Saturday, 25 February 2012

Book Review: Mamata Banerjee’s Memoir “My Unforgettable Memories”

What’s it that drives a man or woman to perform public service? Why do some people bother to work for the welfare of others? Many enter politics to enrich themselves, but there are a few who are scrupulously honest. Why do such good people neglect their families (and themselves) as they go all out to serve the greater good? Mahatma Gandhi did so much for the cause of India’s independence, but his wife and children were neglected to such an extent that his eldest son Harilal turned out to be a drunkard who died of liver disease. Do such honest public servants really care about public welfare or do they only want to gratify their ego? Or is it a mix of both? In short, what’s it that makes honest politicians tick?

Mamata Banerjee’s memoir “My Unforgettable Memories” has been translated from Bengali by Nandini Sengupta. Dedicated to Ma, Mati (Land) and Manush (People), My Unforgettable Memories is a rambling memoir which gives the reader an insight into how Mamata Banerjee’s mind works. Of course, it also has details about Banerjee’s childhood and her journey as a politician, ending in the Chief Minister’s chair. I am not saying that Banerjee is an honest politician, but her memoirs certainly give that impression.

Banerjee seems to have had a happy childhood. Her description of her life in Calcutta, to which her family migrated when she was very young, reminded me so much of a character from one of Tagore’s short stories set in the early part of the 20th century – swimming in the River Hoogly, eating lots of sweets and other home cooked food etc., home schooling and private tutors – that I found it difficult to believe a kid growing up in Calcutta could have such a lifestyle, despite Banerjee telling us that she went through a street food craze phase. Equally bizarre, I found it unbelievable that a girl from cosmopolitan Kolkata would have so much trouble with food when travelling overseas, as Banerjee did during her various foreign jaunts, despite not being a vegetarian.

Banerjee tells us that she was close to her father, but doesn’t tell us much about him. She doesn’t even mention his real name, but thanks to Wikipedia and the internet, I now know that Promileswar Banerjee was a businessman and a Congress Party worker. Did her father initiate Banerjee’s entry into politics? Surely Banerjee learnt a lot about politicking from her father? Banerjee is totally silent on all this. Banerjee doesn’t seem to have suffered for lack of money, even after her father died when she was young. However, Banerjee did a lot of household chores – cooking and cleaning – hers wasn’t a comfortable upper middle-class life, cushioned by an unending train of domestic helpers.

Banerjee is religious and if judged by western standards, a few of her anecdotes show her to be rather superstitious. Pujas and prayers play a big role in her life, this has been the case right from childhood. However, she comes across as some very open-minded in matters of faith. She does talk of visiting dargahs and seeking blessings from a variety of sants, peers and other men of God.

That Banerjee can be unbelievably obstinate and adamant is brought out very well when Banerjee narrates the story of how in 1984, after defeating Somnath Chatterjee and breaching the red citadel of Jadavpur, Banerjee goes to meet with the ageing Prafulla Chandra Sen, former Chief Minister of West Bengal and seek his blessings. Prafullada, then around 87, had worked for Banerjee’s victory behind the scenes and is delighted to see her. He blesses Banerjee, treats her to lunch and gifts her a silk saree. Then comes the request, ‘Khuku, please request Mamata to wear the saree and show me how it looks.’ Of course, Prafullada doesn’t know that ever since Banerjee joined active politics, she has never worn a silk saree. In the end, Banerjee doesn’t show any flexibility and wriggles out of that situation, though she says that since that day she visited Prafullada at least once a week to take his counsel.

My Unforgettable Memories has a number of anecdotes about various politicians active in Bengal and in Delhi, almost all of them referred to with the ‘da’ suffix. Banerjee has only good things to say about Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and was terribly cut up by their assassinations. In fact, she says that when Rajiv Gandhi was killed ‘I was orphaned all over again, for the second time in my life since my father’s death. I did not speak to anyone for a week. I simply could not eat a morsel. I used to shut myself up in my room and cry. It has been so many years, but even today, I feel his presence in every step I take; he touched a chord that still plays the symphony of my life. Whenever I face a problem, whenever something upsets me, unknowingly my eyes seek out Rajiv’s photograph on the wall in my room and I can almost hear him say, with that winsome smile on his face, ‘Mamata, how are you? All well? No trouble I hope?’ I am not sure how one can classify these emotions, but I am sure that if Rajiv Gandhi were alive, Banerjee would not have broken off from the Congress Party to form the Trinamool Congress. Such feelings are not expressed towards Sonia Gandhi who is referred to as the Queen Mother in various places and the limited respect that’s accorded, is given grudgingly.

