The Telegraph
Sunday , February 23 , 2014
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These have to be the best of times

The writer with Captain Courageous, which won this year’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Grade III) on February 8 at RCTC. Picture by Rashbehari Das

I returned to Calcutta to be faced with one of the saddest events to have hit us. The last of our living legends, Suchitra Sen, had breathed her last. Bengal wept. She went in style, just as she had lived. Refused petty adulation by staying out of the public eye as a recluse and then, at her grand finale, shunning medicines and a hospital that would uncomfortably and unnecessarily prolong a life well spent: a life that now demanded she take her last curtain call and climb to a place in the firmament, to rest in peace, eternally — with that mischievous twinkle that broke so many hearts and endeared her to millions, sparkling forever, above us all.

But that was the day I also saw a new legend-in-the-making, twist her khopa, tuck her sari’s anchol into her waist, and take over as DIG Traffic. Like a sweaty and agile teen from Peddro’s Salsateca in Salt Lake, she twisted and twirled and dodged and manoeuvred around cars outside the Belle Vue Clinic and directed traffic on the street, to personally ensure that Mrs Sen’s final journey wasn’t as out of control and chaotic as that of Gurudev Rabindranath’s and our irreplaceable Mahanayak Uttam Kumar’s were in days gone by.

Now that I am an infrequent visitor to this city, I notice a lot that residents probably miss. There’s less garbage on the streets except on Ho Chi Minh Sarani, to honour the memory of Khobragade. Hawkers and their filthy stalls disappear from our streets at the dictate of Didi, but are allowed to creep and crawl their way back in when pageants end. The irony is heartwarming. Street lights work. There are no power cuts where I live. And last but by no means the least, the lakhs who throng Brigade Parade Ground to attend political rallies do not jam our streets; processions stick to one side of the road and even follow sidewalks where they exist and, my God, the Communists broke ranks to let cars pass, and actually smiled politely and happily, as we stared at people who, up to a year ago, plundered, looted, burned and misappropriated everything they felt they had a right to own and terrorised the lower middle class in particular, with hooliganism.

There are many who say that the vigilantes of today are no better and sometimes worse. Initially, they feared they were here for a short term and would, therefore, need to quickly make hay even if the bloody sun didn’t promise to shine on them for a full five-year term. But now, the hoods are laid back with a self assurance that proclaims they are here to stay the course and would be happy to earn their dividends slowly and steadily with a twist of the arm rather than a grab for the throat, a few slaps and kicks rather than a bullet through the head. Things have improved.

Ketu is archived into our psychic pasts and Bolshevism’s Rahu will snake its way alongside, during the twist and turns of languorous development, as our slimy companion into the future. I can see us chanting the Maha Mrityunjay Mantra for a few decades still, to ward off Rahu’s influences, and ensure the slithering red devil leaves us alone. And yet, look at it honestly. The lunar jibe is beginning to wear off and the Rahu Ketu eclipses of good sense and loony aberrations are being accepted as just that, passing phases. The scythe that once slew enterprise has changed hands and is currently only brandished at detractors, cartoonists and hecklers. Sometimes I think Didi underestimates the sting of a rubber chappal.

That Mamata is star-struck and loves cozying up to glitterati was obvious from the day she blushed as Shah Rukh Khan planted an enthusiastic Knight-Rider peck on her head, to her sharing a podium with celebrities, artists and artistes who braved dust storms, mobs and allergies to be seen with her, while she dished out legislative seats to wagtails who migrate like so many fair-weather birds do, when winters of insatiable want set in. With her at the helm, Bengal has no choice but to fall in line with her lunar calendar that will determine the waxing and waning of our tides and fortunes for at least the next 10 years. But these have to be the best of times.

