On Diwali day — or, as is more apt in this part of the country, on the day of Kali Puja — I bore witness to a violent uprising in Naxalbari. It involved two labourers, sweat still steaming off their scrawny backs, getting into an argument with a wholesaler in the bustling market of this north Bengal town. Suddenly one of them landed a wet slap on the jabbering man’s cheek.
This is Naxalbari. So I expect things to turn nasty. But there’s affable laughter all around that makes me let out a weak bourgeois smile too. It turns out that these days, the only class struggle going on in these parts is the one that involves students of the Naxalbari Hindi High School.
Like the Greek island of Lesbos where one would expect a population of lesbians, Naxalbari, some 40 minutes from Bagdogra airport, also teases us into believing that it is still brimming with Naxals. “That’s because of all those city people who came here 40 years ago to start a movement,” says Pranab Chhetri, a DVD shopowner who looks 60 but insists he’s 45 or 50.
The wide and straight road to Naxalbari is paved with sprawling hedges of tea plantations that look like giant manicured grass with the air littered with butterflies. Frankly, it’s the most perfect picnic destination that comes to my mind. Once I’ve crossed the main town roundabout — marked by a tall pole with a limp red flag with a familiar hammer and sickle insignia — I’m at the Naxalbari bus depot.
This doubles as the aforementioned market, a place abuzz with people buying chicken (live from coops, of course), vegetables (“You must be crazy if I pay you that much!”), Megadeth-Michael Jackson-Jonas Brothers t-shirts, and the dreaded dry fish — shutki — that destroys key spots in the brain (at least mine) with its overpowering smell.
There’s also the local BJP office. It’s really a wooden shed with a party flag, as limp as the CPI(M) one mentioned earlier. But giving company to a few BJP posters are others pasted on its walls: ‘Give up drinking in secret. Hakim M.Z. Ansari R.U.M.P. F.W.T (Kolkata), A.K. (Aligarh).’ I make a mental note of visiting Hakim Ansari one day. But whatever does R.U.M.P. stand for?
Outside the market, a photo studio advertises its services by having photos of Avril Lavigne and Aishwarya Rai on its shopfront, while ‘Arpita Tele and Xerox’ is selling mobile phones as if cellphones are the new Little Red Book. Next to the Block District Office, I settle down for a Rs 3 cup of tea at a shack owned by Kailash Singha. Two other customers are listening to a woman with rapt attention. Are they talking about the recent siege in Lalgarh? About people bearing their town’s name waging war against the government in different parts of India. No, the concerns are much more immediate. The woman had bought a goat the previous day for Rs 2,700 and it has diarrhoea. With the local vet on holiday, she needs a quick treatment. Suggestions fly thick and quick: “Make it drink water”, “Mix guava leaves with the water,” “Give it an anti-diarrhoea capsule.”
I ask Kailash whether he remembers anything about the ‘Naxalbari’ uprising. He tells me about how, during his great-grandfather’s time, the nawab would get his men to beat up anyone wearing sandals or carrying umbrellas “for acting rich”. He adds that the nawab’s family now lives in Kolkata. “His daughter got married to a Jabbar,” he says as I look into his small, gnarly face. “The wedding was in Tokyo.” “Tokyo as in Japan?” “No,” comes the reply, “Tokyo as in Tokyo.”
I call up my friend in Delhi Sonia Jabbar later. It turns out that she is indeed the grand-daughter of the Nawab of neighbouring Jalpaiguri. “My grandfather, Nawab Musharraf Hussain, opened his doors to everyone during the 1943 Bengal Famine. In 1967, during the revolution Charu Majumdar remembered this and did not touch his estate.” I ask her about anyone getting married in, er, Tokyo. She’s flabbergasted. Well, Kailash was talking about the Nawab of Naxalbari and Sonia about the Nawab of Jalpaiguri.
Before I left his shack, I asked Kailash what he remembers of the 1967 Naxalbari revolution. “Nothing. I was a too young. And please don’t take my photograph.” For a man who has stories to tell from his great-grandfather’s days, to be mum about his father’s told me a bit about how the people of Naxalbari today relate to ‘Naxalism’. By not relating to it at all.