Cities with a history and a personality have a distinctive rhythm of their own. What may ordinarily seem earth shaking often creates nothing more than a ripple. As in the immortal song Ol’ Man River, the city “jes’ keeps rollin’ along”. As I prepared for one of my periodic stays in Kolkata I got ready to see a new avatar of it, not a transformed entity maybe but at least noticeably different — the way people note that your walk differently, a bit jauntily, after you have landed a much sought-after job.
The change has certainly been epochal, gone are 34 years of the Left rule which had shaped every aspect of life. People’s democracy had at last arrived, no matter what People’s Democracy may think. But a few days into my stay I realised the city in its majestic indifference, much like the massive Ganga that flows by it, had scarcely taken notice. It took citing the odd faded election graffiti with the emblematic flower exhorting you to vote the Trinamool to remind that a political tsunami has just come and gone.
The predictability started right when the IndiGo flight arrived before time, took a dip with the luggage coming, pronto, but recovered sharply as the taxi rattled along a supposedly prestigious Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in abysmal condition, the rains having merrily created a moon surface of potholes. I ticked myself off for forgetting that a Kolkata road must have potholes as big as they are wide.
Conditioned as I was by the slogan of Parivartan, I looked high and low for days for change. It was a see-saw experience. Yes there was a change of sorts, the streets appeared a trifle cleaner, the year-long Trinamool rule at the Municipal Corporation apparently taking effect. The grounds around the Dhakuria Lake looked cleaner too, even if by only a shade. A proud police claim that it was beautifying a corner got its English beautifully wrong.
But how little things had changed was driven powerfully, if silently, home by a remarkably easy-going bandh by private buses, mini buses and taxis to protest against the unwillingness of the government to increase fares after the diesel price rise. Anything that affects public transport automatically grinds the city to a halt and the leftists in their time used to ensure the success of bandhs, even if the government in Writers’ Building could not officially support it, through the device of incapacitating public transport. If you thought that the dethronement of the powers that had made this kind of political action an art form would mean its decline, if not temporary demise, you would be wrong. The sight of unrecognisable traffic-light streets, with only private cars and a few government buses plying, underlined the fact that the ol’ city just keeps rolling along in its time- honoured way.
But the bandh aided reflection and the thought came that the surface may look as placid as ever but the eddies and undercurrents could begin to script a new story. Violence is so much a part of public life in the city and the state that a major political change was expected to be inevitably accompanied by widespread violence. But not only had the Left been beaten by an unbelievable margin, such was the confidence created by victory that the Supreme Leader aka Didi ordered that there should be no badla or revenge.
So as the days after the results rolled by eventlessly the sense of apprehension that had built up in the expectation of violent resolution of many old disputes began to dissipate. The city and the state slowly breathed a silent sigh of relief, and went back to peacefully following their well-set routine — complaining about hugely costly vegetables and buying less of them, complaining about even costlier fish but buying it nevertheless, and relaxing on a bandh every month or two.
So just as unchanging mighty rivers over time slowly change course, life will remain a struggle and a hundred factories will not blossom in a year or two, but beneath all this there will be less of stress, less of violence, be it political or local, and more of “live and let live”. The Supreme Leader will keep distributing largesse, and coffers at home and in the government will remain empty, but some of the past tension will be gone.
Within the first few days, the wife and I joined our friends to watch a movie that was supposedly not too bad and doing well, part of a new mini wave of well produced commercially not-so-unsuccessful films that are keeping the multiplexes at least partially filled. It was about a lecherous old pop singer who against his base instincts, but in keeping with his basic instinct, promotes a young singing sensation. On returning home when I asked our daughter what she thought of Bengali Pop, she surprised me by saying it was quite good compared to the other such regional genres in the country. So we may be seeing the beginnings of a new cultural process.
Normally, strife and deprivation are the mother of creativity. The Left captured popular imagination when creative artistes in the fifties and the sixties produced the new music and theatre of protest. But a dissipation of tension and conflict in public life (Didi has said that she has no quarrel with leftism but only phony leftists) may lead to post-modern creativity. It will take time for any such change to become clearly visible. Till then the city will keep moving in its time-honoured way, creating an impression of changelessness.