On to Kolkata
I was shifted to Kolkata in 1993 when I had just 2 years left before retirement. The Secretary knew the number of transfers I had undergone yet he insisted that I went to Kolkata (it was still Calcutta then) even if only for six months. He said a promotion, the last one in my case, was likely to come around that time. I had told the Secretary in that case I wouldn’t move my stuff and would stay in the Departmental guest house.
Ultimately, the posting lasted for one whole year.
We arrived at Kolkata minus our heavy baggage and parked ourselves in the suite that was generally kept for the minister. It was on the 12th floor of our 14 storied building on what was earlier known as Central Avenue but later came to be known as Chittaranjan Avenue. It was close to Tipu’s mosque, Chowringhee, New Market, Esplanade, et al.
Apart from all that, Kolkata was my mother’s city where she was born 116 years ago in a family of substance. She worked her way up through various schools to land up at Bethune College which continues till today to be the finest college for women. Her eldest brother was one of the first students in Santiniketan when it opened in 1901. Her father being a “bhadralok” – a tag that was given to wealthy people, landed gentry, educated and prosperous – was close to elites of 19th Century Kolkata including Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Tagore, and Surendranath Banerji whose nephew married his daughter. They were mostly Anglophiles and no wonder my mother’s father was nominated into the British Government in India to work as Deputy Metropolitan Magistrate, Kolkata.
My father, however, belonged to what was then known as East Bengal. He was born into a zamindar family but he left it all and came to Kolkata to study first in Scottish Church College and then at Presidency College which is now a university. Kolkata was, therefore, very close to us. My wife, too, had
West Bengal as a place of work in the Department has always been very unpopular. Its predominantly leftist unions would create so much trouble for officers that many came close to a breakdown. Over the years the attitudes of Red unions somewhat softened. As the Department spent more money and the life of workers in front and back offices became more comfortable the anger of the Lefties diminished and their temperament displayed a welcome change.
That is when I appeared on the scene. Monitoring everything – from availability of postal stationery to ease of carrying out duties by the operatives – things changed and a greater feeling of partnership between the unions and the administration was fostered. My formula was simple – whatever was within my powers to do my officials would do all that and beyond that, even if the Unions demanded, the administration would not be able to help.
One such matter was of computerization of offices. It was a central directive but the unions will have none of it. It was 1993 and technology was progressing in the country very fast. In the midst of all this the West Bengal Government issued a fiat that more and more savings bank accounts should be opened. It was not possible to carry out the directive in view of the huge backlog of audit of the accounts. Unless the savings bank as an institution in West Bengal was audited I expected frauds to take place.
When I found the unions were very firm against computerization I had no alternative but to seek higher counsels. I consulted my friend Krishnamurti, Chief Secretary West Bengal. On his suggestion I went and saw the Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu. When I told him my problem he listened to it carefully and told me that unions would have to agree to computerization. Within three days our union neta came to me and agreed to in writing of electronic processing of all postal operations. On the side, he conveyed he was impressed by the fact that I could go to the very top of the CPI(ML) hierarchy, if there happened to be a problem. I thought that they developed a healthy respect for me.
That was, perhaps, a one off thing. We generally had very good relations despite a total nationwide strike that took place a few months into my term. I had a very quiet time right through and saw quite a bit of West Bengal, memories of which are a treasure for me. I used it to solve the problems of the staff and, in some cases, took decisions that eventually were issued as standing instructions by the superior office of Postal Directorate. Those decisions thus acquired pan-India applicability and the staff of the Circle were happy.
Kolkata has numerous churches and temples, many of them being venerated institutions. St Paul’s cathedral is one which has Indo-Gothic architecture and is more than 170 years old. Likewise the mosque named after Tipu Sultan was also built around 1840s. Then we have the Kalighat Mandir, Dakkhineshwar Temple and Belur Math – all within the Kolkata metropolitan area. All the Hindu places of worship attract enormous crowds on festive occasions. I was fortunate to visit all of them except the Mosque of Tipu Sultan and found the experience exhilarating.
Kolkata is a place loved by everybody – despite its filth and poverty. At basic level it is reckoned as a foodies’ paradise where you could get all kinds of food – from Bengali to Malayalee to Moghlai to Continental. Its bustling bazaars are what shoppers crave for. At the cerebral level, it gives one a cultural high as soon as one steps down on its soil. Its aging theatres still stage plays that are absorbing and leave a mark on your consciousness. That multifaceted artist Satyajit Roy is ever present in the lives of Kolkatans. Its heritage museums, the Asiatic Society, the National Library and Victoria Memorial are what intellectuals treat as their watering holes. No wonder the city produced as many as six Nobel Laureates. The most lasting influence, however, has been that of Tagore, the first Indian and non-white so honoured, whose Rabindra Sangit – a new genre of Bengali music – is sung with great gusto even till today practically in every house where a Bengali lives.