Four thousand people flocked to Park Street to participate in the Calcutta Christmas Festival, a government-aided jamboree that enticed customers with the promise of delicious food and live music. New Year’s eve witnessed 10,000 ecstatic revellers — many of them members of the suburbia — thronging Park Street. The Trinamul Congress dispensation has been credited with ‘democratizing’ Park Street, a stretch of road that comprises elite educational institutions, corporate offices and expensive restaurants. Understandably, the marked subaltern presence during the festive season in a rather exclusive space has generated considerable anxiety among the affluent as well as among those with genteel sensibilities. (One apocryphal anecdote chronicles the horror of an aged couple, residents of Park Street for generations, after overhearing the patriarch of a tackily dressed brood describe the building opposite Apeejay House as the residence of the borolat).
Amidst such censure and an equal measure of euphoria across the class divide, what is not being reflected upon is the distance that separates democracy as a political idea from democracy as a spatial concept. Our understanding of democracy is premised upon free and somewhat fair elections, a robust Parliament, a liberal judiciary and an independent media. But the fact that a democratic political system need not make public spaces truly representative is something that seldom gets noticed.
Hide and seek
Such exclusion is the result of differential social realities that are created and sustained through agencies such as civic infrastructure, culture and economics. The novelty of Park Street in the imagination of the visitor from the suburbs lies not merely in its claim to being a liberal, recreational space. It also corresponds to his exclusion from the privileged institutions that dot this space. It is possible that apart from the food kiosks and musicians, what must have caught the attention of many a visitor at the carnival were the superior civic facilities — electricity, water, a paved road, an efficient police force, and so on.
The imprint of colonial history on the public imagination is palpable. It not only plays a critical role in legitimizing spatial exclusion but also influences individual choices. Park Street’s legacy as ‘White Town’ — populated chiefly by British residents during the raj — must have played on the minds of the suburban visitors, many of whom were dressed in garish Western attires. The patriarch’s error in the aforementioned anecdote, confusing an imposing building with the governor general’s residence, too, stems from the lingering shadow of colonial history.
Posh areas like Park Street are not the only ones that are fated to remain spatially undemocratic. Calcutta’s impoverished neighbourhoods and suburbs, many of them the haunts of the poorer classes, migrant communities and religious minorities, suffer from a far lethal form of insularity, one that is consciously nurtured by a class-conscious society and State. This makes it difficult for the average, but comparatively privileged, citizen and welfare institutions to comprehend or forge effective strategies to confront the harsh realities of everyday life in such pockets as Park Circus, Tangra, Royd Street, or Rajpur in the southern fringes.
The systematic severing of organic links between different kinds of cityspaces that remain unfree has, most notably, generated skewed projections of Calcutta in popular culture. The Hindi film industry’s ‘realistic’ portrayals of the city, for instance, inevitably include glamorous depictions of old and new spaces — Kumartuli and north Calcutta, the gleaming malls and the IT hub. These projections, like the Christmas Festival on Park Street, are inimical to our discovery of the other, less endearing, Calcutta.