– By Soumi Dutta
The incident I am going to narrate happened during Durga Puja on Shoshthi 2014. And I believe it to be my duty to share my experience and feelings with all of you. Without much ado, I begin. I am not wasting time on building the premise, as it is not important. I am going straight into what happened.
After gracing the Shobhabajar Rajbari, Grey Street, Shatadal, Hari Ghosh Street and Hatibagan Sarbojanin, my friends D, P and R, and I, were heading for the pujas of Kumartuli, Ahiritola and Beniatola. I did not want to miss Jorabagan either so I headed to the left first because last year that was the route D and I had taken. Well, this year, due to some reason, that route was blocked and we unknowingly found ourselves on the infamous Abinash Kabiraj Street (well at that time, we were not aware of it being infamous). The road seemed quaint alright, but I attributed it to the essence of North Kolkata, which will always be somewhat alien to us “fundamentally Dokhne” people (people from South Kolkata)! D tried to draw my attention to a particular house with an even more particular name “Prem Bandhan” (Bond of Love) and its lights which were a peculiar red in colour. Now D is the person who you will see tearing Shah Rukh Khan posters from random walls because she cannot stand her husband hugging even a wall! So, most of the time we don’t take her seriously.
D is the personification of the qualities called “malleability” and “ductility” (which are essentially the only words I remember from my school physical science textbook) and because of this, she cannot stand straight nor can she walk without a typical drunkard’s gait. So when we were walking down Abinash Kabiraj, I had to walk with my arms around D’s waist (I am sure R, who was walking behind us, must have seen me as Chunnilal taking Debdas down the path of sin). Now suddenly a real Deb-Chunni pair stumbled past us and I held D strong and placed her on the sidewalk. But then something struck me. D opened her mouth again and now I opened my eyes. And then I saw.
We were already on our way to Masjid Bari Street. The streets were decorated indeed, but not with Puja lights. It was like a ghost town, the crossing covered with apparent policemen (and women) in 50 shades of blue and on the other side, women with faces about 200 shades of red standing with breasts pumped up and grim expressions. The men around were drastically different from the friendly dadus of Grey Street who chatted with us and offered us seats to have our ice creams in peace. These men, I suppose, were too drunk to look at us – which was good in a way, and also dangerous because then they would also not be able to differentiate between who stood on the street for what. We kept our cool and decided we should not be worried because a very prominent police patrol was nearby. R and I went to a guy sitting on a chair, he was talking to some female members of the patrol. The following ensued.
We: “Achha Kumartuli ta kon dike porbe?” (Hello, can you tell us the way to Kumortuli?)
He (with a lopsided B grade villain smile): “Prothome dan dike tarpor ban dike tarpor abar dan dike?” (first you go right then you go left then you go right again, eh?)
We (stunned for a split second)
At this point, R took us away saying, “That’s enough.”
And he said, along with a C grade street urchin grin: “Aamar bola ta bhalo laglo na??” (Didn’t you like the way I said it?)
The Ultimate Protector of the Year, you are.
On Our Way to Beniatola:
We walked fast towards the main road. There was no one suitable enough to ask anything. A typical Northern dadu (bless Kolkata for still having some of them around and blessed are we) understood where we were coming from and finally gave us the right directions for Beniatola. Our minds were still filled with deep thoughts about the environment and circumstances we had just left in our past. It was only 5 minutes since it had happened, but it had already left an indelible mark on all of us. We were not bothered about the fact that we had found ourselves in a red-light area. What appalled us is the behavior of the policeman. We were not afraid of being attacked, nor were we in any way of any negative opinion about the workings of the area. But we definitely did expect way more than what we got.
We still do not understand why things happened the way they did. It was very clear to everyone around that these 4 young girls were in the wrong place at the wrong time by accident. But what did the guy who I am calling a policeman want to prove with his antics? That we were fit for him to have fun with because we were facing some difficulty in a place that was not familiar to us? That we were not entitled to ask for help because we were “females” out on a street that buys meat in all forms and ways? Or that we were to fool around with because we were 4 girls out to have fun on a Puja evening?
I don’t know about the girls, but for the first time I did feel unsafe in the core of my heart. This is not because I am afraid to be mistaken as a “prostitute” or because I think of the neighbourhoods with women having to earn their livelihoods in this way as “bad”, just for the sake of the word. I felt afraid because incidents like these are meant to do just that. They are meant to scare us, so that we hide ourselves away behind the blurred contours of our own femininity, so that we are forced to be terrified of being a woman. So that we stop embracing ourselves and our identities and stop saying that it is okay.
And at the risk of sounding clichéd, I could not help but feel miserable for the women that I saw that night on that street. Their dolled up faces absolutely devoid of any expression keeps haunting me. I could have chosen to feel lucky because I am million times more fortunate than them. But I did not. I felt awful and I still feel awful. And God bless, I will feel lucky if only someday I can do even one thing for innumerable women suffering just because they exist.