Evening descends on a sprawling south Calcutta park. Mutant Maruti 800s without roofs zoom by, or Esteems painted strange colours, blaring loud music and stabbing the streets with fluorescent blue and green light. Seconds later, an old Royal Enfield speeds by — on it, two men in white. Calcutta Police. This is the Vivekananda Park area. It is said that, after sundown, when the budding cricketers and footballers have retired for the day, there is nothing one can not do here. It is a residential area, but around the park after 6 pm, one meets fewer people who actually live close by. Such is the nature of parks in the city. The ostensible purposes of a park cease to be functional after sundown. It is then peopled mostly by ‘outstation’ groups of youngsters — bepaara folks: people from beyond the neighbourhood. There is always that convenient dichotomy about parks — that they are ‘public’ enough to be used at one’s will, yet secluded — one can always find a park far away from one’s own neighbourhood. After all, parks are where more than a few of my friends can remember having their first drag of a ‘purple-thread’ biri. Or their first kisses.
Large parks such as Vivekananda Park are carnival spaces. One first notices the overbearing cars — both parked and moving at obscene speeds. Young men and women lean against the parked ones, sipping coffee, eating dahi phuchka, smoking. Some head towards a nearby hookah parlour. Teenagers loiter in hordes, giggling and chatting. Some sit on the footpath, under a streetlamp, huddled around a DSLR camera.
One also notices distinctly uncomfortable people hurrying by. They look like residents — maybe with bajaarer bags in their hands — trying their best to behave as if the noisy multitude of people and cars and two wheelers and music around them does not exist. Their unease is not caused merely by the smoke from the women’s cigarettes, the boyfriend slapping his girlfriend, or the snatches of expletives. A tour of the park itself and the alleys reveals more. In the park, sometimes, one sees fireworks light up the sky; it is someone’s wedding. But mostly, there are fewer lights, and more of ‘lighting’ up: marijuana smoke wafts by — flavoured occasionally with hashish, at other times with rough charas. In the parked cars, older men sit with their wives or mistresses, drinking alcohol out of Bisleri bottles; the wife is proud, slightly annoyed and orders the most expensive food from the food joints. The mistress is shifty and younger; I knew one who jumped to her death on the Metro Railway track. Meanwhile, in the alleys are happening the biggest confrontations of college or university circles — the most hyped, anticipated quarrels and fights. They will be reported with gusto the following morning — at schools and colleges, in fests and tea stalls. It is funny how rumours can be made more potent by adding the ‘park’ element to them. That Mr Popular was found merely indulging in some ‘unlawful’ activity sounds so much blander than that Mr Popular was found doing the same ‘in a park’.
The police ride back to the park in half an hour. Among the various circles of the narcotic brotherhood in the park, the common telepathic trouble-detector antenna has beeped and the park is empty by the time the policemen reach. The man with his wife (or mistress) drives away. The alleys look forlorn. The policemen order food, talk about the “Canadian escorts” that people “pick up” around this place. They discuss why their supremely efficient patrol is necessary for the “decadent” area and how many people they heckle on charges of narcotics possession every week. Meanwhile, at CCD (Champadir Chaa-er Dokaan), a young lawyer explains to his friends how many grammes of which narcotic or opioid can be considered unlawful ‘possession’.
Smaller parks are less vibrant and serve as theks for fixed groups, and a few of the people frequenting them may live nearby. In a park in the Golf Green area, one finds a jogger or two in the evening, or even families out for a stroll. That does not stop one from detecting the smells of hallucinogenic glue or burning paper smeared in pain relief balm. On a parked cycle-van just outside the park, a group of young men sit, yelling drunkenly. Small parks are also more favoured by couples, as they are conducive to all affection beyond holding hands. In one particularly ill-maintained park in the Jodhpur park area, one can spot couples in school uniform lounging around weather-beaten discarded Saraswati or Sitala idols. Beside them, on a concrete bench with a huge concrete umbrella over their heads, elderly men rest after their evening stroll. A young woman walks by, with a dog on a leash, talking loudly on her mobile phone. Since this park is surprisingly well-lit, and the corresponding paara peopled by old families, few people drink alcohol in this park, although rickshaw-wallahs get their fix of marijuana. And no one minds the young couples.
Children’s parks are no different, sundown being the transforming force. I know people who have chosen to hang out at the top of a slide in a park, which was part of an apartment complex on the E.M. Bypass. Although these young people knew no one in the complex, the top of the slide, like a tiny tree house with four walls, an entrance and an exit leading to the slide itself, was the perfect place to chill with a few beers — private and quiet, since the children had been dragged home by their parents. And the security guards had asked no questions.
Every park has a personality, a set of unwritten rules and its own groups of loyalists. Yet, it belongs to everyone. With its loose dirt and its piece of open sky, it is a near-psychedelic space insulated from the world outside. You cannot walk by one without feeling a subtle curiosity — strangely welcoming, almost sinister. But you cannot stop. It is bat country.