Monday, 30th October 2017

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Here's looking at you, horror house

Tragedy tourism at talk of the town

By Tamaghna Banerjee
  • Published 16.06.15
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Gourab Shaw took a selfie with his niece outside a building on Monday afternoon. He immediately posted it on Facebook with the status: "Got tickets to Hitchcock's Psycho house in our very own Calcutta - feeling scared at Robinson Street." It got 50-odd likes in less than 15 minutes and garnered multiple comments.

3 Robinson Street has emerged as the new selfie address in town ever since the macabre tale of death and decay, skeletons and spirituality in the De home broke on Thursday.

University student Gourab Shaw had come all the way from Krishnagar in Nadia, 120km away, but hundreds of Calcuttans from near and far are flocking to the "Hitchcock house" for a click. Many are even stopping for some tea and gossip outside.

Ask Sanjiv Shah, whose small shop outside 3 Robinson Street would only serve a few cups of tea to drivers and guards through the day. He sold 650 cups on Monday. That's how his business has been from Friday, the morning after a body and three skeletons were recovered from the De residence.

"I have never seen so many people on this road," said Sanjiv, who has been parked here for over two decades. Now, the quiet stretch connecting Rawdon Street and Loudon Street is the talk of the town. No wonder Sanjiv plans to start selling samosas with chutney too.

If Sanjiv is cashing in on the bizarre form of tragedy tourism playing out at 3 Robinson Street, psychiatrists are closely watching Calcuttans exhibit a kind of "perverse pleasure" by visiting the house of horrors.

After his septuagenarian father was burnt to death, it emerged that 44-year-old Partho De had been living with his sister's corpse for over six months. In the same room on the second floor of the house where the siblings lived were the skeletons of their two pet Labradors.

From schoolteachers to bank managers, little children with their mothers to college students, everyone is stopping at the red brick entrance to the Robinson Street premises.

"If we see other people in misery we have a perverse sense of pleasure that we are okay," said psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram.

It is also fuelled by a "morbid curiosity" and a "collective response" of going and having fun at the site of a tragedy, he added.

"A lot of us are unhappy with ourselves and we constantly seek thrills and won't mind stooping to seek that thrill," he said.

A homemaker from Dum Dum Cantonment booked a car and came over to the Robinson Street house with her brother on Monday morning. She stayed on the premises for a good 30 minutes taking photographs on her cell phone from various angles, calling up her husband and even taking snaps of her brother swinging from the hanging roots of a tree in the driveway.

"I am an adventurous person and could not stop myself.... I even wanted to get inside and see the rooms where the family lived but the cops didn't allow me in," the woman said.

Golf Green resident Maya Sengupta was there on Monday afternoon, also clicking away to glory on her phone. Why? Because "everyone" she knew had wondered why she had not visited the place despite coming to work so close to the horror house every day. "I came thinking I would feel scared. But it looks like any other old building up close," said the 53-year-old bank employee.

Such tragedy tourism is not rare. In Nepal, thousands from all over the world are visiting the ruins of buildings that still bear signs of the devastating April 25 earthquake, even as hundreds remain homeless and helpless.

After the 2010 Stephen Court blaze that killed 43 people, scores of people would stand outside the charred building on Park Street and take photographs. The police had to put up barricades to keep the onlookers at bay.

At 3 Robinson Street, too, the cops on duty have been busy with visitor management. Despite the police presence, some intrepid 'tourists' have even managed to approach Partho's uncle Arun De and his family to strike up a conversation.

The combination of "death, horror, sex and property" has given the incident that extra edge over any other incident that has ever happened in the city, said sociologist Prasanta Ray.

"When there is not much excitement elsewhere, this is a kind of godsend and the site of a tragedy has become the scene of merry-making," Ray rued.

As a result, at 6am on Monday, the house had 25-odd visitors, all morning walkers. They were enjoying their morning cuppa and cracking jokes about how the family had lived and died.

Even around 11.30pm on Sunday, there was a group of 12 onlookers. As a little boy and his father stepped out of the car and entered the premises, the boy clutched his father's leg and said he was scared. The father said "I am there" and took him inside. The flashbulbs popped.

Neuro-psychiatrist Sabyasachi Mitra, one of the first mental health experts to have examined Partho on Thursday, blamed social pressure. The need to announce "I've been there" to the world comes from a sense of not being able to ventilate feelings with friends in a social gathering, like in an open adda, said Mitra.

In this age of social networking where people have fewer friends in real life, it is very important to keep providing fodder that keeps the virtual contacts engaged.

"What is playing out on Robinson Street is a reflection of our society, where people have fewer friends in real life and ventilate their feelings on social media," Mitra said.

He added another social angle - that the victims in this case are from a relatively affluent class. "A scandal in a rich man's house is always a big draw. People sense a scandal in this tragedy."

And nothing sells like a scandal - even at a Puja pandal. So, at 11.30am on Monday, a theme puja organiser from Garia was there with two artists to take a close and careful look at the house.

"We are looking for ideas for our Durga Puja pandal theme. So I have brought the artists along," said the organiser.

So, don't be surprised if Hitchcock House, scary effects and skeletons and all, turns out to be the hottest theme this Puja in the so-called culture capital of the country.

Additional reporting by Jhinuk Mazumdar