Kali Bari Memoirs
Kali Temple, books, walls & the recent Assembly election in West Bengal
I had passed through Kolkata as a transit route 14 times between 1985-86 and 1991-92 when it was known as Calcutta during my school days in Tamil Nadu. Except for one occasion in 1992, I spent my time in the noisy-ancient city either at the airport or at Manipur Bhavan, Rowland Road. As busy as honey bees, the residents did not offer to teach me much. Yet, it was an observer’s delight watching them roll away with their daily chores chattering all the while. Indeed it was difficult to find a non-chattering Bengali perhaps except for a lonely stroller or outsiders such as us who are so lost in our own thoughts and prejudices that we hardly talk or debate. Go to the parks. You will find lovers cooing sweet nonsense, unlike lovers in parks of Delhi where they are busy undressing each other ! Watch the senior citizens taking strolls on streets, parks or sports stadiums. You will find them talking about the non-working bulbs or cracks on the roads or walls, touching the inanimate objects with love as if it’s their children–the sense of belonging or the concern they have for public property as if it’s their own property.
It was Jyoti Basu’s time. And a time when everything looked ancient, worn-out, dusty and unchanging. Still, there was an open atmosphere of dialogue, and above all, the locals could openly criticise the communist regime. Yes, the trams were crowded, the Hoogly Bridge congested, citizens flew kites in the maidans, and Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan divided the citizens equally. And Park Street offered books I had never seen or heard of in my life. And there were the pani puri vendors offering golkapa to the ever talking customers.
I had to stay at Anand Mukhopadhyay’s house at Kali Bari because something went wrong with my concession form of the Indian Airlines. I could not book my return ticket for home. You know parents of those days, how strict they were with our expenses and pocket money. And money could be sent to us mainly through money orders or bank transfers—time-consuming affairs. Anand’s family affectionately accepted me as their kin. Uncle told me that, as a warm introduction, “Bengali sensibility and Meitei ethos are the same”. Perhaps, he wanted me to enter into a dialogue but as timidly brought up as we’re who dare not reply to an elder, I was used to being silent.
Then I learned something unique. Bengalis do not teach. They expect you to gather knowledge about it and then debate to prove your points and refute your opponent’s claims. Apart from breakfast and lunchtime, dinner time is the time to review the wary day’s unfolding. It usually starts with the newspaper headlines of the day, which parents expect their children to report, leading to rounds of arguments and dialogues. And one day, it so happened, there was a news on Ratan Thiyam. They started talking about his plays, and Anand argued, he liked Kanhailal more than Ratan. They turned their heads to me, seeking my opinion. Honestly, I haven’t heard. All I knew was “Bir Tikendrajit” usually staged at Roop Mahal on 13th August during my childhood days. But ask me about the playwright or the Director’s name, I’d be as ignorant as a thick bush. We’re not trained to “know”. And dinner affairs, or for that matter, “eating time” at home, it was silent affairs lest we anger our tiresome peasant fathers. We’re used to being silenced with a grumble from our elders. After male elders have consumed their meals, chatting at home is the women’s affairs. Mostly hot grapevines of the village such as “Do you know Amubi’s daughter is having an affair with Chaoba’s Uncle”, and so on.
After breakfast, we used to go to the Kali Temple. Initially, my thoughts were, “Ugh! For prayer and offering?” Then I learned, every temple has a secular public library attached to it. Then there I hypothesised that wherever there are Bengalis, there’ll be Kali temples. And wherever there’re Kali temples, there’ll be public libraries attached to them. Yes, it is true. In my short stay, I tried to digest as much as I could, pouring through the books about Bengal and Manipur. Amartya Sen was yet to win a Nobel Prize then. But Tagore and Jagadish Chandra Bose had already won. “Hindu” is a word coined by Rajaram Mohan Roy - he was not a practising Hindu but started a non-Hindu Brahmo Samaj. The Derozian Boys defied established Hindu ways of life. Nabagopal Mitra, along with Rajnarain Bose, established an annual gathering known as the “Hindu Mela” or “Swadesi Mela”. “Bande Matram” of Bankim Chandra made Indians fall in love with the evolving Nation, instilling a sense of patriotism to fight against colonial British. Vivekananda gave Neo-Vedanta or Practical Vedanta and was the first to use “Seva” or service to reach God.
Syama Prasad Mukherjee, along with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor to the Bharatiya Janata Party. “Apu trilogy” was made by Satyajit Ray. And, that my favourite childhood detective novels, “Kalo Bhramar” was not a Manipur work but translated from Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s four parts novel. Tagore’s Shanti Niketan has a special place for Manipuris; imagine a scenario without Shanti Niketan. We’ll be deprived of our beloved Imasi MK Binodini. And finally, any surname ending in the suffix “opadhyay” can also be referred to as “erjee”. Thus, Mukhopadhyay becomes “Mukherjee”, and Chattopadhyay becomes “Chatterjee”.
In 2005, when Nobel Prize-winning Amartya Sen came out with his collection of essays, “The Argumentative Indian”, I was not surprised. The little time I spent in Kali Bari was a lifetime experience. Today, I try to inculcate the importance of an argumentative tradition without coming to blows as we Manipuris do. In the book, Sen focuses on understanding contemporary India in the light of its long argumentative tradition or the importance of public debate. Martha Nussbaum appreciates the book as demonstrating the importance of general discussion and intellectual pluralism.
This brings us to the perplexing issue of recent Assembly Elections in West Bengal. The last time I passed through Kolkata was in 2017 to give my interview for my present job at Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh. The red-red-red paintings I witnessed in my childhood Calcutta walls had given way to the green-green-green of Trinamool Congress. Didi’s portraits had replaced Jyoti Basu. Looking at the recent elections campaigns spearheaded by the power-echelons of the National ruling party in which they drew waves of Corona-defying Bengalis, I arrived at a certainty. The walls would surely give way to saffron- saffron-saffron. And a Karl Marx-look-alike portrait would surely replace Didi’s.
Then I remembered Anand, who is an established IT consultant and sought his opinion about the elections. I decided against calling up colleagues in my profession. You know, I knew they would be speaking in a language similar to mine. Anand crisply argued, “Machan (endearment term in Tamil meaning bro-in-law), we coined the term “Hinduism”. We regenerated Hinduism and made it progressive. We started the Indian Renaissance. We taught Indians to love our motherland. We started Nationalism. We gave the National song and the National anthem. We started their political party. No one has the right to dogmatically “TEACH” us how to be a Bengali or a Hindu or an Indian. BJP must have had a dialogue with us instead of BLIND preaching. That’s why they lost.”
My childhood training made me silent. Perhaps, Anand expected me to enter into a debate. On my part, I decided to visit the Kali Temple at Bapupara. Not to pray, obviously, but to read if books are available. But then the COVID-19 and the declaration of containment. I wish I’d read and prepared myself for a dialogue with Anand. (The writer teaches Political Science at IGNTU-RCM)