Ila Mitra: A Personal Reminiscence
Posted by bangalnama on September 21, 2008
As I accompanied Thakma to the CPI Party Office ( Bhupesh Bhaban) at 162/B AJC Bose Road, I tried to recollect the last time when I had been with her to any place. In fact I remembered distinctly a time years back when I had vowed never to share a journey with her.
I was seven, and stranded in the middle of a rush hour traffic at Park Circus crossing, getting late for an eye checkup. On either side of me, were two individuals who, in spite of sharing a matrimonial bond and a common ideological platform, held widely different views on things that really mattered. The mode of transportation, for instance. While my grandfather, looking white and tall in his favorite cufflinked shirt ( the only remnant from his feudal past) coolly hailed a cab, Thakma argued vehemently in favor of getting into the overcrowded mini, coming our way. The outcome being, they parted ways, Thakma leaping onto the mini, her pleading voice attaining a pitch familiar to people who had seen her in ‘action’. I sat firmly in the cab, swearing allegiance to the cufflinks, and bidding farewell forever to the Ila Mitra brand of fiery Stoicism.
Although after this, she would have no chances in ‘my favorite grandparent’ contest, she was a sureshot for the ‘Super-Grandmom’. You cannot but hand it out to someone, who ritually woke up at 6, had a cold shower, worked out for half an hour, went for a swim (even when she was 70), did the groceries herself (something she insisted on!), went to meetings (sports council, party office, mahila samiti..) came home, fielded telephone calls, attended the ‘guests’, and sat down , after 10 p.m to complete an unfinished article. Sometimes she would be away on tours for months , leading a women sports team to Jalandhar or Jaipur. The fascinating part was that after being out all day, she would come home and make a comment that I have studied a lot. This did not go quite well with the person who was in charge of that department, namely, my grandfather. It was then that the ‘guests’ came to my rescue, solemnly declaring a chhuti that had anyways been there.
My grandfather was not present that morning, but a lot of those other people were. People whose faces I grew up seeing. The half sleeved white shirts, the veined hands, the char-minars. People who contributed to making the A/3 Government Housing flat on CIT road, a record tea-consuming household in Calcutta, when I was a child( almost a party commune, in the sixties, and practical refugee camp on the eve of the ’71 war). Added to the utter chaos that these people made, was my perennial confusion on how to address them. Da was in universal use. Mostly I ended up calling my father’s contemporaries Da, but my father called his father’s friends Da too. (Thakma however topped it all by attaching the suffix to some of my father’s friends who dropped in, dumping them into embarrassment in a way that only ‘mashima’ could do!)
I remember that I listened intently to their conversations. I was proud of my grandmother as someone who had fought an interesting and tough battle, and I was excited about stories of other battles and wars. Which made me rummage the bookshelf in Thakmar ghar and ending up getting beaten up by her for disorganizing everything. Her beatings were always preceded by the exclamation ‘Aye, Bodmayesh Chhele’ a term that was reserved for her younger brother, my father when he was a child, and me.
The ‘bodmayesh chhele’ actually got to be more famous after a 1970-71 incident. The same younger brother had flunked his exams, fled home( something that he was quite used to), and come to Shantiniketan. While loitering around, he came across a poster announcing a political meeting, where the main speakers were Jyoti Basu and his Didi. Not having anything better to do, he casually strolled into the meeting and quietly merged into the crowd, taking precautions not to catch a familiar sisterly glance (‘Stalin Nandini’ lived up to the reputation of her proverbial Russian ancestor at home and work). Basu was on the mike, talking about the grave dangers Naxalism posed to the state. Suddenly he was cut short by a piercing scream – ‘aye bodmayesh chhele, tui ekhane ki korchhish, toke barite shobai khunjchhe’ – shouted a high pitched voice from the dais. The police got alert immediately, and started frantically searching the crowd for a lurking Naxalite. Basu stood there dumbfounded, and the younger brother escaped amidst the ensuing chaos.
