| MAIDAN MUSINGS: A devoted band of evening-walkers, most of them well into their 70s, treads the paved walkway off Victoria Memorial. Picture by Pabitra Das
The rainbow misses St Paul’s Cathedral by inches. The cotton-ball clouds part, allowing the fast disappearing July sun to bathe the domes of the Victoria Memorial, moistened by an afternoon shower, in its yellow glow. The monsoon does have its moments.
It’s 5 pm on the Maidan. Young men have already taken the field for football, when the first cars start pulling up onto the pebble driveway between the two cannons pointing towards Kingsway. Just in time to catch the sun’s parting shot, a man and wife, well into their 70s, help each other out of their car to sit on a wrought-iron bench facing the gleaming Memorial.
It doesn’t take long for a narrow, paved stretch, around 100 metres long, running across part of the field, to fill up. Purposeful men in starched white, umbrella or cane in hand, march down the walkway. Most wear dhotis and chappals, but a few prefer the cushioned comforts of a pair of thick-soled sneakers.
When Satyanarayan Saraf first took to the Maidan 38 years ago, no one wore Nike. But not much else has changed. Apart from the fact that there are far fewer trees lining the Chowringhee end of the patch of green. Apart from the litter that smothers the grass. Apart from the fear they feel once dusk falls.
Rally days are days of dread. “That is when we avoid coming here. God knows what transport or law-and-order problems we may face,” says H.D. Tewary, a professor of St Xavier’s College of 40 years, who retired in 2001.
He and his friend, Keshaw Pandey, are recent additions to the Maidan clique, mainly an old boys’ club, apparently. Having tried many spots in the city, they have settled on the Brigade Parade Ground. “This, I think, is better than any other place in India,” muses Pandey.
The lowest point in the Maidan’s history, feels Bharat Kumar Shah, a regular for the past 15 years, was the Kanshi Ram campaign in the mid-90s. “For one week they set up camp, and we just couldn’t come here then. They were living here, cooking here and using the place for sanitation as well,” says the 69-year-old.
Even a week after the usual political meetings, the trash invariably lies thick across the greens. “We wait for the Nor’westers to come so it carries away all the garbage and fills up all the holes caused by the bamboo of the pandals,” adds Shah.
Plastic bags, food packets, paper… “The netas don’t care, it is nature that takes care of all of this,” rues Shah, who can remember his foot falling into craters in the ground on numerous occasions. The only time the muck is cleared away, they say, is when the army, de jure guardian of the green, makes use of it.
Tewary and Pandey took to evening exercise after being diagnosed with diabetes. “It is inexpensive staying fit. But being ill and being admitted into hospital is like checking into a five-star hotel,” says Tewary.
Shah, who looks nowhere near his age, attributes his health to these evening outings. “It is the blessing of the Maidan. It is not just the walking, but the talking as well. And the gossip.”
Bishnupada Das, 82, is concerned at the growing sense of insecurity that has crept into the verdant pastures. “Before, I could stay here till 8 pm without feeling afraid at all. Now I leave by around 6.30 pm,” he says. A police booth lies vacant, but the men can recall a patrol there till around three years ago.
“Aamra buro manush, cholchhe ebhabe (We are old men now… This is how we spend our days),” calls out an energetic Pandey to a friend. “Hain,” comes back the reply, “je kodin choley (Yes, as long as it lasts).”
Not sure whether their grandchildren, like four-year-old Anjani prancing around in her playground, will have the same patch of green grass to turn to, the men walk. And darkness descends over the Maidan.