A memoir subservient to political propaganda, an aborted statement of policy positions, a dubious report of investigative journalism- the sum of parts in Mamata Banerjee’s My Unforgettable Memories comes to naught. It is hard to tell what the book really is, but despite its inherent confusions it tells on its author rather candidly- And it does so inspite of her. Banerjee spares no effort in reconstructing her memories as a paean to herself. She attempts the self-portrait of a virtuous; victimized and selfless agitator who has won in the end but what she reveals of herself in the process turns out to be far less palatable.
The book begins with beguiling memories of the Chief Minister’s difficult yet ordinary childhood. But the self-righteousness that is to be the dominant tone of the book makes its appearance early. She recounts how she was always compelled to tell the truth. When a neighbor accidentally burnt a boy with his beedi and everyone refused to identify him, Banerjee, still a child, became very “angry”, “confronted the crowd” and made the neighbor “realize his mistake”. On one occasion when her chaperone was unwell, Banerjee had to walk back from school with some classmates who decided to make the most of the spot of freedom by stopping to chat with their boyfriends on the way. “I was so scared I ran back home. Since then I would bunk school if Bharti didi did not turn up. I did not even know what the word ‘boyfriend’ meant..”. It is hard to miss how keen she is to show herself as puritanical- an image that might satisfy the political and social classes. For all the screechy rhetoric and rowdy histrionics that mark her political career, not once does Banerjee step out of the cast of a chaste, virginal ‘didi’. When her personal moral certitudes are manifested in public life the results are unfortunate. On the 9th of February an Anglo-Indian woman from Kolkata filed a complaint alleging she was raped in a moving car while trying to make her way back from Park Street. Banerjee went on record immediately claiming the woman was lying to malign her government. Her Minister for Sports, Madan Mitra, later said “She has two children and so far as I know she is separated from her husband. What was she doing at a night club so late in the night?” The investigations are nowhere close to conclusion but the verdict is already out.
Religion, as a personal and political theme runs through the book. Banerjee keeps telling us plainly that she respects all religions and this is not altogether unbelievable. Trouble is she is eager to extend this personal trait of tolerance to extol the political record of her party as well. It is then open to question why she does not explain her action or otherwise on the Deganga riots of 2010, which an MP of her party was believed to have played a key role in instigating- especially when she is careful to point out how Muslims were an integral part of her agitation in Nandigram and Singur.
When instructed to ensure that the food of a respected aging politician- Kamplapati Tripathi be prepared by a Brahmin, she defies orders. “I said, ‘Ok here is our chance to get back at the old man’,” she writes. She has the food prepared by non-Brahmins but served by a Brahmin. Obviously she has little patience with orthodox ideas about religion, but one is not sure this qualifies as a stand against them, given that the ‘old man’ in question never found out about this little act of rebellion against him until his death.
What further compromises her self-proclaimed liberalism is her crippling belief in superstition. Her father is sighted by her after his death, her brother is possessed by Kali ordering the family to worship the goddess and her sister’s sickness is a call to her by another deity. The book is littered with instances of divine sanction to her rise to power. Now, God working against the Communists as diligently as she would have us believe is an amusing thought if you are not disturbed by how readily and completely Banerjee believes in her own myth. All her defeats are conspiracies. On losing the Pradesh Congress elections she says, “How could a simple middle-class girl like me give them what they wanted. I became a discarded rag doll in the puppet show where money, power and a cozy arrangement between the Right and the Left were the strings attached.” Similarly, all her victories are nothing short of the triumph of Truth. It does not help that she cannot get out of rhetoric speech mode making this into the sort of book where “Mother Bengal” is a perfectly usable noun and the phrase “love and blessings of people” is repeated so often you begin to wonder if it is a coded secret message.
This book makes you see the need to place a cap on how much even your own memoir can be about you. Every character in it is reduced to the role of encouraging or obstructing Banerjee’s ascent to power. There is no objective insight into the machinations of the political system and its key players. For instance, she brings up allegations of “inhumanity” leveled against Prafulla Chandra Sen, former CM of West Bengal, by the Left but exonerates him saying “no one was allowed a glimpse of his humanist heart.” We aren’t either. All we know is that one Tuesday he offered her pressed rice and cucumber to break her Magal-Chandi fast and that for the purposes of this book, his fondness for Banerjee is enough evidence of his greatness. Nothing is too banal, too tedious to get in the way of Banerjee’s self-aggrandizement. She pauses in the middle of tense action only to tell us at length about how a photo-copier in Delhi stopped all work to print papers for her party workers and burst into tears when offered money, saying he would rather have sweets when she wins elections. Towards the end of the book (right before she subjects you to her poetry) there is a list, running into several pages, of organizations that wrote in in support of her agitation against land acquisition. Occasionally the self-mythologising borders on megalomania. Speaking of the day she announced Trinamool as a separate platform within the Congress she says, “On this momentous day in 1997, Bengal was witness, Calcutta was witness. On the one side there was money power, muscle power, cut-outs and leaders galore. On the other side there were hundreds of footsteps of those who were victims of years of deception. And there was determination to give fitting reply to Delhi’s arrogance.” As is custom, megalomania is accompanied by paranoia. On refusing to strike a deal offered by the ruling state government she writes, “After this incident a lot of people must have been praying for my death. Some I am told even took recourse to voodoo and black magic.” While the grievous physical injuries she has suffered in her various skirmishes with the CPM are testimony to her courage, speculations such as this are best been left unarticulated.
