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May 21, 2011

My Mamata Banerjee: Up, close & personal

My Mamata Banerjee: Up, close & personal

Sagarika Ghose

`Potro dilo Pathan Keshore Khan re, Ketoon hotey Bhunag Rajar Rani.` Mamata Banerjee recited from Tagore`s Hori Khela and translated for me. “There was once a brave Rajput queen who outwitted a famous Pathan general.”

“And did you know about the sheyaal (fox) who turned blue to hide his identity but was discovered when he shouted hukka hua?” she yelled at a crowd at one of her rallies.

Her Bengali is fluent and metaphor-laden. Not just Bengali belted out as a political war cry but also Bengali as a folksy, feminine, sometimes slang, sometimes classical, repository of tales and stories. She`s written 27 books and even writes poetry: under the steely hard-as-nails fighter-politician, there`s an enthusiastic teller of tales.

For Mamata Banerjee, the personal is the political. In my years of travelling with politicians, I`ve discovered the one quality that separates a natural politician from an artificial one. And that one quality is a complete absence of a sense of privacy. Fussy city-bred types shut their doors and retreat into paranoid self-involved spaces. For the natural politician, the private and the public merge completely.

Lalu Prasad used to keep his bedroom, indeed bathroom, doors always open. Mamata Banerjee eats, sleeps, works, lives, falls ill among people. She rarely closes any doors.

She`s won a big victory but her family members say she likes the small things. Says her sister-in-law Lata boudi. “Move to a bungalow? Proshnoyee othey naa (the question does not arise). She`d never live in a big house, or drive a big car.” Big-ness seems to offend her lively sense of aesthetics. Her personal bag is a chic little pouch made of blue denim. She has a tiny Ma Kali in her car. Green and orange paper buntings decorate her home designed to match with her tiny hedge of bamboo and rubber plants.

She asked all Bengal to light a small lamp outside their homes after the election victory to signal the end of violence. To fight a big fight, solace must perhaps come from the little things; from the little pretty things that remind of a little girl`s imagined universe, away from the harsh realities of fighting in the anti- communist Armageddon.

She`s India`s Lech Walesa, a homegrown anti-communist hero, yet ironically her self image is that of a Leftist. A true Leftist, she says, like the once-dedicated activists-intellectuals of yore who sacrificed personal comforts to serve. Nationalist Pritilata Wadder and communist leader Kalpana Joshi are some of her heroines.

Sometimes, winners and losers are joined at the hip, victor and vanquished are children of the same womb of a common history. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad is now vanquished. But he still created the democratic society that led to the emergence of a Nitish Kumar. In Bengal, the austere upright old Left may be passe. Yet it is they who created a legacy and context for Mamata Banerjee.

She may not have the conventional attributes of a bhadramahila. Her father was too poor to send her abroad for a prized western degree. Instead, Mamata Banerjee to me represents the rise of a homegrown Bengali ebullience, the happy-go-lucky democratic spirit of the streetside adda with their mastaans and mashimas.

The babu bhadralok of the Left and Congress who have traditionally ruled Bengal have always been snobbish about English and sneered at those who did not speak it with the correct accent. Mamata represents a liberation from the right accent, a liberation from hang-ups about class, a liberation from intellectual condescension. She`s a chief minister who has once sung in a TV reality show. She`s a chief minister who says her only identity is that she`s `a commoner`.

Bengal`s democratic revolution has arrived with a bang and it`s arrived after years of bloody struggle. But away from the images of Mamata the ferocious warrior-politician, my Mamata will always be about folksy feminine Bengali; about tiny Ma Kalis; about neat denim bags and stories about sheyaals who shout hukka hua at night; and about Tagore`s poem about Bhunag Rajar Rani, the valiant queen of Ketoon who dressed as a man to outwit her enemy.

