Like Hyde Park in London, Calcutta’s Maidan carries the all-important moniker of being the city’s ‘lungs’.
Like the Maidan, Hyde Park has been the main venue for political rallies in the city since the earliest days of British politics. Both spaces are highly popular with the public and provide a focal point for formal and informal sporting activities.
The two public spaces share much in common in terms of the roles they play for their respective cities.
In terms of profile, drama and beauty, the Maidan and Hyde Park are on a par.
The only major difference is that the Maidan is significantly less regulated, and does feel markedly less safe at night.
Central Park in New York, another ‘lung’, was notoriously under-policed for years, and has only very recently become close to safe at night. Hyde Park has, generally, been well managed.
One key difference in the two is the lighting of paths. All the parts of Hyde Park that are not lit are fenced off and shut after dark, making it difficult for any untoward activity to take place after the sun goes down. Paths are strongly defined and well lit.
The Maidan possesses major paths — such as the one beginning at Eden Gardens and going south — that are not well lit, and after a certain time, do take on an intimidating air.
Heading towards the part of the Maidan opposite Esplanade on Thursday evening, the paths got less defined and definitely darker.
One could sense people standing around nearby, but it was so dark that it was impossible to make them out. A majority seemed (from their outlines, that is) couples seeking time alone. But this is not a stretch for a stroll after sunset, unlike Hyde Park where one feels perfectly safe walking alone in the park at night.
The only policemen visible on the darkest, least regulated areas of the Maidan on Thursday were riding their motorcycle without headlights on, and did not seem to be on the expanse in any official capacity.
What is now called the Royal Parks Constabulary originated in 1872, and has been controlling London’s parks ever since. Their role is to curb muggings and vandalism. They patrol the parks in cars and on foot. The Maidan would really benefit from such a dedicated force.
Another feature of the Maidan is the small but significant number of people, clearly mentally ill, who wander around in a daze. In the daytime, this is not quite so intimidating, but at night this adds to the feeling of unease on the ill-lit greens.
Calcutta, one learns, is a much brighter city than what it was even a few years ago. One hopes some of that enlightenment will reach its dark lungs soon.