Her initiation into mainstream politics is narrated in great details- but as elsewhere in this book details serve only to test your patience without ever getting to the substance. Her account of her political career goes from specifics of organizing one protest after another. It is evident that she had a knack for this but does not get into what the end was. There is no suggestion of why she thought politics was the medium for her or how she reconciles her self-declared simplistic, anachronistic ideals with the working reality of modern electoral politics.
All her mentors are shown as heroes who rescue her. Most curious is her relationship with Rajiv Gandhi. She speaks of him with exaggerated emotion, even by her standards, but one is not sure what role he played in her career other than ask her how she was feeling a couple of times. And yet she talks about having had a premonition about his death and feeling orphaned when he was gone. She professes undying loyalty to his family irrespective of party lines but does not hesitate to refer to Sonia Gandhi as “Queen Mother” in an embarrassing attempt at sarcasm and conveniently leaves out the digs she made at Rahul Gandhi when he was in the state to revive the Youth Congress in 2010 despite the two parties being long-term allies.
Issues are throw-aways and policy discussion is completely absent. The first mention of her engagement with any policy comes nearly half-way into the book when she speaks of her term in the Parliament as the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Youth Affairs, Sports, Women and Child Development where all she does is give a list of her ‘achievements’ with generous pats on the back to self. She perseveres to show herself off as loyal to a fault, a martyr and a reluctant leader (She says she was unwilling to be a minister but accepted only to honour the PM and make her people happy)- a rather clichéd image of an ‘honest politician’. There is no engagement with the more difficult conversation about how she negotiates the regular charges of corruption and crime leveled on her party workers. Instead what you get is flabby self-help style platitudes about democratic politics like “what they did not know is that your work and individuality is more important than publicity.” and cloying sentimentality like “No matter how busy I was in Delhi my heart would always return to my beloved state to sing, ‘My beautiful Bengal, my land of gold, I love you.’”
The absence of nuance in her narrative is frustrating. It is as if she is incapable of a single complex thought. Her only raison d’etre was to “defeat the reign of terror”- the ruling Left in Bengal. So blind is her passionate hatred of them or perhaps so little her understanding of political terminology, that she keeps referring to her own party at the time- Congress as the Right, because she sees it as the opposite of her enemy- the Left, not bothering with the technical fact that her own politics and that of the Congress is more left of centre than ‘Right’. Hence, the book reads like a bad fable of revenge- the CPM is bad, she is good. They beat her up but she overcomes every challenge in her way to ultimately defeat them. Occasionally her voice is somewhat endearing, but only because it reminds you of a cranky old aunt from your childhood. Banerjee is a simple, emotionally high-strung woman who has come to power by the strange ways in which democratic politics functions in India but there is nothing in this book that suggests what qualifies her to be a leader, let alone a visionary.
At the beginning of the chapter dedicated to her split with the Congress her trite philosophizing turns to pure nonsense with sentences like “Nature takes its natural course” and “Reality makes life more real.” The rest of the chapter is a dense, dramatic account of her persecution by the party and her breaking away from it. It reads like the rant of the sullen girl who was not called out to play or a petty, vulgar family feud you would rather look away from. But despite pitiless and pointless detailing there is nothing in the chapter to placate her critics who believe that atleast part of the reason for the split was her personal ambition.
In the final chapter on Singur and Nandigram it becomes more evident than ever that beautiful or not, her memories are certainly selective. In her characteristic one-sided account, there is no clarification of TMC’s role in the violent agitation nor her position on Maoists. Infact they don’t come up at all until the Epilogue where she brings them up only to say, “I will not say anything about Maoism.”
The book has sentences that unintentionally make you laugh out loud, then despair. “As a result the hardliners and softliners started to increasingly butt heads, first in private then in public.” Or “When in power the power of power and its excesses can make the powerful, rulers of a new, all-powerful horizon.” In several places the writing is simply absurd. Events are not recounted in the sequence of occurrence, characters who have not been introduced make their appearances in the middle of narratives, politicians are referred sarcastically to as “Big Brother”, “Middle Brother” and “Small Brother” with no clues on who they might be. In the Epilogue she hits out at people who want to take credit for her victory and bad-mouth her. She addresses them directly as “my friend”. There is no reason why an average reader should be reading that but here is hoping whoever it was addressed to gets the message.
If you don’t know what to make of Mamata Banjerjee this book is not going to help you either. But it does leave you hoping she is better than her memoir. The fate of an entire state and the lives of a lot of people now rest in her victorious hands.
Originally appears in The Hindu Literary Review