There is a bookstore in Kolkata unlike any other. Tucked away in a genteel corner of south Kolkata away from the main avenues, it is almost as if the shop doesn’t want the plebian customers on the main road. Only connoisseurs know of it and you’d better know your Trotsky from your Gramsci.
For a long time, this was a hub of the Bengali bhadralok – scholars and bureaucrats and bright doctoral students who would congregate and talk about the world around themselves, from Chechnya to Chandannagar and Kosovo to Kasba.
The shop must lie deserted now. In the post-industrial collapsed Bengal, the state’s biggest export was the bhadralok culture: the mostly upper caste, upper middle class Bengali men and women who talked politics and culture in polite tones, versed in Satre and Camus and wore muted shades of pastel or grey.
English would be mostly clipped and residences in Delhi/Bombay/London so that one could worry about the intellectual decay of Presidency without having to worry about sending one’s children there.
But after Thursday’s election results, Mamata Banerjee has replaced the bhadralok as Bengal’s biggest cultural export. In all her blue chappal, broken English, mangled pronunciation, Youtube video glory, Didi is now what Bengal is synonymous with outside the republic of south Kolkata.
This is very bad news for the bhadralok because she has made clear she doesn’t care for their support. She is loud, screeches at meetings, patronises regional film heroes – the horror our dear Satyajit Ray must feel in his grave – and doesn’t want to refine her English.
Worse, she doesn’t think the bhadralok is important to Bengal. For five years now, she has used her clout among the rural voters and people living in poorer parts of Kolkata – Topshia, Dumdum, Kalikapur, the bits that are invisible to the bhadralok – to neutralise the influence of the intellectual class.
The Left Front did this for three decades. But they were always careful to put a veneer of culture on booth management and alleged ‘scientific rigging’. Its public faces in Kolkata were always dhuti-clad bhadraloks who were equally at ease in Rabindra Jayanti celebrations and the Calcutta Club. Their chief ministers and top leaders were drawn from the same group – upper caste, middle class, urban, English medium educated and soft spoken.
Mamata doesn’t care for such niceties. With her 211 seats, she has proven that her potent mix of cult and populism is more than enough to take on the illusion of intellectual heft of the bhadralok.
In the run up to the assembly elections, the buzz in Kolkata’s intellectual circles was the supposed tough fight between the Trinamool Congress and the opposition alliance. An influential local Bengali daily added to the debate, its coverage mostly critical of the chief minister.
But as the results show, the disdain of the bhadralok towards Mamata came as a boon – it helped her shore up her image as a leader of the masses, who was connected to the villages, the farmers and the labourers. It also exposed Kolkata’s bhadralok for the out-of-touch theorising class it is.
West Bengal is a strange state. No region revolves so much around its capital city – Kolkata – as Bengal does. Media coverage is saturated with the nitty-gritty of what is happening in the city and the political opinion of the city’s powerful elite – the bhadralok – gets aired as the mandate of the state.
For decades, conversation around education and health in the state centred on the capital, with no mention of how the districts were faring. In culture too, the famous Bengali renaissance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries – that most Kolkatans still reminisce about – is almost entirely about the city. Where is Bankura, Bishnupur or Dinajpur in the lost glory of the Bengalis?
Mamata knows this. In her first term, she tried to woo the bhadralok towards her. She started wearing spectacles, carried a book of poetry under her arm and gave speeches at the Calcutta Club.
But the snooty intellectuals didn’t warm up to her and soon Mamata realised that the pretence of influence they held in Bengal was just that, pretence.
Kolkata and its bhadralok have been synonymous with Bengal for a long time -- to the detriment of the districts and their Dalit Bahujan adivasi and farming class populations. The Trinamool’s massive victory threatens to take away from the bhadralok the power to steer conversation and decide the agenda in the state. Nothing could be more welcome.