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PARA-LYSED CITY

Last Sunday, Jagannath De, a hotel management student, was thrown out of a bus near Karunamoyee bus stand in Salt Lake, a pretty crowded place, and bashed up. It was around 5pm. Jagannath had protested when a girl was harassed inside the bus.

A month ago, Tina Mukherjee, a top city model, was molested, punched in the nose and dragged towards a car at the Lake View Road-Jatin Das Road crossing around 9.30pm. No one protested. “There were all these people standing, just watching. I cried out for help, but no one stepped forward,” Tina had said.

No one has forgotten Bapi Sen. Four years ago, the traffic sergeant died from the injuries he sustained while trying to save a woman from being harassed by five other policemen.

The Calcutta crowd was always there for you. No more. A lot because the para is dying. As is the cha-er dokan (tea stall) and rok-er adda, the two pillars that held up the institution that was the para.

The para, the neighbourhood community with its close relationships and support systems, its hierarchy of status and its centre of power, the club ghor (club room), ruled by the parar dadas (guardians of the para), was central to the Calcutta society. Films like Tapan Sinha’s Apanjon or the popular Soumitra Chatterjee-Tanuja-starrer Teen Bhubaner Paare would not have been possible without it. It gave the city much of its soul, character — and men who guarded their territory fiercely.

Where is GeNext'

The parar dadas are on an average 40 years old now. The next generation hasn’t taken over. Not that it is a bad thing necessarily, as it could indicate fewer unemployed youth (that is if they are not lost to Internet porn). But the erstwhile puja organisers, the para heads, lament the change.

“The young don’t share our enthusiasm for the para Puja. They’d rather hang around at Maddox Square or Park Street,” says Sandipan Banerjee, a resident of Behala involved in the Behala Nutan Dal Puja. The para organises the annual picnic and people come knocking on Sandipan’s door in the middle of the night, but he and his friends are not getting any younger.

“The boys don’t take the initiative that we would in our early 20s,” he says. A fire broke out in a local plastic factory a few months back. “The para boys stood and watched till senior club members arrived at the scene. They were busy informing media channels instead of the fire brigade.”

It’s the same with the well-known Putiyary Sarbojanin Durgotsab Committee puja in Kudghat. “The Puja still wins us awards but is weighed down by disputes and political complications. It has become very mechanical with the sense of ownership missing,” grieves 39-year-old Sudipto Thakur.

The para feeling is not there. Dr Gouranga Chandra Roy, 82, who has lived in Lake Town since 1964, misses that. “We were a much more close-knit community before,” he says. A crisis or a death always brought the para together. “Our para was so close that the men from our locality offered to be pallbearers and carry my mother’s body to the cremation ground,” he says. “My neighbours were very involved in both my daughter’s weddings. Some did the shopping, others helped with the decoration.” It was like a family affair.

Battle lines

Para loyalties meant para rivalries — and battle lines. Which was a check against some offences, especially against girls. Ritoban Das, 25, drummer with the band Cassini’s Division, who has moved from Dover Lane to a housing apartment in Kasba, says the para feeling is missing from the new locality. “I grew up in Dover Lane. We used to do everything together — from cultural programmes and celebrating the Pujas to watching cricket. A lot of that is gone now.” Many belonging to his age group are too caught up in work or have left the city.

An incident like last Sunday’s, he feels, would happen less before. “There was strong inter-para rivalry. So a para girl being picked up would be a big issue and we would probably have gone and confronted the perpetrators. Though the elders would frown,” he laughs.

The old para has is disintegrating also because many, like Ritoban’s family, have shifted to apartment blocks. Even if an apartment comes up in the place of an old house and some of the old residents move in, the para feeling is diminished. But the shift from the old para, at least from the old house, is inevitable.

The real estate boom is fuelled by property tax, too. A resident of Richie Road was asked to pay Rs 40 lakh as property tax for his family-owned three-storey house. He was considering giving in to the promoters’ demands. “Many people from Dover Lane have handed over their houses to promoters,” says Ritoban.

Some are shifting because the old para is changing. Madhumita Chowdhury, 45, a resident of Southern Avenue, is planning to move out. “As children we used to play on the roads here and stayed over at each other’s places. Slowly most of the houses are being sold and turned into apartment blocks,” she says. She is not comfortable reaching out for help in “a para like this”. On one occasion, she was so ill that she fainted in her room. When she regained consciousness, she went to the doctor alone. “My husband is not always in the city. It is not as if no one would have helped. It’s just that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that,” she says.

Support system

Adda on a north Calcutta rok. A Telegraph picture

Not that everyone needs the para now, either: other support systems are in place. The parar daktaar or the parar ukil (lawyer) is not so much in demand any more. “Specialists are a call away. There are nursing homes in almost every locality. And for weddings, there are hotels you can book and caterers you can order from. Everyone is busier and more affluent. I can say that my grand daughter’s wedding will be way different from my daughter’s wedding ceremony,” says Dr Roy.

In most places in Salt Lake, para culture has always been absent. Housing estates like Karunamoyee have facilitated better interaction than blocks, which tend to isolate people. Yet even around Karunamoyee, where the Sunday incident took place, one sees less of the boys. “The local club culture is very limited,” says 61-year-old Souren Boral, the ex-secretary of Salt Lake GD block, who lived in Hatibagan for many years before. Unnerved by a Rs 40-lakh robbery in Salt Lake a few days ago, he says: “This is not expected in Hatibagan or Sovabazar areas where residents, rickshawpullers and paan-shop owners still dash out to protect and protest. My wife and daughter feel more comfortable in the north Calcutta paras despite the lack of many things.”

New community feeling

As with Hatibagan and Sovabazar, and some south Calcutta streets, the para does remain in some places. Robin Ganguly, a member of the club Tarun Sangha at Dum Dum Park, insists that the para feeling there is still going strong. “Most of us are old residents of this area. Everyone tries to maintain a rapport with each other and are ready to come forward during times of trouble,” says Ganguly, stressing on the absence of any political influence.

Then there is Bow Barracks, the central Calcutta neighbourhood, which is the ideal para and the subject of an upcoming film.

Some also see new paras emerging. Bula Bhadra, the head and professor of the sociology department of Calcutta University, says: “The traditional kind of para did die in one sense. But a new community feeling has come up in its place. Earlier, the community feeling was prevalent mostly among the middle and lower income groups. The very affluent tended to stay away. Now it is observed more in co-operatives and building complexes.”

As if on cue, Moushumi Roy, who moved to the Udita complex near Ajoynagar six years ago, says: “There are nine apartment blocks here and this place is a para in itself. I have never had the kind of support that I have had here.” She says she felt alienated in a single apartment block in Behala. “I gave birth to a stillborn child. No one was bothered. This wouldn’t happen here,” she says.

But if a young man was thrown out of the bus here'

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