‘It would be good if change is faster’

This 20-year-old says op­por­tu­ni­ties are lim­ited in Kolkata, but she thinks CM Ma­mata Ban­er­jee is try­ing her best

Hindustan Times (Lucknow) - - Myfirstvote - Dhrubo Jy­oti let­[email protected]­dus­tan­times.com

There is one story about West Ben­gal chief min­is­ter Ma­mata Ban­er­jee that Mou Mon­dal, 20, has heard since she was a child. The year was 1999 and Kolkata was in the throes of a gen­eral elec­tion. Ban­er­jee, then an Op­po­si­tion leader, had walked out of her party, the Congress, barely a year ago and formed the Tri­namool Congress (TMC). The fledgling party’s two-flower sym­bol was fight­ing for graf­fiti space with that of the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Marx­ist) or CPI (M)’s ham­mer and sickle on the city’s walls. Ban­er­jee was criss­cross­ing the state to drum up sup­port for her party’s nom­i­nees against the en­trenched Left Front, which had been rul­ing the state for 22 years by then.

The Mon­dals eked out a liv­ing in a work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood that was not used to vis­its of big politi­cians. But Ban­er­jee dropped by af­ter a big rally nearby. She walked straight into the neigh­bour­hood, mak­ing her way through nar­row muddy roads with folded hands. Ban­er­jee in­tro­duced her­self as “your daugh­ter, Ma­mata”. At the Mon­dal house, she walked in and found Mou’s mother, Ratna, mak­ing lunch. Ban­er­jee took a bas­ket from her, Ratna re­counts, and started peel­ing the veg­eta­bles in it. “My grand­mother and mother were so im­pressed that such a big leader was peel­ing our veg­eta­bles, and chat­ting with us. They have al­ways told me that she is one of us and we have to sup­port our didi [Ban­er­jee],” says Mou.

Mou is a third gen­er­a­tion Ban­er­jee fan in a fam­ily that makes no qualms about back­ing the TMC be­cause of the West Ben­gal chief min­is­ter’s per­son­al­ity. They have many com­plaints against the party – lack of jobs, in­ter­nal dis­sent, vi­o­lence in lo­cal pol­i­tics and fac­tion­al­ism. But the 64-year-old politi­cian’s doughty, street­fight­ing at­ti­tude con­tin­ues to im­press them. “Who­ever has been with us, we will be with them. It is amaz­ing to see her fight. I see woman power in Ma­mata.”

Mou does not un­der­stand much of the stand-off be­tween Ban­er­jee and the CBI over an at­tempted raid on the res­i­dence of Kolkata po­lice com­mis­sioner, de­spite the wall-to-wall cov­er­age by me­dia. But she is sure that it must be im­por­tant if Ban­er­jee sat on a dharna over it. “She must have thought of the right way. She is do­ing this for us and we must stand by her. ”

TOUGH LIFE

The Mon­dals live on Kolkata’s east­ern fringes, a 20-minute auto ride from the east­ern-most ar­te­rial road. The peo­ple from their work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood travel to the city for work that in­volves back-break­ing com­mutes. There was no road lead­ing into the set­tle­ment even 15 years ago and Ratna re­mem­bers wad­ing through slush to reach home.

Mou’s fa­ther, Du­lal, worked as a me­chanic at a garage and then as a driver, and is of­ten away for days. Kolkata’s econ­omy has hit his earn­ings, which barely cross ₹15,000 monthly.

Her par­ents hoped their daugh­ter would be their ticket out of poverty and ded­i­cated all re­sources for her ed­u­ca­tion. “I would of­ten sit on foot­paths for three hours while she went for tu­itions dur­ing her Class 12 be­cause we could not af­ford to wait any­where else,” says Ratna. The fam­ily of­ten sur­vived on rice-wa­ter and pantab­hat or left­over rice soaked in wa­ter, chill­ies, and salt in those days.

Mou did well in her ex­am­i­na­tions but flubbed the pro­fes­sional en­trance tests. She fi­nally made it to one of the many pri­vate engi­neer­ing col­leges that have mush­roomed across Kolkata. The Dream In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy is 2.5 hours away from her home. Mou leaves home at 7.30 am daily and re­turns af­ter 8 pm.

The first time Mou heard about Ban­er­jee’s gov­ern­ment was af­ter high school when she qual­i­fied for the Kanyashree Prakalpa, a flag­ship state gov­ern­ment scheme that awards girl stu­dents a one­time pay­out of ₹25,000 and an an­nual schol­ar­ship. Bu­reau­cratic hur­dles and lack of co­op­er­a­tion from her school and col­lege meant she did not sub­mit the ap­pli­ca­tion in time but that did not stop Mou from ad­mir­ing Ban­er­jee. “She is al­ways think­ing about us. ”

‘THINGS CHANG­ING SLOWLY’

Mou, a com­puter engi­neer­ing stu­dent, wants to work af­ter grad­u­at­ing and helm a start-up some­day. But she knows she has to leave her home and city if she wants to do well. “There are very few jobs in Kolkata. For fresh­ers like me, there is no op­tion here, and I fear if I stay back, I may end up set­ting up a snack shop.”

