The eternal City of Joy

by April 25, 2020 0 comments

There was no migrant workers’ crisis in Kolkata, in the industrial areas, or in the rest of Bengal, which has been peaceful unlike the Hindi heartland

Bengalis and fish and how can this classical ode to joy fall apart? No way! Bengalis and mishti (sweets). How can they ever be brutally separated, even in a nationwide lockdown, even while diabetes is itself an epidemic in Bengal, especially Kolkata?

Indeed, it’s like saying how can the average middle class Bengali bhodrolok (genteel folk) survive without his daily dose of Boroline, Digene/Gelusil and Ananda Bazaar Patrika, to use a hackneyed cliché once again. But, clichés, despite being repetitive, are life-affirming too. They tell you that the world has not changed and what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Not even Kerala, though they love Bengal out there, I tell you.

Starting the working day for a working Bengali is a precious ritual. Going out with a jhola (bag) to the fish market early morning is a favourite daily one. Haggling is an eternal joy. A thin fish curry with black cumin and rice and the whole day is made. Only jhaal moori at lunch time might break this daily fulfillment.

It is fulfilling truly and nourishing, too. And the food has nothing to do with calories hereafter. Often it is kachori (crispy savoury snack) in the morning from the nearest Sharma loochir dukaan, often stuffed with motor shooti (green peas) and a thin potato curry.  As it is phoochka in the night, especially for women.

So, at least, two things have not changed in the eternally outgoing “City of Joy”, where “ghore-baire” is a beautiful obsession and a routine dilemma. One, the fish markets are open in many places. And I am told by reliable sources that the mishti shops, now open from 12 noon to four in the evening, might get a four hour additional bonus.

If Kolkata is the microcosm of the unfinished painting of the Bengali canvas, it seemingly hates the lockdown. Who does not? The urge to go out is as tangible as the crowd in the fish markets, even now, which are reportedly not so sanitised or following the highest of health standards. And, yet, the death toll is just about seven. How come?

And that, too, is a kind of hidden and expressed controversy. Unlike, surprisingly, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), (where the graph might seem to be flattening like Kerala, where they have literally blocked the virus now, especially in Thrissur, Kottayam and Idukki). There is a lack of testing, health infrastructure, poor safety condition of doctors, nurses and health workers, abysmal hospitals in UP, too, but a partially totalitarian regime calls the disciplinary shots. Nobody even knows what the tens of thousands of workers are going through in the small towns or the rural hinterland of UP, or, if the deadly virus is spreading out there.

However, in Kolkata, or Bengal, the graph on the death toll, as much as selective or mass testing is too low. Sources say that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been efficient, on the spot, on the dot, and she started early, even though not as early as Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala. That she has no faith in the Central laboratories with their “bureaucratic paraphernalia”, not in the unfulfilled promises of help from Delhi. For long, her Government has complained of lack of testing kits and medical equipment for doctors and nurses, saying that Delhi simply seemed too reluctant or late in response.

It is no wonder then that the Union Home Ministry sending a Central team to Bengal, among other States, to make “on-the-spot assessments” on the Covid-19 crisis has not gone down well with the fiercely independent leader. In her characteristic manner, Mamata has strongly protested against this unilateral move which goes against the federal spirit, even as the graph in Bengal just cannot be compared to the serious situation in many other States.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister has reiterated that the Inter-Ministerial Central Team’s (IMCT) visit to several districts — Kolkata, Howrah, 24 Parganas North, Medinipur East, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling — amounted to a “unilateral action” by Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

“I am sure you will kindly agree that such unilateral action on the part of the Central Government is not desirable at all, especially in the backdrop when both Central and State Governments are working together relentlessly round-the-clock to contain the covid-19 crisis,”  Mamata said in the letter.

Meanwhile, the the Calcutta High Court last week asked the West Bengal Government to go on a “war footing on the Covid-19 tests” and that it should follow the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Till now, in this entire process, Mamata’s total focus has been on the prestigious Calcutta Medical College and other State and private institutions, for medical care. Besides, she has been fast in her crisis management. A stadium in Howrah was converted into a fully-equipped hospital with 1,000 beds. A private high-rise building in post-modern Rajarhaat was turned into another makeshift hospital. Private hospitals were asked to cooperate. And the lockdown, sensitively done, was fully implemented.

There was no migrant workers’ crisis in Kolkata, in the industrial areas, or in the rest of Bengal, which has been peaceful unlike the Hindi heartland. She announced quickly that no one will go hungry till September. There was no mass migration nor starvation on the streets and slums. Food rations were given and is being given, to all those who seek it with a ration card, for free and with dignity. Those who don’t have ration cards or official documents can also avail of it with a temporary slip. Cooked food is being given to those who can’t cook food. Even police stations are being organised to cook food and distribute to people who are going hungry.

An activist, who works in the red light area in Kolkata, told this reporter that not one among the 10,000 residents in the area is going hungry. Those who can’t cook are being given cooked food. Even in poor villages of Purulia, Midnapore and so on, the problem of hunger has been taken care of with local official networks. “No one is really going hungry in Kolkata and Bengal, that I can assure you,” he said and he is no Mamata supporter.

There are reports of hunger stalking in the eternally-starving tea gardens of North Bengal, which have seen stark unemployment, destitution and starvation deaths in the past. Civil society initiatives are desperately working on the ground and a lot of food distribution is happening through the Trinamool Congress local networks. “It’s a difficult and tragic situation out here. The problem is not only perennial out here, it is kind of become intensified after the lockdown,” said a Jadavpur University student from Cooch Behar on the border of Bangladesh, where the “chitmahals”, too, are facing longstanding problems.

“Chitmahals” are villages which lived in a twilight zone after Partition in East Pakistan and India and later after the  formation of Bangladesh. They were citizens of no man’s land and had no rights, no identity, no citizenship of any country. Recently, many of them have gone over to Bangladesh and others have been allocated to India, though the borderlines are thin and blurring. And, yet, their economic and social condition remains abysmal.

There have been recent reports of new hotspots of the epidemic in Kolkata, including in the slums. Kolkata, Howrah, East Medinipur and the North 24 Parganas have been declared sensitive zones. Eight districts have been declared as possible hotspots: Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri, Hooghly, Nadia, West Burdwan, West Medinipur, the South 24 Parganas and Darjeeling. New areas are being marked. 

Meanwhile, civil society groups, especially students, have been working on the ground with great commitment. Students, research scholars and the alumni of Jadavpur University, for instance, are distributing sanitisers, rations and cooked food, which they themselves cook in the campus. They distribute it all over Kolkata, to cops, health workers, doctors, shopkeepers, vegetable vendors and slums.

“We are short of money, almost always. The alumni is helping. But we need more help,” said a research scholar.

However, life is like this only, as the story goes. Kolkata and Bengal are observing the lockdown with discipline and patience. The Government is in control. And while Rabindra Sangeet (music) and Western music still floats in the bylanes, people are waiting for a new life after the lockdown ends.

 Tomaar holo shuru, aamar holo shaara, (it’s your  beginning, it’s my end…) as the eternally beautiful Robi Thakur song goes.

(Writer: Amit Sengupta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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