At 11:47 on Sunday morning when wintry winds were blowing across Kolkata under a sombre sky, Jyoti Basu, an icon of the Indian communist movement left his dear comrades, dear city and dear life for good.
But the crowd that gathered outside Advanced Medicare & Research Institute, the hospital where Basu was admitted on January 1, seemed smaller than the one that had gathered for his acolyte Subhas Chakraborty less than six months ago.
At 3:05 in the afternoon, when the hearse carrying Basu’s shrunken frame emerged from the hospital, the crowd shouted “Jyoti Basu zindabad.” But it failed to turn into a roar, one befitting the stature of the man whom they had voted for a record successive five times to chief ministership.
As the 24-car convoy wailed and roared through Salt Lake, Basu’s address for the past 20 years, the calm neighbourhood maintained its stiff upper lip. No one lined the houses on either side of the route, nor was a curious bystander in sight.
Just across the road from the hospital, soccer-crazy people were going to the Salt Lake Stadium, where the FIFA world cup trophy was on display.
A couple of labourers kept hammering the boards of a makeshift gate at the stadium with a loud and continuous thud.
Some youngsters even confessed to having stopped by to catch a glimpse of filmstar Mithun Chakravarty who had come to the hospital at noon.
Kolkata, the city of emotions, did not pour out its heart for the man who was its most famous resident for decades.
One of the few exceptions was Rabindranath Das, who fed and took care of Basu for the past eight years. He was crying inconsolably even three hours after Basu’s death was announced.
“Basu was a man of understatement,” said Purnendu Chatterjee, a George Soros confidante and the man whose trust in Basu led him to invest $125 million in the early nineties to set up Haldia Petrochemicals.
On Sunday, Kolkata remained a metaphor of understatement. Crowds didn’t pour onto the streets. There was no display of emotion, except by CPI(M) state secretary Biman Bose whose voice choked when he came out at 12:10 in the afternoon to announce Basu’s demise.
Ironically, about four years ago, it was Basu himself who had forbidden Bose to shed tears when he couldn’t hold them back. Both were standing before the body of Anil Biswas, then the state party secretary.
According to the doctors who were treating Biswas, Basu, then 91, had told his younger colleague, “Wipe your tears Biman. Communists are not supposed to weep.”
On Sunday, Kolkata seemed to have taken Basu’s words to heart. Most eyes in front of the hospital were dry.
In the evening, the city entertained itself like it does on weekends. At multiplexes and theatre halls, it was business as usual. Even Madhusudan Mancha, a state-run theatre, held its scheduled show.
Perhaps, it was this businesslike face to which Basu wanted Kolkata to graduate.