Editorial / Love in the time of hatred
Motherland in iambs
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

During the height of the Cold War, it was the belief of agent-runners that if the agent really hated the enemy then he was probably in love with him. This belief is worth recalling because it is often found that in politics, and in life, opposites tend to become like their other. Take the prevailing ideological opposition in West Bengal politics. If anybody in the state’s most powerful political party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is asked to name the CPI(M)’s principal enemy, the answer, ten times out of ten, will be Ms Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the Trinamool Congress. This hatred has gone so far that the former chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, in a characteristic gesture of dismissal, described the Trinamool Congress members as “loafers” who would not get any support from the people. Ms Banerjee, in her turn, sees the CPI(M) generally and Mr Basu specifically as the root of all that is evil in West Bengal. It would not be unfair to say that getting the CPI(M) out of the Writers’ Buildings is Ms Banerjee’s one point agenda. She believes that the good of West Bengal is premised on this. There are enough grounds to believe that on both sides the responses are exaggerated. Such extreme forms of rejection would have had substance if an ideological divide separated the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress. This is not the case.

At first sight, this statement might raise a few eyebrows as the two political parties are identified in the public mind as sworn ideological opponents of each other. In politics, ideological orientations are to be judged not by the rhetoric of a political party, but in the position a party takes regarding matters of public policy. Ms Banerjee’s position on a few crucial issues of public policy is very clear as she is a Union cabinet minister. She is against the raising of passenger fares in the railways and she opposed the hike in prices of petroleum products. On both counts, she and the CPI(M) are on the same side. Both Ms Banerjee and the CPI(M) are against policies that contain even a hint of liberalization and the cutting of subsidies. Both parties, despite their vituperative attacks on each other, are advocates of policies which are openly populist. Both believe that the state exists to provide certain amenities and facilities to the people at below the cost price. It is the assumption that populist policies fetch votes and in the pursuit of power in a democracy, that is all that matters. The economy and the overall development are considered irrelevant for the unwavering desire to secure votes. This is a mode of thinking which is a throwback to socialism, to the days when socialism was the panacea to all ills. Today, it has an antiquated and unrealistic ring to it.

This convergence not only indicates that there is no major ideological difference between Ms Banerjee and the CPI(M), it also explains why the former’s attacks on the latter and vice versa have been confined to the personal and to personalities. It is to be noted that Mr Basu has only abused the Trinamool Congress leaders, he has not attacked the policies they uphold. If he had done so, he would have been criticizing his own party’s policies. Ms Banerjee has called Mr Basu all sorts of names and has excoriated the CPI(M) for its strong arm tactics and its use of systematic terror but she is yet to attack the policies with which the CPI(M) is associated. This is indeed a bizarre identity of opposites. Populism has put two rival formations in the same ideological basket, the unbeatable mahajot that is never to be. Ms Banerjee used to compare her erstwhile colleagues in the West Bengal Congress to water melons that are green outside and red inside. She is perhaps red right through. Or the CPI(M) is green. Colours of their respective ideologies have been made irrelevant in the congruence of their policies. Enemies have become united in the mutuality of their hatred. Love is the flip side of hate.


I have before me an under-publicized book of poems, which I bought recently from a local bookshop. It is called Motherland, and first appeared in 1998 from Dey’s Publishing; I picked it up from a fairly munificent poetry shelf for its glossy, slightly tawdry cover, and because the author’s name was Mamata Banerjee. “Who is this other Mamata Banerjee?” I asked myself; and found, on the dust-jacket, a photograph of the Trinamool Congress leader, her head resting upon the open palm of her hand in frowning, Rodin-like cogitation. That hand, which we’ve grown accustomed to seeing constricted into a fist punching the air, or waving at crowds in rallies, has here become an accessory of a writerly pose.

I have seen no reviews of this book in Calcutta or elsewhere, and (unless I’ve missed them) have to wonder why; did literary editors decide that it would be impossible for anyone to say anything worthwhile about it in a six-hundred- or seven-hundred-word review? Certainly, the book presents us with a dimension to Banerjee that at least I wasn’t aware of before, and its publication poses, again, a few familiar questions.

