KILLING OF KOLKATA
Someone had killed Kolkata.
This city has a hum, a constant white noise; a distant roar of car horns, tram cars, a million voices. Today there was none. I must have been hallucinating. I could hear birds. The end of the world had come.
Everywhere silence – that strange, unsettling silence, like a ghost laid her hand on the city and squeezed. I was the only survivor. Today there was not a car on the streets, not a shop left unbolted, not a cup of chai to be had. The great stretch of Chowringhee Road lay deserted in front of me. I walked straight into the centre of the road, something it would be impossible to do on a normal day and stay alive. Here I stood, slap bang in the middle of Kolkata’s most famous boulevard and there was not a moving object to be seen, not a pedestrian, not a taxi – not a sound.
I looked left, I looked right, stopped alone in the great expanse of that celebrated street, amazed at the force that had stopped this mighty city dead in its tracks. So that’s what all those speeches were about yesterday. That’s what those all red flags meant. This is what a ‘bandh’ is; it’s a general strike – and by ‘general’ they mean ‘general’ – as in all-encompassing, common to many; widely spread; prevalent; extensive – this strike was about as ‘general’ as it could get. This was a day to walk and walk, to see Kolkata stripped bare, to see walls and sights and detail always covered up before; to walk and not be noticed, to stop and stand and stare.
I saw movement far, far in the distance. Roaring along Chowringhee towards me came a hundred men on a hundred motorbikes, blaring their horns, brandishing Indian flags with red fists stencilled on – a solid stream of power making sure that the ‘general’ part of general strike was, indeed, observed. They flashed past me honking their defiance; kings of the castle now, unafraid, powerful and out of control. I’ve never much cared for young men like that. Clearly, I was the only rational adult left alive. I turned into Humayan Place and stopped in my tracks. Not a soul. This great little street between Chowringhee and New Market, normally thronged with people, was deserted, each shop boarded up, each doorway closed. Ahead of me the market lay shuttered, iron grilles pulled down tight. All the stalls that covered Bertram Street were gone, their contents piled up, covered in blue plastic tarpaulins, roped off, tied.
This was the first time I’d seen Bertram Street, I realised. I’d walked down it a hundred times but never seen it – always covered with people, shops, cars, rickshaws, chai-sellers, market-men, beggars, thieves – just the normal day-to-day flood of Kolkata, a wall of life. I loved jumping into the middle of it, being carried along; fending off the hustlers, zooming round the block.
But today, my last day, Kolkata left me before I left it. I was walking in a surreal Kolkata dream.
‘Hello,’ she said and gave me a big hug.
She was eight years old with a shabby blue frock and dense curly black hair – as bright as an Oberoi button. We’d met before.
‘Good morning little sausage. How are you today?
‘Everything happy today,’ she chirped, ‘everything quiet.’
She’d crept out from under a ledge. The streets were silent again. This little urchin wasn’t going do much business today.
She pointed down Bertram Street to the market.
‘Let’s go see Mummy.’
She grabbed my hand and led me across the street. Mummy stood in an alley, chewing the fat with a couple of other women dripping children. On the ground was an infant, laying on a piece of cardboard, gurgling and cooing, kicking two chubby legs in the air. A steel bed frame lay on its side against the wall, covered by a roll of bedding. A small Primus burner and a pot, a mug or two scattered round. That was where they lived.
Other kids gathered around. My little beggar girl shooed them off angrily. ‘He’s mine!’ she was saying. Mummy looked up with a bright smile on her face.
‘Is this your baby?’ I said. What else could I say? Shame on you woman for turning your children into beggars? Why don’t you send your children off to school? Why don’t you go out to work and let your children be children? All of that fell away.
Mummy smiled. ‘My baba,’ she said proudly.
‘Mummy no English,’ said the little girl, squeezing my hand.
‘But you have good English, little sausage,’ I said seriously. ‘You should go to school.’
‘Mama!’ she said, and rattled off a speech in Hindi. Mama smiled broadly and cuddled her baba.
It was my last day.
‘Mama,’ I said, reaching swiftly into my pocket, ‘take.’
She gasped. She took, bending over to touch her forehead on my hands. She had tears in her eyes. I was embarrassed. I turned away to leave. The little girl ran to my side and grabbed my hand.
