Bengal has discovered the shortcut to happiness: long leaves and non-stop festivities.

 

Bengal is worried. In almost every second conversation in the state, a latent anxiety comes to the fore. As someone said, the majority community in Bengal was facing an “astitwer shankat”, a phrase that would roughly translate as “existential threat”. Bengal is not Assam, not yet, but there is growing realisation among the majority community that demography has changed in the districts bordering Bangladesh primarily because of unchecked illegal infiltration; that over 100 Assembly seats in the state are decided by the minority community; that even in certain mixed neighbourhoods in Kolkata with a traditional 60:40 majority-minority population, the ratio has reversed, or may have become even 70:30 in favour of the minority community; that words not used on this side of the India-Bangladesh border are becoming increasingly common in certain parts of the state, and even in popular culture, and so on and so forth. Add to this the latest influx of Rohingyas, who are being settled not too far from Kolkata—and in keeping with tradition may even be converted into vote banks with “legal” identity cards in a course of few years—and a wary Bengal has started counting the straws in the wind.

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The majority-minority schism always existed in Bengal, in spite of 34 years of communist rule. After all, it’s a state that was partitioned on the basis of religion and saw the most murderous riots. But the media and the intelligentsia in Bengal refuse to acknowledge that the rift exists, or that there is a subterranean volatility, which, if it erupts, will hurt the state irreparably. In fact, most “intellectuals” even deny that illegal infiltration is taking place. And even if they acknowledge the existence of the problem, they portray it as economic migration of poverty-stricken people willing to do menial jobs and thus a necessity. The media on its part under-reports even serious incidents of communal violence in the name of preserving peace—but in reality because of political pressure—and is more comfortable discussing “Centre’s failures”, instead of riots in Barasat, or Asansol-Ranigunj. Worse, even if Asansol finds a mention, the “smaller” incidents, and they are a many, are blacked out even by the district newspapers. A few years ago, an incident of violence took place over land-grab in a village around 4-5 km from the Bangladesh border, in Nadia district. “Outsiders” apparently came and burnt down houses, RAF was called in and Section 144 was imposed. It was a reasonably serious incident, but not one word about it was published by any credible local news source. Only some obscure right-wing website reported it.

“Nothing happened” is the new normal in Bengal when it comes to communal violence. As a result, the gaps in information are being filled by social media, which works faster than traditional media in spreading “news”. But then that need not be always genuine and can often be inflammatory. Meanwhile, media in Bengal is taking the phrase “conspiracy of silence” very seriously, so scared it is of—some say, beholden to—the ruling party in the state.

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Lights in the city do not make Kolkata the City of Lights. Wrapping every lamppost—there are two types, trident lampposts and regular ones—every bridge, every flyover with blue and white LED lamps does not turn Kolkata into Paris. Everything in Kolkata is so “light and bright”, 365 days a year, that it gets difficult to spot Durga Puja lights amid a sea of “everyday” lights. At the city’s newest attraction, the floating market in the southern suburbs, big halogen lamps and layer upon layer of blue and white lamps make life miserable for the local birds. At 8.30 pm on any given day, when it should be pitch-dark, all that one hears at this place are birds chirping as they think it is daylight. There is no doubt that Kolkata has got a major facelift under Mamata Banerjee’s government. The city is cleaner, flyovers have made commuting easier, road signs are visible, traffic signals work, water-logging has reduced, tiny patches of green have sprung up on roadsides in many areas, well-lit parks have been built, open drains have been covered. A lot of municipal activity has taken place, but opinion is divided on the aesthetics of the whole exercise. After all, how much can one take of two unappealing shades of blue and white—especially when government buildings, park walls, flyovers and even sundry private residences are painted in these two colours? As for the stories circulating about the “blue-and-white”, these are such canards that they cannot be repeated in a responsible newspaper.

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Talking of infrastructure, this writer was in Kolkata when the Majerhat bridge collapsed on 4 September. A lifeline to the southern suburbs of the city and Diamond Harbour town near Bay of Bengal, the collapse resulted in traffic mayhem. Even though the incident was sought to be passed off as a result of vibrations caused by Metro rail construction, not many were buying that explanation. It became obvious soon enough that it was a disaster waiting to happen as no one had paid any heed to repeated warnings about the structural health of this crucial bridge which used to carry lakhs of passenger- and goods-vehicles on any given day. Last heard, seven important bridges in the city had been declared unsafe—in danger of tumbling down just like Majerhat. In other words, when the foundation is crumbling, a blue and white facade cannot guarantee a shortcut to beauty.

