Searching for Taslima
The Last Two-way Street in the City
Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was flown out of Calcutta on Nov. 21 after violent Muslim protests over her books and speeches resulted in injuries to 43 people and arrests of more than 100. Ruchir Joshi, a resident of Calcutta, wrote this after the riots.
The sms buzzes my phone in Madras and it’s as terse as phone texts get. There’s only one word that can be shortened – `called’ – but the sender hasn’t bothered: `Riots in Cal. Army called out.’
In the Self-Immolation capital of the world, everything around me is calm. It’s late afternoon and children are being picked up from the school across the lane; a waiting driver is playing Tam-pop in his Indica, one foot lodged in the `v’ of his half-open door; the rice-powder kolams outside the gates of the colony are already well-smudged. It feels like I am in another country, receiving news from a far-away home I no longer recognise.
The house where I am has no TV and, at first, I can’t quite figure out who has rioted. Could it be the film-makers? Surely not. Could they have dropped Ganguly for the Eden Test? No chance. Through a patchwork of sms-es and net news, I begin to get the picture, or so I think. `Muslims’ were rioting. The names cropping up were Park Circus, 4-number Bridge, Lower Circular and Ripon Street. Obviously, the issues were Nandigram and Rizwanul, or a cocktail of the two, but what exactly had triggered it? It takes a couple of hours for the answer to crystallise and when it comes, it is bizarre: `Taslima protest turns violent. Police confronts 10,000-strong mob before calling in Army. Epicentre: Ripon Street.’
As Taslima Nasreen makes her way west, I come back east. If I expect to see Calcutta transformed after the protests of early November or the riots later in the month, I am disappointed: everything is normal, nice early winter atmosphere, people and pollution both going about their usual business.
The whole area between Park Street and Dharmatalla has always fascinated me, even more so since I began to delve into Calcutta’s years of the Second World War. There has long been a mix of Anglo-Indian and Muslim populations here, the former thinning gradually as the latter grew, after Independence. This is where the local band musicians and catering industry people lived, this is where the sex-industry that catered to shaheb-ish tastes was based, this is where the Chinese had serious footholds south of Chinatown further to the north; this was also one of the main places where the dream first took root, in the late 1930s and early 40s, of a country called Pakistan and then, briefly and marginally, of a Muslim-majority, united, Republic of Bengal.
Growing up in the 70s, the streets and roads with names like Free School, Elliot, Ripon, Royd and Wellesley formed part of a dangerous and fascinating grid for a boy from a middle-class Hindu background such as myself. Then, it seemed as if all the delicious taboos had been herded into this one city within a city: the jazz and pop, the booze, the drugs, the prostitution, the mutton rizalas and the beef kababs. Not daring to venture too close to the professional dames or the drugs, I didn’t actually enter too deeply into this world, but, whenever I made a foray there was never any real sense of threat or danger – the area was merely one exotic part of my city, which happened to be a city full of exotic parts.
Now, when I get off at the junction of Ripon Street and Lower Circular Road, there is still the pall of quotidian Calcutta chaos. The taxis and buses are still trying to kill me, the traffic cops are still lazing about like indifferent cows, the grime has returned post the monsoon and it lies on everything as if it owns the place, which it still does.
Rather than go straight into Ripon, I cross the road and take a walk through the galis on the other side of Lower Circular. These are typical Calcutta galis, the narrow patch of broken asphalt bordered with gutter water, walls crumbling into the road, irrespective of whether they were put up in 1980 or 1780, aggressive vegetation growing out of every unbelievable nook and cranny as if this is where nature is beginning its fight to recover the planet from humans. Haji Lane, Mistri Para Lane, Noor Ali Lane, all winding quietly, all looking ready to go back to a sleepy November evening in the 19th century, if not all the way back to the beginning of eternity. There is a relatively fresh-looking notice pasted on a wall, the dirt sitting lightly enough for one to be able to read. `Jobs in the Gulf’, it says, with complicated tables below listing various construction and low-level engineering jobs.
