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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

An Existential Tale of Childhood

By Pranab Ghosh


It is a tale of uncertain times.

Victor was born on the midnight of a Thursday some 50 years ago. His parents were happy.

Victor's father was a factory worker. His factory was under private ownership. It went on to become a government-undertaken organization after a couple of lockouts and workers' movements and several petitions to the government, both the state and the Union. The factory, before finally closing down much after the retirement of Victor's father, operated as a sick public sector unit for some time, later on.

During the time of Victor's birth it was running well. A lockout was first declared some seven years after Victor's birth and some three years after his first brush with the turbulent politics of the times.

His father's job was, however, secured. But in his long career with the sick PSU he had to sit at home for long months and often without pay. Still, there used to be some sense of security and solidarity with around a thousand other employees and their families, who were going through the same troubled existence. But nowadays, in this era of contractual labor, you even miss that semblance of security.

A sea of uncertainty had engulfed the then industrial scenario, especially that of the unorganized sector, of Bengal. Unfortunately, even today as Victor struggles to run his family, the industrial scenario of the state is not at all rosy. With hardly any new investment happening in years, Bengal awaits an injection of funds that can help it limp back to good health. But where from it would come, cannot even be guessed. Only one keep one's fingers crossed and hope. Hope is the only good thing left with the Bengalis, waiting for an industrial resurgence in the state.

Now let us go back to Victor, and see what his experiences as a very, very young boy, rather a child, were about the most discussed, written about, and filmed political movement that erupted on the face of Bengal during the 70s.

Victor one day in 1972 walked into the drawing room of his north Kolkata home. He quietly moved towards the window facing north, scaled up that portion of the wall to reach the foot of the window and opened it. He saw three bearded men squatting on the open ground-floor verandah in front of the window. The moment he looked towards them he could spot a gun-like thing, very similar to what he used to burst caps with during the Kali Pujas. Excited, he demanded to know what that was. But the men, the moment they could sense the opening window, had hid the gun. To Victor's expectant queries they said it was a toy, which they would show Victor later on as they were busy discussing something important and were in no mood to play with him. However, Victor could not be dissuaded.

Now the leader of the three men changed the topic. "Is your mother around?" he asked Victor.

"Yes, she is cooking," replied Victor. "Then would you, like a good boy, ask her to give us some food at night, as a special guest will visit us then? Now, you run and ask your mother."

But Victor could not forget the gun. "I will," he said. "But show me the toy."

Exasperated, the leader called out, "Boudi, ektu asunun na, (Sister, please come for a minute)". When his mother arrived, they formally made the request of cooked food and asked her to take Victor away and close the window behind them.

"Why did you open this window? Did I not tell you that you can never open it?" Victor's mother chastised him as she pulled him away from the window and closed it tight behind them.

When Victor had grown up he had asked his mother about the movement, and her impression about it. She had replied, "They never bothered us."


Times they are changing

We have come to know how the times Victor was born to had impacted him, even as a child, and his parents. As a microcosm of the society, Victors stand to represent the innumerous middle-class urban dwellers, who would be willing to share Victor's experiences and empathise with his parents. They will find an instant connect with the events taking place in Victor's life and surroundings, where the microcosm of the society is impacted by the macrocosmic development across the socio-polito-economic sphere of Bengal.

The upheaval in the political landscape in Bengal during the 70s had its share of influence on the common people, who both liked and disliked the disturbances they faced, and the questions they asked themselves and found no convincing answer, as they went about doing their daily scores with the same level of endurance as they had got accustomed to in face of all difficulties. Many could not accept the lives lost, especially of young revolutionaries, who were out to change the world around them with the power of their inadequate guns. Many questioned the violence that ensued, while others questioned the repressive measures taken by the authorities to crush the movement.

Whatever the middle class might think at that point in time, barring those families the sons and daughters of which had got directly involved in the movement, one thing that Victor understood as he spoke to his father some eight years after his first brush with the activists squatting on the verandah of his north Kolkata home, was that the loss of human lives is, was and will always be considered tragic, and youth is the most prime time of life, and the country needed to protect, guide and nurture them in the right spirit and provide them the right direction and give necessary avenues to give vent to their anguish.

His father told him a story. He told: As he was going to his office one morning, he saw two youths rush past him, and he instantly recognized them as the same youths who at times asked for food for their visiting leaders from his wife. He stopped to watch what they did. They hid behind the bushes just next to his home. As he turned round and took a couple of steps, he found the officer-in-charge of the local police station, gun in hand, coming at great speed. He looked at Victor's father and asked, "Which way did they go?" He, without even thinking what exactly he was doing, pointed to the opposite direction the youths had run.

Did he repent his decision later? Did not telling the truth to the law keepers not bug him later on? To Victor's such questions he said, "I tried to save some young lives who were someone's son or brother. Maybe what they were doing was not the most correct of all methods, but they were too young to get killed. Moreover, why should I be the reason for their death? They did me no harm." Victor's father was sure there were orders to shoot such activists on sight that day. He had kept his conscience clear.

Victor did not know what to tell his father. But he understood that youth was precious and needed to be protected and that your truth should not lead to someone's death, and they were no criminals!

That was Victor and his father's brush with the movement and the moral questions they faced in course of reviewing their individual experiences. It is however, a separate issue that a couple of days after when Victor's father was returning from office at the dead of night after his 'B' shift, two shadowy figures sprung up from nowhere and thanked him. "They had shoot-at-sight order that day dada. Thank you." Victor's father later admitted that initially he was shit scared, having known the reputation of the activist's mode of functioning. But this time they had come to express their gratitude.

Gratitude they may have had for Victor's father, but time hadn't any for them and as the movement failed, some gave a sigh of relief, while others sighed at the broken dream. Revolution was over.

However, all was not over. In 1977, the Left* romped home in the general election and Bengal had atoned for their failure to support the Ultra-Left** movement that had erupted on its face.

Democracy prevailed over revolution. Bengal showed it was not ready for any armed struggle leading to throwing out of an elected government, but they were all too ready to usher in the rule of the democratic Left, who eventually went on to rule Bengal for over three decades. With the Left coming to power, there was euphoria all around and Victor was touched by the spontaneous celebrations that people got involved in.

Times, as he was told, were indeed changing.

Author's notes:

* According to Wikipedia, The Left Front was an alliance of political parties in the Indian state of West Bengal. It was formed in January 1977, the founding parties being the Communist Party of India (Marxist), All India Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Marxist Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Communist Party of India and the Biplabi Bangla Congress. Other parties joined in later years, most notably the Communist Party of India. The Left Front ruled the state for seven consecutive terms 1977 - 2011, five with Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister and two under Buddhadev Bhattacharya. The CPI(M) is the dominant force in the alliance. In the 2011 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election the Left Front failed to gain a majority of seats and left office. As on date Biman Bose is the Chairman of the West Bengal Left Front Committee.

** As per Wikipedia, "A Naxal or Naxalite is a member of any political organisation that claims the legacy of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), founded in Calcutta in 1969. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is the largest existing political group in that lineage today in India."

The movement carried out by the Naxalites in Kolkata in the early 70s has been mentioned as the Ultra Left movement, as they believed in armed struggle to overthrow government in power. The movement was crushed in Bengal. The Left that swept to power in 1977 was ruling the state as part of a coalition during the late 60s. As the Left was part of the government, they did not endorse the armed struggle of the Naxalites, who all originally were part of the Left combine. These proponents of armed struggle were thrown out of the party (CPI-M) and went on to found the ultra-Left outfit.

Article © Pranab Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-12-16
Image(s) are public domain.
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