The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A city in need of radical rescue

This was supposed to be an upbeat column, a sort of positive ‘self-correction’ on the previous Thin Edge where, it was pointed out to me, I had perhaps been over-critical of the state of Calcutta and where I had even displayed my ignorance of initiatives under way that intend to change the city for the better. Two friends who have worked on a plan to rejuvenate an area of the Beliaghata Circular Canal immediately sent me their report, complete with the most beautiful and uplifting drawings of the projected transformation of the bastis adjacent to the water-body. Looking through it, I became for a moment a complete optimism-junkie.

Life, however, has its own plans and agenda of implementation. On Monday evening, I went to a friend’s to watch Team Chak De’s improbable victory in the Twenty20 World Cup. As the skies played Götterdämmerung outside, India squeaked through and we all celebrated. As I began my river-trek home from Ballygunge, I was exhilarated. I hadn’t walked through a flood like this since 1988 and I was filled with the kind of twisted nostalgia that only Calcutta can throw up. It was dangerous, one could have died either through electrocution, open man-hole drowning or just plain old disease, but I did it, I waded through a mile of thigh-deep filth for old times’ sake. On my way, with cars creating surf-waves around me, I savoured the victory, but along with the elation I found I was carrying a cold fury at the captain of Pakistan.

Mukul Kesavan, one of the fastest draws of articulation in the country, had Shoaib Malik toasted, egged and baconed in his blog by breakfast the next day. The offending sentences, spoken within fifteen feet of the celebrating Pathan brothers, and no doubt with Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel and Wasim Jaffer watching on TV were: “First of all I want to say something over here. I want to thank you back home Pakistan and where the Muslim lives all over the world.” Followed by an apology to all Muslims everywhere for losing the match, and by implication, drowning their collective hopes. As Mukul pointed out, this was no small an insult to all the different players, with their diverse ethnicities and religions who constitute the mix of international cricket.

Within a day, though, it was brought home to all of us that the “Muslim lives” in Calcutta too.

The story, for those just tuning in, goes something like this. A young Muslim man, a graphic designer, and a young Hindu woman, his student, fall in love with each other. The girl comes from a business family, the boy is nowhere near as rich, coming as he does from a family that is at the bottom edge of middle-class. The two (both of them in their twenties) marry against the wishes of the girl’s family and all hell breaks loose: high-level city police officers apparently get involved, all of them allegedly pressurizing the young man to divorce his wife. When she is summoned to the thana, the young woman categorically states that she has married of her own free will, but this cuts no ice with the authorities, who summon her three times without a case. A man who witnessed the marriage allegedly receives threatening phone calls from a top uniform.

Threats of violence and worse explode around the young couple, aimed specifically at the husband. A few days later, the husband is found dead on the tracks of a local train line; the young man has just the day before written up a complaint against the police and his wife’s father; he is on his way, shaved and spruced up to meet someone about the matter; there is a mobile call from him where he tells the person he is meeting that he will be there in fifteen minutes.

There seems to be no plausible reason for suicide, but the city’s chief police officer declares that the young man has obviously killed himself, even before the result of the autopsy is out. The honourable police commissioner also tells the press that he finds it completely understandable that a family that has reared a daughter for 23 years should react badly when the daughter marries someone of a different “social status”. He also defends his officers for playing “marriage counsellors” in trying to dissolve what is a clear-cut legal union between two consenting adults. To counter the uproar (thankfully, there is an uproar) the state government and the police brass run a tight criss-cross of defence, backing each other while proclaiming all the time that a “proper” enquiry will be conducted and the guilty (if there are any guilty to be found, in what is, after all, a “suicide”) will be punished.

While criticizing my last column, one friend here had a jibe: “Don’t compare Calcutta to Ahmedabad and all that nice architecture-sharkitecture! After March ‘02, we know exactly what Narendra Modi’s idea of town-planning is!” Hats off, I now have to say to that friend, congratulations, as small jobs go, Modi and Togadia could hardly have done this one better.


Thinking about it, though, this case throws a direct spotlight on exactly the issues I intended to talk about earlier. There is a nexus between venal businessmen and local authorities that needs to be broken, and broken quickly. There is the marginalization of minorities in this city, where many of the worst basti areas are populated by poor Muslims, in which context the police commissioner’s comment about different “social status” veers very close to a thin euphemism, poor = muslim = poor. There is a general lawlessness that stretches from rampant over-building to lethal traffic and unlicensed auto-rickshaws and buses, in which the death of Rizwanur Rahman is a small, ugly nugget.

Despite all our pretensions and delusions to the contrary, this city is essentially a small-minded place, ‘conservative’ in the expletive sense of the word, where two people from different classes, communities, religions can not have an easy time falling and staying in love. Despite all the new cash streaking around, there is general resistance to mobility, where neither businessman nor policeman can see even an educated, computer-literate guy as a man with a potential for making something of himself. Finally, there is the ongoing haemorrhage of failures on the part of the state government, failures which claim as their victims law, justice, secularism, socialism and the general health of citizens, both mental and physical.

This, at the base line, is what we have to work with. This is where we have to find ways to be positive and optimistic, and try and save our city and the countryside that surrounds it. The question, as always, is where do you start to untangle this clutch of knots which have now formed an Übermass, a mega-knot we like to call Calcutta' If you pull one way something else tightens somewhere else, if you pull the other way, another complication cancers up elsewhere, all of it leading to a constant reproduction of the city’s problems.

On Friday there was a candle light gathering at St Xavier’s College in memory of Rizwanur and as a mark of silent protest at his death. The thousand or so people gathered there came from all sides of the city, many of them young students.

Perhaps another way of remembering Rizwanur might be to put down a set of basic principles for the transformation of this city. Here is one such possible list:

1. Calcutta is a city in need of radical rescue. It needs to be saved from deep pollution (which affects the children of both the rich and the poor), murderously chaotic traffic, the lack of civic amenities, general and widespread lawlessness and anarchically rampant and dangerous over-construction. This situation is at a level of dire emergency. The over-used phrase, “on a war-footing”, is, in this context, neither inappropriate nor over-dramatic, it is merely apt.

2. The only way to proceed is through democratic consultation and consensus, where the people who constitute the city are involved in the decisions that will obviously directly affect them. This consensus then has to lead to a series of probably tough and definitely prompt actions taken by different democratically constituted and empowered bodies whose procedures are transparent and accountable.

3. While radical steps need to be taken with the utmost expediency, each of these should be taken, as far as possible, with the future of the city in mind. There should be a vision of Calcutta in 2012, in 2017, in 2022. The question has to be kept in mind: what kind of a city will Calcutta be in twenty years for a child who is born now'

Without undue sentiment, with the coldest of resolves, it is now time to start creating a city where a couple like Priyanka and Rizwanur can have a life that they want.

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