(Ghose is the deputy editor of CNN-IBN )

Derek O`Brien

My Mamata Banerjee is the struggle to set up a new party. My Mamata is the ability to believe in yourself when you are down to one MP in 2004. My Mamata is having the tenacity to conduct three meetings in one ward before municipal elections in 2005. My Mamata is not giving up when you are one MLA short of being the Opposition in 2006.

My Mamata Banerjee is the series of struggles in the 1980s and 90s and beyond.

My Mamata Banerjee is the struggle for the right of the people of Singur and standing tall even when everyone doubted her.

My Mamata Banerjee is the struggle for existence – an apt title for the books she wrote.

I met her a few months after the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 at Trinamool Bhavan. Mamata Banerjee is even now not about the success but about the struggle before the success. That is the most important part of it and anyone who has come to know her recently needs to know what the lady has gone through.

After a full day at Singur during the protests she would take out 10 minutes to brief me before I went out to face the national media. Overall, she is human and caring. When I went to her on Christmas during her 25-day fast in 2006 she said: “I am sorry for spoiling your Christmas.” And even then she had the sense of humour to say, “I hope the Christmas cake you had was good.”

My Mamata Banerjee is the little things that mean a lot, like getting a message on my 50th birthday because she knew that turning 50 was special.

I remember being very upset at the death of a very close friend. I knew him for a decade, she knew him since her college days, but she was the one who was consoling me.

On May 13, four grown men (including me) were sobbing their eyes out in joy and she was the one calming us down!

She is strong on her gut feeling and has a god-gifted ability to identify an idea or person.

My Mamata Banerjee is not a 100-metre dash but the gruelling marathon.

(O`Brien is a quizmaster and a vice-president of Trinamul)

Jogen Chowdhury

I met Mamata Banerjee for the first time in 2009 at the annual gathering in artist friend Shuvaprasanna`s Raichak residence. Shuva and (wife) Sipra organise a programme of music along with lunch every year at the end of February at Raichak, where they have a double-storeyed rest house. His neighbours are mostly well-known Calcuttans. Samir Aich, our common friend, and I were late, and it was already noon when we joined Shuva`s Raichak gathering.

Hundreds of people from all walks of life – artists, writers, musicians, politicians and socialites were already there and the mood was happy. Mamata Banerjee, as usual in a white sari, was sitting in one corner with a couple of people. Seeing me, she got up with folded hands and said she had a lot respect for me. I was surprised by her gentle gesture.

Though she is young, I too had great respect for all the extraordinary qualities she possessed as a compassionate human being and as a firebrand young politician of Bengal, who fought tirelessly against the atrocities of CPM rule.

From my youth I have been aware of the socio-political developments in Bengal, India and the world. Since my college days, I have been clear about my political ideology. I could never back the communists for their ideology, which does not advocate the freedom of individuals and the freedom of expression.

I am aware of the movement Mamata Banerjee is engaged in. I understand that she must have known me following my participation in the protest march against the Nandigram killings. She may have known me as an artist as well. I had many questions for her that afternoon. So I sat next to her along with Samir Aich. She looked quite frail. She was very cordial as if we belonged to one family.

I asked her how she had lost weight. She said she walked on the treadmill for at least half an hour every day to keep herself fit. Then I asked her the most vital question that had occupied my mind for some time. In case she came to power, how would she motivate the staff of Writers` Buildings and in the hospitals, since most of them are CPM supporters, who have lost the willingness to work in the past 30 years of Left Front rule?

This question seemed to galvanise her all of a sudden, and she sat up straight and alert. She said, I know exactly how to control such elements and such situations. One needs to be cordial with them as if they were part of a family. Not everyone is wrong. We shall have to work as one family. Love and affection are most important for working together.

I felt Mamata Banerjee was right, and today, when she says: `Badla noy, bodol chai` (Not revenge, but change) her ideology becomes clear. She is all for change for the better, and does not want to be vengeful.