“Motherland,” says the author in her short foreword, “is a collection of poems written by me at different times, arising out of different sorts of emotions. I am afraid, the collection may not find readers’ attention as far as the quality of verses is concerned, but I may expect appreciation for their simplicity and emotional content.” The first half of the second sentence strikes an un-Mamata Banerjeeish note of hesitancy, amplified by that diffident and redundant comma after “afraid”; yet her bluntness about her limitations as a practitioner is the kind of “straight talk” that has endeared her to some people in the past. The second half is uttered by the Mamata we’ve come to know, the politician who will make, intermittently, righteous demands for our approbation, and likes to think even her failures are made memorable by her courage and sincerity: “I may expect appreciation.”

We — all of us who are the offspring of the marriage between Western history and our own — are deeply uncomfortable about politicians, or people in power, writing poetry, or, indeed, dabbling in any of the arts. The discomfiture originates in the Romantic idea of poetry, an idea we’ve thoroughly internalized, and whose residue still informs our responses; Shelley’s poets, famously, were “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and, ever since that pronouncement was made, it has become difficult for people in the English-speaking world to reconcile themselves to an acknowledged legislator — like Banerjee — being a poet. The non-English-speaking world is impeded by no such embarrassment; the playwright Vaclav Havel has been president of the Czech Republic; Mario Vargas Llosa has run for president in Peru. The pre-Romantic, Renaissance universe of England is, of course, full of figures, like Milton and Donne, who were, at one time or another in their lives, politically active or influential office-bearers besides being poets.

In Mughal and medieval India, there was no apparent contradiction in great kings, like Bahadur Shah Zafar or Wajid Ali Shah, being great poets, even if they were accused, by the British, of being poor administrators. The incredulity and contempt with which the British regarded Wajid Ali Shah, not least for his habit of composing verse, are a study in the 19th-century English disquiet about Art, as an emotional, feminized mode of apprehension at odds with the vigorous masculinist enterprise of Empire. Whatever the flaws of Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, it does convey, rather well, the unease of a hyper-male British officer when confronted with the androgyny of a king who dances, sings and recites poetry.

Like other successful women politicians — it isn’t difficult to recall Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher being referred to both wistfully and maliciously as “the only man in the party” or “in the cabinet” — Banerjee is an androgynous figure, her maleness and aggression an indispensable part of her political persona. But readers who expect to find in this book a softer, more feminine side to Banerjee, a side concealed from her political life, will be frequently disappointed. 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 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 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.”

Like some poets greater than she (for instance, Lawrence), she is often undone by the conflict between the demands of prosody and the compulsion to rhyme. The first two lines of the title poem, with which the book begins, clearly bear the mark of the pressure exerted by this conflict: “India is our Motherland/ Friendship with other countries is our stand”. She redeems herself somewhat in the subsequent couplet, where the unpromising rhyme, “mother” and “fathers”, is used more interestingly than I can remember it being used recently: “Everybody loves their Motherland as they love their mother/ But selfish people have some selfish fathers.” In the next line, “happiness” is mauled as much by the type-setter as it is by these “selfish people”: “They cannot tolerate the happiners [sic] of others.” While the sentiment expressed in the penultimate couplet is indisputable, and explains her frequent, self-contradictory, populist outbursts, “We must love people of the neglected sector/ For they are the main pillars and the main factor”, the conclusion might either be a general reflection or a veiled remonstrance to Jyoti Basu: “We should have respect for each other/ Because everybody is our brother and sister.”

There’s something for everyone. “Hindu-Muslims” 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. But the next poem, “Future”, which gropes its way through a Four Quartets-like beginning — “Future thinks about future/ Present thinks about the present/ Past always kept aside” — ends with what is dangerously close to a ringing BJP credo, “Let us think of unity, speak about unity/ And fight out the Evils who want disunity”, where such “Evils” are not infrequently synonymous with aberrations from the (Hindu) mainstream.

There are one or two touching things here, like the poem, “Torn Paper and Soiled Paper”, about the boy going from house to house, collecting rubbish on the day of the Bengali New Year. “Whilst I sat my glance on the newspaper/ Suddenly I heard/ Didi, may I take the torn papers, the soiled papers?” Ignoring the awkwardness of phrasing for a moment, and the hovering figure of the boy, one realizes that this is how Banerjee sees herself, dreams of herself – “Didi” – and one can’t grudge dreams their poignancy, however removed they may be from reality.

