I arrived in Dubai after midnight on 22 April, nervous about missing my connecting flight. Passing through security for the second time in nine hours, rehearsing the whole belt-discarding, shoe-and-wallet-jettisoning routine with a bunch of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Europeans, I plunged into the capitalist wakefulness that is Dubai airport. I was on my way to Calcutta from London. Assembly elections were taking place in India – they have been taking place, phase by phase, since the beginning of April – and there would be new governments in at least some states. In most states there is a shift in control every five or ten years; the non-ideological alliances of compromise and mutual opportunity have proved, since the 1990s, to be surprisingly resilient. In West Bengal, though, there has been no alteration for 34 years; the electorate, steadfast at first, then increasingly hapless, has voted the Left Front coalition into power seven times. But, in the 2009 general elections, the Front, unprecedentedly, incurred heavy losses. The volatile opposition leader Mamata Banerjee’s great vision for Bengal – the vision of decisively booting the Left Front out – suddenly seemed not just a possibility, but the most likely outcome.
The London to Dubai flight had been uncomfortably full. Next to me was an Asian couple of Muslim origin (I could tell by the names with which they fondly addressed each other, and the repeated use of ‘inshallah’ in their London English), but predominantly British in identity, excited at the prospect of India, where they’d never been, and their imminent holiday in Kerala. The woman watched Hindi films (I had a sense she’d seen most of them before) and, when she was bored, consulted her copy of Hello!. She was surprised at how slim Kate Middleton was. I eavesdropped, read, watched a film, slept a little.
The Dubai to Calcutta flight, on a smaller aircraft, was three-quarters full. My neighbour was a 28-year-old man who worked in Leeds for Tata Consultancy Services, which was doing cheap software programming for the British government. He’d caught a flight from Manchester, reached Dubai half an hour late at 1 a.m., worried about making it to this plane, and now leaned back. Adults, like children, forget with remarkable ease, and live gratefully for the most part in the present. This, at least, is how people who have anything to do with Bengal approach existence. The man’s father had had a second stroke at the age of 64, and he was on his way to visit him for ten days: he’d be taking a train from Calcutta to Kalyani, the small town where his parents lived, on the day, 23 April, when Kalyani would vote. ‘What do you think will happen?’ I asked him. ‘There seems little doubt that there will be a paribartan,’ he said, giggling because he was repeating the word – meaning ‘change’ – that had been put into currency by Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress.
The man not only represented the Bengal of the last three decades, he was it. Intelligence, capability and marginality marked him equally – the moderate privileges he’d grown up with in Kalyani, and the most he’d made of them. The Left Front government abolished the teaching of English in state-funded primary schools in 1983, seeing it as an impediment to, rather than an opportunity for, the disadvantaged. It formally reversed that decision in 2010, well after the experiment had been judged a failure. Its legacy was audible in my neighbour’s inflected English, which we continued to use until we gave up the pretence of being pan-Indian individuals, and confessed to each other that we were Bengali. We talked about Calcutta, how it made flying hard work. Part amateur anthropologist, part yokel, I told him stories of flights out of Bombay and Delhi, that two British Airways planes depart each day from both cities, not to mention competitors like Jet Airways, Virgin and Air India, and yet the flights to London are always full, the business-class section not only chock a block with the Indian rich and their children, but with their children’s nannies. Before we landed into the palm and plantain trees, low houses and ponds that constitute the outskirts of the city, I said, fogeyishly, to my new friend: ‘Where, after all, was Dubai 50 years ago, or for that matter Hong Kong, Delhi or Bombay? Calcutta was India’s premier city, and one of the world’s greatest.’ I think we both felt a quickening on viewing the familiar scene from above in the morning light. Partly it was to do with the return to family; partly, at least for me, it was the memory of some inexplicable source of excitement in the city itself.
Growing up in Bombay, I used to feel a charge of anticipation on visiting Calcutta as a child. This had little to do with actually knowing anything about the transformation in the 19th century that had made the city what it was: a completely contemporary thing. The Bengalis had no recognisable grand history, in the way the Rajasthanis or Biharis did. ‘Even the Oriyas have a history,’ said Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the first major Bengali novelist, scathingly: Bengalis had to make their own history; they did it in their houses and rented rooms, and in neighbourhoods connected to each other by stifling alleys. This is what I must have had an intuition of, even as a child. And this is why I feel, even now, that the most revealing places in Calcutta are not the museums or the monuments (there aren’t many of those), but the houses and lanes. ‘I like this city,’ the novelist Akhil Sharma told me on his second trip. ‘You feel that something happened here.’
