May Day in the ‘city of joy’, Kolkata
The city of joy welcomes me as I step out of the Howrah railway station on the first day of the scorching month of May.
The early morning light bathes the river Hooghly softly. Pigeons feast on seeds and take a flight when disturbed. An extended family gorge themselves to a breakfast on the eco-friendly leaf plates. The newspaper board is thronged by the commuters. A flock of sheep walks quietly towards the majestic Howrah Bridge. Life is good.
Yes! Life is a holiday, here. Its May Day and its a public holiday. Where Gujarat and Maharashtra commemorate this day as its formation day, Bengal declared it as a holiday, much ahead of both these states, to honour labours on the International Workers Day. Today Gujarat and Maharashtra both lead the country in the list of the most industrialised states and Bengal celebrates May Day with only festivities, perhaps. Its fruits of labour can be heard only in the paeans of the Labour Day celebrations, unfortunately. Life is a May Day, here.
I was in good old Kolkata en route to a little hamlet in rural Bengal. I was invited to play the best man to my bum-chum on his wedding, followed by a Bou Bhaat (bride feast) at their century old ancestral home. His name is Tanmay Dey. You are free to read his first name in pieces, Tan and May and also between the lines on how must we have maltreated him with a whole lot of permutation and combinations of his full name. I am usually averse to vulgarity till it boils down to this name. Tanmay (pronounced Tonmoy), by the way, is a Boston based consultant in an IT major. I was about to ring Ton when I received his call to welcome, update and apologise to me, all at the same time, that my pick-up automobile may be delayed. It was May Dey, today. Pun intended.
I retrospected Calcutta while awaiting my car. It was Calcutta then, when I posted here during my soldiering days. Bengal boasts of the many firsts in India. Howrah was once called the Manchester of India for its industrial revolution. Kolkata was the first capital of British India, the city with the first underground mass rapid transit system, the oldest operating sole riverine port, the largest and oldest museum, the largest library, the highest number of mode of transportation available, the cheapest megacity, the leader in social reforms, the most well read city and the education hub, the first Nobel laureate – the one who gave us our national anthem also – and of course, my first ever girlfriend. You say it – it has it. The list goes on and on. The contribution of Bengal in the making of India is unparalleled. I was curious to know how much has the cultural capital of India evolved over the years.
Call it telepathy or whatever, the first clarity came from the chauffeur who was almost an hour late to pick up his honourable guest for a wedding. With all due regards, he apprised me that he was held back from executing his duties by local cab union leaders since it was a public holiday. He had to negotiate and eventually bribe them, in the name of donation for the party, to get through. I failed to appreciate why should a personal staff be prevented from doing his personal job on a personal wedding. Well, I shouldn’t have actually. Trade union. Trade. Union. Workers`. Labour. Labour Day. May Day. Holiday. Bengal. It was déjà vu.
I embarked to find myself with quite an educated driver, who was good at both the official languages of the Union Of India and the second largest spoken language in India, too. English, Hindi and Bangla, respectively. Kolkata has always been a cosmopolitan city in the truest sense. No, not because of my driver only. Try it to get it.
As we passed through the villages, during the course from Kolkata to Howrah and further, we came across a bunch of workers playing cards on one of the gates of a cable factory. At another jute factory gate, a few miles away, a few good men were chatting away as there was no tomorrow. A few were fishing in the neighbouring pond of a cotton mill nearby. It was a nice feeling to see these labourers enjoying their labour of love. I discovered myself labouring under a misapprehension again when I was illuminated by the driver that most of these factories have been locked out or shut down. Lots of his own relatives comprised of that work force. Why the heck were these labourers then celebrating the workers’ day? Shouldn’t they be out hunting for a job than a fish? They form the workforce of one of the greatest and most industrialised state of India. I have witnessed their efficacy in every field. Is it limited to the air of the state, per se? Though I laboured the point with a man from a similar background, the driver, I was almost convinced that being content is the most important thing in life. Buddha told that, I was told. I will probably never be able to argue with morons of this order that there`s a very thin red line between being content and being a sloth. But then, don’t we all have our share of the seven sins? Mr Tata had let go – I did too.
The car halted at the porch. I was overwhelmed to observe that the density of population, at my friend’s grand wedding destination, was almost equal to Bengal’s density ratio. May Dey was relishing it with all his ton (body) and mon (soul). It was such a heart-warming feeling to see someone settled in US being so culturally rooted. The revelry was full on. I could only hear of Gurudeb, Bose, Felu Da, Byomkesh, Bibekanondo, Bibhutibhushon Bondopadhyay, Communists, Marxists, lefts, rights, fights for rights, Iilish Maach, Mishti & more – nothing about the future. Can you live in the past glory and expect a different result? Can you be happy being a talker – not a doer, despite the intelligentsia?
Inspite of the cacophony, everything seemed delayed there, the next morning. The priests, the florists, the cooks. I was told that it was due to a bandh called by the district dada of the opposition political party. District dada? The reason sounded worse than the name. It was to register their protest on the public holiday declared on May Day despite the fact that most factories in the state have shut shop. Aah! Work culture at its best on Workers’ Day. I just hoped the bride didn’t get late, too. She has a new labour and labour pain to manage. No puns intended.
Did I tell you that I missed my train that evening, courtesy the prevalent socio-political environment there and spent the night with Mr May Dey, when Mrs May Dey was supposed to do him the honours? Reminds me that the word ‘girl’ is pronounced as May in Bengal. Mrs Tanmay Dey was indeed May Dey, for now.
Meanwhile, to my dismay, Mr May Dey tried justifying the Bandh to me. I was made to understand that what Bengal thinks today – India thinks tomorrow. His rhetoric was that one should protest if one feels that he/she has been wronged. A ‘No culture’ is useful in protecting democracy and it was worth debating why 50% of the factories closed down during the tenure of the ruling party. They have wasted West Bengal. Why a public holiday on such pathetic state of affairs? I ruminated if he meant that a holiday is justified to protest another holiday? I wondered, if this was a good enough logic, it won’t be too long before Bengal signals – Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!
Major Akhill Pratap, an ex-Indian Army Officer, is a speaker, columnist, author and an entrepreneur.
He had been a soldier, by choice, worked with corporates, by chance and is a storyteller, by character. Educationally qualified from XLRI, Jamshedpur & IISWBM, Calcutta, Akhill comes from one of the erstwhile Royal Families Of India.