The writing on the wall promised safety and security. As a rising young business executive in a multinational who insisted he was a revolutionary warned in the seventies, graffiti blunts the edge of revolutionary anger. “Seeing hammers and sickles everywhere, they imagine the revolution has arrived!”
Outsiders visiting Calcutta during election campaigns were convinced we were in the midst of cataclysmic change. My friend knew better. “Vote CPM to keep out revolutionaries!” he said bitterly of Jyoti Basu playing footsie with tycoons.
Not only would he strip walls bare, but he also had a plan to lock up every single member of the tribe called Calcutta intellectual. Those poets, writers, journalists, advertising executives and filmmakers, progressives of the lost generation, were an exalted version of the hacks whose wall outpourings betray the people’s true cause.
One way of silencing them was to shut down coffee houses. “They encourage people to only talk!” Conversation was the vocal equivalent of daubing walls. Anger had to be fuelled and primed for the explosion. Not squandered in futile wars. Like the Marxist slogan, Mamata-Media=0. Trinamul’s retort: the hammer and sickle on the Congress palm. “They are one and the same” proclaimed the legend.
Non-political interests are also involved. A building contractor deplores the invocation of the 1976 Prevention of Defacement of Property Act. Spattered walls were grist to his mill.
House-proud citizens paid him well to give a rough coating to their walls so that they defied glue and writing. He varied pockmarked grey cement with designs, raised or indented, and charged extra.
But the makers of caps, umbrellas, T-shirts and stickers flaunting party slogans are jubilant. Sales are booming. Perhaps like the American company that turned out millions of identical buttons, stamped “I love Elvis” and “I hate Elvis”, the same people produce talismans for the CPM, BJP, Congress and Trinamul Congress.
It’s unlikely that, deprived of free walls, many political parties paid for space in newspapers or television. But the media are not concerned. Bengal can take the passing show, even the prospect of revolution, with a laugh. Who can forget the stirring “Awake Bengalis!” call emblazoned on every wall by young Amra Bangali ' or National Volunteer Party ' enthusiasts' Or the evocative reply another Bengali had scrawled below it. “Don’t disturb me just as I’m about to fall asleep.”
The closest to that humour, whose full flavour cannot be captured in translation, I have seen elsewhere was Coca-Cola’s proud “We are back” poster in Delhi. The riposte would have warmed the cockles of the young George Fernandes’s heart: “Till we throw you out again!”
There’s a joke and a jingle for every occasion. Vietnam produced “Aamar naam, tomar naam, Shobaiyer naam, Vietnam (It’s my name, it’s your name, Everyone’s name is Vietnam)”. When Ajoy Mukherjee (Bengal’s first non-Congress chief minister) fell out with Jyoti Basu, the walls proclaimed the chief minister’s alleged comment about his deputy’s claim to be homeless: Uparey bhara, nichey bhara,/ Moddheykhaney bastuhara (Tenant above, tenant below, homeless in between).
The CPI’s subordinate alliance with the Congress with its cow and calf symbol prompted the scribblers to write: “Dilli thekey elo gai. Shonge bachhur CPI (The cow’s come from Delhi with its calf, the CPI).”
The cow did, indeed, drive the hammer and sickle into the wilderness in 1972. The walls crowed victoriously, taking off on an old nursery rhyme. “Tai, tai, tai/ Bardhamane jai/ Bardhamane giye dekhi/CPM nai (Clap, clap, clap. On to Burdwan. In Burdwan we find the CPM has disappeared).” The 1976 Act may have been implemented because it’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s turn to play footsie with tycoons. Graffiti is bourgeois. It’s also ephemeral. “Till the sun, moon and stars shine, we will not forget you” was a wall’s poignant message.
The new fa'ade is set with devotional tiles that don’t deter the urinators. Thus passes the glory of the world.
This election’s clean walls mean that the ardent young men who staked out their space in advance and filled them with blood-curdling slogans have joined the ranks of the unemployed. My friend would have been pleased. He believed hardship was good for the revolutionary soul. But he’s not here. The multinational he worked for offered him a senior headquarters appointment.