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Bengal has discovered the shortcut to happiness: long leaves and non-stop festivities. State government employees complaining of inadequate DA (dearness allowance) should feel happy that they get a 10-day-long Durga Puja holiday every year. And a day or two extra if they count in the Saturday and Sunday before the start of the holiday, the way it is in October 2018. Once upon a time, Kolkata used to celebrate Durga Puja over four or five days, when millions would be out on the streets, pandal-hopping. Nowadays, Puja organisers are allowed to inaugurate their pandals from Mahalaya, or a day or two after that—which is five-seven days before the actual Puja starts. And considering the immersion takes place a few days after Vijaya Dashami, when all the big Pujas are “encouraged”—a lot of encouragement is offered in this state—to take out their idols in a carnival-like procession, Durga Puja in Kolkata is a two-week jamboree. Critics may grumble about festivities being the opium of Bengal’s “jobless” masses, but the masses are not complaining. What happens to work amid all this? Those wanting to work or study can always leave the state, as they are already doing—in droves.

The plethora of lights near the floating market in Kolkata’s southern suburbs does not let the birds sleep.

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Bengal’s current dispensation is trying hard to prove it is not anti majority community. The latest gift from the state government to Durga Puja organisers is Rs 28 crore, apart from special concessions in electricity bills. Suddenly, paraa-clubs (local clubs) are also being “encouraged” to organise Ganesh Chaturthi, Mumbai-style, something unheard of until recently. Clubs in the state anyway are a “prosperous” lot, with many of them getting a dole of Rs 2 lakh every year from the government for promoting sports and games. The clubs are happy, the paraa boys—some of them party cadre—are happy, and the result makes itself manifest on voting day, especially when it comes to voter mobilisation. It is only nit-pickers who complain about the clubs not spending the funds for the purposes for which they were released, or how Rs 28 crore could have gone some way in repairing the bridges in a revenue-crunched state.

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Realty is big business in a state where there is no business. The fancy high-rises coming up in the newer parts of Kolkata do not give any inkling of the barren industrial landscape that Bengal is. Big ticket investments are promised every year, but not much materialises on the ground. However, apartments are built and sold, at sometimes jaw-dropping prices—apparently, Rs 20 crore for a flat in one of the 65-storeyed buildings in the heart of the city. There is no shortage of fancy malls too, with one of the newer multi-storeyed ones devoted solely to house-building and interior decoration. This real estate boom in an industry-starved state is likely to be a case study either for economists or income-tax authorities.

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Lungi Dance is riling Bengal’s intellectuals. Some teachers at Tagore’s Vishva Bharati University were caught on camera gyrating to the Shah Rukh Khan number, instead of singing Rabindra Sangeet. Naturally, the intellectuals are angry at this onslaught of “aposanskriti” (uncultured behaviour) on the abode of culture, but not as angry as they were when earlier this year a couple of old gentlemen slapped a couple of young amorous lovers for allegedly necking and kissing in a Metro train. In protest, necking-kissing-fests in front of Metro stations were organised, with intellectual boys and girls amorously participating in the aforesaid activities. Comments were also made in newspapers about intolerant grandfathers beating up progressive youngsters at the Metro, which was an organisation of the Centre—in other words, it was all Narendra Modi’s fault! It is not known whether the unseen hand of the Prime Minister was seen in the latest Lungi Dance episode too.

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Bengal may be feeling battered, but its sense of humour is intact, and thank God for that! A cartoon doing the rounds of WhatsApp shows Lord Vishwakarma, the god of industry, reaching Kolkata with his elephant. The caption under the cartoon urges the Lord not to take a particular bridge as it may collapse from the weight of his elephant.

 

Replies to “State of Despair: A Bengal Diary”

  1. Decorating the city with tuni bulbs to give the delusion of development. Although there has been progress under mamata di, the pace of progress is demotivating.

  2. CALCUTTA WAS INHABITED BY REVOLTIONARY- NOT COMMUNIST TYPE BUT REAL ONE. NONE COULD EVEN DARE COMMENT ABOUT A GIRL.HAVE COMMUNISTS AND MAMTA SUCKED THEIR BLOOD. I HAVE NOT BEEN THERE FOR LONG. NEHRU HAD DECLARED THAT COMMUNISTS ARE TRAITORS HANG THEM. TIME LOOTERS AND BARBARIANS LIKE MAMTA ARE HANGED SAME WAY.

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