Something did. Under the Crown, Calcutta, capital of the new India, became the ‘second city’ of the Empire, until that privilege was rescinded in 1911, and the capital moved to a less political and quieter place, a superannuated historical site, Delhi. If that was all there was to it, Calcutta’s significance would just be that of a major administrative port. But other things happened there too. The Asiatic Society was founded, as well as the Hindu College and Calcutta University, the latter for more than a century India’s most prestigious centre of higher education. Earlier, at the end of the 18th century, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, a Bengali scholar, had made the leap, as the historian C.A. Bayly has pointed out, from being a ‘late Mughal state intellectual’ to the ‘first Indian liberal’. Roy’s legacy is evident in the religious, social and intellectual reforms in 19th-century Bengal; by the 1860s, Bengalis were not only producing a canon – poetry, fiction, criticism – but making their own history. Naturally, colonial contact enabled some possibilities while shutting down others; but what ‘happened’ can’t be comfortably reduced to the notion of influence. What’s most intriguing is that the British knew almost nothing of what was happening: invisibility was one of Bengali modernity’s cardinal achievements.
It conferred invisibility too: if you read Bengali literature, you won’t find out a great deal about the British rulers – they generally fell outside the purview of its restive cosmopolitan explorations. Bengali writing was deeply but strategically realist, inventing a world richer than any English-language account of the age. It’s immersed in, and excited by, the extraordinariness it’s located in; you get the feeling that well before Calcutta was made the capital, and well after it had ceased to be one, it was a capital of the 19th century and of modernity. Sartre writes that the French were probably most free under Nazi occupation. You feel something similar, but on an incomparably larger scale, when you survey the curiously munificent and playful texts and artwork that Bengal produced from the 1860s to the 1970s. Tagore repeatedly invokes the word chhuti – ‘holiday’ – in his songs and poems in a talismanic way, and writes in his memoirs of staring out from the barred veranda of his ancestral house into the garden. His time as a student was one of trying desperately to escape discipline. He couldn’t bear the presence of the English and, despite his wariness of Indian nationalism, his life was punctuated by both personal and public rejections of the British government. And yet if you look at his restless movement between genres, his experiments in poetry, fiction, art, and even in fashioning a persona, you’re confronted by the Bengali who, despite being confined and invisible, his true undertaking unknown to the wider world, is at his most free.
If you ask a Bengali today about what happened to this inheritance, he or she will almost certainly blame the Left Front government for its unravelling. Until recently, a variety of other scapegoats and factors would also have been mentioned. Among them would be the British government, which partitioned Bengal twice, the second time on Independence, destroying its core industries, and before Independence created a famine. So would the largely Congress-led central government’s puzzlingly discriminatory economic policies towards West Bengal. The uprising of Maoist students and activists, the Naxal movement, in the late 1960s would be cited, and its subsequent strangulation by the then Congress state government and the police, leading to the devastation of the Bengali intelligentsia; many students, later imprisoned and even killed, had been recruited into the movement, and ‘the best minds’ of a generation were seen to be lost, not to LSD, but to politics.
All that is now less relevant. Thirty-four years of Left Front rule means that the coalition must take responsibility for various transgressions. Among them are the politicisation of institutions, their alleged infiltration by party members or sympathisers; a recalcitrant work ethic, encouraged by militant trade unions; the awful reputation, as a result, of the state among investors. For now, the great, early triumph of Left rule, the reforms that led to the redistribution of rural land, breaking the landlord-peasant relationship that has oppressed so much of India (and still affects states like Uttar Pradesh), is looked on with exasperation: the party has trumpeted it too frequently. Operation Barga (after bargadar, or ‘sharecropper’), giving peasants a share of the produce and immunity from arbitrary eviction by landlords, began in 1978, soon after the Left Front came to power, and was completed by the mid-1980s; it must rank as one of the most effective interventions of its kind anywhere in the world. Yet the globalised free-market order which India embraced in 1991 would soon neuter this achievement, exposing the Left’s slowness to industrialise, and to recognise that a predominantly agricultural economy wasn’t sustainable. The party’s other achievement, of creating in Calcutta not just a derelict city but India’s only tolerant, multicultural, multi-religious metropolis, isn’t much celebrated. What good is coexistence, when mere existence is difficult?
Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress is the Left’s only real competition, is an unmarried woman of modest means, strident voice and a bludgeoning, populist style. Once a member of the Congress, she was expelled in 1997, when she founded the Trinamool (literally, ‘grass-root’) Congress. For a while, she had a shaky alliance with the right-wing BJP. The Left had perfected a style of politics that was populist (doing things in the name of the ‘common man’) and oppositional (taking to the streets to agitate against central government policies). Mamata borrowed this rhetoric and brought to it her own fervour. The electorate was fed up with the Left and would have voted her in long ago if it hadn’t been for her mood swings, her outbursts. Her moment seemed to have come in 2007, when the Left, badly needing investment in the state, began to pursue in earnest the national policy of Special Economic Zones: this involved taking away (or, politely put, paying farmers very small amounts of money for) agricultural land and giving it over to factories and industry. It met with fierce resistance at the village of Nandigram, scuppering plans to bring in the Salim Group from Indonesia. In 2008, it ran into serious trouble again in another village, Singur, which was expected to be the site of the factory producing Tata’s Nano, reported to be the world’s cheapest small car. This was a prestige project, aimed at convincing investors that Bengal was now a viable destination. But peasant resistance and government brutality in acquiring land mobilised middle-class protesters, followed by local celebrities and film stars.
It was Mamata who decided to spearhead the peasant cause. No compromise could be reached, and Tata left for capitalist Gujarat – a great victory for the people and for Mamata, a crippling blow to the Left’s ambitions for investment and ‘industrial reconstruction’. Not long afterwards, in 2009, the Left lost a record number of seats in Bengal in the general election. People realised, suddenly, that the Left could lose. This realisation dawned on the Left too, and it began to speak a language of self-criticism. Mamata, in the meantime, was about to forge an alliance with the Congress – the party that had once shown her the door – for the 2011 assembly elections, as, by some distance, the dominant partner. Once derided by the Left and even beaten up by its goons (she’d appeared bandaged on television), she was ready to achieve the impossible. It didn’t matter any more that she had no real policies; she, a lower-middle-class woman in a white cotton sari and rubber flip-flops, had vanquished the seemingly punitive patrician system represented in Bengal by both the Left and the Congress. We don’t know a great deal about Mamata except that she has an obdurate will to survive.
On 26 April, the day before Calcutta was due to vote, I went out to gauge the atmosphere. I made my way to the Institute of Jute Technology on Ballygunge Circular Road, where I’d come 20 years ago to vote for the CPI (M) – Communist Party of India (Marxist) – candidate, Anil Chatterjee. (The CPI (M) is the main party in the coalition.) I was 28 years old, had never voted, and there was no alternative in sight. Besides, I was an admirer of Chatterjee’s work in classic Bengali cinema. If he was half as good a member of the Legislative Assembly as he was an actor he’d be a rewarding choice; even if he wasn’t, I was prepared to support him for the hilarious panache with which he’d played a fashion photographer in Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjungha. Since that day I’d abstained, not wanting to vote for the Left Front again simply because there was no other option. But now it felt as though there was an unspoken consensus that people would rather commit suicide than return the Left to power. It also seemed to be accepted that to vote for the Trinamool was to commit suicide. Yet there was a hopefulness in the air, a cockiness, even.
As I entered the Jute Technology college, I was asked by a young Border Security Force guard to explain myself. He finally let me into one of the two halls that would be used for voting, where three polling officers were sitting, shirtless, behind the table. They told me they were government employees (one worked in the main branch of the State Bank of India), that they’d done election duty before, and that, like members of a jury, they couldn’t refuse the job, for which they were paid a modest fee. The moment I wondered aloud if tomorrow’s elections would be any different from previous ones, my main interlocutor grew unapproachable, bureaucratic, as if he were back at his desk in the bank. The presiding officer, who’d been sitting before the vest-wearing officials, myopically going through papers, turned to me and told me, firmly, to leave. An older BSF officer with a gun gently escorted me out; I reminded the three men I’d see them again the next day, and naturally they pretended they hadn’t heard me.