The author tells us she’s published in Bengali in the past, but suggests this is her first foray into the English language; her graceful admission — “yet I would like to present my English renderings with much humality [sic]” — is, again, made ridiculous by the type-setter, leading one to speculate as to whether he is a CPI(M) worker. She calls the poems, one notes, “renderings”, raising the question as to whether they are translations, or versions loosely based on poems written originally in Bengali, or, indeed, whether these poems came into existence in English, as they well might have.

Yet why English? It’s the great post-colonial question that is never answered satisfactorily. To say that Banerjee turned to this language only to widen her audience and constituency is to discount the deep and puzzling urge that Indians feel to express themselves in English, and the way they often indulge in it, helplessly, like a terrible vice. Banerjee might have been advised to exercise greater self-control; but she has never been known to set much store by those who are circumspect in their actions.



Who’s calling the shots?

A communication gap or a total breakdown? The legendary lady of the Indian advertising world, Tara Sinha, is all fire and brimstone over the recent sleight of hand of the lady in charge of the information and broadcasting ministry, Sushma Swaraj. The bone of contention is the appointment of the director of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Sinha, who heads the IIMC as its chairperson, is opposed to any favouritism being shown in the selection of the new director. But there appears to be a snag at the other end. Swaraj is as determined to foist a former Samajwadi Janata Partywallah as the institution’s executive head. The I&B minister, in fact, is also reported to have put in a word with a couple of members of the selection committee so that her candidate can sail through without a hitch. But there is one hitch. Sinha isn’t the type who’d give in meekly, especially since the director’s chair demanded a far more meritorious occupant. The IIMC might subsist on the I&B’s annual funding, to the tune of Rs 20 crores. But that, for now, hasn’t stopped Sinha from risking a strong letter of protest to the ministry. If that fails to convince the unfair lady, Sinha is reported to be contemplating resignation. That is if Swaraj remains incommunicado.

In safe custody

Man with a mission. The Union external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, is in Yangon to hold high-level talks with Myanmar’s infamous military junta. Apart from the high falutin strategic defence talks, one more thing is high on the minister’s agenda. This is regarding the upkeep of the mausoleum of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and no less significant if the other party involved is to be kept from making it into an explosive issue. The government of India had to act in break-neck speed in asking the Myanmarese authorities to pre-empt a similar plea from Pakistan’s CEO, General Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistanis were planning to stake a claim to the legacy of Zafar and thereby the Mughals to cause red faces at the other side of the border. The military rulers of Yangon are reported to have agreed to oblige the Indian government, but on one condition. That is Indians agree to a similar upkeep of a mausoleum of the last Burmese king, who was exiled by the British, in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. Fair enough.

Deliver your lines

The AICC reshuffle affords one saving grace. S Jaipal Reddy, one-time Janata Dal man, spokesperson of the third front and the darling of New Delhi’s media, is the new Congress mouthpiece. Scribes on the Congress beat are thankful that now they will never be short of stories. That Reddy, famous for his oneliners, will not disappoint them was obvious the moment he had taken up his assignment, ironically, with the blessings of the lady who had borne the brunt of his wisecracks so long. When journalists went to congratulate him at his residence, he was all willing to regale them. During the informal chat, he compared Ramlila with Valentine’s Day and took a dig at the Lok Sabha speaker, GMC Balayogi, saying, “for him a call from Chandrababu Naidu is deemed more urgent than nature’s call”. He also pointed out that it was the Andhra leaders who were calling the shots in the capital, be it Bangaru Laxman, Sitaram Yechuri, or Sarojini Pulla Reddy. Or Jaipal Reddy?

Election trails,

If its hot in April in West Bengal this year, don’t blame the season. Blame the elections and the CPI(M), which is quite obviously in the frying pan. Fearing a disaster in almost all the 22 assembly segments in the city proper, the CPI(M), has decided to renominate several party veterans to ensure the defeat of Trinamool nominees. The names of two former ministers — Prasanta Sur and Shyamal Chakraborty — are doing the rounds as probable candidates for the Tollygunge and Manicktala constituencies respectively. Sur, who had earlier been denied renomination for favouring his son, will stand against Trinamool’s Pankaj Banerjee. Chakraborty will be fielded against Congress’s Paresh Pal once again. In another move, to ensure the victory of two other CPI(M) veterans – Manab Mukherjee, presently state minister for environment and party MLA from Beliaghata and Rabin Deb, a sitting MLA from Ballygunge, the party has reportedly decided to field them from safer constituencies in the North and South 24 Parganas. A vintage rally?

