Capital Letters II: Hometown Rumination

I’m not a Calcutta hater yet. But I’m not a Calcutta lover anymore, either. Reports of recent incidents from my hometown have started nurturing a conviction in me for quite some time that from a supposedly liberal metropolis (more of a myth than a reality, but we’ll come back to that later) it has turned into a myopic provincial town, currently lorded over by an equally myopic and self-destructive leader.

Before writing off the city as a hopeless case, allow me to look at these events in a socio-cultural light (a task which, I must admit, I’m not academically or professionally trained to perform). Why has Calcutta, like Delhi, become hostile to women? What do these two cities have in common? Two things: massive influx of people from neighbouring areas who were hardly integrated into the main population and were resettled into ghettos with their resentment intact, and a male population that feels threatened by strong-willed, independent women unless they are desexualised into mother or sister figures. This latter point, of course, is a curse of North India in general, but Delhi and Calcutta, being the two largest cities of the region, have always been under the spotlight regarding crimes generating from this hostile mindset.

One of the biggest nostalgic points I’ve heard repeatedly from my fellow Calcuttans is how ‘safe’ everything was before, like a magical example of ideal society. It needs to be observed that most of these reminiscences come from people who have been affluent socio-economically; middle-class at the worst, if not outright rich. And yes, traditionally Calcutta has been safe for these people – precisely because they have always lived in their comfort zones. But what about the other crimes – crimes that cut across socio-economic barriers, crimes that take place behind closed doors, crimes perpetrated by friends, neighbours, relatives, even parents? They are usually forgotten or hushed up, because the stigma and trauma associated with them are too intense to bear.

Which brings me to my second point: the uncomfortable ‘Us v/s Them’ hostility which has always been a major factor behind certain types of crime. Calcutta has seen two major refugee influxes: the post-Partition one of 1947, and the post-Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. And these days we have become blissfully oblivious to the fact that these people were resettled into unplanned suburban ghettos lacking in basic amenities, only the fortunate being able to buy or rent properties in the city itself. And since our knowledge about these people comes mostly from the writings of a certain group of romantic Bengali authors, we never think of them as anything other than victims. Now, victims they certainly were; but it needs to be remembered that they were also fully-rounded human beings, with their own deep-seated set of values, prejudices and morality. And after the violent uprooting and rehabilitation which shook them to the core, they clung on to these prejudices with an intense defiance to their upper-class exploiters in a desperate attempt to preserve what remained of their ‘identity’. And this is where victims got divided into their internal hierarchies (a leftover from the panchayat days); some victims became more equal than others, so to speak. And those sensibilities – out of step with a 20th century metropolis, as it happens – were nurtured, strengthened and passed on to the next generation even as they became upwardly mobile. As a result, these days we have this curious mixture of affluent, English-educated people whose basic set of values is no different from the people chronicled by Sharatchandra in his cynical novel ‘Pollisomaaj’. The seeds of regression have been dispersed thoroughly and efficiently throughout society, aided and abetted by the equally regressive values practised by the city’s business elite; Calcutta is now, in effect, an emulsion of patriarchy in concrete towers. One need not go farther than to have a peep at the Matrimonials section of the Sunday edition of a popular Bengali daily to realise that the ghettoisation continues. Coupled with a lack of basic sex education and an innate hostility towards women who dare to be independent and not conform to the ‘caregiver’ stereotype, this has been instrumental in giving rise to wave after wave of men with half-formed sexual fantasies (shaped by popular media, and fomented by their equally clueless peers), permeating every strata, every religion, every locality. The present government is merely giving a hurried stamp of approval upon this intolerance, but it by no means created it; the attitude has been there all along, jostling for space with a different set of values which, I must say, has bitten the dust. There are no more cut-and-dried sets of culprits and victims as depicted by the authors of yesteryear. We’re now a bunch of glass-house dwellers whose favourite medium of communication is pieces of stone.