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Calcutta Diary

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood. The format is always the same. For, the reports always emanate from the same source. Three dangerous 'extremists' have been shot dead in an encounter with the police; a dozen of them have been nabbed; five of them have been injured

SUFFER us not to mock ourselveswit h falsehood. The format is alwaysthe same. For, the reports alwaysemanate from the same source. Threedangerous 'extremists' have been shotdead i n an encounter wit h the police;a dozen of them have been nabbed;five of them have been injured —three fatally — when the border security force were compelled to open firein selfdefence; two of them have beenkilled while attempting a jai l break;the body of a dead 'extremist' has beenfound i n an abandoned house. Dayafter day spokesmen of the police feedsuch reports to the Press; day afterday, newspapers faithfull y reproducethe version. Corpses are incapable ofissuing rejoinders

THAT IS ONLY A DESCRIPTION

If someone kille d i n cold blood bythe police is described as an extremist,that is only a description. Al l one cansay is that another life has been confiscatedby the representatives of lawand order, and the corpse has to begiven an unsavoury name. Once youidentify a corpse as that of an extremist,that by itself is a retroactive justificationof triggerhappiness. In thiscountry of six hundred million , humanlives are cheap: shoot a couple of bodiesbefore breakfast, another foursomebetween breakfast and noon, twoor three more before sundown. Wearinesshas entered the soul. As long asit is not myself, I cease to care whobecomes the police's prey. The youngones whose lives are taken were in anycase up to no good; they were, in anycase, the products of indiscretion onthe part of their parents — fifteen,twenty, twentyfive years ago. Let themanswer for the foll y of their progenitors This is open season for killin gyoung men, this is lynching land: somuch the better that everything isneatly organised, under official auspices.

There is thus little point, perhaps, inelaborate descent from the general tothe particular. Nevertheless, it wil l bea shame i f one or two of the more intriguing episodes do not make it intothe chronicles of our times.

It happened on July 20 last. PrabirDutta, twentythree, was an unemployedyoung man. His father is an invalid, his mother works for the Lif e InsuranceCorporation of India, a youngerbrother is in school, the sister is stillyounger. The family belongs to thestandard category: refugees from EastBengal, middlemiddle class, every daybeing pushed down toward greater immiserisation,every week a focal point ofaccumulating economic crisis, unpaidbills, shrinking horizons of hope, bitternesswelling in, a vacuity defining workand activities. Prabir, the eldest offspring,was taken off his studies: a not particularlymeritorious student, it was pointlessto waste money for keeping hisname on the rol l of a college, whereany way hardly any teaching ever tookplace; the examinations, too, hadmeanwhile been reduced to a farce. Sothere he was, without a craft, wit h abare background of secondary education,perfunctorily looking for a job,enquiring of parents of friends and ofrelations about the possibility of someopenings somewhere, enquiring fitfully,not wit h much hope, but as part of aconditioned ordering, as i f the grammarhad laid it down that he should continueto look for a job even when heknew there was none. He was — hemust have vaguely realised it himself— an inconsequential spec of a statistic:In the city of Calcutta, there mustbe at least a couple of millio n like him ,seeking jobs, but bereft of technical orprofessional equipment, and without social— or, whic h is almost the samething these days, 'political ' — connections Such young people roam around,aimlessly most of the time, Time hangsheavily around them. To cheat theboredom, some of them write poetry,mostly of the indifferent nondescripttype, Prabir too did. Some of themcompose songs — and sing; Prabir toodid, occasionally. Those who do notwrite poetry or compose songs scroungefor some money — from mother orelder sister — for a vicarious outingnow and then, wit h Hema Malin i orMousumi Chatterjee; or perhaps theylearn to wield a knife and join theYouth Congress. But there are toomany of them by now to tr y to enterthe latter either: there is standingroom only, even in the underworld.

Prabir would roam the city's filthystreets, generally purposelessly. Onedoubts whether he had any politicalconvictions: his feeble attempts atwritin g poetry belonged to the genreof effusivelyrical, wit h certainly notrace of any political ideology. July20 was a Saturday. Prabir took hismeal at ninethirty in the morning andleft home, the dingy tworoom groundfloor apartment i n Bhowanipore i n southcentralCalcutta. He walked. It was aSaturday. Most of the offices whic hare not full y closed on Saturdays empty themselves by lunchhour. Right atthe city centre, as Chowringhee Roadmeets Lenin Sarani, lies the stretchwhich once upon a time acquired theappellation of 'Esplanade', but is nowa mere turnstile for the tram cars. There used to be a patch of greenery ina corner of this stretch, but it is nowalmost obliterated; till 1947, that patchwas 'Curzon Park'; since then, it hasbecome, Surendranath Park. SurendranathBanerjea was the great orator;come Independence, in the worl d ofnomenclatures, the tory British governorgeneralwas supplanted, formally,by Bengali ham. But the old name hasstuck. Curzon Park has shrunk in territory in the past 30 years. Still, youcan find practically every species of humanity— decrepit or otherwise —millin g in that narrow strip of landfrom early afternoon till after dusk. Vendors of all descriptions, students,young college teachers, beggars, lepers,prostitutes, cardsharpers, pickpockets,straightforward rogues, brokers, magicians,clerks doing their last bit ofshopping before rushing home, politicalaspirants, poets, lovers in droves —they set up a milieu, compose an environment,establish a community wit ha corpus of its own, an equilibrationunique in style. Everything is improvisedat Curzon Park, but somehoweverything, every day, appears to bepart of a prearranged ensemble. Theensemble dissolves by the time the lasttram cars flock to the depot. It miraculouslyreforms the next day.

