Bodyguard, confidante, friend, Bivas Guha, general secretary of the West Bengal Fire Service Senior Officers’ Association, has escorted Mamata Banerjee to the airport every single time she’s boarded a flight to Delhi after she became an MP for the first time in 1984. The ritual continued only till 1989, but Guha and Mamata have always stayed in touch.
The ace fireman was introduced to the then firebrand Congress leader in the late 1970s. “Our families were Congress loyalists. I knew Mamata’s brother, Ajit, and even played football at Kalighat Milan Sangha with him. In those days, she was secretary of the women’s cell of the Indian National Trade Union Congress. I would often escort Mamata to [veteran Congress leader] Subrata Mukherjee’s house in a tram. Sometimes, we walked,” he recalled.
It is well known that Mamata has a soft spot for firemen. In 1989, Guha invited a young Mamata to be president of the West Bengal Fire Service Officers’ Association and thus began a lifelong association.
In the early ’80s, a major fire broke out in Behala and a fireman suffered 75% burns. “Mamata was there to help him secure admission into hospital. In 1985-’86, a fire broke out at Kalighat market on a winter night and she was there, offering her shawl to a fireman who had gotten drenched,” Guha said.
When Mamata became an MP in 1984, Guha organised a car rally to see her off for her swearing-in.
Guha recalled how Mamata never forgot a kindness. “I was injured in a fire at Narkeldanga in 2008 when a wall caved in on me. I was admitted to PG Hospital and Mamata sent a close aide to see if I was okay or needed to be shifted to a private hospital. She kept track of my health till I recovered,” Guha added.
At home, Mamata was the regular girl next door who cleaned her little room and cooked for her friends. “Ghugni and moori, and telebhaja were her favourite snacks. She often played music on her synthesiser and sang Rabindrasangeet for us,” he said, softness creeping into his eyes. “She also read several Bengali classics.”
Another classmate, Manick Bhattacharjee, who studied law with Mamata at Jogesh Chandra Choudhury College in the late ’70s, said she was a disciplined and diligent student who was actively involved in student politics. “She was nice as a friend. She would often treat us in the college canteen. On special occasions, she would make alur dum and ghughni for us and invite us over. She never mixed politics and friendship,” said Bhattacharjee, who contested on a Trinamool Congress ticket from Nadia.
Life was no bed of roses for Mamata. She struggled to make ends meet for her family, he recalled. She gave tuitions, “but never forgot to contribute to the party fund”, Bhattacharjee said.
Mamata and her classmates were in the thick of political agitations early on. Once, when Calcutta University results were delayed, Mamata and her friends were arrested and taken to the central lock-up. Being the only woman, Mamata was let off, but she refused to leave until her associates were released too.
On another occasion, when the Left Front government abolished English from schools, she courted arrest along with Bhattacharjee. “In those days, it wasn’t easy to reach the party leadership. Students resorted to street-corner meetings and rallies,” he said.
Mamata is now a national political figure “but she never fails to attend a bereavement or family get-together” Bhattacharjee said, showing pictures of her at his daughter’s wedding.