Bengali writer says election time now is hardly different from what he saw in the 1970s


Eminent Bengali writer Amar Mitra.

Eminent Bengali writer Amar Mitra.

Eminent Bengali writer Amar Mitra, who recently had to revisit the 1970s due to a literary achievement, doesn’t think the political atmosphere that West Bengal sees during elections has changed much when compared with those days.

According to him, while that period commonly witnessed rigging, it also boasted of some good leaders and great speakers, whereas today there is hardly any politician in Bengal whose speech one waits for.

“Present-day election atmosphere is not good. I am no longer eager to listen to election speeches, which I did once upon a time, when you had leaders like Hiren Mukherjee or Indira Gandhi or Indrajit Gupta. These days, leaders throw dirty language at each other, something completely unwanted. Most leaders do not even know their country and countrymen,” said Mr. Mitra, 72, a recipient of several honours including the O. Henry Award and Sahitya Akademi Award.

Mr. Mitra received the 1919-founded O. Henry Award, whose past winners include William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, and Raymond Carver, exactly two years ago, but the more important news was that he was given the coveted award for a Bengali story published in 1977. 

Mr. Mitra wrote Gaonburo (later titled The Old Man of Kusumpur in English) when he was 26, drawing from his experiences as an employee of West Bengal’s Land Reforms Department. The story is about a man’s journey to a remote village to meet a saintly figure who is supposed to have the answers to all of life’s problems; as he makes the arduous journey, people he encounters along the way tell him their own problems, asking him to present their case to the old man.

It was only in 2020 that the story, freshly translated into English, was sent to the reputed American literary journal, The Common, which published it in March 2021. The following year, in April, he was told of the award, which he had attributed, at the time, to “some internal force” in the story for keeping it relevant even after 45 years.

It was as a State government employee that Mr. Mitra, who retired in early 2013, came face to face with an attempt to rig an election. “In 1987, Assembly election time, I was the presiding officer at a booth in Bankura district. Polling could not start until 3.30 in the afternoon — due to flimsy reasons. The panchayat head was actually not allowing it because he wanted to stop Opposition voters from casting their vote. I stood my ground and eventually he had to back out. But rigging was natural in elections, particularly in West Bengal,” he recalled.

Mr. Mitra started writing in 1972, shortly after Indira Gandhi had returned to power with a new faction of the Congress. “That election [in 1971] was not fair. Massive rigging was seen. In 1975, Emergency was declared. That was not a good experience. Then, in 1977, Congress was defeated. As far as I remember, that election was fair and peaceful,” he said.

“Indira Gandhi got massive popularity after the liberation of Bangladesh, but [the then Chief Minister] S.S. Roy’s attitude towards the Naxalite movement was cruel. At the time, the Youth Congress was full of ruffians and criminals. That’s because criminals started to take shelter under the platform of Youth Congress. Today, all political parties serve as a shelter for criminals and these people become active at the time of elections,” the veteran writer said.

According to him, while the younger generation of voters — “who vote as per their choice” — holds out hope, the younger generation of politicians is no different from their older generations. “No one is seen dedicated to the country. This is not a good time for Indian politics. We have a dearth of good leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Indira Gandhi was also a good leader, except [for] the declaration of Emergency. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also a great leader and statesman, but he had limitations due to his party ideology,” Mr. Mitra said.



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