In one corner there is a box which lists waiters’ jobs for `Muslims Only’ which include `keeping the establishment clean and hygenic’. Lying right below it, torn and scuffed by footprints, is a placard in red Bangla type with a hammer and sickle: `Maintain peace and discipline in the neighbourhood’. Heading back to the main road, the walls develop slogans: thin, dripping, black block letters, scrawled quickly, `Taslima Go Back!’, and again and again, till the guy tries a variation on the chhanda, `Go Back Taslima!’ and then on one side of an open factory gate an almost-haiku: `TASLI GO’, finished on the other gate by an equally elliptical `MA BACK!’
When different people explain what happened that day, a few things emerge quite clearly. There was the main anti-Taslima procession on Lower Circular, the supposed `chakka jaam’, there was police presence and there was tension, but apparently not riot-level tension. The party properly started when groups of men came out of these lanes across Lower Circular, one by one the mouths of the galis filling up with small mobs from Taanti Para, Mehdi Bagan and Bedford Lane, these names later becoming thin euphemisms for `easily incitable underclass’, in this case an underclass amply supplied with broken brick and shards of shattered tubelights. There were people in Ripon Street proper as well, breaking bricks on the roof of the Saran Laundry – a low building – and hurling stuff down at the police from above; but mainly the rioters came, as they often do, from `onno para’, from `doosrey muhalley’, from that ever-present, incendiary `elsewhere’.
After all the ups and downs it has gone through, Ripon itself is now a street heavy with middle-class homes, businesses and ongoing construction. `Majority belonging to Muslims’, as one local points out, `but not the kind of Muslims who would like a riot.’ At least, not most of them. Talking to people, I hear a repeated theme: an open nexus between local and not-so local politicians and at least two powerful builders vying for street-supremacy in the area, and the varying agendas these figures might have, that would make them welcome the occasional upheaval.
As I walk up Ripon street, I see the difference from other parts of Calcutta but also, inescapably, the similarities; in a construction-drunk city, this is yet another street overdosing on rampant concrete, with old, infirm houses being ripped down and new buildings squeezing up through the available space. The garish new apartments, painted with what I call `Gulf Colours’, sit side by side with the older constructions, some of them going back into the early 19th century and maybe even the late 18th. All of these, old, new and in-between, form a curious architectural cross-section of the city’s history. The old beauties have survived the rapid changeovers of the last 20 years, the shifting out of the Anglo-Indians, the height of the goonda era from the mid-80s to the late 90s, and currently, the weighty hand of new avarice.
The old buildings have their rotting, time-bombed charm, while the new constructions are prime real estate, close to the centre of a city experiencing a property boom. But the majority of architecture on Ripon street consists of the deadly, Calcutta, `Nothing-style’ baadis made in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the ones you pass by without ever remembering a single façade or feature, the ones that do not advertise the stories they contain. One of the alleged instigators of the recent riots was arrested from one such building. As the man who is showing me around points out the place, the whole business of Taslima comes up again. `The whole thing had nothing to do with us, with Ripon Street or any of the people living here, Muslims or otherwise,’ says one resident.
Mohammad Mustafa, a ramrod-straight tax consultant in his 70s, is even more outspoken: `These Minority Forum people are kicking at the CPM now, but it was this very same government that gave these people a huge boost earlier. What is this Minority Forum that consists only of Muslims? Where are the Sikhs, Christians and Parsis in this forum? The CPM never questioned this, and now, look – they can’t even keep control in this elaaka so near their headquarters!’
Mustafa’s desk is old, nicked, but spotless. A motorcycle is parked next to it, right inside his office, obviously not safe to leave outside. His voice is quiet but all the more precise for it. `What do these people care about Taslima? She has been here for years, so why do this now? They are not in the least bothered about her.’
Mustafa’s father graduated in Medicine in the same batch as B.C Roy, and the family has lived in this lane off Ripon Street since 1925. Mustafa’s own life spans from the time when the population of the neighbourhood was peaceably split 50-50 between Anglo-Indian and Muslim. What he says jells exactly with the viewpoint of another, much younger man, `B’, who lives nearby. As he says himself, `B’ is both Muslim and CPM cadre. `You go and ask the Anglos who still live in Ripon street and they’ll tell you – the Mosey buggers kicked us out, man! And it’s true. The good Anglos left, mostly. There are still some decent families left, but most of them are the dregs, involved in the same business as the Muslim thugs.’
