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Friday, Sep 30, 2022
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Calcutta Corner

This year the book fair— known as the Kolkata Boi Mela— saw the introduction of a literature festival...

Calcutta Corner
Calcutta Corner
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Lit Fest Adda

Calcutta has the largest book fair in the world in terms of the sheer number of people who visit it every year. This year the book fair— known as the Kolkata Boi Mela— saw the introduction of a literature festival. According to the organizers, they wanted to turn the spotlight on Calcutta as the quintessential hub for intellectual ‘adda’.

But there was only one problem. Would any of the celebrated authors lend their names to a fledgling festival? Half expecting to be turned down and depending solely on the invitees’ “generosity and magnanimity” (in the words of one of the organizers), they sent out hundreds of invitations to authors, journalists, politicians and artists. At first, not many replied. Others replied but with apologies. Then, one day, the good news started trickling in. They were able to convince the likes of authors Vikram Seth and Chetan Bhagat, Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and former Outlook Group Editor-in-Chief, Vinod Mehta.

Mehta’s book Lucknow Boy had been appearing in the Bestseller lists of all the major book stores in Calcutta and the organizers wanted to formally launch it in the city at the literary festival. The launch was preceded by a riveting discussion on the topic, “The Importance of Being Honest” in which actor Rahul Bose interviewed Vinod Mehta and asked him questions on everything from journalistic ethics to sex surveys. There was thunderous applause when Mehta declared that he would rather find himself without a job, as he did on at least two occasions, than compromise the truth. The magazine issues on ‘sex’, he said, are a marketing necessity which he would allow once in a year but never twice.

Vikram Seth said he had rushed back from a trip to the Sunderbans so that he could attend. Seth’s own discourse on the “writing gene” was also a crowd puller. He was accompanied by his mother Leila Seth, who spoke about why she felt the need to reveal in her 2003 Memoir On Balance her reaction when she discovered her son’s sexual orientation. “Homosexuality was a criminal offence and I was a judge,” Leila Seth said. “I was apprehensive that someone might misuse the situation to hurt him.” She also said her son helped edit the book.

Another highlight of the fest was a debate on a topic near and dear to the hearts of us journalists: whether the Indian media goes too far without going deep enough. Vinod Mehta, Omar Abdullah, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai were invited to participate.

The Right to Say No

What is a “taxi refusal”? It’s a phrase which applies to a unique malady that afflicts the city of Calcutta. Unheard of in most civilized societies, it refers to a taxi driver flatly refusing to go where a passenger wishes him to go, preferring his own destinations and directions. In Calcutta when a passenger hails a cab he or she asks, “Jaaben?” (Will you go?) rather than assuming that he will. More often than not, the following conversation ensues: “Kothay jaben?” (Where do you want to go?) the taxi driver asks superciliously, as if he’s about to do you a big favour. Sometimes he won’t even bother to waste his breath asking. He’ll turn his face slightly towards you as you peer in through the window and cock and eye brow at you haughtily…this is an indication that he’s asking you ‘Where?” You tell him where you want to go. The taxi driver mulls it over for a few seconds as you stand there waiting, hoping, praying. If he likes where you want to go, he’ll indicate that by swinging his head magnanimously in the direction of the back seat. It means hop in and take a seat. If he doesn’t like your destination, he’ll shake his head disapprovingly and drive off. Sometimes he wouldn’t even bother to shake his head. He’ll just drive off, looking bored.

All of last week a local daily did a series of sting operations on taxi drivers, jotting down license plate numbers of cab drivers who refused and lodged complaints with the police. Considered an offence in which a cabby’s license could be confiscated and fines imposed, taxi refusals had earlier mostly gone unpunished because passengers rarely took the trouble to file complaints with the police. But the newspaper articles urged citizens to take down the offending taxi’s license number and dial the police hotline number. For a few days it seemed that perhaps finally ‘taxi refusal’ would become a thing of the past. But according to latest reports, the taxi drivers’ unions have announced that taxi refusals would continue since they had the right to say ‘no’.

Padma Shri

Jhulan Goswami, the Indian women’s cricket team captain, has been awarded the Padma Shri. As a child growing up in a small suburban Bengal town she remembers how she was never taken seriously by the neighbourhood boys when she wanted to play cricket with them. “They used to tell me, ‘You’re a girl and girls can’t play cricket.’ But the more they teased me the more determined I was to play cricket,” Jhulan told us in an interview. So is the Padma Shri a slap in the face to these boys? “It never bothered me that much that they teased me thus,” she replied. “In fact, I’m thankful to them for making my life difficult. Because it made me more determined to succeed.” Clearly she’s well deserving of a Padma Shri, not only because of her talent but the truth of her conviction.

Two Ghosts

The Calcutta High Court this week ordered the Trinamool Congress government to phase out all commercial vehicles which were 15 years old or older. This of course is not a new order. The Calcutta HC had given the same order to the previous Left Front government three years ago. They didn’t do anything about it, in part because Trinamool, then in the opposition, had politicised the issue. At that time— probably with an eye toward the then imminent Assembly elections— Trinamool had raised a great hue and cry over the cost-burdens that the phase-out plan would impose on vehicle owners and drivers (who constituted a large vote bank). Alas, governing is slightly different from electioneering. In government, sometimes you just have to do something— whether because it’s worthwhile (or expedient) or simply because you’re under court order to do so. Ironically, by forcing the Left government to sit on its hands on this matter, Trinamool basically helped push it on to the “to do” list of its own government. It now finds itself haunted by not one but two ghosts: the ghost of a government past (the Left) and the ghost of a campaign past (its own)!

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