But she does not blame Ban­er­jee. “I know that she is try­ing and things are slowly chang­ing. But it would be good if the change comes faster.” The 20-year-old is a gifted dancer but she had to dis­con­tinue her danc­ing lessons while in school be­cause the com­mute was too tir­ing. She par­tic­i­pates in ev­ery cul­tural pro­gram at her col­lege. “Peo­ple even call me ‘in­au­gu­ra­tion dance’ be­cause I open ev­ery cul­tural event with dance.” In her spare time, Mou cooks her favourite Chi­nese food. Her best dishes are chilly chicken and chowmein, both Kolkata sta­ples. She posts pic­tures of the dishes on her In­sta­gram page along with her var­i­ous looks. Face­book is for shar­ing memes and “trolling” oth­ers, she thinks, and What­sApp for for­ward­ing fake news.

PARTY AND CLUB

So­cial and cul­tural life in Mou’s neigh­bour­hood re­solves around the TMC’s of­fice and the lo­cal club. Both have a com­mon ros­ter of mem­bers and func­tion as de facto lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion – a sys­tem car­ried over from the Left Front years. The party of­fice is en­meshed into the daily lives of the res­i­dents, re­solv­ing dis­putes, hold­ing pro­grams and help­ing lo­cals. “I had a dis­pute with a lo­cal leader of the CPI (M), who had en­croached upon my land and was re­fus­ing to leave. I am a poor woman and had mort­gaged ev­ery­thing for my small par­cel of land. So I went to the party of­fice and the dadas came and solved the prob­lem,” says Ratna.

“If there is a fight in some­one’s home, if there is a dis­pute be­tween brothers, be­tween hus­band and wife, they re­solve it. The club helps young peo­ple get ahead in life,” Mou says.

The of­fice and the club or­gan­ise a num­ber of com­mu­nity events like the Repub­lic Day and Saraswati Puja. They also or­gan­ise arts and craft com­pe­ti­tions as well as fe­lic­i­tate mer­i­to­ri­ous stu­dents.

When they had to get the Sched­uled Caste cer­tifi­cate six years ago, Ratna says the of­fice helped her. “I have started go­ing to party meet­ings,” she says. But in­ter­nal party rifts are spilling out in the open. “Fac­tion­al­ism is at its peak, and there are al­ways skir­mishes. The syn­di­cate raj is also present in our here,” Ratna says, re­fer­ring to a sys­tem where party lead­ers en­joy a vir­tual mo­nop­oly on con­struc­tion sites and ma­te­ri­als. Crit­ics al­lege the sys­tem fun­nels money into the party; Ban­er­jee claims she has cracked down on it.

MY VOTE GOES TO...

When she votes this year, Mou would not have to think that hard. Mou is charmed by what she calls Ban­er­jee’s sim­plic­ity. “Look at her, a blue-bor­dered sari and a pair of chap­pals. Yet she is go­ing ev­ery­where, be­ing so pow­er­ful. In fact, when we can­not af­ford shoes and wear chap­pals some­where, we now call it Ma­mata style. No one can make fun of us.”

It is not just about the im­age. The Mon­dals say the chief min­is­ter is re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing to their neigh­bour­hood a road, piped wa­ter and elec­tric­ity me­tres. She does not even know the lo­cal law­maker’s name but says they do not need to. “Tri­namool means Ma­mata for us.”

The al­ter­na­tives do not im­press her. She has heard about Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi, but only through memes. She saw Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi on tele­vi­sion dur­ing the 2014 Lok Sabha cam­paign and thought he gave en­ter­tain­ing speeches. But her per­cep­tion changed on Novem­ber 8, 2016, when he can­celled high-value ban­knotes. “I had to pay col­lege fees. We stood in queues for hours.”

For her, the Bharatiya Janata Party means com­mu­nal pol­i­tics that she says she can­not abide by as she has many Mus­lim friends. “Reli­gion is a set of cus­toms. It is a per­cep­tion. It is ev­ery­one’s per­sonal thing. I do not un­der­stand how it can be used to di­vide peo­ple. Ev­ery­one is equal.” But com­mu­nal pol­i­tics is seep­ing in around her. In her col­lege, a Mus­lim boy is of­ten teased for “eat­ing cows”.

Mou knows reser­va­tions are an elec­tion is­sue. She has heard peo­ple say they should be stopped, but she does not un­der­stand why. “My sched­uled caste schol­ar­ship is so im­por­tant to me. How can they shut it down? It is in the Con­sti­tu­tion, and it helps us so much. If they want to help oth­ers, they can do it.”

In Kolkata, there is a buzz of the BJP do­ing well in Ben­gal this time, but Mou dis­misses the pos­si­bil­ity. “In our area, there is not even a BJP of­fice. I do not know any Ben­gali lead­ers of the party. The BJP will find it tough to en­ter Ben­gal,” she says.

MOU MON­DAL,20 (Kolkata)This engi­neer­ing stu­dent knows reser­va­tions are an elec­tion is­sue. She says her Sched­uled Caste schol­ar­ship has helped her, and reser­va­tions must not be stopped

SAN­JEEV VERMA/HT

▪ Mou says af­ter the 2016 de­mon­eti­sa­tion move, she waited in queues for hours as she had to pay her col­lege fees .

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