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When African wave engulfed Eden

- Buddha brolly’s missed chance

Forget, for a moment, the Mexican wave. Twenty-three years ago, under a scorching October sun, an “African wave” had engulfed Nelson Mandela at the Eden Gardens.

Tens of thousands of people had marched from different parts of the city to converge at this circular home of cricket, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Amar jibon, tomar jibon (My life, your life), Nelson, Nelson” to welcome the anti-apartheid icon.

It was the day after Kali Puja, 1990, and only sporadic flares of firecrackers streaked through the autumn air.

“We all wanted to see such a charismatic man who was in prison for two decades. That was the mood of Calcutta then. So many people turned up on the very next day of Kali Puja. Something quite unexpected as the festive mood was still there. It was something like an African wave at the Eden,” CPM state secretariat member Rabin Deb said, recalling that day.

Bengal’s Left government, then headed by Jyoti Basu, had arranged the civic reception for the South African leader, eight months after his release from prison.

“We made all the arrangements to make the reception perfect. Buddhada (former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee,) looked after every detail with Jyotibabu’s guidance,” Deb added.

Among those present at the Eden that day was former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who too, like Basu, is no more.

Sources in the Bengal CPM said the “culturally inclined’’ Bhattacharjee had held some eight meetings with Basu ahead of Mandela’s trip to Calcutta. “Buddhada was charged up right from the day he came to learn about Mandela’s visit. He would spend several hours discussing with Jyotibabu how to make the event successful. He had some seven to eight meetings with Jyotibabu. That prompted Jyotibabu to tell the then CPM state secretary (Sailen Dasgupta) that Buddhada should be given the responsibility of overseeing matters,” said a CPM central committee member from the state.

“Buddhada went about the job as he felt that he had more responsibility than other ministers, being in charge of the information and cultural affairs department.”

The former chief minister had even held out a beach umbrella to protect Mandela from the blazing sun. Mandela had politely refused.

A CPM leader said the initial plan was to hold the reception at Netaji Indoor Stadium. But the party and the government decided on Eden Gardens as it could accommodate a larger crowd.

Even then, at the stadium, alert police averted what could have turned into a stampede. But dozens suffered minor injuries while a few thousand milled outside, unable to enter the overcrowded ground.

Inside, a muffled chorus of “We shall overcome” — a favourite theme song of the CPM — rose in a spontaneous coalescence of clenched fists.

Before the reception at Eden, CPM leaders had met Mandela at Raj Bhavan.

Sources said Mandela was “happy” to discuss with Basu and Bhattacharjee the “positive role” of the communists in South Africa and how they had been cooperating with him. Later, at party meetings, Basu would often quote Mandela’s “positive” observations on the communists in his own country.

“Our leadership is in touch with the communists of your country as we do with communists in China and elsewhere. We feel proud to know that they are helping you in South Africa,” the late chief minister was quoted as telling Mandela who went on to become South Africa’s first black President in 1994.

A source at Alimuddin Street said Bhattacharjee once told party leaders that Mandela recalled the reception after taking over as President.

“Buddhada told the party leadership that in a televised press conference, the media had asked Mandela about things that had touched him before he became President,” the source said. “Among other things, Mandela referred to the Calcutta reception, Buddhada told Jyotibabu and the other leaders.”

Tens of thousands brave the blazing sun to catch a glimpse of Mandela in Calcutta in 1990


Suzanne Daley, the Johannesburg bureau chief of The New York Times from 1995 to 1999, recalls

Nelson Mandela was quite a dandy, really. Those shirts that he wore were made of silk. He carried a comb in his back pocket. And the one time I got to travel with him for the day, boarding planes and helicopters, he carefully combed his hair each time before stepping out to greet the crowds. The schedule he kept that day was gruelling. When he got on the plane, the flight attendant would help him take his shoes off and lift his swollen feet onto pillows. But when the door opened, he was smiling and waving and willing to dance his trademark jig when there was music. The first time I saw Mandela up close, was early in my tenure when the executive editor of The New York Times was visiting. The editor, Joseph Lelyveld, did most of the talking, which seemed appropriate to me. Mandela never looked at me once, and I couldn’t figure out a way to join in. I thought he had not even seen me, really. But then, at one point, he leaned over to Joe, assuming that we were a couple. He nodded his head in my direction and said: “You know, in my day, if you had a wife who looked like that, you would be embarrassed. In my day, a woman needed a little more meat on her bones.”

New York Times News Service