Pranab Mukherjee’s 82-year-old sister Annapurna hugs a relative at Kirnahar on Saturday. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
Mirati (Birbhum), June 16: Pranab Mukherjee has spoilt not just one Didi’s dinner.
Annapurna Bandyopadhyay’s kitchen has not been the same since Sonia Gandhi announced the UPA’s presidential candidate last evening. All that the kitchen has dished out since then is the spartan seddho bhaat and dal.
Annapurna, all of 82 and the sole decision-maker of the day’s menu, has been somewhat distracted for the past 24 hours.
Not that she minds the simple diet: it is not every day that your brother is nominated to run for President of the world’s largest republic.
Late this morning, the frail, soft-spoken lady is still besieged: a visitor is force-feeding her celebratory sweets even as others start throwing red abir at one another and end up smearing her face with it.
She is a little annoyed but gives in, for she can’t stop herself, either — from giggling. Annapurna had spoken to her brother, six years her junior, this morning and both laughed a lot.
Then she hung up — because if she doesn’t, he won’t.
Till 1pm, only rice and dal has been cooked in her kitchen because Annapurna has been too busy to decide the rest. “Otherwise, all I do is plan meals,” Annapurna says, sitting on her shital pati-covered bed in her two-storey house in Kirnahar, a small town about 30km from Bolpur.
Whenever Pranab visits his ancestral home in neighbouring Mirati, he stays the nights at his sister’s home. A room has been fitted out with an air-conditioner for “dadu”, says Annapurna’s college-going granddaughter.
The house at Mirati, where Pranab was born, is quite different. It has two storeys too but with several wings. The hay torsos on which the idols of Durga and her family will be built are stacked at the entrance. A new mandir is being built. It will house the Durga idols as well as the ancestral deity of the Mukherjee family, kuladevata Naranarayan.
Inside the compound, on the right is the two-storey mud hut where Pranab was born. On the remaining three sides is a new two-storey concrete structure.
Pranab visits his ancestral house every Puja to personally oversee and participate in the worship of Durga. The finance minister, who is set to become the country’s First Citizen, is an intensely religious man.
“Every morning he performs the Chandipath,” says Gautam Sarkar, a distant relative who lives in the house with his wife and son.
“He does not drink water before finishing the reading. During Durga Puja, he also does the Shashthikirti and himself fills the ghat on Saptami from the river Kuniye.”
Pranab never misses a Durga Puja at home. Before any significant event — such as the signing of the Indo-US nuclear treaty or filing his nomination papers from Jangipur — he visits his household deity. The room where he rests in this house during the Puja, unlike his room at his sister’s home, is austere. It has only a cot.
His childhood, spent in the two-storey mud hut, was austere. His father Kamoda Kinkar Mukherjee was a freedom fighter. Kamoda Kinkar taught at a school for sometime but later devoted himself wholeheartedly to swadeshi.
Annapurna remembers her father, who later became a well-known Congress leader in the area and was a member of the legislative council for 10 years, with a mixture of pride and awe.
“We were never awash with money. My father was committed to the freedom struggle. We had some land; our income came from that.”
Even under such circumstances, their home was an open house — anyone was welcome to come and eat. Annapurna had to maintain this tradition of feeding any number of strangers when her father lived with her in Calcutta.
Kamoda Kinkar, after whom the house and the street on which it stands now is named, was put under house arrest several times and also went to jail. When he was jailed, possibly during the Second World War, one of his friends paid a secret visit to their home one night. Annapurna remembers him carrying pamphlets inside earthen pots, hidden under a cover of cow dung.
Pranab grew up in this atmosphere. He is seen as the great inheritor of the Mukherjee legacy and is expected to pass it on to his son Abhijit, the Nalhati MLA.
It was a very different world in other ways too. Going to school was tough.
“Pranab was very naughty. He wouldn’t go to the pathshala. One day he just shook off the man who was taking him there and disappeared for the whole day. My mother beat him so much that day that he lost consciousness,” says Annapurna.
When Pranab was growing up, there were no roads. People would have to wade through water over long stretches to reach somewhere.
Since he wouldn’t go to the pathshala, Pranab was admitted to Class V in Brahmanpara Prathamik Vidyalay, the primary school, a little before his time. Pranab and the other boys would wade through water to reach Kirnahar.
“The boys would wear gamchhas till they reached Kirnahar, where they changed into their school uniform. On their way back, they would be back wearing their gamchhas again,” says Annapurna, who misses having been educated.
Pranab then went to a higher school in Kirnahar and Shiuri Vidyasagar College, where he studied Bengali, after which he studied in Calcutta.
In the places that were covered by water stands a smooth road now, going past Pranab’s house. The credit for building the road goes to Pranab. He is also thanked for bringing electricity to every house, building a school and a hospital, and bringing government presence to the area.
This place worships him. It has seen him grow from a not-so-remarkable boy into a man of great stature who worked his way up in the world outside. The people here think they have been rewarded.
Lakshman Mandal, 85, used to look after the shop where Pranab and his friends would change on their way to school. He was the custodian of the boys’ gamchhas for the whole day and also a follower of Kamoda Kinkar during the freedom struggle.
“We used to help him. We came from a very poor economic background. We didn’t have the courage to actually fight,” says Mandal.
“Pranab was a quiet child, unlike the others. The rest were naughty,” Mandal remembers, not agreeing with Annapurna.
Much later, Mandal came close to Pranab again for a while. It happened after “Rajiv Gandhi got rid of the older people,” he says. Pranab used to visit Mirati quite often. “I used to visit him and he used to talk to me for hours,” he says.
He hopes, as everyone else in Mirati and Kirnahar does, that Pranab will come to his village to worship Naranarayan before the presidential elections. “But I don’t hope to see him. There is too much security,” Mandal says.