When Rahul Dravid was the First Bearer of the national colours, he thoroughly over-used a phrase during the two-minute post-match performance analysis that captains were obliged to parrot at presentation ceremonies: “Everybody came to the party”. Never mind the West Indian and South African sun or the English rain, Dravid’s Indian team apparently always had a rollicking time. Fairly soon, just seeing him mumble his way through the initial “Yeah, it was great, the boys played well” was cue for a sudden urge to smack the man on the mouth, to keep him from saying the inevit. phrase yet again. A Bengali hears enough about parties all day without the cricket captain adding his two bits.
The Bengal partying, however, is of the political kind. And there’s both a deep yearning and a deep aversion attached to it. I daresay the situation is similar in other Indian states, but lacking (so far, anyway) the diversions of religion and caste politics, West Bengal pours heart and soul into the purer sort of politics, where criminal records, corruption charges, and unquestioning devotion to the party are the only qualifications one needs to run for public office. Indeed, ‘party’ — and loyalty to it — has shaped social life here with such exclusivity that one’s ability to get a job, promotions, one’s children into schools, ration cards, passports, encashable ‘respect’, free lunches, unmarked banknotes, and the very right to exist, in some cases, depends on one’s ‘party’ connections. Especially when one steps out of the urban middle-class circle. It’s a fact of life so deeply entrenched, that every time I meet incompetent members of the public workforce, I automatically file the person away as a lucky sod who “knows party people” and acquired a government job thus.
This is not knowledge that brings forth much sweetness and light, of course, particularly in those devoid of such connections. There are certainly people who stridently declare they do not want to live on the party’s scraps, but I’m not entirely sure there isn’t an element of sour grapes in such assertions. I, for one, have always existed outside the privileged network, and consequently had to sweat and smile and grease fists and rage and almost punch my way through getting a passport. It took me eight months. And that’s just one example.
Which is why yesterday was a first. For the first time in my life, the party smiled on me. I was on a government bus, raining muttered curses on the sour conductor who had rudely refused to give me change for a hundred. I was tempted to choose a new target when the bus slowed to almost a standstill, and then began the torturous crawl past a street meeting of the local branch of the CPI(M). The balding speaker in dhuti-panjabi shook his fist and raged at Mamata Bannerjee as traffic and people flowed around the small island of floodlit red and white, honking, puffing black smoke, crackling plastic bags of puja shopping, swarming the phuchkawala and eggroll-seller, dipping in and out of the ATM right behind the temporary podium. Conductors shouting out their routes to attract potential passengers nearly drowned the speaker’s amplified fury. Taxis cruised along the footpaths, looking for passengers. Rickshawpullers within the range of the hot floodlights fanned themselves with pieces of cloth. More than one person loudly voiced his or her scorn for streetside ‘party’ meetings. A cyclist even threw a ball of paper at a framed picture of the late Subhash Chakraborty on the podium. But the speaker doggedly went on with his speech. In fact, he appeared entirely oblivious to anything but his tiny audience of barely forty, who occupied wobbly wooden chairs set out on the footpath, and seemed equally enraptured by him.
And it was so familiar, so very frustrating, so very nostalgic, so very not shopping malls and plastic cafés and Sector V glass-and-chrome, so very Calcutta. Whipping out my camera, I took a quick pic of the meeting, just as our dawdling light abruptly changed colour, and we lumbered past the island of ‘party people’. Ever since I developed a political consciousness and especially in the recent months, I have come to hold the state CPI(M) in deepest contempt. So when we crossed at the determined speaker — who, up close, was sweating profusely and had a slightly haunted look — I raised my fist slightly and said, mockingly, “Laal selam, comrade”.
Suddenly, the conductor was beside me. “Din takata”, he said gruffly. Give me the damned note. I handed it over, startled. The man soundlessly counted out ten ten rupee notes and thrust the bunch at me. “Ticket kaatben na?” I asked, even more taken aback. Won’t you deduct my fare? “Ticket lagbe na” he muttered just as guffly before heading up the aisle between seats. You don’t have to pay. That was when I noticed a small newspaper cut-out of Subhash Chakraborty pasted on his battered coin-bag. “Thank you, comrade,” I said under my breath, eyebrows raised, as his sweaty brown uniformed back retreated. I suppose some of us are still in it for a penny’s worth of ideology, after all (and not just because not being a member of the union might result in loss of life, limb, or livelihood).
Only, I am not sure if this ideological loyalty redeems the CPI(M) in West Bengal (and party is known by the followers it entices?), or if damns the loyalist irrevocably. In fact, I am sure. But I did get a free ride, and a deeply-ingrained sense of reciprocity is curbing my tendency towards free speech. And that, people, is how all regimes begin =P
NOTE: this was written in autumn 2010. West Bengal was then warming up for the Bidhan Sabha (State Legislative Assembly) Elections, scheduled for April-May 2011. The state-wide elections, held between 18th April and 10th May, saw an 86% voter turnout, that finally topped the 34-year-old Communist regime from power.