On any other day, the frantic voice of the middle-aged auto-rickshaw driver would have been lost amid the scurrying rush of daily commuters, trying to outpace each other to the train back home. Not last Saturday in Kolkata. The dark clouds looked dour enough in the early evening sky, yet many a head turned at the mention of an unfamiliar landmark as the driver chanted out his usual route: “Gariahat, Hajra, Kalighat, Didir bari” (Didi’s house). In the week after, no matter how humdrum the flow of life in your sheltered nook, you could not escape the rhetoric of ‘paribartan’.
It wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that rhetoric itself was the central character at play, sweeping across street corners and offices, crowded railway and bus terminals. An economist may have found his own speculative delight, plumbing through the labyrinths of Bengal’s finances (or the lack thereof). The sceptic might have scoffed at the ‘notional change’. But it was the everyman and woman who enjoyed the guileless pleasure of spinning endless aphorisms, marrying acerbic wit to sheer irreverence. “Your days of lording it are over,” snapped a city cab driver to a somewhat overbearing traffic policeman. “Now we can haul you feet first and dump you in a forest.” Elsewhere, as night fell on a long-distance bus to Kolkata, a collective cry of agony went up as soon as the dim, red lights were turned on. “And we thought we were done with that colour,” sighed someone in the semi-darkness.
Hyperbole is, of course, an essential actor when political theatres play out such intense acts of victory and defeat. Some feed their megalomania through giant hoardings and sky-high cut-outs. Others weigh themselves against precious metals. But Kolkata, once a proud seat of intellectual distinction, preferred words to do the task. “These are the ten days that shook our world,” cried a young bookseller on College Street, the city’s fabled book district, in an obvious reference to John Reed’s account of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. “For a feel of our ‘explosive’ times, you should check out this script,” said another, handing out a book whose Bengali title, when roughly translated, is Rizwanur-Da, can you hear me? This is Tapasi Malik from Singur speaking, a fictional dialogue between two victims of alleged CPI(M)-led atrocities. “Look at their excesses, these youngsters,” said Ghous Muhhamad, an elderly bookshop owner. Did he fear violence? “Of course, it will be violent. These people have waited too long for this moment.”
The most potent symbol of the shift in allegiances is, of course, the profusion of Trinamool flags, usually overpowering their red arch-rivals. They fluttered from the rooftops of public vehicles or were perched precariously atop shanties, sometimes straddling the communist insignia that no one had cared to replace. Inside a nationalised bank in the city, the sense of unease that accompanies significant political upheavals was palpable. “My wife is posted in the secretariat,” said an employee, fidgeting with his keyboard. “She fears a transfer to the Sunderbans.” “The days of guarantee are over, whether in life or the products I sell,” remarked a shopkeeper.
As the Bengal of stolid ideology and predictable politics yields to change and chance, those caught in the maelstrom are just beginning to learn to adapt to it.