‘Mummy is cooking tonight!’ she said excitedly.
I was dying.
‘Mummy is cooking tonight.’
In the doorway of Mr. Kumar’s ration shop an old man died a silent death while he slept.
The doorway was only four feet wide and just one step deep – but this was his home in Kolkata. He had perfected the art of sleeping on his back on bare concrete, both arms folded lightly over his chest, legs splayed out – he filled every inch of that doorway. It was his doorway – not that of the good Mr. Kumar and, just as all the doorways and sheltered space in Mirza Galib Street were reserved for somebody, this doorway was reserved exclusively for him. Well, not any more.
He slipped over to Shiva in the early hours of August 20th, the day of the General Strike; lay covered in a blue and white blanket, legs bunched up against the side of the wall, exactly as he had settled down for the night. His face stared upward, fast asleep, a long beard flowing scraggy white onto his chest; the old man looked completely relaxed and perfectly comfortable – but then, he was dead.
A dead man in the streets of Kolkata is not as easy to spot as you might think. People sleep anywhere and everywhere, anytime. The only clue to this dead man was that he was very, very still – and in the daily chaos that is Kolkata, anything not in motion attracts attention. At eight forty-three a.m. he was discovered, lying too still for too long.
I didn’t know it but I was taking pictures of the moment. Dog was diverted by a pile of rubbish, a woman in a turquoise sari and a great many crows. The sudden monsoonal rains earlier had left the streets shiny and wet; the turquoise of her sari stood out electric against the grey as she picked her way slowly through the pile. A hundred crows swooped around, anxious to grab their share of the loot. I joined them, taking pictures; they pecked at the rubbish pile and I pecked at them, all looking for scraps. Buried deep in the grainy background a man in a pink shirt stands looking intently into the doorway. I can just see one knee sticking out of the alcove.
By eight forty-seven a small crowd had gathered along the street, pulled in by the arrival of a large blue police van. Twenty or so people stood silently in the distance. I abandoned the rubbish tip, the crows and arty pictures and walked along the street, stopping just by the rear of the van.
I still had no idea what was going on; I could see people standing around, hear whispered Hindi conversations, see sideways glances but couldn’t for the life of me work out what the cause of the attention was. With a wiggle of my head and a furrow of the brow I asked the obvious question.
‘Gone…’ was the reply. My informant jerked his head.
There was the dead man, lying peacefully asleep. There was nothing particularly dead about him, nothing juicy to see; no blood, no guts, no theatre – just a dead man looking exactly like every other sleeping street person in Kolkata. Nobody touched him, nor even particularly looked at him but they all had that same expression on their faces. I’d seen that look before – on the faces of the crowds watching cremations at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, in Varanasi, Jangipur; lost for a long still moment in the contemplation of death; sorrowful, solemn, still. But nobody actually cared; it was death itself they were contemplating, not this particular death.
At precisely eight fifty his body was lifted up by two men and carried, half-dragged to the street. The transition was quite shocking; from the rest and calm of his body lying dead in the doorway to the dangling incompetence of his removal. Arms and legs waved wildly, dragged across the sidewalk. They dumped him on the ground in front of my feet. One arm flew sideways, his head fell back, mouth pulled open wide. He looked like an El Greco Christ, just recent from the Cross. The body-snatchers changed their grip, nodded then threw him unceremoniously into the back of the van. I couldn’t bear to look inside. The policeman slammed the back door. They drove away.
By eight fifty-one it was as if nothing had happened. The crowd drifted apart, the doorway of R. Kumar’s ration shop stood empty, battered brown doors still fastened shut, two locks hanging forlornly against the peeling paint, stripped bare of any trace of death. Before the afternoon was out the dead man would be grey smoke on the Kolkata skyline, his body turned to ash. By evening his doorway would be tenanted with another sleeping creature of the night, his blanket wrapped tight round someone new. By tomorrow he’d be forgotten. So would I.
It was my last day in Kolkata. I was sad. All around the streets were weeping. The monsoon was about to explode. It was time or the mutt to go. I turned my face to the Ganges and wandered away; down the empty streets, by the empty shops, away past the vacant doorway of Kumar’s Ration Shop, walking through the ghosts of the city of joy.