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The politics of iconic facelifts

Decades ago, as a reporter in Kolkata, we spent so many hours at the Writers’ Buildings that we often called it the “Press Corner”, our “office”.

Published: 25th August 2013 08:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2013 08:30 AM   |  A+A-

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Decades ago, as a reporter in Calcutta (Kolkata), we spent so many hours at the Writers’ Buildings that we often called the glass-partitioned air-conditioned cubicle, the “Press Corner”, our “office”. It had an air of permanency. A senior journalist brought reams of paper and permanently lounged on a corner sofa where he wrote novels. Another fellow had so arranged with his landlord that he’d call on his tenant at the Press Corner in the first week of every month to collect the rent.

In those days, life of a journalist was not given with a fraction of the air and allurement it now has. Still it was an elevating feeling to enter the vast neo-classical building, with the Corinthian columns that stand sentinel, below a Minerva pointing her one hand eastward. The policemen at the Central Gate knew us all, but there was a pride in flashing the accreditation card, as though it were a passport to a world of power and abiding glory.

Till Independence, though, Writers’ was hardly an icon of power, the heads of the colonial state functioning generally from the Government House (Raj Bhavan) till the capital shifted to Delhi in 1912, and after that, from the Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the adjacent Central Secretariat. Writers’ was merely the provincial colonial secretariat, with a special wing to suppress resistance movements. In 1930, Benoy, Badal and Dinesh, the freedom fighter trio, stormed into the building to kill Colonel N. S. Simpson, the Inspector General of Prisons, hated for his third degree methods.

Post Independence, however, attention shifted to the long ‘corridor of power’ on the first floor, lined with the Minton tiles of the Victorian era, with brass plates having the names of ministers embossed on them. It was a long horizontal row, with the Chief Minister’s room at its centre. The Press Corner offered a strategic view of those who entered the Chief Minister’s room. Not all liked the idea. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the previous CM, lost his shirt as journalists saw businessman Anil Ambani of the R-ADAG entering his room, an unusual sight in a state generally shunned by industry. The Press Corner was shifted almost overnight to a secluded room with no view of the corridor. Journalists were free, though, to saunter around the corridor for a chance VIP visitor.

Writers’ was still a tolerant place. The buildings’ laxity in guarding doors showed in 1992, when Mamata Banerjee, present Chief Minister and then fiery Youth Congress leader, took a physically challenged girl, who’d been allegedly raped by CPI(M) supporters, all the way to the doorsteps of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu’s room. Basu could take it no more. He ordered the police to attack and arrest the intruders.

It was during the tenure of Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the last Congress CM, that the Writers’ Buildings began going to seed. Behind the ministerial rooms sprouted private eateries, cigarette vendors, even unofficial counters selling lottery tickets. The corridors were full of touts for all kinds of license and permit. Things got messier in the 34 years of Left rule, with Basu and Bhattacharjee as CM. Neither had much control over their backseat driver, the CPM party. The clerks, who had little real work after computers entered Writers’ around 2000, still pretended to be the kings of the secretariat, hiding one file under another and charging money to anyone wanting to access it for legitimate reasons. Decades after quitting Calcutta, I visited the dark and dingy office of the all-powerful Coordination Committee, the clerks’ union. They greeted me with fried roes of hilsa. I found out that, in the illegal restaurant next door, the manager was obliged to send the fish egg to the union leaders. Bengal lost its pre-eminence in modern India, but Writers’ has remained its N0.1 building. Now Mamata is moving her offices across the Hooghly, with 11 departments, to the 13th floor of a non-descript 14-storey building in Howrah, because Writers’ has become “tinderbox”, according to her. Before she returns, the house that Master Carpenter Thomas Lyon built in 1780 will get a `200 crore face-lift, with CM’s wing shifted to the Vastu-compliant north-east wing. “It will be a building within a building”, says a member of the reconstruction team, “cutting the CM and her movements from general visibility”. Mamata Banerjee is perhaps hoping that if she is less seen, Vastu will be kinder on the state.


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