status update, playing on Lenin’s belief that imperialism was the “highest stage” of capitalism. Having constructed a career on the basis of one agenda, that of ridding Bengal of the communists, Mamata has become more Leftist than the Left in her administrative policies, and in that socialist urge too, she is more Bengali than we are willing to acknowledge. The proto-Naxal in all Bengalis found expression in the 1960s, after which, because of a certain kind of administrative apparatus, the state did not wither away but the Maoist in the Bengali certainly did. So the Maoist in the Bengali imagination is inevitably a tribal, a marginalised illiterate figure living on insects in the forests, someone like the girl Duli in Satyajit Ray’s film Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) who, four decades later, suddenly realises that she’s been cheated by the ‘government’. That the Bengali boy from Presidency College can go ‘missing’ because he is a Maoist is no longer within the realm of possibility. That’s because all good boys from Presidency now go to America. The Maoist would have to be an Outsider figure like Kishenji, whose death in an ‘encounter’ caused no tintinnabulation in the Bengali’s “Breaking-News” conscience.

Mamata’s paintings also continually reference Hindu iconography. Ratnabali Chatterjee, writing about the painter Jamini Roy in a 1987 essay ‘‘The Original Jamini Roy’: A Study in the Consumerism of Art”, says: “Caught between a colonial hangover and a feeling of nationalism bordering on chauvinism, the middleclass intelligentsia were oscillating between the two extremes. The new style created by Jamini Roy ... was reminiscent of folk forms, the survival of a past tradition which was unmistakably Indian or rather Bengali, thus providing a cultural root ... [it] offered a rescue route from the stylistic conventions of the Bengal school, which acted as a constraint on the depiction of contemporary events – the war and the famine.”

A Jamini Roy painting is identifiable, among other things, by what Amit Chaudhuri called “the ideal figures with over-large eyes that did not see, the repetitive figures in repose”, derived perhaps from 19th century Kalighat pats. Mamata Banerjee’s paintings, with the third-eye motif, also reference Hindu religious iconography and quote Jamini Roy in the depiction of the eyes. In being a quote of a quote, her paintings are, therefore, twice removed from the folk tradition. Like her poems, they are just a pastiche. This is the language of contemporary Bengal: Kolkata as Singur, Kolkata as Shantiniketan, Kolkata as Siliguri. A critic of globalisation, especially in her poems, using the unpoetic word repeatedly, she is, in fact, localising: all places in Bengal must look like a Festival of Bengal banner, as was evident from the North Bengal Festival in Siliguri in February.

The same impulse can be seen in Bengali films shot abroad—Singapore or Paris, there is no specificity to their portrayal. Since the late 1990s, Tollywood, as the Bengali film industry is popularly known, has been making copies of South Indian hits, and sometimes of popular Hindi films, to such an extent that what had so long marked ‘Bengaliness’, in however amorphous a manner, is today lost. Calcutta, with its longing for sophistication, turned instead to Nandan, the film centre associated with a rich variety of international cinema, and the International Film Festivals held under the patronage of a ‘cultured’ chief minister. Film-watching groups that viewed ‘world cinema’ at the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre and bought pirated CDs of the Iranian masters turned away from Tollywood cinema. The aspirations and morality projected in small budget commercial Bangla films were termed “vernacular” by the English language media and “Bangla medium” by the urban and notoriously high-nosed Bengali, who began patronising the drawing room cinema of filmmakers like Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh, whose work was largely derivative, surviving on a late hangover from the Ray-Ghatak-Sen nostalgia. Tollywood’s constituency came to be the districts—the small towns and villages. This, in fact, was once the Left’s vote-bank, for though its leaders made the right bhadralok noises about ‘culture’ and ‘awposanskriti’ (meaning ‘decadence’, a term made famous by the Left leader Jatin Chakraborty, who declared in 1983 that Usha Uthup’s singing would defile Bengali culture) in the capital of the state, the education system in rural Bengal was producing a kind of literacy that could make Uttam-Suchitra films and the ethos they projected seem as ancient and alien as Akbar’s Din-I-Ilahi. (The Left Front-driven education system dictated a no-English-at-the-primary-level policy, outdated syllabi, and rote-learning the ‘Chhatrobondhu’—literally ‘student’s friend’, the guide book—a system that encouraged insularity and incompetence.)

The Left, under Anil Biswas—the secretary of Bengal’s CPI(M) state committee who is famously rumoured to have said that the Left had former industry and commerce minister Nirupam Sen and therefore didn’t need an Amartya Sen in Calcutta University—appeared to have taken this quote from Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshey, now part of the Bangla idiom, seriously: “Janar kono shesh nei, janar cheshta britha tai (There’s no end to learning, and therefore trying to learn is futile).” For three decades, the education machinery in Bengal ran to this formula, producing paranoid party loyalists. A century-old intellectual tradition turned rickety, as can be judged from a simple test. “Apnar Jnanpith phoshkey gelo (Your Jnanpith gave you the slip),” Feluda tells his friend Jatayu in Ray’s popular film Joi Baba Felunath (1979). In Ray’s time, the audience must have laughed at the mention of the loss of the award to a writer. When I mentioned this to a banker friend a few weeks ago, he thought I was referring to a Hindu pilgrimage site, like Tarapith.

