And so the old man has gone and the newspapers and the electronic media are full of how he was a great leader etc. I thought I must pen a few words on living in Calcutta during the Jyoti Basu years for those were the years that moulded my life.
We, my parents and I, went to Cal when I was ten- 1976. For the first time, I experienced what would become a part of our daily life – load shedding. This meant the electric power being turned off at the mains as the state did not have sufficient power to cater to the demand. Every day the newspapers would carry details of how some unit at the Santaldih and Bandel power stations was not working, the Damodar Valley Power Corp supplied only so much power and how therefore several parts of the city went without power for so many hrs of the day. Gradually it became a situation when we managed without power for most of the day – 10 to 12 hr powercuts became the norm. I learnt to study by hurricane lamp and to sleep in an open verandah at night where thanks to our flat being on the 3rd floor and there being no highrise in the vicinity, we were assured of plentiful breeze. Each time the power failed, a collective groan would echo across the entire locality and when it came back a cry of relief would resound too. Miraculously, during Durga Puja and on cricket/football match days, the power would not be cut. In fact, the government would make an announcement to that effect well in advance. Discussions in offices (where people invariably discussed more and worked less), schools, buses and roads centred on load shedding. The Statesman, then Calcutta’s leading newspaper once remarked that it was strange that while the CM was called Jyoti, the state was always in darkness. Some other publication said that the city was full of Mukherjees, Bannerjees and Chatterjees but no energy. We learnt what an inverter was and bought one that was housed with a bank of lead-acid batteries in the principal bedroom of the flat. God knows how much lead fumes we must have inhaled. The brand name Sen & Pandit became famous. The Government published schedules by locality for load shedding. The only thing we could be sure of was that the scheduled hour was when the power would definitely not go off. At all other times it was anybody’s guess.
A newspaper carried a report that the area where the CM lived was free of power failure. This was hotly denied but it was apparently true. Jyoti da had a heart attack and was advised against living in his flat which necessitated his climbing up the stairs. He then shifted into a small bungalow in the Raj Bhawan campus. The Telegraph I think it was, published a story on how those who lived in the vicinity of the CM’s old flat were willing to even carry him up each evening provided he returned thereby ridding them of their power woes.
Calcutta was also notorious for the functioning of its telephones. They rarely worked. And yet people got bills regularly, often for exorbitant amounts. Linesmen were famous for connecting your telephone to someone else who made international calls at your expense. Telephones remained dead for more than two years in some houses and once an irate group of citizens organised a funeral for the telephone. Hundreds joined the march including yours truly and amidst chantings of Hari Bol the instrument was consigned to flames at Keyatolla Ghat or some such place. Everybody laughed. In Calcutta, a good sense of humour could keep you going.
The roads were another story. Bramhapur, developing as a new suburb was called Bumpur. And Strand Road had so many potholes that it was decided that each one would be named after a political leader.
Despite all this we survived and came to love the city. Cost of living was cheap and the Government never revised the bus and tram fares and you could get around on payment of 25 paise on long routes till well into the 1990s. Vegetables and rice were available a plenty though when it came to the former, variety could dip to all time lows in summer. The people were so friendly and warm and the language was beautiful. The city was a heritage lover’s delight. Thousands of crumbling mansions stood, undisturbed thanks to litigation or apathy. And during Durga Puja, Calcutta was heaven. Jyoti babu and his ministers were simple too. Oftentimes during a traffic jam if you turned around you could see Jyoti babu in his Ambassador, waiting patiently for the holdup to clear. Just one car ahead of his for security. In those days, only Governors and Presidents used vehicles with outriders.
The city was famous for its bandhs too, always called for on Friday or Monday just to ensure that the people got a long weekend. Bandhs were always a grand success irrespective of who called it and the same went for rallies too. My father and his colleagues used to mutter that all this was no good for industry and that companies were leaving the state in droves but I did not understand it then.
Afraid that I would develop into a heritage loving culture vulture, complete with unshaven look, long hair, jholna bag and drinking tea at adda shops, father packed me off to Delhi. Then many years later, complete with MBA, yours truly returned to Calcutta to work in Lintas. It was 1989 and along with the rest of the country, Calcutta and West Bengal too were trying to come to terms with change. By then ITC was the only big ad-spender in Calcutta and all ad agencies wept with delight at its smile and trembled with fear at its frown. Roads were still bad. Power continued to fail. But suddenly the telephones began working thanks to new electronic exchanges. Metro made a difference to travel though minibuses, an excresense of a new kind contributed along with the bumps and potholes to spondilitis. Industries were practically non-existent. You had to just travel by rail down the Howrah-Rishra line to see hundreds of sick units – old British firms, all having seen their heyday and now being eyed by speculators for the real estate – not the factory land but lovely bungalows and flats in posh Alipore. By 1990, power failure was a thing of the past. The generation capacity had increased but wags said that there were no industries to draw power anyway and so domestic consumers got it in plenty.
In 1991 I joined a multinational firm in Calcutta which too had seen better days. Labour problems were rife and a permanent pandal would stand outside the building for protestors. “What do they want?” my Sardar boss would thunder. Then he would laugh and say, “See these b**** c****! They will now shout slogans and five minutes later pull out a harmonium and sing songs”. And sure enough that is what happened.
Our company had completed a new chemical plant in Rishra with Japanese collaboration. Jyoti da came to inaugurate it thanks to our chairman who was his close friend. It was a big event and the first major investment of any kind in Calcutta in many years. The press was there in full strength. The unions were there too. It was expected that Jyoti da would make some new policy announcement. The unions were confident that it would be some new populist measure. The industrialists were resigned to their fate.
Jyoti da began and there was a collective gasp. He chastised the unions for bringing the state to the morass in which it found itself. He said he would do nothing to help those who were unproductive. He said that the only way Bengal could regain its past glory was by proving that it was equal to any other state when it came to work culture. I looked at the union leaders – all of them aghast to a man. I looked at the rows of industrialists and they all looked as though they had seen a new dawn. “Lovely speech old boy” said our chairman patting the CM on his back. In any other state you would be better off touching the feet no matter how you close you were. Jyoti da rarely smiled. He just nodded and got into his car and left. It was much later that we found that he had forgotten to take his expensive silver momento. He had no flunkeys who could take care of such things. The next day, one newspaper said that he had sung paeans to industry. A union leader in the company put it more succintly. Das Kapital he said, had become Capital Das.
I left Calcutta in 1993 and have not returned since. Wonder how the place is now. My friends assure me that it has changed quite a bit. I hope the people have not.