At first glance, Chandernagore seems an unremarkable town. As you make your way down Station Road, red flags hang from every lamppost, drooping in the afternoon sun. All the way to the Strand, the ruling Left is making its presence felt in the run-up to the Assembly polls.
About an hour from Kolkata by train, Chandernagore on the banks of the Ganga, once a French trading city, has a rich and colourful cultural past. It boasts, among other things, a French Institute and a museum that houses a collection of antiques that can be found almost nowhere else in the world. History tells us that Tagore himself loved this place and, in particular, the Patal Bari, a building whose lowest floor is submerged in the river.
The Strand, Chandernagore’s promenade by the river, is the beating heart of the town. Its kilometre-long stretch is lined by a host of buildings reminiscent of the town’s French-colonial heritage. A gentle breeze from the river tempers the midday heat as, in spite of the energy-sapping sunshine, the broad pavement is choc-a-bloc with students from the nearby colleges and schools, out celebrating a day off from classes. Hundreds mill together in the happy crowd, laughing and joking in small groups. Elsewhere in the mix, couples walk hand-in-hand, hugging the riverside in a vain bid for privacy, while on the banks, a choir of male voices sings to the tune of a lone guitar.
Overseeing the festivities, by the gates of Chandernagore College (established in 1931) posters of Mamata Banerjee gaze out at the glittering melee. It is in this mass of young humanity that her message of paribartan hopes to be heard.
For Arindam Bhattacharya, botany major, Didi’s call does not seem to have the intended effect. Having completed his course in 2009, he has spent the last year preparing for competitive examinations. The reason: Chandernagore, with its population of just over 150,000, like most towns in Bengal, offers precious little in the way of work for qualified youngsters. Most graduates from any one of the four colleges in the place opt to leave. With the script for this mandatory relocation seemingly etched in stone, it is little wonder that most youths here are ambivalent about what effect a change of political regime will have on the reality that they are faced with.
For Arindam and many like him, both the Left and the Trinamool offer causes for concern. With regard to the CPI(M), which has long held sway in this part of Bengal, there is a sense of moral outrage at how far things have been allowed to slide over the years. The events in Singur, Nandigram and, most recently, Netai in Lalgarh, have left their mark. For Mamata, on the other hand, there is a vague suspicion that her message of change is lacking in something. Her single-point agenda in the run-up to what is fast becoming the most keenly anticipated polls ever to be held in Bengal is marred by the politics of violence that immediately repels these young voters.
Arindam cuts right to the heart of the matter when he asks, “After change, what?” The sentiment that the Trinamool is not doing enough to capture the hearts of the youth is summed up well by Arindam’s friend, Saurabh, currently enrolled in his third year in Chandannager College, which has been an SFI stronghold for more than 30 years. “It’s not that the Trinamool is winning people over,” he says, “It’s that the CPI(M) is losing them.”
Subhajit Banerjee, an arts student at the college who wishes to be a teacher, said: “We don’t want to leave after finishing our education, but what choice do we have? No matter what happens in the polls, there will be no change. I believe that the injustice we see around us will continue, not just in Chandernagore, but elsewhere in Bengal too.”
The fact, then, that seems most troubling for these youngsters is that in the two-horse race for power in Bengal, neither horse seems worth betting the farm on.
This distinct lack of optimism in politics as a means to effect change for the better is not unique to the younger generation. For Barendranath Makar, curator, Chandernagore Museum, Didi’s call for paribartan will change precious little in terms of how real life in Chandernagore is played out. Chatting with him, a picture of Chandernagore as a peaceful and laidback town begins to emerge. The town has been fortunate to escape the extremes of political violence that have marked other areas of Bengal and, as such, has an easy-going air about it. It has changed a little over the past five years and the most significant addition to its landscape is the creation of the stone jetty that pushes out into the river. Big brands such as Planet M, Adidas and Reebok have begun to make their presence felt and there is a department store where one can buy anything from groceries to computer accessories.
Yet, in spite of these nascent signs of “progress”, several burning issues await resolution. Chief among these is the problem of healthcare. Chandernagore, of late, has seen a mushrooming of private nursing homes. For Makar, the number of private players in healthcare is a perfect instance of how little the administration is doing. The sub-divisional hospital in Chandernagore, once the pride of the district has, of late, fallen on hard times. A trip to the hospital reveals the state of affairs. Only one doctor is available in the emergency room while, outside, touts hang about, their eyes open for likely looking prospects to turn a quick buck. The hospital’s superintendent, Dr Pramanik, is nowhere to be found.
Shantanu Mukherjeee, superintendent of Dishari Hospital under Chandernagore Municipal Corporation, points an accusing finger at the Left. “Various committees of the ruling party have infiltrated every aspect of the hospital’s administration and undermined the authority of the doctors. Chandernagore Hospital now harbours more than 25 touts who control the hospital. An unusually large number of patients are referred to Kolkata for treatment. There is no administration to speak of. If you bring politics into health, everything is shattered.”
Mukherjee’s grievances don’t end there. When it comes to his own hospital, he paints an abysmal picture. “The municipal corporation has no funds. The CPI(M), which has just lost the last municipal polls (to the Trinamool), has drained every last bit of money before leaving office. Even a simple request for new lights for my operating theatre, which would cost a mere R15,000, can’t be granted by the new administration, simply because there are no funds.”
Even the French Museum itself, as much a symbol of Chandernagore as its Strand, is in far from an ideal situation. Delving into the past, Makar’s eyes grow misty as he recalls the tussle with the municipal corporation, which, in the 80s, wanted to promote the land on which the museum was situated. The matter was settled after Makar made a personal appeal to the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, on whose initiative a project for conservation of the institute, in collaboration with the French government, was prepared in 1988. In 2003, the museum and French Institute got protected status from the Archaeological Survey of India, safeguarding once and for all the heritage of this wonderful little town.