There’s another surplus: the seepage of numbers into the language. After the 18 September earthquake last year, banishing the Richter Scale from her assessment, Didi reported, “In Sikkim, it is 20 points”; she gave Amit Mitra, the West Bengal finance minister, 100 out of 10 for his 2012 budget; after declaring the Left-sponsored bandh of 28 February this year unsuccessful and that “there is no bandh, we are totally open”, she moved to her favourite chapter in arithmetic, the percentage—“98-100 percent attendance in government offices ... I am proud”; in a TV interview on 27 February, she declared, “1 out of 100 out of 15 crores, that is not even 1 percent, not even 0.1 percent, they create nuisance on a bandh day .... neuter people, neutral people have got only 0.1 percent chance, rest 99 percent chance was taken by the CPM”; in the same programme, she performed some more mathematical calculations, showing off her flamboyance with numbers in a very Bengali style—“The man who sells fried savouries prepares his raw material on the basis of the number of customers: two people then 250 grams, five people then 500 grams”; and then, she tells the farmers, “Rs 50,000 at 7 percent, next 50,000 at 3 percent, then only money, no interest”. Pakistan had a Percentage Man, Bengal a Percentaging Woman. A recent ‘superhit’ Bengali film had the title 100% Love.

Once upon a time, Bengalis took honeymoons to Darjeeling, all the while preparing to speak the language of Ray’s film Kanchenjungha (1962). Here’s a sample: “Ei romantic surroundings-eytomar hoito monay hochhey, love is the most important thing in the world. Kintu Kolkatai phirey giye tomar jodi kokhono monayhoi prem-er cheye security boro kimba security thekey prem grow kortey parey, taholey amai janio.” The English words and phrases here give us an idea of the kind of Bengali that was once common in Bengal. Writers’ Building spoke to the press in such a discourse, too. Meanwhile, here is a sampling of Bengali film titles from the past year: Love Me, Fighter, Bye Bye Bangkok, Ohh My Love, Jiyo Kaka, Superstar—A Love Story, Bajikar, Love Birds—The Symbol of Love, Amio Nebo Challenge, System, Get Together, Hello Memsaheb, Best Friend, Murder. This is ‘American English’ via Mumbai. A shift in the Bengali’s intellectual centre from England to the US, call-centre English, FM Radio Hindi-English-Bengali babble, SMS language, Wren & Martin-ABTA books cocktail, and the stress on ‘Functional English’ and ‘Soft Skills’, as if language was a lipstick whose shade one needed to get right only to ‘get a job’, have made Bangla a mishmash.

At last, the voters and the chief minister speak the same language. When the TMC was voted to power last year, my driver’s first words were, “Jiyo Didi!”; my colleague’s “Awesome Didi!” The last stanza of Mamata Banerjee’s recent poem “Doorey” reads: “Manage korchhey manage-master/ Jaaney na itihas, nayok-er duster”. This little extract about the “manage-master” who doesn’t know itihas (history), and is a “duster” of the “nayok , the young hero, shows where the Bengali language has travelled. The Bengali poet Bishnu Dey wrote, “We are all Lenin.” Now we are all Mamata.

A legacy of those two ‘no-English’ decades is to be seen in the way Bengalis speak English today, not just the inexplicable clipped middle that turns ‘heart’ to ‘hurt’, ‘feel’ to ‘fill’ and ‘read’ to ‘rid’, or the unease with the compound ‘r’ sound that makes of ‘problem’ ‘poblem’, but the general carte blanche with grammar. Here is Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, speaking at the Bengal Leads 2012 summit:

Bengal is a pillar. Bengal is a foundation state for northeastern countries. I believe Bengal is border of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan. And Bangladesh is a border of Pakistan ... This type of thing you are facing we started from day one. Our mission is we will do from the day one if we can do from the day one then in hundred days we will be able to deliver ... in Bengal we have the potentiality ... I do the bat directly. I don’t play the bat only just like a match fixing. If I want to do the things I will do it. If I bowl, I will bowled out for this and if I am ready to do the batting I will batting for the people, batting for industry and agriculture also…

Apurba Roy, a young boy from Kolkata who was placed second in Mirakkel, the aforementioned cult comedy show on Zee Bangla, has made a career out of entertaining his audience with his typical post-no-English policy English. He recently called ‘global warming’ “global alarming”, the same slip Mamata Banerjee made on 18 September 2011 when trying to explain the cause of the Sikkim earthquake. Bengal is now Didi’s Comedy Show, without the scare quotes.

Sumana Roy is a writer based in Siliguri, West Bengal.

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