There are three types of people surrounding Banerjee: Friends, Enemies and Conspirators. Right from page one, Banerjee classifies people into these categories. Friends are all those who follow her, help her, support her in all her endeavours, and never criticise her. Enemies are those evil people who want to harm her and harm the people, harm Bengal etc. Then there are the conspirators who are those who claim friendship, but secretly plot her downfall. In the epilogue, Banerjee says that ‘at this point, instead of coming together to create a new Bengal, the CPM and its friends have started a number of conspiracies. It is easy to openly point out the Maoists, but those who are sabotaging our plans in disguise are more difficult to recognise. I will not say anything about Maoism. People can have different ideologies. There is nothing dishonourable about that. But terrorism, murder using ‘supari’ killers to kill people are some things I will not tolerate. I will continue to call my enemies in disguise as ‘friends’. It is easy to spot those who are openly our enemies. But what does one call those who pretend to be friends only to stab us in the back, those who secretly strengthen the CPM’s hand? For the moment I shall call them ‘friends’. I would like to thank God and Allah that I have managed to recognise these so-called friends in such a short time. Their ‘blessings’ have helped me to see through them. ............My friend, who are you conspiring against? Someone who is willing to give her entire life without giving anything in return? I work. I do not want anything in exchange. Whatever I have received is enough. I have got the blessings, love and good wishes of the people and I am satisfied with that. In the interest of the people, I do not want to waste time..........’ It goes on and on, in this vein.

The best parts of My Unforgettable Memories are Banerjee’s blow-by-blow descriptions of various incidents, how she contested elections, organised rallies and morchas, fought pitched battles with the police and CPM goons, broke off from the Congress, applied to the Election Commission for registering the Trinamool Congress as a separate party, defeated the CPM and the state machinery at Nandigram etc. Some of her stories, such as how the Congress high command tried to prevent her from applying to the Election Commission in time for registering the TMC, or how when she was assaulted by CPM goons with the connivance of the state police, at the Hazra crossing in 1990, two blows landed on her head and still she managed to lift her hands and block the third blow with an iron rod which would otherwise have killed her, ring true. Also, when Banerjee tells us that ‘my body has taken so much battering that I am still alive is itself a miracle,’ we know that she is speaking the truth. The most important part, and for this part alone, this book ought to be made mandatory reading for the Congress high command, is the part where Banerjee details the reasons why decided to form the TMC. No, I am not going to detail them here. Please do read this memorable book to find out for yourself.

Nandini Sengupta, who translated My Unforgettable Memories has done a very good job. One can almost image Banerjee speak these high-flown dialogue lines in chaste Bengali. For example while describing how Banerjee helped organised a Congress rally at the iconic Brigade Parade Ground in 1992, we are told that, ‘But in a meeting at Esplanade East, I suddenly announced that the next rally would be at the Brigade Parade Ground. It was almost as if I could see the crowd come alive. I dumped my doubts and rode the excitement of party colleagues to organize what no one else had managed in ten years. ......................Every time I would cross the open field in Brigade Parade Grounds, I would wonder – I hope our rally will not turn into a sad joke. We were not the only ones beset by doubts. The ruling CPM and even our own party leaders were pretty much convinced that the rally would be a huge flop. Yet we got incredible amount of help from the workers’ organization and other parts of the party, not to mention the common people. ..........................................Even before the meeting actually happened, we started facing increasing opposition. But in the weeks running up to the event, the entire state was engulfed in a kind of momentary madness. The rallying cry was: ‘Brigade Chalo’. At the parade ground, work was going on at a feverish pace...............................25 November 1992. By the time I reached the venue, there were 50,000 people. Slowly the crowd started to build up. All roads, across Bengal, led to the ground. There was excitement in the air. Everywhere we looked, there were a sea of expectant faces. Was this a dream? Was it magic? ......................I realized how desperate people were to come all the way to sound the death knell of those in power. Their tears, cries of help, loss and bereavement hit me like an avalanche. I decided that this was it! I decided to sound this death knell all across the state from Canning to Kanchenjunga. ......................... The truth is, I wanted to give something back to the people. Whatever life has given me, every new dawn, every sunlit path has been a gift from the people. They are my inspiration. I am what I am, thanks to them.

Banerjee comes across as a woman on a mission, one who will brush aside all opposition as she inexorably moves forward. I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘move forward towards her goal’ since Banerjee never spells out any specific goal other than the vague and long term goal of serving the people. As may be expected, Banerjee never even suggests or gives a hint of having any ambition or wanting to be in power or that her Chief Ministership came about as a result of extensive planning rather than something providence dropped on her head. Never once in this book does Banerjee admit to making a mistake, other than mistakes brought about by trusting the wrong people. After I finished the book, I got the feeling that Banerjee is the sort of person who would seriously believe that she is a force for good and that everything she does is for the general good. Even if she breaks the rules, it is for the good of the society. To take that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, since Banerjee is the best thing that could happen to Bengal ever since rosogollas were invented, anything that needs to be done to keep her in power and her enemies at bay, would be justified.

All of this is extremely interesting in light of recent reports which show that Banerjee in power is a very different kettle of fish from the Banerjee who fought the CPM as an opposition leader.


Bhavna said...

Thanks a great job of the review.

S said...

I just began reading her "Struggle for existence"...and felt it would be a better idea to read a biography written by someone else... Do you know of any such book? Say, like: Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawathi - by Ajoy Bose? Not that its a great way of writing a biography or whatever... but, I couldnt think of a better example at the moment!

Anonymous said...