Each of my weekdays in Kolkata begins with an adventure, an adventure that takes me from my home in South Kolkata, to my office in the Northern suburb of Salt Lake. There are very few consistencies in my daily commute. The route is sometimes changed due to knee high waters, angry protests or uncooperative auto rickshaw drivers. Sometimes I ride under someone’s armpit on the metro, sometimes a bird poops on my head, sometimes I stop for a morning Bengali sweet. However, there is one consistency in my commute. I always have a companion that always travels that 17 km with me every single day. Mamata Banerjee.
Mamata Banerjee “Didi”, the chief minister of West Bengal, is an ever-present part of modern West Bengali life. In the recent weeks, she has put West Bengal and India into the international news with her leadership against the liberalization of the Indian economy in the retail sector. While Didi is quite the polarizing figure, there is no doubt in any Bengali mind that she is powerful. Ms. Banerjee, called by the New York Times “a 5-foot-tall dynamo in flip-flops”, unseated last year a 34-year communist reign in West Bengal. Over the last year, she has started shaping West Bengal in her image. Even as a foreigner in West Bengal, Mamata influences many parts of my life in Kolkata.
I start my commute the way I do most mornings, on time. My timeliness can be attributed somewhat to Ms. Banerjee and her recent policy to stop all liquor service at restaurants and bars by 11:20 PM. All liquor serving establishments must be closed by 12:00. Thanks to Mamata, I can be at home asleep by 12:30 and out the door the next morning by 7:45 even on my frequent Saturday work days.
I step out my door into the brisk 39-degree morning (with 95% humidity) and before I have the chance to be drenched in my own sweat I see Ms. Banerjee’s face. Photos and drawings of the chief minister line the streets along my route to the metro. The photos are accompanied by congratulatory phrases reading, “We are proud of you” and “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”. The Indian flag waves in the background of her photo as she looks over me in the simple cotton sari she wears as her uniform.
I swipe my metro card to get on the Rabindra Sarobar metro. As I wait for the metro to arrive, I can view the pujas and freedom fighter photos that Mamata regime has placed at all the metro stations. When my metro arrives I push with all my might to fit myself between a violent auntie and forty or so rice bellies. Once traveling I can listen to the announcer read off a number of metro stations, many of which are not representative of the neighborhoods they are located in. Ms. Banerjee renamed many of them after Bengali war heroes and artists. I am happy to know that it has caused confusion for many of residents of Kolkata, not just me.
I get off the metro at Girish Park. I step to avoid a number of taxis with surprisingly reasonable number of people in them. The four person in a taxi policy is yet another of policy instated by Didi. I get in my shared auto with a direction of Kankurgachi. I dangle a ten-rupee note over the shoulder of the driver and receive back a two-rupee coin while the auto waits in traffic. I found the cheapness of the shared auto system and transport in general in Kolkata to be surprising at first. However, my minimal transport charges is another thing I can contribute to the Chief Minister. Members of the Kolkata transportation industry have been demanding raises in their rates for the minister’s tenure. Despite transportation strikes and pleading by the bus, rickshaw and taxi drivers, Ms. Banerjee firmly stands that fares should not be increased in any mode of public transport, despite the fact that the rates are much lower then other major cities in India. She even threatened to take away the licenses of participants in a strike on July 31st of this year. Mamata sure means business.
As I ride down further down in the auto, I pass a sea of blue and white. In Kolkata, the bypasses, flyovers, park railing and lampposts are slowly being painted blue. The middle of the divide road sports a fine new coat of paint. This is also the wish of Mamata. She claims it is to remind us of her government’s new motto “the sky is the limit.” Some though argue it is just her favorite color.
In Kankurgachi, I get off my first auto rickshaw of the day and get in my second. As I drive away, I can hear the songs of Rabindra Sangeet featuring the lyrics of the Bengali poet Tagore. Ms. Banerjee has installed loudspeakers at major intersections to play his songs. Mamata created a Tagore presence all over the city; creating a cult many claim to replace a cult of Marx that once existed in Kolkata.
During this last part of my trip I pass a road lined with small independent shops, the types of shops that still make up close to 90% of the Indian retail market. As I pass these small stores, I cannot help but think about the actions that brought Didi to the international stage in the recent weeks. In September, as India began to revisit a discussion about the entrance of multinational into the Indian market, Mamata withdrew her support and that of her party the TMC from the national collation. She argues that FDI from companies like Walmart would kill small stores like the ones I am driving by and the farmers that supply them. She is currently engaged in an anti-FDI campaign around the country, planning protests for November.
I arrive at FD Park, pay my 8 rupees for the ride and walk five minutes to my office. My commute with Matama is over, but she will surely be waiting for me to follow me all the way back to my house at 5:00. Now I can go check what Didi has wrote on her official facebook wall today. She may only wear flip-flops, but she is a modern gal.