`B’s take on the riots is clear and makes sense even as I see the party-line spinning. `Taslima lives in Rawdon Street. Why not go there and protest? What’s the point of burning tyres in Park Circus? It was all planned from before, and the idea was to show the Government what these guys could do, and to let Trinamul know that they still had strength. Panchayat elections are coming next year, after all.’
So, if it was all so pre-planned, if the rioters were brought in from other areas, if it was such a `focussed riot’, how come the police had no idea this it about to happen? `Arre, we who have daily contact with these streets didn’t know, so how could the cops?’
When I ask Euphemia, who lives right on Ripon, she says she was completely out of it. `Uss day ko? I had no idea, at first. Then I knew trouble was happening at the end of our street and people were scared for the school children, but I kept away.’
Sheikh Hafizuddin, who has run his tailoring establishment for over 30 years, says he went to Badabazar to do his work and came back untouched.
Reggie, who says he hasn’t emigrated because `this country won’t let me go’, was specific: `There is no blessed problem between us all living here. But what these mad people who came from outside and did is wrong. The school children got tortured. You have a political problem you keep it in the political area.’
Tanweer describes the kids caught in the school buses and inside the clutch of schools that dot Ripon, children terrified, wanting to get home, the tear-gas stinging their eyes, the Army arriving in the late afternoon. He speaks of how he got some of the children out via the back streets, getting them to their anxious parents waiting outside the `trouble area’.
Area. Who defines it? How does one define it?
What becomes clear is this:
There is Ripon Street, cutting east-west across the belly of Calcutta like an acupuncturist’s median. The history and money waver and flicker, from the end facing Taanti Para on Lower Circular Road to the other, where it meets Free School Street at Karnani Mansions and the molluscs of swish restaurants attached to the hulk of that huge old pile.
There are the surrounding areas, Wellesley/Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Park Circus and the sea of tanneries around No. 4 Bridge and Tangra, the CPM’s Father Stalin HQ at Alimuddin Street and the Mother Teresa HQ at Mother House. Here live large numbers of the city's labouring poor as well as two different claimants to the mantle of bringing succour to them.
Next, there is the haphazard grid of greed, both within the law and downright unlawful, that spreads its net across the whole city. That invites the playing out of all kinds of irruptions, both choreographed and spontaneous.
There is an area called Nandigram, in Midnapur district, that doesn’t show up in this map at all.
Neither does the local train line next to which they found the body of Rizwanul Rahman.
One of the articulate young Party guys gives me an image: `Media always criticises the CPM. They take an issue and stretch it like chewing gum, and people buy it.’
Masticating the strip of logic, one can connect all these diverse areas. Some might be a stretch, but that’s the function of chewing gum – you can make very thin, fragile but tenacious bridges with it: there is a large, frustrated underclass in this seemingly, newly booming megalopolis; this class is now face to face not only with new and naked low-level wealth, but with a clearly communalised Government bureaucracy and police-force; the Muslim sections of this underclass are even more vulnerable because they are prey not only to the establishment but also to unscrupulous mullahs about whom the `socialist’ Government and `secular’ party cadre can do absolutely Sweet Nothing – puny, cretinous clerics with nothing better to do, who are able to hold to ransom the pusillanimous Bengali Hindus who run the Party.
Now let’s see if there’s any gum left to stretch and stick to Taslima Nasrin, the offending writer.
When I ask `B’ and his comrades about Taslima they shrug their shoulders. `Look if someone insults your mother and your father you are bound to react. And this stupid woman has insulted her own mother and father.’ Talking to these men what I get is that they would have had no problem with a `genuine protest’ against Nasrin, it’s the manipulated nature of the riots, the not-so-hidden agenda behind them that they find objectionable.
