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HindustanTimes Tue,15 Apr 2014

Indrajit Hazra

The golden banana
Indrajit Hazra , Hindustan Times
April 14, 2012
First Published: 21:16 IST(14/4/2012)
Last Updated: 22:47 IST(23/4/2012)

What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India doesn't think about at all. The news of Rick Santorum conceding to Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential race in America probably is of greater interest to you reading this outside Kolkata. And Shah Rukh Khan's (umpteenth?) complaint about being detained (for the umpteenth time?) by US airport authorities must genuinely affect you much more.

But the news from the village of Kolkata about a professor and his neighbour having to spend a night in jail for forwarding an email containing a photo-cartoon criticising Mamata Banerjee and her flunkey Mukul Roy is noteworthy, as it finally confirms two things: one, that 34 years of Left Front-rule in Paschim Bonkers has left the new chief minister damaged; and two, in the Bananarjee Republic, you better stick to jokes the CM can giggle to.

The photo-cartoon sent by Jadavpur University prof Ambikesh Mahapatra in the presence of Subrata Sengupta is difficult to explain to a non-Bengali  unfamiliar with the Satyajit Ray film, Shonar Kella (The Golden Fortress). For starters, one non-Bengali friend asked me why Ray had made a film about a golden banana in the first place, hinting that the obvious lewdness the lampoon must contain has, in turn, led to Mahapatra being booked under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code ("word, gesture or act insulting the modesty of a woman").

Another parody of a scene from Satyajit Ray's Shonar Kella (The Golden Fortress).

I'm sure Derek O'Brien, Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP and a top-notch quiz master, can confirm that no reference to a banana was made in Mahapatra's emailed image (or in Ray's film). What was depicted were lines from the film in which a boy refers to 'bad men' being made to 'vanish' that were interpolated to make a critical comment on the (mysterious) ouster of Trinamool MP Dinesh Trivedi from the rail ministry.

But not getting a joke alone can't be reason enough to lock people up. (One reason why Mikhail Bulgakov survived the Gulag despite his scathing, satirical writings was that Stalin strangely liked him.) Not even in Kolkata where jokes targeting the village elders can be immediately construed as being 'anti-people'. So it turns out that the professor and his pal were assistant secretary and secretary respectively of a housing cooperative and had blocked over-priced deals with contracters who apparently are loyal to the Trinamool. This, of course, couldn't be seen as the reason why Trinamool goons came and beat up Mahapatra and Sengupta before they were arrested. That would have made Mamata too much of a Mayawati. And in Bengal, the 'demeaning use of culture' has been traditionally used as a nice, little weapon.

When I was in Jadavpur University 660 years ago, the Left Front-backed Students' Federation of India launched a signature campaign to throw me out of college for an article I had written for The Statesman. In the piece, I had compared the second-hand, via-West enthusiasm for Ravi Shankar with the similar enthusiasm of English-speaking, middle-class Indian youngsters for marijuana. The point I was trying to make was that for many, the sitarist and weed wouldn't have been trendy were it not for the Beatles et al approving both. The SFI insisted I was guilty of peddling 'oposhonskriti' (decadent culture). I dodged the culturewallas because I was a nobody whom the SFI didn't like because I was indeed spreading oposhonskriti and little else.

In a new regime, Mahapatra and Sengupta faced something more viciously banal. Even if the emailed image was just an excuse to crack down on 'non-friends' of the Trinamool - and last heard, being a critic or opponent of the ruling Trinamool isn't a cognisable offence - the fact that it was used to arrest them makes me think how embarrassingly silly reprisal has become in that village pretending to be a town.

The only way to call Banerjee's bluff is for you - Bengali, non-Bengali, Ray fan or Ritwik Ghatak fan - to upload and share the 'defamatory' image on Facebook or Twitter. If all of you are charged with what Mahapatra has been charged with, then I reckon the village elders have gone stark, raving mad, but nothing that dollops of comedy can't cure.

But if you're not charged, then, as they say in Kolkata's aspirational twin city London, the villagers are buggered, innit?


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