Take Mithun Chakraborty for instance. Here was a man who had done more for the working classes of the film industry in India than any other actor, ever. He had done, and continues to do, more charitable work for the people of Bengal than anyone else in an equivalent position has done. He has done so with tireless consistency from the HOPE festivals four decades ago, to Blood Camps, to Thalassemia projects, to name just the tips of generosity and benevolence that are visible to us. For years he was the champion of the Leftists whom he purportedly ideologically supported. But, just as in the case of the great Utpal Dutt, Mithun too was left high and dry with neither a “Padma...” nor a “...Sabha” label pinned on their chests, sponsored by a Leftist Government.

Utpal received the highest national award, the “Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Fellowship”, for lifetime achievement in theatre, but the Hammer and Scythe Brigade simply took him for granted and also ignored another staunch supporter and Babasaheb Phalke Award winner, Mrinal Sen. They stage managed political dramas at the Rabindra Sadan but never bothered to recognise and reward the great cultural contributions of Shambhu Mitra or Uday Shankar who lived and died as great sons of the soil, while an aesthetically aware Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, after her brief stint in Santiniketan as a teenager, never forgot the genius of Ramkinkar Beij and awarded him the “Padma Bhushan”.

Meanwhile, the deified and ungarlanded Ritwik Ghatak is still garrulously toasted around illicit stills in mawder theks — our moonshine repositories of intellectual survivalism.

Like Uday Shankar before him, Kinkarda too had received the “Desikottam” award from Visva-Bharati. But the lovable and affable world phenomenon of sculpture was left to die alone, in misery and virtual penury, at Bangur Hospital — perhaps the only medical establishment on the planet that retailed shoddy bamboo and nariyal rope charpoys outside its gate, for the unseemly cartage of dead John Does, on uncared-about shoulders. One only needs to study the circumstances that prevailed in the dying years of the great Uday Shankar to know that the Bengal Regime of yesteryear had absolutely nothing to do with his receiving the Padma Vibhushan in 1971.

And look what’s happened now. Mamata has stolen a march on the CPM by giving their man Mithun a Rajya Sabha seat and has thereby won the hearts (and votes) of millions of disco dancers in what were once untouchable Leftist bastions of terror and extortion. Jogen Chowdhury joins Mithun in the Upper House and we have a string of Padma awardees to be proud of while Mamata still cries foul because some of her chosen ones were left out. Now, Mamata plans on storming the ramparts of Delhi with an army of starry shadows under her arc light, with followers who know not where they are bound; like night riders following a headless horseman over cliffs into unfathomable depths, or to dizzy heights quite unsuitable for us Gangetic bheto sloths.

Before you jump to the conclusion, as I have, that our Didi loves to share the spotlight that shines upon celebs, let me tell you that I know from extremely reliable sources that even during the years before she came to power, Mamata always asked after, took time out for and did whatever she could on a purely personal level, to look after artists like Supriya Devi. Our lady has her heart, at least, in the right place.

Personally, I don’t think anyone takes Anna Hazare too seriously anymore because he just doesn’t have the personality to back his stances. He is the cuddly Granddad of Indian Politics who comes up with the right ideas but then has to be fondly tucked away without letting him voice too many contradictions, while allowing his army of sympathisers and anarchists to implement his vision in a crooked world. His comments about West Bengal’s chief minister make little sense no matter how you read them.

Mithun Chakraborty had done more for the working classes of the film industry in India than any other actor, ever. He had done, and continues to do, more charitable work for the people of Bengal than anyone else in an equivalent position has done. Mamata has stolen a march on the CPM by giving their man Mithun a Rajya Sabha seat and has thereby won the hearts (and votes) of millions of disco dancers in what were once untouchable Leftist bastions

Anyway, now that summer is setting in, let me let our indefatigable Didi into a sartorial secret that will not cost her much money but will see her sail comfortably and elegantly through the upcoming elections. Let it be known, that Sonia Gandhi sources her cotton Bengali Tangail saris (of which she has over one hundred) through the Central Cottage Industries, from a Maharashtrian Textile Designer living in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, who has successfully incorporated Bengali designs and motifs into his weaving. This isn’t a plug for the shop, just a hint for those who wish to give their sister(s) a gift to wear at the hustings this summer. It’s a sure winner; it’s cool.