Kolkata remembers

Print edition : April 05, 2013

Chavez on a tour of rural Bengal during his visit to India in 2005. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

WHEN he said in clear Bengali in his rich baritone, “ Aami apnader bhalobashi” (I love you all), President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela stole the hearts of the people of Kolkata. They had been counting the days, and when he arrived on March 5, 2005, exactly eight years before the day he passed away, they made sure he received a welcome he would never forget. Chavez was delayed by a few hours and the heat was oppressive, but the thousands of people who had gathered on both sides of the road to greet him as his motorcade drove by from the airport waited. If the reception on the streets was warm, the one at the Rabindra Sarovar Stadium in south Kolkata was overwhelming. The venue was not big enough to accommodate all those who had come to see him, and a sea of humanity waited outside patiently just for a glimpse of the man.

He did not let them down. In an inspiring and emotional speech delivered with the help of a young interpreter, Chavez expressed his wonder at the similarities he perceived between Venezuela and West Bengal. “Everything here looks so familiar to me as if I am still in Caracas,” he said to the delight of the crowd. One of the most memorable moments in the public reception was when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister of the then Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, stepped forward to rescue the hapless interpreter foundering on Chavez’s rendition in Spanish of ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ by Rabindranath Tagore and recited the entire poem from memory to cheers from the crowd. The CPI(M) youth leader Satarup Ghosh, a teenager then, reminisced, “To me that was the high point of the occasion. It was so spontaneous and unscripted. After Buddhada finished his recitation, the way he hugged him, it was so moving.”

Silent grief

Away from Kolkata, the news of Chavez’s death was a poignant moment of silent grief for the people of Bagu village in North 24 Paraganas district. Eight years ago, Chavez touched their lives as no other VIP had done when he visited the village. He mingled with the people, served the midday meal to children of the primary school and joined the children in a dance, oblivious of the security and protocol requirements. “I will carry the message of West Bengal to Venezuela,” he told the people before leaving. Eight years later, the people of Bagu, too, did not forget their special guest. Spontaneously, they held a condolence meeting in his honour.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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