The discovery of utility in death

Jibone jare tumi daoni mala/ Morone keno tare dite ele phul (To one whom you didn't offer a garland in life/Why do you offer flowers in death)?

Calcutta, Oct. 25: Death often transcends differences in life. But Thursday saw the unseemly spectacle of decorum giving way to damage control that soon went awry and stood stripped of any pretence.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today hijacked the last journey of author Sunil Gangopadhyay, who was treated as a pariah by her when he was alive and whose death evoked little more than a perfunctory response from her for two days.

Gangopadhyay, one of the greatest writers from Bengal, had passed away in the wee hours of October 23 at his south Calcutta residence after a heart attack. He was 78. Gangopadhyay is survived by his wife Swati and son Souvik.

At 4.16pm on Tuesday ' more than 14 hours after his death ' Mamata posted a condolence message on Facebook. The message read: "I express my heartfelt condolence on the demise of Shri Sunil Gangyopadhyay, the famous Bengali poet and Litterateur. His contributions towards Bengali literature was well recognised. With his death, Bengal has lost a renowned literary personality. I pray to the almighty to give enough strength to the bereaved family members to bear the loss. May his soul rest in peace."

By then, condolence messages from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee had reached the bereaved family. Former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, with whom Gangopadhyay shared a personal bond because of their common interest in literature, had called Swati Gangopadhyay on Tuesday morning, sources said.

Since the chief minister was not known to have had a good rapport with Gangopadhyay ' Trinamul sources said he was counted among "CPM supporters" ' the Facebook message could have passed off as a dignified, albeit delayed and somewhat restrained, response to the death of a popular author.

It is not clear what brought about the dramatic change ' reminiscent of the chief minister's somersault on the presidential elections ' this morning. Some suggest Mamata may have concluded that her initial response was being construed as indifference and had not gone down well with large sections of the people.

Today, Mamata landed at Rabindra Sadan, where the body was taken at the insistence of the government, around 11.45am.

When she stepped out after paying homage, a raw parade of vintage Mamata unfolded. The chief minister grabbed a loudhailer to discipline the mourners who had come to Rabindra Sadan.

Her famed "crowd-management" skills had worked when Shah Rukh led a triumphant KKR in celebration at the Eden. She had also held at bay a heaving crowd on the morning when many died in the fire at AMRI, Dhakuria.

But neither celebration nor catastrophe was straining at the leash this morning. Something as sombre and private as death, which had become a public event because of the stature of the person who had passed away, was being transformed into a spectacle.

The chief minister barked instructions to police on how to manage the crowd. Then, she led the last journey of the poet till Sahitya Akademi and later to the Keoratola crematorium. Earlier, the body had been taken to the office of the ABP Group, The Telegraph's publisher, with which Gangopadhyay was associated for over four decades.

"It looked as if the chief minister was there to take over the entire programme. Her hyper activism was in poor taste…. Had she stuck to the protocol by staying there a few minutes and leaving the venue after that, it would have looked better," said a young writer.

Several others were discussing in hushed voices how the Trinamul regime that never showed any respect for Gangopadhyay was there in full strength.

It was in this context that an old associate of Gangopadhyay hummed "To one whom you didn't offer a garland in life/Why do you offer flowers in death?" The lines, written by Pronab Roy and first recorded in 1942 by Santosh Sengupta, captured the mood among many admirers of Gangopadhyay.

However, Bibhas Chakrabarty, theatre veteran and a prominent member of Mamata's culture clan till recently, did not see anything amiss. "I have been to her Singur rally and observed her closely… how she takes over the reins of everything, including managing the crowd. There was a similar echo today when Mamata took charge of the day's programme and went about handling things," Chakrabarty said.

Mamata positioned herself at the vantage point till the cremation was over at 2.30pm ' in sharp contrast with what her predecessor Bhattacharjee did.

Bhattacharjee left Rabindra Sadan within five minutes of paying tribute. Clasping his hands behind his back, Bhattacharjee stood in silence for some time ' conveying a far more poignant message than what the loudhailer blared a few minutes later. (The paths of Bhattacharjee and Mamata had almost crossed but by the time the chief minister had got off her car, her predecessor had left.)

"No one turned up on behalf of the government in the past two days and we didn't receive any message on behalf of the chief minister. Only yesterday evening, a youth from the locality came on behalf of panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee to enquire about today's schedule," said Dhananjoy Poira, Gangopadhyay's assistant for the past three decades.

No Trinamul leader or government official was available to corroborate or contest Poira's statement.

But a few were willing to speak off the record. They linked Mamata's reluctance to get in touch with the bereaved family to Gangopadhyay's perceived proximity to the Left.

The writer had stood by the Bhattacharjee government during the Singur land controversy. When Trinamul triumphed in May 2011, Gangopadhyay was replaced by Arpita Ghosh, a key member of Mamata's culture clan, as president of the Paschim Banga Sishu Kishore Academy.

"There was no merit in Arpita's appointment as she was no match for Sunil-da (who created the loveable character Kakababu for adolescent readers). She was just a political appointee as the chief minister wanted to remove Sunil-da, whom she had always considered a CPM man," conceded a member of Mamata's culture clan. He, however, added that Gangopadhyay could have spared himself the humiliation by stepping down on his own.

Gangopadhyay did not mince words when a college principal was assaulted in Raiganj and a Jadavpur University professor was arrested for forwarding a cartoon.

"I found the cartoon extremely funny…. Those at the helm in a state need to be tolerant. One can tell or do whatever one wants when one is in the Opposition but once one is running a state, one cannot do that," Gangopadhyay had said during an interaction on ABP Ananda following the arrest of the professor.

The criticism of the Mamata government cost him dear as a section of the pro-Trinamul media launched a virulent attack on the author after Taslima Nasreen levelled allegations against him.

"It would have been impossible for these outfits to go after someone like Sunil-da had there not been any instruction from the top. I don't know whether the chief minister can control all this damage through her overdrive at the funeral procession today," said a Gangopadhyay admirer.

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