Further up Ballygunge Circular Road is the David Hare Training College, named after a 19th-century Scottish watchmaker and fiercely non-evangelical educationist beloved by Bengalis of the time. The place was swarming with convivial-looking policemen. I sat down opposite a man in khaki regalia, with epaulettes and tassels, and a cap on his head, who was speaking hurriedly into a walkie-talkie. It emerged that the policemen were waiting for the order to stand down. It had been a big day. The college not only had a polling booth, but was a centre at which electronic voting machines were received and then distributed to 91 booths in the area. When I shamelessly told the busy, nervous-looking khaki-clad man I was a novelist, he said: ‘What do you write? Are you addressing society’s many problems?’ He added: ‘Literature is a mirror to society.’ Policemen in Bengal once had a reputation for being unusually intellectual. Monobina Gupta, in Left Politics in Bengal, mentions that Louis Malle, in Calcutta in 1968, received permission to film a political demonstration from a policeman who was a fan, and ‘who’d watched Zazie a week ago, at the Metro theatre, barely a stone’s throw away from the protest … Oh, yes, he had completed a course in French and also translated Louis Aragon’s “Elsa at the Mirror”.’ As I tackled the policeman’s difficult queries (he turned out to be Mr Chatterjee, an assistant commissioner of police), a Mr Chakrabarty of the Calcutta Port Trust walked up to us and, by some chance, recognised me. ‘I’ve been telling him that the writer must deal with society’s problems,’ Mr Chatterjee said in English, to which, impeccably, Mr Chakrabarty replied: ‘Ah, Mr Chaudhuri has more than fulfilled his responsibilities to society.’ I was struck that it was possible to have such an exchange only hours before what people had predicted would be a violent election.
For about 20 years, I’d heard one English word – ‘bloodbath’ – used whenever that inconceivable moment in the future was speculated on, the moment when power would change hands. Although this was now, it seemed, about to happen, the elections in Bengal were taking place without any visible unrest, and when I went out on the morning of the 27th, the city was ostentatiously calm. There were various explanations for such surprising tranquillity in a state whose villages and towns have been periodically traumatised by political violence. The mercenaries who’d been the bottom-rung CPI (M) cadres had simply moved over to the other side, one theory went; the balance of power between the two parties was more equal than ever before, according to another, and neither could risk confrontation. The Election Commission was doing its job perfectly. What’s more, the 27th had been declared a public holiday and the roads were deserted.
Several times a year, Calcutta transmogrifies itself by suspending activity. It does this during bandh (‘closure’) days, when a political party will call for a general strike in protest against some oppressive measure. The city empties and no one leaves home. It does it during festive days, when the streets may be crowded, but both work and traffic slow down or stop. It happens during the monsoons, when the antique sewers can’t cope, and the roads are waterlogged, trousers rolled up, sandals lost. On these days feelings of withdrawal, celebration and calamitousness are strangely mixed. At some point, reading a book, you might think, ‘But this isn’t a holiday – the rest of the world is working,’ and marvel at the way Bengal cultivates its disconnect with globalisation. That entire, useless day has no function other than to defamiliarise a city where little otherwise changes: 27 April had a deceptively similar air.
‘There’s nothing of interest in your area,’ a friend who’s a political scientist said; so, directed by him, I went to the southern reaches of the city, which are still semi-rural but where development and real estate are threatening to make rapid progress. The Eastern Metropolitan Bypass took me to Kamalgachi, where a man was selling watermelons from a cart at the side of the road, right next to a camp of Trinamool Congress workers. ‘How’s voting been going?’ I asked, and he grinned and confirmed it was going well. ‘So I presume you’re doing good business?’ I said, to which he grinned again. I wanted to know if this was a regular spot for him; he shook his head, saying he had no fixed location. This strategic point on the curve of the bypass was a good place to be. He was dark, thin, moustached: I can’t imagine he was more than 35. Two older men, customers, had become curious. ‘What do you do?’ I asked them. ‘Hawkery,’ one said apologetically, making a Bengali noun of his profession. ‘I used to work for Usha Fans, but there are no jobs in the fan business any more.’ His friend was a mechanic for two-wheelers. ‘Well, do you think paribartan will come?’ I asked. They laughed at the joke: ‘Come it will!’ the hawker said. ‘Are you voting Trinamool?’ ‘We’ve finished voting,’ he said. ‘I used to vote CPI (M) once, but it’s Trinamool this time.’ ‘Do you think they’ll do any good?’ ‘I don’t know, but it’ll put an end to the aamar lok mindset.’ Aamar lok means ‘our lot’: he meant the rampant cronyism of which the Left in Bengal is accused.
