Canvassing in ‘mini-Pakistan’ of Kolkata

Published April 29, 2016
An election poster in Urdu hangs at a house in Kolkata’s Garden Reach area, a Muslim-majority constituency. Phase-wise assembly elections are currently under way in West Bengal.—Photo by writer
An election poster in Urdu hangs at a house in Kolkata’s Garden Reach area, a Muslim-majority constituency. Phase-wise assembly elections are currently under way in West Bengal.—Photo by writer

KOLKATA: “Please come along and let us take you to mini-Pakistan in Kolkata,” says Bobby Firhad Hakim, MLA candidate of the incumbent party in West Bengal, All India Trinamool Congress, which is on its last leg of its canvassing and voters decide the party’s fate in the phase-wise West Bengal assembly elections scheduled to be held on April 30 and May 5.

While traversing the dusty, uneven roads in one segment of his constituency, Garden Reach, also the residence of the last king of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, where he spent the last 30 years of his life, I am astonished by the lack of a cavalcade of vehicles that often accompanies ministers and low-level officials back home. Despite being a minister, only one vehicle follows Firhad’s car.

His car halts as a procession of party activists holding party flags walk by chanting slogans in favour of Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata “Didi” Banerjee. Upon seeing Bobby, the leading sloganeer starts to chant loudly: “Firhad Hakim zindabad, zindabad, zindabad (Long live Firhad Hakim). Pani ka mas’ala hal karnaywala, Firhad Hakim, Firhad Hakim (The one who has solved our water issues: Firhad Hakim, Firhad Hakim).” Others raise their hands and acknowledge him; sitting in his car Firhad, joins his hands in a namaste or waves at them. “There were no women in this rally?” I ask him. “No, Muslim women don’t come in such rallies,” he answers.

Read: Trinamool Congress leader beaten to death in West Bengal

Soon he descends from his car and is immediately surrounded by party workers and his security personnel. Clad in spotless white kurta and pajama and wearing joggers, Firhad is ready for door-to-door canvassing on a sultry day. This time I see women in Trinamool-print saris and am told they are Hindu and have no qualms in participating alongside men in campaigning.

Earlier sitting in his lounge at his home on Peary Mohan Roy Road, Firhad sells his election rhetoric to me by listing all the works carried out by his party in the last five years. Associated first with the Congress party, Firhad has been in politics for 34 years working his way up to the ministerial level and said to be a key member of Didi’s cabinet. I comment on his fluency in Urdu, which he speaks with a Bihari inflection, and he insists he is Bengali-speaking. “But you speak very good Urdu for a Bengali,” I persist with my query.

Fessing up he divulges his forefathers were Bihari.

“My paternal grandfather came from Gaya Zila in Bihar, settled in Calcutta and set up his business. My father Abdul Hakim was a law officer in the Calcutta Dock Labour Board. My mother was an assistant headmistress in Maulana Hasrat Mohani Girls High School. Her parents belonged to Faridpur, Bangladesh.” Popularly known as Bobby Firhad, a nickname his father bestowed on him after the Australian cricketer Bobby Simpson, “I wasn’t named after Dimple Kapadia!” he remarks referring to the one-time Bollywood heartthrob’s debut film Bobby, eliciting laughter in the room.

His entry into politics came due to his keen interest in the socio-economic issues in his area, as he became the go-to man for everyone. Firhad was eventually elected as a local councillor, a position he held for 15 years. Then he became a member of the West Bengal legislative assembly and is currently the minister for urban development and municipal affairs.

We begin walking in the squelchy narrow lanes of the neighbourhood that feel further constricted as more people join in and my ears start ringing with deafening sloganeering. With a fixed smile on his face, Firhad waves and gives candies to children. Banyan- and dhoti-clad scrawny men, children pouring water on themselves from water-filled buckets outside their flimsy homes, litter-heavy sewerage lines, young girls in black hijabs, men pumping water from hand pumps and bathing themselves on the lanes, kite-makers in their miniscule workshops, women gathered on rooftops of unpainted buildings, are some of the sights one observes.

Nearly all posters and graffiti on the walls are pasted and scrawled in Urdu: “Firhad Hakim (Bobby) ko kaseer votoun say kaamyaab karain”, “Urs Ghareeb Nawaz: Aap tamaam hazraat say guzarish hai is urs muqaddas main hazir ho kar hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz kay fuyooz say malaan houn”, “Ishtihaar lagana mana hai”.

Firhad is right … This does feel like mini-Pakistan.

Exhausted with sweat pouring down my body, I straggle behind the crowd till I am no longer able to keep pace. Seeing me loitering around with my notebook in hand the men in the neighbourhood want to know what TV channel I work for. When I tell them I am from Pakistan, they break into broad smiles and tell me of their relatives who live back home.

I amble along the narrow lanes till I come upon a wide lane where a small stage is set up festooned with marigold and jasmine strings and poster of Didi and Bobby. Rows of green plastic chairs are placed on one side of the lane. The crowd waits for Firhad to complete his canvassing and address them from this stage. In the meantime, a local group stages a natak or drama cantering around Trinamool’s achievements.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2016


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