Pinaki Basak has a slight limp and much ground to cover. An employee of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, he carries a sheaf of notices under his arm which he has to put up before he breaks for lunch. Signed by the assistant director of the borough, each has to go up on a particular door in this maze of alleys, warning those who live there that they face prosecution for leaving garbage on the street, rather than handing it over to the new trash trolley. South Kolkata's pavements, Basak says, are cleaner than ever. Better lit, greener and more free of hawkers, too. He drops his voice and admits that, for the first time, he won't be voting for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M). "Didi gets my vote this time."
Kolkata is visibly transforming, and at the cusp of still more change. On the outskirts, in New Town of Rajarhat, construction continues even at 9 pm, unheard of in this work-shy city. Near the information technology offices that dot the border with older Salt Lake, advertisements for cheap accommodation flutter in the breeze. Next to these are posters for special showings of Telugu movies. A tea vendor nearby, a Bihari from Kishanganj, says "most of my customers are newcomers" - young people who've moved to Kolkata for work.
Under the Trinamool Congress, old landmarks, even some privately-owned, have been repainted blue and white; some of the loudspeakers at intersections set up to play Rabindra Sangeet are sneakily used to relay political speeches. But for the first time since the Assembly polls, red flags are seen on the streets of Kolkata, too, as the much-bruised Left tries to reorganise itself.
It will not be easy. "Who do we have left," asks a CPI(M) worker in Ballygunge, playing carrom under a spotlight at a street corner. "They've all gone there." He points his chin at the TMC office down the road. At another street corner in the same borough, a listless crowd has gathered to read that day's edition of the CPI(M)'s paper, Ganashakti, plastered on the wall. I ask one, named Kallol, what he thinks. He looks at the paper, speckled with images of white-haired Communists addressing thin crowds. "They look tired," he says.
The Trinamool and even the Congress don't look tired. Their neighbourhood rallies in prosperous South Kolkata are difficult to tell apart from celebrations at Puja time. At a night-time Congress rally in Beniapukur, a man in dhoti-kurta is reading out, dramatically, letters from Tagore to Gandhi. Half a km away, at a TMC function, a lady in a shiny silk saree is singing out-of-tune Rabindra Sangeet. Entire neighbourhoods are sitting out in the humidity, clapping politely at all the culture. The Congress' rally attacks the state government for not spending central funds effectively. The TMC's rally looks forward: "Didi is asking for your vote so Bengal can rule from Delhi," says one speaker. The audience nods; nobody in that group thinks Kolkata South is marginal to a narrative that North India imagines is all about Varanasi.
Far to the north in central Kolkata's Alimuddin Street, the mandarins of the Left are the ones feeling truly marginal. Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan, the CPI(M)'s state headquarters, looks shabby and unpainted. Most of the white Ambassadors outside are elderly and bashed-up, some so much that they haven't even been locked. There isn't a single sign of party affiliation on any of these, no sticker, no mention on the number plate, no flag. In Trinamool's Bengal, that could be dangerous. An old man comes out, in a white dhoti and kurta, and a Santiniketan leather bag. Just as he heads towards a rickshaw, he is waylaid by a man in a shiny shirt, a fixer of some kind. They speak urgently, in whispers. The younger man shakes his head and walks off to a sport utility vehicle; the older man gets into his rickshaw. It becomes clear all the younger people hanging around the CPI(M) headquarters are either fixers or cameramen. There are no young people in the Left's command.
Upstairs, in rooms smelling of years of tobacco, sweet tea and Lifebuoy soap, the old men of the Left sit in exhausted silence, holding their chipped glasses. There are no younger people, they explain, as the Left is democratic, there are "processes" by which you rise. There is a distinct air of bewilderment. Had the Left not created more factory jobs than any other state, in West Bengal, from 2006 to 2011? Forty per cent, according to the National Sample Survey.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee mighty understand the young people who wanted IT parks but these men definitely don't. Their phones lie on the table in front of them. Not one is a smartphone. On the walls, there are photos of Ahmed, of Promode Dasgupta, of Nelson Mandela and Karl Marx, of Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Bhattacharjee, and a lot of Jyoti Basu. I don't see any of the party's general secretary, Prakash Karat.
Into the baffled silence of Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan comes the strain of azaan. There is a mosque next door, brand-new, with windows and speakers that look out into the CPI(M)'s parking lot. The mosque, one of several newer ones on Alimuddin Street, flaunts Trinamool colours in the face of the grey men of the Left - a reminder of the mass defection that brought Mamata Banerjee to power.
A little further down the road, a group looks up for a second from their special beef khichudi as Narendra Modi's face comes on the restaurant's TV screen. He seems very far away. But Salim from Murshidabad, who ladles the khichudi into bowls, has stories to tell about cousins in the north who are called Bangladeshis and beaten; about a neighbour's daughter who came back from Delhi because "she got tired of being called Sita by all her employers". Modi is not as distant as all that. Here, at the southern edge of Kolkata North, the Trinamool's Sudip Bandyopadhyay is facing a tough challenge from the Congress' Somen Mitra. The Trinamool might prevail. But, Salim adds, "If Didi goes with Modi, she will never see the inside of Writers' (Buildings, the seat of the state government) again."