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TWO HOURS IN PARADISE

In a small town like Burdwan, love can become a dangerous disadvantage. For lovers, being seen holding hands and hugging can have serious consequences — for example, being beaten up by guards at a park. And for the loveless ‘public’ — comprising fretful parents, nosy passers-by and university vice-chancellors — being witness to amorous encounters may disturb the peace of mind. It must have been frightfully disturbing for Smriti Kumar Sarkar, the vice-chancellor of Burdwan University, to see young couples “sit closely” in the Krishnashayar Park. His peace of mind was so deeply affected that he acted promptly and forcefully —in a society where prompt and forceful action by university authorities is very rare — to cut down the entry timings of the park by five hours on weekdays.

News of such a decisive move urged me to visit the park. Krishnashayar is Burdwan’s largest and only park. For years, it has served as a secure haven for young lovers in the town, where displays of affection in public places may attract not only undue attention but also a severe backlash from anyone and everyone. Before Sarkar was disturbed by the sight of lovers in this park, it used to remain open from 12 midday to 6 pm. But now, the park only remains open from 4 to 6 pm on weekdays, and for the full seven hours on holidays and weekends. Sarkar is the chairman of the trustee board that maintains the park. He claims to have acted upon complaints from residents in the area about “objectionable” closeness between young boys and girls in the park. But other members of the trustee board — Ainul Haque, the chairman of the Burdwan Municipality, Gopal Chandra Kajuri and Uday Sarkar — say that they were not even informed about the VC’s move. Uday Sarkar said he didn’t feel the park has been the site of any objectionable activity at all. The police, too, seem to be in the dark about the logic behind the VC’s decision.

I visited the park on a Sunday. The pleasant sunshine of early winter bathed the green expanse surrounding a shimmering lake. People who thronged the park included not only young lovebirds but also elderly and middle-aged men and women, children, college groups and solitary wanderers. Most of them seemed to be in a desperate hurry to enjoy themselves, lest the limited time for which they were allowed the company of the greenery was over too quickly.

But there was a noticeable unease among the young couples. They seemed unable to concentrate on each other fully — jumpy at the sound of voices, tense with the apprehension of watchful eyes. Yet, there was also a look of resolution on their faces — it seemed they were determined to make the most of their stolen paradise. Curiosity made me seek out the office room, where the guards sat. Their behaviour, too, was taciturn. When asked why the park was only open for two hours, and what they thought of this decision, they showed me a yellow board displaying the new timings and said they knew no more. One of them mentioned that although the park was now open for only two hours, they did their usual eight-hour duty. An earlier news report had quoted one of them saying that they were insecure about the two-hour rule because it might result in a retrenchment of staff. This, apparently, has not happened yet, and the guard who laid stress on eight-hour duty seemed thankful for being able to sit around even during the hours when the park was closed.

A rickshaw-puller gave me some insight into the situation. Even before the VC visited the park, lovers found in “objectionable” positions by the guards were beaten up on several occasions. Yes, people in surrounding areas have been ‘disturbed’ at the sight of young people hugging and kissing. And yes, the rickshaw-puller thought, this was ‘nongrami’ — dirty behaviour, morally unacceptable — especially when most of these lovers were students. The VC had said something similar in his statement to the media. The restricted timings were apparently meant to discourage students from wasting their study time doing ‘nongrami’. One wonders, though, why the VC decided that the park should remain open from 4 to 6 pm instead of, say, from 2 to 4 pm, if his sole aim was to stop students from wasting time in the pursuit of love. It is common knowledge that amorous encounters tend to take place mostly in the evenings, when schools and colleges are over in any case.

It is one thing to have an opinion, but it is quite something else when the course of public life is altered on the basis of the opinion of one or a few socially and politically powerful individuals. When a penal code of a democratic country leaves open the scope for moral judgment to affect the freedom of expression, opinions become unquestionable rules. Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code defines “public nuisance” as such — “A person is guilty of a public nuisance who does any act or is guilty of an illegal omission which causes any common injury, danger or annoyance to the public or to the people in general who dwell or occupy property in the vicinity, or which must necessarily cause injury, obstruction, danger or annoyance to persons who may have occasion to use any public right.” Here, the word “annoyance” is important. What annoys the public? And who, for that matter, is the public? I was immensely annoyed that I will not be allowed to spend an afternoon lazing in the sun with my boyfriend at the Krishnashayar Park. I pay taxes, I vote, I hold citizenship of this country, and therefore can be regarded as a member of the public.

The restricted timings of the Krishnashayar Park represent a more complex form of repression in the social psyche. Such repression is starkly visible in towns like Burdwan, where no one is ever sure to whom ‘public space’ belongs, where objectionability of behaviour depends almost entirely on the identity of the person raising the objection. The day I visited Burdwan was a festival day. There were huge processions on the roads — blocking vehicles, inconveniencing the public, and being subjected to no objection. “Fewer people come here from villages these days,” my rickshaw-puller rued. Why? “They are afraid of getting raped. These days, no one will do anything if your daughter or wife gets raped.”

Vice-chancellors, parents, moral guardians and the ‘public’, of course, are rarely annoyed by rape and violence. All they are annoyed by are displays of love.