Millennium Post

Rendezvous with the changing contours of Calcutta

Mrinal Sen romances Calcutta, calling her his Eldorado. Vir Sangvi calls Calcutta the city with a soul. And for all Bengalis, romanticising the City of Joy forms the better part of their living room conversations. I have been no exception to this. Call it self-righteous nonsense or notable xenophobia, I have glorified its virtues and remonstrated against the slightest of criticisms.

Professional engagements have taken me to another city but frequent bouts of homesickness do take me back every few months. It is over the course of these habitual visits that I have increasingly felt an uncanny sense of disheartenment with my city. Those ubiquitous feelings of camaraderie, compassion and collaboration seem to be fast fading away. And the people, the city’s biggest strength, seem to be well on course to turn into its greatest weakness.

During one of my trips back home, a shopping expedition with an old friend had taken me to New
Market. On the way back, a Park Circus bound auto dropped us in front of Shiraz from where we were to take another auto further south. It was a foggy winter evening and the crowds had begun thinning out. We were waiting by the sidewalk, eyes peeled for any sight of the elusive auto and barely noticed the SUV that stopped a few paces away from us. Its occupants, a group of four rowdy youth, alighted shortly and started doling out lewd comments and bawdy gestures. Loud music blared from the car and there was the unmistakable whiff of cheap liquor. Alarmed and disconcerted, we broke into a vigorous walk and reached the bus stand nearby, in time to mount a bus. Certainly this was nothing catastrophic. Certainly the two of us, notwithstanding a few anxious minutes, reached home safe and sound. But finding myself in a perilous situation in my good old Calcutta came as a stark realization of the changing contours of the city.

On another occasion I had to visit a certain place that was a quick auto ride away. My father insisted that I carry enough change to pay the auto fare of seven rupees. I had a wad of ten rupee notes which I thought was enough. The first auto-driver turned me down nonchalantly. The second one turned me down even more nonchalantly. The third one simply dispensed a wicked laugh followed by some unwarranted advice viz. I should not step out of my house if I don’t have change. He was joined by his fellow mate who suggested that ‘girls like me’ should only travel in the comfort of our ‘daddies’ cars’ and not venture out in public transport! I was flustered and without any further ado I hopped onto the next bus that came my way.

The parents were just too relieved to learn that no ‘untoward’ incident had happened. If this was not untoward, then what was? Apparently there had been incidents of hapless passengers being thrashed by rowdy auto drivers, solely because of the outrageous ‘offence’ of not handing out change. Certainly I was lucky to have escaped unscathed!

Ever since, my beloved city has demonstrated many more examples of hostility and hideousness. A friend was sexually harassed on board a crowded bus with no protest whatsoever from fellow passengers. An elderly relative was threatened with dire consequences for refusing to meet monetary demands of the local club. A family friend was mugged and robbed of a DSLR camera in broad daylight in one of the busiest parts of the city amidst silent onlookers. All news channels abound in varying degrees and forms of crime reported from Calcutta.

The city is setting abominable trends in crimes against women. Certainly a megalomaniac chief at the helm cannot be held solely responsible for the loss of love, warmth, humility and friendship amongst the citizens.

My city never had, and will perhaps never have, the brick-and-mortar swankiness of Delhi or the effervescence of Mumbai. Its forte has been its people and its remarkable spirit of bonhomie. And it aches to see this spirit slipping away. Red or green, bourgeois or proletariat, I want my city to endear, like before, each and every soul that sets foot in there. I want my people to stand up against any form of rowdyism happening on the streets, protect every woman on the road from any kind of sexual harassment and come forward in scores to assist every person in need. It is an oft quoted saying that, if you ask for directions in Calcutta, it is likely that the person will accompany you to your destination to ensure that you reach safely. I want the people to demonstrate that again. Certainly it is not a big ask from my beloved Calcutta.
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