‘Is it true, what someone just told me about aamar lok?’ I asked one of the CPI (M) men sitting at a table beside a minor road. He was a quiet, dark, portly man called Suleiman Sardar. He shook his head at the suggestion. ‘Look at me. I’ve spent all my life as a driver, and I still don’t have a government job.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, and my friend, who was a party worker, was an auto-rickshaw driver, and died recently.’ So the party was their life, but it didn’t follow it was their profession. To the young men of the Trinamool, I’d said earlier: ‘Will you reject the aamar lok ethos, or continue the politics of patronage? And will Bengal emerge from the rut of reactive politics it’s been stuck in for two decades, where one party says to the other, “Whatever you do, I’ll do the opposite”? If it doesn’t, this state is doomed, notwithstanding the paribartan that may take place now.’ Everyone I said this to – and I repeated the questions at several places – nodded and shook their heads at the correct moments, with a sweet reasonableness peculiar to the day.
I went further south, past Narendrapur into Rajpur. In one of the city’s alleys, wide enough to accommodate a single car, the Left and Trinamool camps sat ignoring each other, both in positions at least 200 metres from the polling station, in accordance with the Election Commission’s ruling. The Left greeted me jovially, one of them pressing on me Chloromint chewing gum, which, according to TV commercials, has uniquely cooling qualities. The Trinamool man, hunched over a desk, was quieter, but forthcoming. He was a computer graphic designer, he said, and was doing this work from a jaala – a ‘burning’ that may arise from resentment, envy, or a sense of injustice. ‘You can’t even get a tap installed in a new house unless you’re a CPI (M) man,’ he said bitterly.
People were voting at the primary school on the same lane, the Rajpur Harkali Vidyapith. A friendly BSF officer, a South Indian, permitted me to interview the voters standing in the two queues: one for men, the other for women. The young men looked like they had no regular employment; they broke into strange laughter on being questioned. When I asked them if their vote today was of particular importance, they appeared offended and vigorously denied it. The women were more personable: I spoke to two thin working-class women who described their occupation using the English word, ‘housewife’. In the queue was a slightly prickly student of art history and a girl who worked at a travel agency. ‘Do you sometimes think you might need to leave Bengal for better opportunities?’ I asked. ‘No, I don’t agree with that,’ the art history student replied, but the girl at the travel agency swerved back and said: ‘There’s no future here in my profession.’ ‘What do you think of Calcutta’s present position? Do you know, for instance, that it was once, and for a long time, India’s foremost city?’ She shook her head in wonder. ‘Perhaps,’ she said. ‘But the Calcutta I grew up in is all I know.’
In 2001, the Left Front renamed Calcutta Kolkata, officially giving it its colloquial Bengali name: a crowd-pleasing gesture, intended to exorcise the colonial past, as with Bombay becoming Mumbai; Madras, Chennai; Bangalore, Bengaluru. On the 27th, as I moved from south to north, going home first from Rajpur and Bantala for lunch, stopping at the Institute of Jute Technology to vote, then moving up towards Rajarhat and the suburbs of Dum Dum, I felt the presence of a new city that had grown up where the old one had been: provincial, unexposed to the world, and without a history. I realised how little I knew about it. To be in it was not to be any closer to comprehending it than when I’d studied it from the aeroplane window a few days before, with its clusters of plantain and palm trees and low, terraced houses. Mamata Banerjee fits in well here, having emerged, like the tentative city itself, and the people I’d met on election day, without a past, and without that haunting, enervating legacy of humanism and high culture. As to whether she will give it a future we’ll discover after 13 May, when the results are declared, and in the years to follow.