Vendors outside Banabitan claim that their products sell the most on Valentine’s Day and Saraswati puja. “Cola, chips and of course tarpaulin sheets that couples hire to sit on and make cosy,” lists out one of them stationed by the entrance of the park facing Bikash Bhavan.
Banabitan, in Central Park, is known to be the place for lovebirds to flock at. “It’s been a hotspot for decades. Occasionally, unassuming families hire tarpaulins and enter the park for picnic but they retreat within minutes repulsed by the romance inside,” laughs the vendor.
But some people are actually drawn in by the unabashed goings-on. What shocks Joseph Dinabandhu Das is the fact that many an elderly man spends hours in the park not to take in the air but to gape at the couples in action.
Das runs an NGO called Idea and one of its objectives is to stop couples from getting intimate in public places. “Not only is it embarrassing for visitors but it also shows the decay of values among youngsters in our society,” says Das, who is a teacher in south Calcutta high school and a social worker with nearly 30 years of experience. It is while pursuing this mission that he came across the voyeurs.
In the beginning
Das is a resident of Beniapukur and was introduced to Central Park by government officials in 2003. The government had hired him to conduct a study on an Aids awareness-related project and Central Park would be his sample space. In his own words: “The research in Banabitan was a shocker.”
He found that the park sold roughly 3,000 pairs of tickets a day with a large chunk of the couples aged between 14 and 20, some appearing in blue saris that were their school uniforms.
Back then tarpaulin sheets weren’t available and the couples would buy old newspapers from outside. They would also bring umbrellas, sometimes up to three of them to guard their activities from the rest of the world.
But they wouldn’t flinch even if the umbrellas blew off. “Couples came there with a single focus and no duo would peep into another’s umbrella,” says Das. “In fact, I would have trouble attracting their attention when I wanted to speak to them. Sometimes I would be inches away from their heads but they would be oblivious to my presence and smooch away to glory.”
Das would adopt a friendly approach to speak to the couples, sometimes helping them find a comfortable corner to perch. “When I gained their confidence, I would ask them why they were there,” recounts Das. The youngsters would answer that they had nowhere else to go to do what they were there for. When Das asked if they weren’t afraid of being spotted by their parents the couples would answer that this park wasn’t a family place and that their parents would never come visiting.
He would further enquire what the couples would do if they were discovered by cousins, who might be in the park. To this the youngsters would say that since the cousins would also be there with their partners they would both blackmail each other into silence.
Das would encounter odd couples such as a young, lanky chap and a much older and heavier woman. “Once when they were done for the day the chap got up, took the lady’s hand and tried to pull her up from the grass. But she was too heavy and they both fell flat on the ground. It was such a hilarious scene that I started laughing but not a single one of the other couples was distracted from their snogging.”
He also found that Banabitan was frequented by forlorn lovers out to explore options and as pick-up points for girls who took clients to hotel rooms after the initial meeting here.
Another species at large in the park is voyeurs — sometimes bold enough to admit it and sometimes in the guise of moral police.
“Once I saw an elderly gentleman sitting under his umbrella and watching the couples. When I approached him he said he was watching the extent of downfall of our society. But I saw that he had taken the trouble of carrying an umbrella from home and asked him if this was something he did everyday as a hobby,” says Das.
|A notice put up beside the park gate warning of penalty for indecent behaviour and sitting under umbrellas
The gentleman gave a vague answer saying he had come for a walk. Das offered him tea, he accepted, but continued to stare at the couples while Das fetched the tea. “Since the man was dead against public demonstration of affection (PDA), I asked if he would join my NGO and put an end to it. He promptly got up and left, citing poor health.”
Then again there was a man who was hammering into a wall to make a peep-hole to watch couples on the otherside. “He was very good at his work so I presumed that he was either a mason or had ample experience in making peep-holes!” Guards, he says, would turn a blind eye to all.
Das submitted his findings to the government but does not know what action was taken about it. “Either way, I was determined to pursue the matter,” said Das, who registered his NGO in 2004. While the NGO focussed on other issues initially, it has been relaunched in 2013. The first event is being planned in April, at Central Park.
“On my recent visit to the park I found fewer couples but even that has to be stopped. Also I was shocked to see the sale of energy drinks like Red Bull outside. That would only fill them with more vigour for their mischievous acts,” says Das.
He plans to rope in eminent people and hold a talk or a quiz on youth-related topics. “The public gathering and hullaballoo would make the couples leave. That would be part of the battle won. We could also put up posters announcing the event in advance so the couples stay away.”
But one wonders who the event would address if the target audience flees. If permission is granted the NGO would also put up slogans in the park such as “Think before you love” and “Immature love kills”.
It would be best if they held the event on Valentine’s Day but most of the NGO’s members are academicians and are busy with examinations till April.
Das says the concept of Valentine’s Day has got diluted. “It’s no longer about gifting a rose,” says Das, citing his students as examples. “Their idea of love is contorted and will change as they grow. They should not start dating just yet.”
Do not disturb
The notice board outside the park states that open umbrellas would be confiscated but range officer Tapan Dasgupta says no umbrella has ever been whisked away. “We scare miscreants with such laws but there has never been any complaint against obscenity in my tenure.” With so many of those who stay on enjoying the show, complaints are unlikely.
There are 14 guards manning the park. That is hardly sufficient manpower to check behind every bush.
WHAT WE SAW
Banabitan is still as colourful as it was 10 years ago when Joseph Dinabandhu Das did his project, and we don’t just mean the seasonal flowers. There are umbrellas purple, pink and magenta propped up all over the park, hiding couples behind them.
The rose garden alone, near the Bikash Bhavan side entrance, had 20 couples snuggling on its aisles at 4pm on Tuesday. Beyond that, one lost count.
There were couples in the area reserved for tall trees, by the lake, behind the cafeterias, inside the pagoda. Some rested against hedges, some almost entered them. Most were young, with some young enough to be in school. One girl even wore a white skirt-blouse uniform.
Several couples created a fortress around themselves using umbrellas and school bags and lots lay on the ground under blankets. Some had their laptops switched on and some men had their office bags lying next to them. Often they were being interrupted by cell phone calls, possibly from colleagues back in office.
By the lake, one man was seen lifting his partner into his arms as she playfully asked him to stop. There were lots who had brought snacks to munch on. There were also some middle-aged couples, some men with paunches and bald pates and women draped in saris and hair parting adorned with vermillion.
Then again, against the wall near the rose garden a man was seen standing up and tucking his shirt into his unbuttoned trousers. He then handed over some cash from his wallet to the girl with him.
There was no dearth of voyeurs. Five men sat together on a bench by the lake and gaped at the couples. There were also single men who sat by the lake, but with their back to the water. The only view in front of them was the couples in action. At least one man seemed to leisurely walk around the entire park, sitting only at strategic points that gave him views befitting an X-rated film.