I bring in MF Husain and Rushdie, and their reaction is the same – they shouldn’t have insulted anyone’s religion. I argue that people can insult religions or someone’s mother and father, and others can insult back, but surely no one has a right to kill or demand death on that basis. `H’ a young intellectual turns to me, `Listen, you and I can argue about this and we can even see each other’s point of view. I can agree that no one should be killed for this, but the crowd isn’t going to stop and take this democratically. The crowd will always react, and the mullahs and politicians use this.’
`And what do you do to counter the mullahs?’ I ask.
`We do what we can, but there are limits because they know we are connected to the Party. Ultimately the mullah can turn to me and say “you are an atheist! Why should we listen to you?” bas, baat vahi khatam.’
In this ground reality, things play quite differently from the views of `liberal’`antels’ like me. When I bring up Rizwanul, I am told: `Look, the second part of what that Todi did was wrong, but the first part was understandable –no father is going to just sit there and give up his precious daughter. He has brought her up, so it becomes his right to try and stop her from a wrong marriage. So he had a right to try his best. That first part was fine, the second part was wrong, the boy should not have been killed.’
The whole business of the `wrong marriage’ comes up again when I talk to a couple of Anglo-Indians still living on the street. `That’s the problem,’ one tells me, `our people married others, you know, like, married outside our community. That’s when the problems started, when the inter-marriages began, and when these goondas began to barge into our parties wanting free drinks.’
Adrian Newbigging remembers a Ripon-time before the problems. `We are Anglos you know, so we are always ready for a party. So you got four people, or you got 20y, and you got together at someone’s house and you played your music. We’d all sing and jam, or play records and people would jive. Like all the old stuff, Tom Jones and Englebert, and then there was the Pussycats and Abba and all.’
This was the time of the Sunday `Fashion Parade’ at the 8.30am mass at St Mary’s church, where the girls would dress to the hilt and the boys would gather to look; of the Zoo Club which pulled in musicians, big and unknown, to jam together; of the time when the ganja was pure and the beer cheap.
`Now the dry stuff has gone –too much garbage mixed into it, and the elbow-bending has gone down a bit too.’ Says another man, wistfully, `at that time we used to smoke like pure KG and the juice was so good, you won’t believe it.’
Whatever Islam was being practiced around Ripon Street, it was practiced peacefully, side by side with the most open sexuality and pleasure the city could provide. Unlike the inward-looking middle-class paras of North and South Calcutta, this was an open, mixed, syncretic, public neighbourhood, and it was a very far cry from the East Pakistan that grew into Bangladesh.
Just as I suspect I wouldn’t find Ripon Street in the writings of Taslima, I found no trace of Taslima on Ripon Street or its environs, save, that is, for the sad, scrawled slogans in the galis.
Those slogans and the riots are serious, but they are also the very worst kind of a bad joke, one that should have nothing to do with Calcutta. Riots triggered by twisted religion should not well up from roads named after heroes of the proletarian struggle such as Hare Krishna Konar Road and Muzzafar Ahmed Street, (as Ripon is now called), but they do. Writers should have the courage of their convictions and they should not agree to rub out pages from their books to keep the remote-controlled crowds at bay, but, sadly, they do. Supposedly Communist governments should not be overseeing the rape and murder of peasants, but, as they have done in the past, they still do.
As Hafizuddin tailors his polyester Shah Rukhiya trousers with the `Mohabbat’-style cross-pockets, as Euphemia nurses her sick husband back to health, as the schoolkids flock to Ripon in their multi-coloured uniforms, as Tanweer tends to the big paantha he is saving to gift to someone at Bakr Eid, as Mohammad Mustafa reflects on times gone by, as Reggie shakes his head thinking about the tear-gas, as the uncooked kebabs glisten in their marinade waiting for the tawaa, I search for someone here who has read the writings of Taslima Nasrin. It’s a joke.
No matter what pages Nasrin now chooses to excise from her long-published books, and no matter who pushes her into this, or from which motive, and no matter who stands by and heaves a sigh of relief, it is these living pages from the beautiful, messy, blasphemous, vibrant book of Calcutta that are in danger of being ripped out forever.
The foregoing appeared in The Calcutta Tielegraph