I met Mamata Banerjee on several other occasions – private meetings and rail programmes. The most memorable encounter was at Shuva`s residence once again after her party won 19 seats in Parliament. The gathering was to celebrate the victory, as far as I remember. Mahasvetadi (Devi) was the most senior person there, and Mamata Banerjee was seeking her blessings. Most of the intellectuals were present on the occasion. Joy Goswami, Samir Aich, Bratya Basu, Arpita Ghosh, Kabir Suman, Nachiketa, Sunanda Sanyal, Debabrata Bandopadhyay and the newly-elected MPs and Trinamul Congress leaders and many others.

Mamata Banerjee was in a dilemma over joining the Central government, but we asserted that she must. It turned out to be a music soiree. Suman, Nachiketa and everybody else sang in unison, and she herself continued to sing her favourite Rabindrasangeet, while others joined in.

Only  Ms Banerjee`s determination and tireless and continuous struggle along with her supporters have made possible her historic victory. She has made possible the impossible.

At this critical juncture, Bengal is fortunate to have a leader of her vision and dynamism at the helm of affairs. As an extraordinary leader of the people, I am sure she is the harbinger of the transformation of Bengal.

(Chowdhury is one of India`s leading artists)

Soumitra Ray

I`ve known Mamatadi from way back in 1979. My mother (Manjula Ray) was the president of Mahila Congress. Indira Gandhi had asked her to look after the women`s cell and so she had handpicked members for the core committee. Mamatadi was one of the fresh faces in the team. She was very young, just out of college, if I remember correctly, but the most determined member.

They used to have frequent meetings at our Broad Street home and her duty was to take down the minutes of the meetings. Come rain or shine, she was usually the first one to land up and the last one to leave. She would willingly go into the kitchen and offer to make tea for everyone. Most simply dressed, she would take either the 42A or 33 double-decker bus to Kalighat after the meetings. If I was at home, I would go out for a smoke and walk her to the bus stand and stop for a small adda at Birenda`s tea shop.

She would do small things that touched your heart. She must have heard us discuss that my mother and me were fond of lau chingri and suddenly one day she arrived with a bowl of lau chingri. She was quite naughty and would hide the packet of biscuits served with the tea in one of the worker`s bags and when everyone would look for them she would point and laugh, `Ei dekho Shipradi shob niye boshey achhey (See, Shipradi has taken them all)!` The others would call her the `michkey shoytaan (the prankster)`.

I was in my first year of college then and had a band called Joint Family. She would see me leave every evening and say, “Roj kothay jao boloto ei shob guitar niye. Amakey dekhtey hobey!”

This carried on till around 1984 when Ma told me about this meeting at Hazra where she had given Mamatadi the mike to speak and she pulled in a crowd.

The same year at a meeting in Malda, she was asked to speak with Ghani Khan Chowdhury on the dais. Once again her speech turned out to be a great crowd-puller. And Chowdhury asked my mother to give the `young girl` more liberty to speak in public meetings because she had so much fire, making people stop and listen. It made my mother very proud that `one of her girls` had been praised by the Congress stalwart.

I lost touch with her till two years ago when I got a call from Derek O`Brien to tell me that Didi was enquiring about me. So I went over to her Kalighat home and what a meeting that was! She put her feet up on the chair, ordered muri and beguni and we dived back in time. Derek told me he had not seen her so happy and relaxed in a long time. After that we`ve kept in touch. She never fails to reply to my SMS-es. She still talks about the fish fries and cutlets that my mother would get for the meetings. The day my mother passed away last October, she got to know from somewhere and arrived within 10 minutes and stayed on till the last rites were performed. Who would do this in the middle of the night?

For Kali Puja, two weeks after Ma died, she called me and said, “Khokon, aaj amar bari esho (come over to my place)”, knowing that I used to light diyas every year with my mother. She didn`t say much but spending Kali Puja with her filled my void.

Another time I had messaged her about Ma and her pitheys and she promptly replied, “Aami pathabo tomake (I will send you)” and 10 days after Sankranti, she sent pitheys to me. She has taken my mother`s place and I had told myself that whatever happens, whether she won or lost, I had to be by her side.