I spotted him immediately in the crowd at Bhupesh Bhavan auditorium. To less discerning eyes, he had retained the enviable skill of remaining inconspicuous in a public setting. A red banner was now hung outside the office, and the purpose of the day’s gathering was displayed on it in bold.
I recognized some other people, too. Political faces, but whom the banner excluded from its following. ‘CPI netrir tibro ninda’ ran an Anandabazar headline almost 15 years back, the day after a lumpen struck the then Youth congress leader Mamata Bannerjee, inflicting a severe injury on her head. A photo of her with a bandaged Miss Bannerjee was flashed out, and questions were raised about her impulsive statements in the media. Thakma had always remained the politically incorrect impulsive woman, giving precedence, time and again, to human empathy over the narrow confines of political ideology.
That particular day, however, the red hammer and sickle was wrapped over her inert body, binding her life and identity assertively to the single principle she served unflaggingly, since youth. The ‘Internationale’ began and as clenched fists shot up in unison to the ‘It is the final conflict’, I was vaguely aware of an emotion that transcended personal loss. I realized how an ideology could take death out of its macabre elements and provide an unique sense of continuity: the antithesis of death. The continuity was more pronounced in the fact that she would have no symbolic demise, as in a funeral. Her body was to be taken to the Medical College hospital, where arrangements were timely made ( with helpful intervention from the C.M) for a donation.
On our way to the hospital, I couldn’t help thinking about the physical violence that she went through, while she was alive. Her acquaintances often said that a sports career in her youth was what made her run. But it was also a fact that the tremendous torture she endured in East Pakistan had made her immune to most forms of physical pain. While suffering from a severe back injury, or while being beaten repeatedly on the head by communal mobs at the Calcutta 65 riots, she showed a resilience, that was almost inhuman.
After reaching the hospital room, we took one last look at her, and waited for the medical personnel to arrive.
Then, she rushed in. A childhood friend, who had missed the news, earlier. And did something which no one had, till then. She broke down in sobs. As if it was upon her to extract the grief out of the whole day, and make one single moment out of it. The day was closing in, and on my tired mind, the loss made its affirming signature.
As I was writing this, I saw how difficult it was to dissociate her memories from the People, and I had a fear that innumerable unknown faces would blot out the portrait that I was trying to put together. Like the one sympathetic police officer (who was her friend from college) at Rohanpur police station. Or the unnamed comrades who ended up getting beaten to death in front of her eyes, while not a single word of confession could be extracted against their Ranima. Or the mysterious police team that seized the secret documents desperately wanted by the Prosecuting Counsel, and threw them out of a moving train window. It would be difficult to take these people away.
Perhaps, it would not be possible to take them away, after all. She would leap up to them, as she often did into running crowded buses, making use of her athletic manoeuvres, eventually merging into a nameless collection.
As she did one evening, years back, when I, in a vague childish apprehension, had vowed never to share a journey with her.
[For a detailed history of my grandmother’s life and the Tebhaga movement, please visit http://www.mukto-mona.com/personalities/ila_mitra/index.htm. This is the only internet resource that I know of. Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s poem Keno Parul Bon Dako re (see below), Golam kuddus’ poem Ila Mitra , and Surjomukhi, a short story by Dipen Bandopadhyay, were based on her struggle. Based on her life and leadership during the Tebhaga movement of Nachol in 1950, Syed Wahiduzzaman Diamond made the film Nacholer Rani. Public release of the documentary was held up for two years by the censor board of Bangladesh. The film finally got released in November 2007.]
Keno bon Parul Daako re:
Long four years after the Nachol incident (Tebhaga uprising of 1950), some time in mid June, 1954, Ila Mitra was released on a parole and allowed to go to Calcutta for medical treatment. She was at the Calcutta Medical College hospital for about eight months under the treatment of Dr. Shishir Mookherjee. The family was reunited and she saw her son after 1948. During those painful days of recovery, many friends provided inspiration. Suchitra Mitra solaced her by singing to her at her bedside; poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay inspired her to fight out her agony by reading from Sukanta. He also composed this poem for her.