Scene one: Two young men come to a doctor with a request to attend an emergency call. There is a long line of patients in the chamber but the doctor, known for his impeccable sense of duty, follows the men to a waiting car. There they gag and blindfold him and speed off towards a hideout away from the city. On the way, they give the doctor?s home a ransom call but when the plan goes awry, they slit his throat and dump him on the wayside. Scene two: An injured man is lying on the road, writhing in pain, surrounded by curious onlookers. A man passing by takes pity, and rushes him to a hospital. There the emergency staff and some outsiders suspect foul play, and before the good samaritan can explain, they smash his car and beat him up severely.
Both the scenes are real and they took place in Calcutta in recent months. While the doctor?s murder provoked outrage and prompted the police to act quickly, the second incident went almost unnoticed. Although the two cases cannot be compared on the same scale of crime, there is a common thread. Both the men, the doctor and the passerby, were victims of their benevolence.
Such incidents teach city dwellers to remain self-centred, to look the other way when a stranger is dying on the street. The lesson fits in with the emerging urban ethos where an individual is required to stick to his private orbit in the fearsome anonymity of the public space. In fact, how urban a city is, is sometimes measured by assessing how cold and heartless its citizens are.
By this count, Calcutta is considered a provincial backwater because of its famed humanity. People here are known to be more accommodating and helpful. Recently, though, a couple of incidents have given this image a bad jolt. But Calcutta?s reputation as a humane city still holds.
And yet its streets are strewn with scenes of petty fraud committed on charity. From the beggar woman showcasing a deformed child that she got on hire to the Hindu boy whose parent?s death he has staged many times over, from a brother collecting donation for a fake kidney transplant to a father begging for the dowry of a fictitious daughter, there is a constant assault on credulity. Most of these deceits are pathetic. Sometimes people devise their own ways to negotiate them and still keep the conscience clear.
Back to normal
In a city where affluence and destitution feed on each other, its citizens are bound to cultivate some amount of public insensitivity and self-centredness in order to get on with the business of life. In fact, Calcutta has been witness to human catastrophe a number of times, notably after Partition, after the Bangladesh war in 1971 and the massive flood in 1978. Contemporary records give descriptions of smug office babus picking their way, handkerchiefs pressed against their noses, through scenes of gut-wrenching misery on Sealdah station platforms. Time and again, the urban middle class has had to turn a blind eye to humans scrounging for food in garbage heaps and dying on pavements.
Yet the city?s benign face has achieved almost an iconic status at home and abroad. From Kiplingesque nightmares to the grim sketches of G?nter Grass, this warm human face has remained intact because Calcutta has always managed to limp back from scourges. This, in effect, has instilled in the people the confidence to open up and reach out in public spaces without suspicion or fear. In the emerging urban dream that produces private persons at the cost of the individual public, it is this confidence that is so precious. It must be protected at all costs.