She took me with her on many of her campaigns around North and South 24-Parganas and on the day of the verdict I got calls from party workers that Didi was looking for me. She wanted me by her side. I felt so elated. I reached at 7pm and she made me sit next to her for three hours. Then she gave me a car to go back home with tray-loads of sweets for my family and chocolates for my son.

She also gave me a bonsai bamboo plant in a glass bowl to place before my mother`s photograph and said “Eta Manjuladi`r chhobir shamney amar naam korey rekhe diyo (Keep this in fron of your mother's picture)”.

Just 10 minutes ago, I got a call from Derek asking for my address because Mamatadi wants to invite me over for the swearing-in ceremony. Who am I? Just an ordinary musician with a band but it`s her sincerity and heartwarming nature that she is able to love and respect everyone. I`m thrilled to bits that it`s the same young girl with that spark who will be our chief minister. I pray for her the way I pray for my family.

(Ray is the vocalist and percussionist of the band Bhoomi)

Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar

Mamata Banerjee to me is, in one word, `God`. She is honesty, simplicity and straightforwardness. She is one of the most diligent people I have seen and she is at the end of everything the nicest human being.

I first met her at a procession in 1976. I was in Class IX and she was in college and active with Chhatra Parishad. Since then we have always been in touch. I got married and went abroad for my studies. When I came back I joined politics again and stood against Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee from the Congress. When Mamata Banerjee formed the Trinamool Congress I was there.

It is her zeal and doggedness in protesting against injustice that for me is the biggest draw. And her indomitable spirit is the most attractive quality.

We go back 35 years so we have shared lots of special moments, both political and non-political. If she doesn`t like the way I`m wearing a sari, she`ll make sure it`s worn correctly. She`d fix my hair herself when it wasn`t done properly. Who else in her position would take the time to pay such individual attention?

And this relentless fighter never considers herself a woman; she thinks of herself as a human being. But every woman is happy about her success today.

(Ghosh Dastidar is the Trinamool Congress MP from Barasat)

Arpita Ghosh

I got to know Mamata Banerjee some time in 2008, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. It was a very formal interaction. Then we were invited to a party at Shuvada`s (Shuvaprasanna) house after the elections. Since then I have tried to pass on whatever information I would get from the districts to her and she would act on it.

She was the one who wanted me to join the passenger service committee of the railways and I did. She then asked if I would like to move to the heritage and culture committee and I readily agreed.

Over these two-three years I have realised that she thinks in her own way and is calm and confident about all the decisions she takes.

The Mamata Banerjee I know is very different from the Mamata Banerjee I encountered from afar as a person working on Park Street in the 1990s. The Mamata Banerjee that I saw then was more about gimmick than about political decisions, at least to me.

But there has been a change in her since 2006. Especially now, she has so much maturity. I was moved by the way she has nurtured her party. And what she did after the clean sweep on May 13 was absolutely remarkable. No victory marches, Rabindrasangeet in every para…. I have never seen something like this since my birth and I have only seen the Reds since then. And every person respected her wishes. That kind of feat is only possible for a real leader.

Working for the railways I have seen she is a very good administrator. That is exactly what we need right now. She is extremely sensitive about and emotionally attached to West Bengal and I believe that she will change the face of Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee to me is also the person who keeps note of every small detail. If I SMS asking her whether it`s possible to call she calls back at midnight if she does not get time during the day with a simple “aami tokhon phone kortey parini, bolo…”. She always remembers you even if you are not in constant touch with her.

My fondest memory of her is my first visit to Rail Bhavan for a meeting. It was Rakhi Purnima and she had tied rakhi on everyone including the bearers and peons, singling them out by name and giving them mishti. She never says “give us tea”, she always says “please can you give us some tea”. Can there be a more humble person?

(Ghosh is a theatre actress and director)