WOULD-BE PLAY-MAKERS

Curzon Park attracts wouldbe playmakerstoo. Calcutta consists of an unendingstream of drama groups. Playwrights,actors and actresses, amateurplagiarists, et al, who cannot scrape thefunds to hire a hal l but have aspirationwritten across their hearts, congregateat the Park. They do it every afternoonbut do it wit h greater gusto onSaturday afternoons, when the crowdcollects quickly. The themes of theplays vary, some are vapidsocial, someare roaring revolutionary, but nobodyminds. A small group of watchers gatheracross Raj Bhavan, a makeshiftpodium comes up, the players perform,the prompters prompt, the playwrightimprovises, the audience applauds.

July 20, apart from being a Saturday,was Vietnam Day as well. Oneparticular group, ful l of revolutionarybubble, was mounting a play expiatingthe heroism of the Vietnam peasantry The crowd was swelling; some sloganshouters,proceeding from the east,were converging towards the spot wherethe play was on. The police alwaysmount a patrol around Curzon Park;they did so on that day too; their presencewas taken for granted; the lathiswere, as usual, agleam. The revolutionaryplay was moving to its climax;the sloganshouters were on the pointof joining the main bunch of watchers;it was four o'clockish in the afternoon,Prabir Dutta was in the crowd, watchingand listening; suddenly somethingwent wrong.

What went wrong cannot be preciselyunravelled, because the archives ofthe police are a closed book. The policeclaim they discovered in the crowda dangerous 'extremist', against whomseveral warrants were pending, and thatthey moved in to apprehend him. Theorganisers of the play assert that it wasthe culmination of an official conspiracyto crush their venture to present revolutionaryposterplays for the masses Anyway, the police charged, pandemoniumensued, people began to run helterskelter;several among those tryingto get into trams or buses, or formingthe queue outside the cinema showing'Bobby' for the twentieth week, claimto have seen the regulation lathis ofthe minions of law and order beingbrandished in the air and going, upand down, several times. What is notdisputed, even by the police, is that factthat several young people got arrested,and a number of them had to be movedto the Medical College hospital, oneand a half miles away, cither by privateparties or by the police themselves,for treatment of injuries sufferedduring the incident. The body of PrabirDutta was found lying outside theEmergency Ward of the hospital ataround five o'clock or thereabouts. Ithad been brought there from CurzonPark, in a cab, by some passersby There were quite a few marks of injuryon his body, and a particularlydeep one on the rear side of the skull The left wrist, according to some reports,was hanging limply. Soon, thepolice moved in onto the premises ofthe hospital. Once the doctors of theMedical College certified Prabir to bedead, the body was moved posthasteto the morgue next door.

It took a while to identify the body;Prabir's distraught mother could becontacted only pretty late. Earlier inthe evening, prominent individuals associatedwith various groups in thecity had reached the hospital. Theykept insisting that the postmortem onthe body should be done by a nonofficialdoctor, or at least by a doctorattached to the Medical College; ifGovernment rules were inviolable andthe police medical examiner had to bepresent at the postmortem, a seconddoctor, wit h no connections with thepolice, they urged, must also be there Each of these suggestions was turneddown. A cryptic press note was issuedfrom police headquarters: yes, theyoung man was dead; yes, there weresome marks of injury on his body; yes,one of the ribs of the young man wasfound fractured. But there was also anice, trim, explanation for each of these The police had wielded no lathi atCurzon Park, the bruises found on thebody of the young man were mostlyselfimposed. The police had moved into arrest an extremist seen in the crowd,there was commotion, Prabir fell downin the rush and was trampled uponby others: that was how his rib gotbroken. It was undoubtedly sad thatthe young man was dead. But hisdeath involves no foul play. As he fellto the ground during the melee, someof the food he had consumed sevenhours earlier rushed back from thestomach, unfortunately the food cameup the wrong way and choked his windpipe;he died. This diagnosis was, itwas given out, confirmed by the officialmedical examiner who performedthe postmortem. The report of thepostmortem was not released. Therewas no foul play, but the body was nothanded over to the mother or to anyother relatives. The police did noteven allow the body to be taken home It was taken straight to the cremationground in an official ambulance; thelast rites were performed under directsupervision of the police. Al l this, despiteno foul play.

But one must be fair, one must notlose one's sense of perspective. A1522 hundred deaths take place under theloving care of the authorities, it is onlyoccasionally that a stray one is reported,such as Prabir's, because it occursin the city centre, in the glare of adazzling July afternoon sun. Moreover,all is wel l that ends well. Prabir isdead; there is one less unemployed toroam the streets of the city of Calcutta,one less spec of inconvenient statistic.

It is so cosy that food, the measly food an unemployed youth from an Impoverishedfamily took at ninethirty in themorning, still managed to come up thewrong channel seven hours later. Thereis a certain indigestibitity in the ingredientsone tries to absorb in Calcutta;and it is to be welcomed: without it,the tales served up by the police willbe difficult to swallow. Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.

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