Ramen Bhattacharya in his mayoral robes; at home in his kitchen
The young Ramen. He was jailed three times as he struggled for an independent India, narrowly escaping a fourth term in the cells because his uncle was a police officer
Published: 2 May, 2013
by PAVAN AMARA
HE was best known as Mayor of Camden, but Ramen Bhattacharya was a one-time holy man, descended from a “great tantric”, and a key player in India’s struggle for independence.
He was also an innovative cook who thought nothing of concocting a “fish head dhal” in his kitchen in Antrim Road, Belsize Park, chopping Birds Eye fish fingers into a homemade coconut curry, or jumbling pumpkin, ladyfingers and radishes into a herb mix and serving with red wine.
Born in 1921 to a teacher and housewife in Koch Bihar district in the West Bengal state of India, Ramen was the eldest of five brothers and two sisters. Shuttling between his mother’s rural village and his father’s family closer to Dhaka, he grew up falling out of mango trees (resulting in a lifelong scar to the head), hiding in sugar cane fields but being scared of the snakes, and watching sleeping tigers in the wild “but also knowing how fast it’s possible to scarper when you nearly wake one”.
“His father worked constantly and couldn’t take responsibility,” said his son Ranjan Bhattacharya, 46. “His mother was a high-spirited woman who was known for jumping through a train window to get the precise seat she wanted. So his grandma thought it was wise for him to care for his siblings.”
Ramen cooked, cleaned, studied and scolded, even hunting down his youngest brother Sourin – now an Indian Congress MP – when he ran away after refusing to wear shorts. “It sounds like a small thing, but he jumped on a train and accidentally ended up 300 miles away.
"Dad was 14. He spent two days asking tea sellers on train platforms if they’d seen Sourin and eventually found him looking remorseful in another state.”
On his 16th birthday he began preaching as a holy man to earn money. Fluent in the ancient Sanskrit language, Ramen pretended to recite holy prayers but was “really talking rubbish”.
“The funny thing was, the more rubbish he spoke the more seriously people took him. They thought he was very learned to go on for such a long time, but that’s because he was talking about last night’s dinner. Nine generations ago a tantric guru really was our direct descendant so that helped build his supposedly mystic reputation further.”
In 1940 he studied at the University of Calcutta, learned about Marxism and joined the “celibate brotherhood” which vowed to overthrow British rule, before this formed into the larger Revolutionary Socialist Party.
Over the next four years he was jailed three times as he struggled for an independent India, narrowly escaping a fourth term in the cells because his uncle was a police officer.
“He knew his aunt didn’t tolerate politics in the house and her rule was final, so he stayed in the house to avoid an arrest, even sleeping and eating dinner and then ran off into the street when his uncle was fast asleep. He was quite cheeky.”
In 1945 he headed the RSP’s student wing and co-organised major anti-British protests in Calcutta, forcing the future Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to intervene.
“Nehru told them to stop, but dad began arguing and told him to leave, he could be irascible. He told Nehru he did not own them and he was simply a member of one party. When he became Prime Minister he gave instructions for dad to be jailed in 1954 for leading a teachers’ strike, he clearly hadn’t forgotten.”
The day India was partitioned in 1947 Ramen was “heartbroken” and spent the night in Calcutta’s main Nakhoda Masjid mosque to “show solidarity with his fellow Muslims”.
The next year he married teacher Mira, who he met through family and fell in love with. On the train journey to his wedding the radio announced Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated.
In 1950 their first son, Bhaskar, was born.
After training as a teacher he saw a British government advert recruiting for work in Uganda, and the couple moved to capital Kampala in 1955. “He was suddenly wealthy, they owned a car, and had enough money for a good life and to sustain the family in India.”
Ramen became involved in Uganda’s fight for independence from Britain. In June 1966 second son Ranjan was born, but the family left for England in September because of the unstable political situation.
Moving to Wandsworth, Ramen took a job as a foreman, in a handbag factory and in a post office before he and Mira found teaching posts in south London.
In the late 1960s he joined the National Union of Teachers and involved himself in BME (Black Minority Ethnic) politics.
In 1975 the family moved to Kingston-Upon-Thames where he “got into the gardening habit” and in 1984 to Belsize Park where he joined the Labour Party.
Two years later Ramen retired from a Tower Hamlets school, and in 1988 began his four-year stint as a Kilburn ward councillor before becoming the borough’s Deputy Mayor in 1992, and then Mayor in 1993.
He deplored the 1980s balkanisation of racial politics where there were all these splintered race groups. He thought ethnic minorities were stronger together.
He felt the separations were only about self-appointed leaders grabbing funding and kudos. He spoke about all the overt racism he faced in the 1970s – he was sworn at, spat at, once badly beaten by a gang of racists, and he never forgot the graffiti that said ‘KBW’ [Keep Britain White] or ‘Enoch is right’, but he felt the subtle glass-ceiling racism of the ruling classes was worse because it couldn’t be proved.
Aged 80 he was nearly arrested once more, while he attended a press conference for Tony Blair.
“He felt strongly that Blair was a nasty man and was quite animated about it. He jumped to the front and reached into his satchel for some papers to prove his point, but the police thought he was getting a gun out.
In the end his response to them all was ‘I was labelled a terrorist as a young man, and I’m glad to see I haven’t lost my knack, you still think I have potential’.”
In 2006, son Bhaskar drowned in an accident while filming a Channel Four documentary. “It was a big blow. His diabetes got very bad then, he loved swimming but no longer could because it affected his legs.”
Last July Ramen fractured his kneecap and was rehabilitated at St Pancras Hospital but “felt he had lost his own struggle for independence.”
On April 27 he passed away at Rathmore House retirement home after refusing medicine, water, or food – “maybe as a final way of regaining his autonomy”.
His funeral was held on Monday at Golders Green Crematorium, and a memorial service for friends and colleagues will be held in Hampstead Town Hall on May 11 at 6pm.