That Deepa Das Munshi was a stage actress before joining politics is no surprise.
She is articulate and speaks in a measured tone and a soft, controlled voice, using polite words that can turn sharp and sometimes biting. When she speaks English, she speaks it well.
Her fine handloom saris, worn with co-ordinated blouses and costume jewellery, blaze with colour. Her eyes are kohl-rimmed and on her forehead lies a bindi the size of a large one-rupee coin.
Mamata Banerjee’s bête noire in the Bengal Congress is so unlike the chief minister that their almost perfect symmetry as opposites seems to fuse them into a pair. It is reflected in their nomenclature too — if Mamata is “Didi”, the people of Raiganj call their MP “Boudi”.
Their rivalry, billed as a “Didi-Boudir lodai (fight)”, a phrase Deepa herself refers to, rings of Tollywood. Sure enough, it matches a Tollywood potboiler for brazenness.
The rival camp has made snide remarks about the way Deepa dresses, especially when her husband and veteran Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi has been lying in hospital in a vegetative state since 2008.
Deepa can give as good as she gets, though, and does not shy away from alluding to Mamata’s personal style.
“I will not wear a torn sari because I am grieving within,” she says. “I have to accept that life is like that. I can’t sit and brood at home.”
She can never stoop to using a certain kind of language, either, she says.
Deepa cannot afford to sit and brood also because of her son, a Class VIII student at DPS, Delhi. He is receiving an unconventional upbringing, she says, with his mother often away on tours to her constituency in North Dinajpur.
He stays with attendants and is looked after by Deepa’s friends during those times. Deepa is part of a band of five women in Delhi who have formed a close support group.
Deepa was in her constituency when she spoke to The Telegraph weeks before Durga Puja, sitting in her well-appointed drawing room at Priya’s family home in Kaliyaganj, about 24km of rutted roads away from Raiganj. The large, rectangular house has a thakur dalan (courtyard) where a Durga idol was being made for the family puja.
The drawing room has comfortable sofas with colourful upholstery. The rest of the spacious house is mostly bare, but Deepa’s taste is reflected all over. She is a collector of Ganesh idols, which are on display everywhere, ranging widely in shape and size. A fine tea is served in fine cups and saucers.
As an actress, Deepa worked with two eminent Calcutta theatre groups, Bahurupee and Gandhar. She had studied dramatics at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels at Rabindra Bharati and attended MA classes in comparative literature at Jadavpur University. Priya would often go to her performances — that’s how they met.
They married in 1994. She had no thoughts of joining politics then. But later, when she did, she was a natural.
Deepa agrees that theatre provided good training for a political life. It taught her to connect with people and cured her of stage fright. In 2006, she became MLA from Goalpokhar.
She has faced snide remarks about how she has used Priya’s image and illness to climb to political success. But for Deepa, it’s been about dealing with a crisis at a personal level.
She recounts how, some 15 days after Priya fell ill, she was to attend a meeting of experts at Delhi’s Apollo Hospitals. The prognosis was grim.
For Deepa, there was a strange, mechanical quality to life in those first days of her husband’s illness. The voices at the conference room, she felt, came from a machine.
When she stepped out, the long corridor stretched like a tunnel before her and her feet felt so heavy she could hardly walk. It looked an impossible distance and the machine-voice seemed to be droning on inside her ears.
But she told herself she had to make it. She walked very slowly. When she reached the end of the corridor, she knew she would survive. “You have to face the truth,” says Deepa. “If you don’t fight through something, you don’t reach anywhere.”
About the time Priya fell ill, Deepa, who would be elected MP in his place, emerged as Mamata’s most outspoken critic.
Deepa did not like the way Mamata was treating the Congress. “It’s a blind lane that the Congress entered with Trinamul.”
The high command, Deepa says, always listened to her and allowed her to speak her mind. But she was told there were compulsions of national politics.
“The alliance with Mamata compromised the Congress. We did not work together on anything. No common manifesto, no common agenda, no common struggle. The alliance was formed to throw the Left out. But sacrifice does not mean suicide,” she adds.
Does something personal lie at the root of the animosity? Deepa says the conflict is purely political: it’s because she has been Mamata’s critic.
Politics of plots
Unsurprisingly, the “Didi-Boudi” conflict has often centred on contemporary Bengal’s biggest political issue: land. Deepa wants the AIIMS-like hospital the Centre has cleared for the state to come up in Raiganj, but Mamata wants the project shifted to Kalyani.
The cabinet had approved the super-speciality hospital for Raiganj in February 2009 after Deepa and Priya had pitched for the site. “The Left Front delayed the project,” Deepa says, before the Trinamul government left her stunned.
“It came to power in May (last year). By June, it had already written to the Union health department saying land acquisition was a problem. It wanted the hospital at Kalyani.”
This has now become a rallying point for Deepa and her party in the region. At a meeting at Tapan in South Dinajpur, about 80km from Raiganj, where Deepa is addressing more than a thousand people, the soft voice makes way for a tone of controlled aggression.
“Last month, Mamata said that if land was procured she would allow the hospital (in Raiganj). I am offering land,” says Deepa, who has been working to get local farmers to stitch together 100 acres for the hospital.
“During Mamata Banerjee’s last trip to north Bengal, (Raiganj) farmers were ready to meet her on her way back. When she heard that, she took a train, leaving her officials to face the farmers,” Deepa alleges.
She is touring the adjacent districts as well as nearby Bihar areas to launch a large-scale agitation.
“We have seen Mamata rise step by step. Now she is sliding down in a lift,” Deepa adds to thunderous applause.
Deepa Das Munshi took the oath in Hindi and few could detect any mispronunciation — a feat for someone not hailing from the heartland. Asked why she chose Hindi, Deepa said on Sunday night: “First, Hindi is our official language. Second, most among the electorate in the Islampur subdivision, which covers my Raiganj constituency, are Hindi-speaking. So, I felt it was my duty to take the oath in Hindi.”