Pranab is still ‘Poltuda’ in his ancestral village of Mirati in West Bengal

first_imgOn a chilly January night at Kirnahar, a sleepy district town in Birbhum, West Bengal, Annapurna Banerjee, 82, was rudely awoken from sleep by the sound of the ringing phone. She warily took the call, hoping there are no surprises in store for her at this hour. “Didi, TV te dekhlam khub thanda porechhe, tai khoj nilaam. Bhalo achho to? (I just heard on TV that there’s a cold wave there. Is everything all right?)” At the other end was her youngest brother Pranab (Poltu) from New Delhi, worried about his frail eldest sister’s health. He apologised for not having called earlier, saying he was caught up with the problems of governance. Didi didn’t complain. After all, Poltu, aka Pranab Mukherjee, 76, was known to be UPA’s troubleshooter-in-chief.”Poltu has always been very caring,” says Annapurna. She recalls how her eight-year-old brother kept following the palanquin to her inlaws’ house after her wedding, tears streaming down his face, his bare feet kicking up the dust in the nondescript village of Mirati, 7 km from Kirnahar, where the six siblings lived in their ancestral house. The young Mukherjee, shattered that his favourite sister was leaving home for good, saved a few sweets for her when she was due to return for the customary homecoming a week later. “The sweets, wrapped in sal leaves, were devoured by ants. Poltu was crestfallen,” she says, voice choking with emotion.”Poltuda was always a meritorious student and a good orator,” recalls Dhanapati Chaudhury, 71, Mukherjee’s neighbour in Mirati. The Mukherjees’ ancestral house was the hub of all cultural and sports activities in the village, recalls Chaudhury, who, along with friends Kiriti and Badal, would spend long hours there. “Poltuda would keep us engaged throughout the day. He was also a voracious reader and I remember him discussing news with his father with keen interest,” he says. Mukherjee also founded the Mirati Kishore Samity, a local club that boasts of one of the best libraries in the district.advertisementMukherjee’s father, the late Kamada Kinkar, was president of the District Congress Committee, Birbhum, a member of the All India Congress Committee and a member of the West Bengal Legislative Council from 1952 to 1964. Widely regarded as an astute politician and an altruist, Kinkar imbibed in his children the virtues of selflessness and camaraderie. “All of us have inherited this trait and so has Poltu,” says Annapurna. Kinkar would offer destitute children refuge in his house, though he never worked for a living. She remembers how their father would get two bullock carts full of clothes for the village folk during Durga Puja and his children would be left with nothing. “We never complained,” she says.A freedom fighter that the British had great regard for, Kinkar was always under the hawk eye of the British administration. Revolutionaries would drop in at his house and give him important and incriminatory documents. The documents would be concealed under the sand in earthen jars meant for storing molasses. During the Quit India Movement of 1942, when Kinkar was jailed, he advised his children that if the police came calling, they must be searched before being allowed to step inside. “They might carry documents which they would claim to have found from our house,” he warned. When a British police officer, accompanied by two constables, landed up to conduct a raid at their house, sevenyear-old Mukherjee accosted him and demanded that he must agree to be frisked. He also explained to the officer why he proposed to do so. To his amusement, the officer asked him how he proposed to search a six-feet-tall man. “Take me on your lap and let me search you,” he said nonchalantly. The officer burst into laughter and let him carry it out. “Only a tiger could be born to a tiger,” he remarked. When the police interrogation was over, Mukherjee insisted that they have lunch with them. “My father has instructed us that no one should leave our home without having lunch,” the little boy said. The policemen had to relent and stay on for a meal.Growing up also had its share of difficulties. Kirnahar Shibchandra High School was a good 7 km from Mukherjee’s house and he had to walk the distance everyday. During monsoons, the entire village would be flooded and the boys would wade through the water in coarse cotton towels and shield their books and uniforms from rain. The stubborn and determined Mukherjee would never miss class. “He’d also spend a lot of time at his teacher Saradindu Ghosh’s house,” recalls Chaudhury, who fondly remembers how the school had given the children a football but no pump to inflate it with. Mukherjee went to a nearby shop, got hold of a small pipe, inserted it in the football and used a cycle-pump to do the job. “He made it look so easy,” says Chaudhury. Pranab’s mother, the late Rajlakshmi, would always say that her son would grow up to become a scientist. “He may not have become a scientist, but look at how deftly Poltuda finds solutions to complex problems,” says Chaudhury.advertisementMukherjee’s ancestral house at Mirati, that was only a two-storied hut where the whole family lived, is now a two-storied brick-and-mortar house resembling a school building. It was built around 1982-83. Goutam Sarkar, 40, has been the caretaker since1989. He lives with his wife and son and all his expenses are taken care of by Mukherjee. “Since childhood, I have lived in this house as a member of the family and have always enjoyed the same benefits as the Mukherjees,” he says. He adds that Mukherjee’s mother Rajlakshmi was a kind-hearted woman and would care for destitute children and give them refuge. “Pranab has inherited this rare attribute from his mother,” says Sarkar.The village is now getting a concrete dam and a sluice gate over the Kuiye river that overflows every year. As the Union finance minister, Mukherjee sanctioned Rs 5 crore for the project. “All the development that you see here, from roads to sanitation to electricity, is because of him,” says Rabi Chattaraj, 60, Mukherjee’s long-time aide.When Mukherjee became the finance minister for the first time in 1982, his father asked him, “Do you know anything about the job, my son?” He replied, “I’ll learn on the job. I know how Ma runs the show at home.” Says Annapurna, “He was always very different from others. My husband, Dulal Chandra, and I always knew that he has the spark in him to become someone big.” Mukherjee stayed with her during his university days and started teaching in a school in a village in Howrah. “He also started practising in court on Chandra’s advice, but discontinued it later,” she says.Mukherjee’s career leaves little time for social and family gatherings, but his wife Suvra, 65, plays an active role in holding the family together. A low-profile woman, she has been a key figure in Mukherjee’s life, managing the household and taking care of the children.Mukherjee might be an important personality and a force to reckon with in two successive terms of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government, but to people in his native village, he remains the boy next door. All the villagers congregate at his house during Durga Puja, when he comes to perform the rites himself.”I hardly ever get to speak to him,” laments Annapurna. But the little boy who would always find someone or another to play his pranks on and would pick a fight with his beloved ‘Anna’ whenever he could, has come a long way.advertisementlast_img

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