A farmer works in his field next to the closed Tata Motors car factory, Singur, April 2011
'Duranta' is a great name for a train that goes far, fast and unstoppably to its end-point. Given her flair for literature and music, especially Rabindra Sangeet the name came, in all likelihood, from the then railway minister Mamata Banerjee's lyrical sensibility.
A compound of the Urdu or Hindustani 'dur' (far) and the Sanskrit 'anta' (ending), it clicks easily into our world of familiar words. Happily, both words are widely known and used wherever the Duranta goes. 'Dur' is very much a Tamil word in the shape of 'duram', and although 'anta' is not, that word, too, is widely understood in Tamil Nadu where its antonym 'Ananta' is common enough as a first name. Phonetic traditions have led to the train's name being amusingly mispronounced in the south to rhyme with 'Toronto'. And it is regarded, mistakenly, by many elsewhere as a straight Bangla variant of 'turant' (immediate). But pronunciation and mispronunciation are not a matter of great concern in India and 'Duranta', howsoever called, has entered our rail lexicon effortlessly even as the names of the other trans-India speed trains 'Rajdhani' and 'Shatabdi' have.
Travelling on a Duranta from Chennai to Coimbatore recently, thinking of Mamatadebi was natural. And when the morning newspapers, English and Tamil, personally given to each individual passenger - which is better than what airlines do - showed Singur was in the news again, I was reminded of discussions that were held in September 2008 at Raj Bhavan, Kolkata by the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the then Opposition leader, Mamata Banerjee to resolve the Singur impasse.
As with most fellow-Bengalis, both Buddha-babu and Mamatadebi know their Tagore well. Their Tagore repertory comes unbidden to the fore in the course of their work, political work not excluded. Like his successor in office, Buddha-babu also has an uncanny gift for finding suitable names. In Siliguri, I once had the pleasure of inaugurating a home for the elderly to which Buddha-babu had given the name 'Sesh-Basanta' - Final Spring. A finer name could not have been devised for such an institution.
The Singur discussions at Raj Bhavan started at the level of two ministers and TMC leaders. These went on over several hours and made some progress. But an agreement could not be reached on how and where, in or around the acquired site, a sizeable and suitable acreage could be found that could be allotted to the 'unwilling' farmers dispossessed at Singur. It was decided that the logjam be resolved in a direct discussion between Buddha-babu and Mamatadebi in the governor's chambers. I will not go into the details of all that transpired at those discussions to which, at a later stage, some ministers and Opposition leaders were invited. I had requested Sri Justice Chittatosh Mukherjee, one of the wisest of men I have met anywhere, to advise us on the legal dimensions of the exercise. Neither he nor I will ever forget certain moments at that meeting.
After an agreed statement was worked out and a palpable sense of relief was in the air, a certain composition of Tagore - the same one - came to both Buddha-babu and Mamatadebi spontaneously. The chief minister started the stanza and Mamatadebi completed it. The then health minister Surjya Kanta Misra (now Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal assembly) joined in with an appropriate Sanskrit sloka.
No moment, howsoever memorable, should be romanticised beyond its real dimensions. And I will not do that with my recollection of that lyrical moment at the end of the Singur discussions, nor even the import of those talks. But this I must and will say: both sides made huge concessions, as difficult as they were bold. For the government to agree to return some land from the acquired site was not easy because that involved a major policy shift and a significant modification of its agreement with the House of Tata. For Mamatadebi who had been asking for a complete roll-back to agree to anything less was not politically easy either. And yet, both, in the larger interest, had agreed to a compromise. It was with smiles, being the more genuine for being at first hesitant, that the two principals in the meeting recalled Tagore. I wish I remembered the lines, but alas, do not.
As the Duranta sped towards my destination, I recalled that Kolkata evening with a sweet sadness. And I reflected on how Singur's own destination seems to be receding into the horizon like some Toronto. The relief felt at the time was aborted by political and corporate hackles and the intent announced could not be translated into action. Also, in my desire to bring the discussions to a close on a note of understanding, I underestimated the importance of the specifics that must follow any understanding 'in principle'. But I was then and remain till now greatly moved by that particular moment when, like a leaden cloud parting briefly to let sunshine in, Tagore touched it with his song.
The Singur matter is now in court and there is no telling how the ruling will go. But this much we know - one side has to win and the other side, lose. So, is that it? Is there no possibility for a third result? I believe there is.
Singur lends itself admirably to a court-facilitated mediation in which no party wins and no party loses. No one may presume to suggest lines of action to the Supreme Court or any court. But may one not, without being misunderstood, express a hope? I would like to express one. Insofar as the two political sides had come, in 2008, within inches of a compromise, showing an admirable if precarious accommodation, I hope the court considers the mediation alternative. If the parties to the case reach an understanding through mediation, Singur could well herald the agriculture-industry balance that West Bengal urgently needs.
Not just a Sesh-Basanta but a Chira-Basanta could then become Singur's Duranta destination.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governorThe views expressed by the author are personal