The death of Jyoti Basu and the crowds in Kolkata that thronged to pay their last respects to a man who many now regard as a statesman and father figure in Indian politics triggered quite a few thoughts in my mind. Basu’s death did not lead to a whimper of protest or holding of black flags or any show of negative emotion as such. Compare that with the happenings in Bangalore and the rest of Karnataka after the death of film stars Raajkumar and Vishnuvardhan. Three policemen were beaten to death as a result of public outrage, if I remember right, when frenzied crowds went on the rampage in Bangalore when Raajkumar died. Nothing of the kind happened in Kolkata, or Calcutta as I prefer to call the City of Joy.
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and MGR died, Chennai, then Madras, was witness to hooliganism. I was then working in a factory in Tondiarpet and found it very difficult to get back home on both occasions, hitchhiking my way almost. So, why the difference in emotional outpouring, between what we have seen happen in the south and what has just been displayed in Calcutta? I can think of no better answer than ‘culture’ – the culture of a people. By this, I do not mean the cultural or literary heritage or richness. Certainly not. Each city and state has its own cultural and literary richness and diversity and we must respect it for that. What I mean is personal culture such as discipline, ethics, respect for others etc…
Calcutta has always been a special city for me, and not simply because I grew up there. Not because I am in awe of the Bengali Bhadrolok. Not because of the great variety of street food available at economical prices (where else would you still get an egg or mutton roll for less than Rs 10?) or the delicious masala chai served in a bhaand (clay cup) at street corners. Not really for all that as much as the respect Bengalis or Calcuttans show towards elders, women and children. For many at the lower strata being delighted with a two-rupee coin (where are the notes of yesteryear?) given to them, even a one-rupee coin. In Chennai, the old security guard who really does nothing, not even smile at you, is not happy with a five-rupee coin you give him as he saunters up to your car window. I admire Calcuttans for being happy with what they have, for enjoying the small pleasures of life, for living life the way they want, as laidback and casual as it may be. For respecting other people’s lives. And they showed that in plenty when they collectively mourned the passing away of a giant among them, a colossus no doubt, who perhaps made a bigger mark as a statesman in his last few years than he did when he was chief minister of the state for a record 23 years.
There is no doubt Basu contributed a great deal while in government. Without him, small and marginal farmers would perhaps never have got to own land and the panchayats would never have become, as they are meant to be, active institutions or a very important part of the decision-making process as they have in West Bengal.
However, my memories of Basu and his government are more about how we all lived in the 1970s and early 1980s without adequate electricity – long hours of power cuts were common in those days when I was a student. My memories are also of how one industry house after another left Calcutta because of the power cuts and labour unrest (rallies, hartals and lockouts were common then, and perhaps still are). With powerhouses such as the Goenkas and Bangurs, a lot could have been achieved, but that was not to be. So, the Tata Nano disaster in Nandigram did not really surprise me.
For all his statesmanship and unbroken record of governance, Basu was unable to break the shackles of agitating labour, arrest the flight of capital or get industry houses to stay. A major failure that will forever cloud his CV. By the time he realized that communist policies too have to suitably adapt to changing times, it was a little too late. The bus had already left the stand and West Bengal had lost out not one, but several golden chances of retaining the status of leadership state, and Calcutta the status of India’s premier city. Remember that Calcutta was once the capital of India, and for all that is said about Madras being the first city of modern India, it was around Calcutta that the romance of the Raj is wound.