Footnote / Come, join the gang

A million rupee question. Will didi contest the forthcoming assembly elections in West Bengal? Though the railway minister herself remains mum on the subject, the matter has become an issue of obsessive concern in the Kalighat area, where Mamata Banerjee lives. Senior leaders in the Trinamool Congress feel that Banerjee should spearhead the campaign without entering into the fray herself. They are also thinking of hiring a helicopter to be used solely by Mamata for the campaign. The juniors in the party have other ideas. They feel, “If didi does not contest, the elections for us will be a tame affair”. They want her to contest from one of her seven assembly segments covering the Calcutta south Lok Sabha constituency. Over-enthusiastic Trinamool supporters have even approached Mamata’s mother, Gayatri Devi, to make didi agree to contesting the elections. It is not known if mother and daughter have had a discussion over the matter, but the CPI(M) leaders are not taking any risks. A senior party leader admitted, “This time, we will not nominate a party heavyweight against Mamata”. It’s hands down then?    


One bad deed deserves a good one

Sir — It is typical of Indian politicians, in particular those of Amar Singh’s ilk, to whip up headlines-grabbing froth even out of calamity relief (“Quake aid to prove a point” and accompanying picture, Feb 14). After making an “event” out of Amitabh Bachchan’s repayment of debt to Prasar Bharati, Singh, with screen gods and goddesses in tow, decided to donate Rs 2.44 crore to the Gujarat relief fund. The noble intention behind the act was sensationalized by Singh’s flamboyant admission that it was also meant to pay back the columnist who had accused “him and the film industry of making empty promises of huge donations”. As long as such accusations draw a few rupees more, who’s complaining?
Yours faithfully,
Sreeradha Sarkar, Jalpaiguri

Model morality

Sir — Has Sushma Swaraj, after gazing on the svelte models on Fashion TV, felt the stirrings of the green-eyed monster? Else her exceptional zeal to stop transmission of FTV in India is hard to explain. People like Swaraj forget that they are there to run the government, not to pass judgment on the “morality” of things around them. So long as acts of individuals do not harm society or other individuals, they are not the government’s business.

Even Hinduism, of which Swaraj and her party are fervent followers, calls the human body a temple, and does not find anything to be ashamed of in it. The sincerity with which the models on FTV keep their bodies in shape should draw admiration, not contempt. Had India’s politicians some of that sincerity towards their profession, India would have been a better place.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Pal, Howrah

Sir — It was quite a relief to have Sushma Swaraj take over the information and broadcasting ministry and take steps to stop FTV telecasts. There is nothing fashionable about Fashion TV, only the exposing of bare bodies. Which young Indian girl will be allowed to wear clothes of the kind shown on the channel and be admired by Indians? Swaraj must be congratulated for being brave enough to ignore market considerations.

Yours faithfully,
Soma Chanda, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Don’t look now” (Feb 5), analyses perfectly the recent fuss over the transmission of the international channel, FTV, currently second in the popularity ratings. The interference of the culture monitors directly infringes upon the citizens’ constitutional rights. In an age of convergence, such censoring is illogical. The same technology that gives the viewer access to scores of channels also leaves him free to change channels. The ministry should consider the opinion of the public, rather than hold sacrosanct the views of faceless members of a committee. It would be worthwhile to ask what the government’s stand is on the Khajuraho sculptures.

Yours faithfully,
Ruhita Sen, Calcutta

Straighten the rails

Sir — Mamata Banerjee has again given proof of her enterprising nature by getting Sam Pitroda to guide the modernization of Indian railways (“Prize catch for Mamata”, Feb 7). The bureaucrats in the ministry will no doubt try to scuttle Pitroda’s plans. A similar fate befell the Tandon report, the Sikri report and others on reorganizing the railways. Hopefully, Banerjee’s integrity will overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and allow Pitroda to revive the railways.
Yours faithfully,
Prem Kumar, via email

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007

Maintained by Web Development Company