‘It would be good if change is faster’

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

Hindustan Times (Patiala) - - 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 twoflower 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. ”


The Mon­dals live on Kolkata’s south­east­ern fringes, a 20-minute auto ride from the 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. ”


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.


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.


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 (South 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


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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