These are all very Kolkatan in nature and you really won’t get to see or hear them in any other parts of the country. What? Some years back a national daily carried an interesting photograph in their ‘City Lights’ column. It said that at Bowbazar police station, some paintings of Pablo Picasso were replicated and some of the painter’s quotations were given below them. One of the quotations read – “I don’t paint things the way I see them, but the way I think them”.
This is a Kolkata moment, no doubt. But it could have serious ramifications in the law and order situation if an imaginative cop took the quotation in letter and spirit. Painting the way not as he sees, but the way he thinks was alright for Picasso but not for a policeman. He is duty bound to act upon as he sees, not as he thinks. Such Kolkatan eccentricities are many.
In the eighties, Calcutta Municipal Corporation came out with a newspaper ad, where a naked street child was crossing the peak hour traffic. Poet Nirendranath Chakravarti wrote in his poem ‘Jesus of Kolkata’:
No red light flashed “No!”
But the city of Calcutta, rushing headlong forward,
Suddenly came to a halt!
Taxis and private cars and tempos and
Double-deckers with their tiger-head
Pulled up, dangerously close to toppling.
Those who had come rushing from all sides
With cries of “Oh no!”
Porters, pedlars, shopkeepers, customers –
They too had become immobile
Like Pictures of an artist’s easel.
Holding their breath, they all look
While on unsteady legs, a child,
Crosses the street from one side to the other.
Inspired by poet Nirendranath Chakravarti, Municipal Corporation captured the situation in a photograph and even used ‘Kolkatar Jishu’ as the caption of that advertisement. No other Municipality in the country could have had such a poetic mind, money or even magical realism at their command. But again the problem is, like Picasso, if a police constable in the city is going to deal with poor Haridas Pal (common man) in a subjective fashion, even while Kolkata goes up in its cultural graph, what happens to citizen Haridas Pal, who is innocent of these artistic kitsches?
Nirendranath Chakravarti continues in his poem:
Only a short while ago
It was raining in Chowringhee,
Now once again the sun, like a very long spear
Piercing the heart of a cloud,
Is shinning down.
The city of Calcutta is afloat
In a magical light.
From the window of the state bus
I look at the sky, I look at you,
Child of a beggar-mother,
Jesus of Calcutta.
Anyway, the advertisement created a controversy and snatched away the poetic moment from the Municipality, as the poetry-free Haridas Pals of the city asked – What exactly do you mean by this sir? Let the poet sit in the state bus and watch. The Municipal Chairman cannot afford that pose. Municipality responded to troubled Haridas Pals with yet another poem. This time it was Jibanananda Das.
Kollolini Tilottama Hobey”
Kolkata will be a River of Radiance)
Ironies are rich material for any work of art. But in real life situations the outcome is always an outrage. Dr. Binayak Sen was sentenced for a lifetime, on charges of sedition, almost at the same time of Bowbazar police station – Picasso incident. After the honourable judge pronounced the judgment, as if in a replay of Haridas Pal story, he asked the judge – What does ‘sedition’ mean sir? I was not there in the court. But after reading about it, I am outraged, wishing the legal storm to run out of wind and the wind to run out of breath. At least, I won’t feel breathless and lonely too when it is an atmospheric reality. Again the irony catches up with you like a perennial muscle – catch. On October 8th 2020, 83-year-old human rights activist Fr. Stan Swamy was arrested from Jesuit-run Bagaicha social centre in Ranchi, implicating his connection to “Maoist forces”.
What was the crime allegedly committed by Dr. Binayak Sen with its clinching evidence at the court? As Nandita Haksar famously put – When does a Doctor threaten the security of his country? Out of the fifty odd witnesses cited in the judgment, nearly half were policemen, unlike the Picasso connoisseurs of Bowbazar police station. When these policemen see the ‘ISI’ trademark on the edible oil tin with Binayak Sen’s wife (Late Illena Sen), for cooking ‘lou tarkari’ (bottle gourd curry), they instantly shout that “ISI’ is the clinching evidence of Binayak Sen’s Pakistani connections. Believe me, something closer to this had happened in the session’s court of Raipur. The arguments had a Picasso touch as they argued on what they thought than what they saw. Or they saw what they thought. This poetic dilemma of Citizen Haridas Pal continues all around.
During the British period, political prisoners of Hijli Jail in Midnapore of West Bengal were subjected to brutal tortures. Agonized and angered, a bearded poet, who solely escaped later from getting branded as a ‘MAOIST’, in the post-Nandigram era in West Bengal, wrote a poignant poem. Rabindranath Tagore wrote in ‘Proshno’ (Question):
God, again and again through the ages, you have sent messengers
to this pitiless world
They have said forgive everyone…
They have said love one another
Rid your hearts of evil
They are revered and remembered
Yet still in these dark days
We turn them away with hollow greetings from outside the door
And meanwhile I see secretive hatred murdering the helpless
Under cover of night
I see young men working themselves into frenzy
In agony dashing their heads against stone to no avail…
My voice is choked today
I have no music in my flute
Black moonless night
has imprisoned my world,
Plunged it into nightmare.
And this is why, with tears in my eyes
I ask: Those who have poisoned your air
Those who have extinguished your light
Do you truly forgive them?
Do you truly love them?
‘Guernica’ and ‘Proshno’ will always be haunting us mirroring our fractured selves. In times of war and strife, the greatest of artists break their own moulds, disturbing our easy-chair neutralities. Even their lullabies turn political. Thank God! They are all God’s own fools…
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer