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CHILDREN OF A DREADFUL MIDNIGHT

Dear fellow-citizens,

Let’s be clear about this: yesterday, Calcutta finally completed its downfall from the cultural capital of all Asia to a narrow-minded, spirit-crippled, morally corrupt, goonda- governed provincial town. From being the great city where Rabindranath Tagore wrote “where the mind is without fear” our urban concentration has now become the champion backwater place where the heart is squeezed by fear, paranoia and the over-riding greed for power. This hasn’t happened overnight, we have watched the slow-motion collapse of our culture and our sabhyata over the last fifty years. But the final implosion has been rapid, the final dive into crass, shameful mediocrity has been sharp. The last shredding of any remaining intellectual honour has been forced through at triple-speed over the last eighteen months.

Here are the facts of the last blow, the final hacking that felled all of Bengal’s and Calcutta’s pretensions to cultural superiority.

At this time last year, just after the events at the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival, the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, had declared she would not let Salman Rushdie enter Calcutta. This was a bizarre statement, completely un-provoked, since Rushdie then had no plans to visit our city. The chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, had made the opposite statement, that Rushdie was welcome in Delhi any time. But Dikshit then had to revoke the statement, clearly under pressure from her high command. Regardless, within a month of Dikshit’s flip-flop, various state elections now over, Rushdie came to Delhi for a conclave, had a normal, undisrupted and undisrupting time and left. The elections were done and dusted and so was the pseudo-issue that had been raked up in Jaipur to win votes, that of Rushdie and the novel he published in 1987, The Satanic Verses. This demonstrated that Delhi is bigger than Calcutta in more than just size, no one chief minister can hold it hostage.

Cut to this year. The film of Rushdie’s earlier novel, Midnight’s Children, is being released in India. Rushdie, Deepa Mehta, the director of the film, and Rahul Bose, who’s acted in the movie, are touring India to promote the film. Mehta and Bose have also been invited to the Kolkata Literary Meet writers’ festival to discuss the adaptation of the book into a film. Rushdie’s name isn’t on the list, but on Tuesday it becomes clear that Rushdie was also planning to come to Calcutta to promote the film. As it is, the only officially announced engagement for the writer was a press conference at a hotel in the city. Late on Tuesday night it became clear that our police had intervened and stopped Rushdie from coming to Calcutta. The end result: a huge humiliation for a so-called city that still deludes itself that it is the home of vibrant culture and intellectual vigour and courage.

So much for the facts one can print.

Fellow citizens, I am a story-teller and also an inept, low-level, sudoku puzzle addict. Allow me to bring a different kind of narrative sudoku calculation to this page. Let’s look at the printed ‘numbers’ and embark on a small adventure of conjecture: Who finally delivered the coup de grâce to Bengal’s long failing moral body? Who finally chopped through Calcutta’s ethical spine?

Question 1: Was Rushdie only coming to promote the film at a press conference?

Now, if I were an organiser of a literary festival, and if I knew Salman Rushdie was going to be in town during my festival, it’s likely I would have been eager to have him make an appearance. Given how he’s done things in the past, it would have surprised no one had the panelists at the Midnight’s Children session at the Kol Lit Meet announced in mid-discussion that they had a surprise guest, and had Rushdie been then led on to the stage. Had I been the organiser, I would have grabbed at this idea, but then, that’s only me.

Question 2: Regardless of whether Rushdie was coming to Calcutta to promote his film, make a theatrical entry at Kol Lit or just have a quick snack at Bhojohari Manna, who actually pulled the plug on his visit?

a) The Kolkata Police? Fearing a law and order problem? Unlikely. As we know, this police force does not even clear snot from its nose without an okay from Writers’ Buildings. It’s unimaginable that they could make such a huge decision without serious goading from above.

b) If not the police then the state government? Who in the state government? And how? Not to mention why? Well, let’s keep these squares blank for a moment.

c) The Muslim groups? Maybe. But, wait a minute. In Jaipur last year, the protests against Rushdie attending began way before the JLF opened. This year, in Calcutta, we heard nothing till yesterday, and the ‘protests’ only took place on Wednesday morning — well after Rushdie had already cancelled his visit — as if to provide retro-substance to the notion that widespread protests were always going to take place.

So let’s lightly pencil in a tentative sequence. Remember what Mamata Banerjee said last year, unasked and unprovoked? So, could it be that an aide woke her up when he saw the announcement of Rushdie’s visit? “Didi, you had said you would not let him come to Calcutta. What should we do?” Could it be that a phone call went from Writers’, or Kalighat, to Lal Bazar Police HQ? Could that phone-call have set off other calls from some department of the police, say Special Branch, to the Muslim leaders in this city? Perhaps a conversation along the lines of “Are you planning to protest against Salman Rushdie’s visit?”, “Oh? Rushdie is coming? Thank you for telling us! Of course we will protest!”

Could this have then led to police officers landing up at the office of whoever had (unofficially) invited Rushdie? Could, say, three cops, (played in my imaginary movie by, say, Tapas Pal, Rahul Bose and Parambrata Chattopadhyay) have stood behind the person who’d ‘invited’ Rushdie (person played by Nandita Das), and glowered at her computer screen till she sent off an email ‘disinviting’ the shaitan Rushdie?

But enough of this guessing game.

Yesterday, Mamata Banerjee, either through action or inaction, kept at least one of the promises she had made to Calcutta’s Muslim community. Of all the many promises she had made, this one was perhaps the most poisonous: Rushdie will not be allowed into Calcutta. What this ‘promise’ actually says is “I will use a pseudo-issue to stoke the egos of your leaders, in the gamble that we can shove under the carpet the fact that I have done nothing to improve the condition of Muslims here, which remains worse than the conditions of Muslims in Modi’s Gujarat.” It’s a vile delivery that cuts two ways into the rotting ‘culture’ of Calcutta: it bolsters the obscurantists and fundamentalists of all colours, not just Islamic, while snatching away yet more space of expression from that soft pocket of society we call artists.

There was a time when (what used to be) Calcutta understood what ‘freedom’ meant, what ‘free speech’ meant, what ‘imagination’ meant, what was meant by ‘art’. The movement for the stopping of sati started here (it offended the core ‘religious sentiments’ of lakhs of Hindus), the movement for a free India, where people of all faiths and belief and non-belief could live, also garnered huge charge from the thinking of Kolkataiya minds and hearts.

Central to each and every thing that Calcutta (and Kolkata) gave to the yet-to-be-born republic was the tenet, “Where the mind is without fear”, i.e. that you can think and say what you want. What this latest assault on our freedom to think, read and see what we want does is plunge us into a darkness of a kind we in this city have not yet known. Today, we Calcuttans have really become the children of a dreadful midnight.