“Dada, that poem you were reciting? What was it?”
The man tells me the name.
“And who wrote it?” I say, diligently writing it down in my notebook, ever the conscientious reporter.
To my embarrassment, he says “Rabindranath.” “Read, my friend. Read,” he advises with a wry smile.
Swapan Bhattacharya, a retired bank employee, is the Tagore-reciter. Walking down College Street in north Kolkata, in a sweat-soaked pale blue kurta, he is engaged in a stentorian passionate elocution duet with another man in a blue and white t-shirt.
I assume they are old friends, a sort of elocution club for retirees, perhaps. But it turns out they are perfect strangers who bumped into each other at the protest rally. And just happened to know long poems by heart.
This is an “only in Kolkata moment” I say to a friend.
The rally is supposed to be a walk of protest about the string of horrific rapes that have swept through the state lately. Nonagenarians Mrinal Sen and Mahasweta Devi have called for it but are not physically here on this sultry afternoon. Others celebrities, afraid this march was too Left-y have had their own march a day before, the politics of who is seen marching with whom almost obscuring the issue they are all marching about.
Someone, a little too inspired by Wall Street, has dubbed it OccupyKolkata. But the river of people streaming down College Street past the Calcutta University building and the Medical College, the old houses with green French windows, the publishing houses and pharmacies, the rickshaw pullers and thela-wallahs are not occupying anything. It’s a fairly orderly protest, by Kolkata standards. It comes with the posters that ask rhetorically “Where will we keep the corpses?” Another has a drawing of a dismembered naked woman with the slogan “This is not magic.” And it comes with the usual conversation of a rally – will it rain? What was the traffic like in Dharmatala? How much balance do you have in your mobile?
The organizers, stung by the chief minister’s allegation that rape was being politicized for electoral gain, exhort everyone not to raise slogans about any party or group. “This is supposed to be a silent march,” the poet Shankha Ghosh says.
But this being Kolkata, silence does not come easy. Swapan-babu is declaiming Rabindranath. The women from the Kathanadi recitation group are reciting a poem about a crocodile. ( I do not dare ask who wrote that). A well built television actor is leading a group in slogans of “Halla bol.” A group is singing old mass movement songs. Another group is arguing about whether to sing Baandh bhenge dao or Lauha Kapaat. Some students activists have managed to make up slogans with rhymes for Kamdhuni, the village where the young woman was gangraped. The temptation to take pot shots at the state government is too tempting. The old hoary marching slogans of “Jabab chai, jabab dao” keep cropping up. A young man says, his father, disgusted by the sloganeering in what was supposed to be a silent rally, left early.
Mon, a young man, a recent college graduate, wears a placard about the evils of rape around his neck. He has never marched before.“I had to come stand by ordinary people," he says. “Our state is becoming a dictatorship where one person says 'What I say is the final word.'” His group is putting on Julius Caesar he tells me. He smiles shyly when I ask if he sees any parallels. Rina Dutta-Majumdar, a middle-aged woman says she came with her Mahila Samiti from Salt Lake because she felt too restless after watching the news on television. “The (rape victim’s) family rejected the (compensation) job offers,” she says. “I salute that. They are a poor family. They made so much sacrifice.”
I am surprised at the number of men, especially older men at the march. Many have clearly been mobilized by unions. But retiree Kalyan Guha from Chinsurah says he came because he cannot reconcile what is happening in Kolkata now with the society he had grown up with. There are career marchers. The elocuting bank employee Swapan Bhattacharya says he has been marching since the 60s. “I am a little movement-oriented,” he says. But there are first timers like mother-and-son duo Joy Mukherjee and Jayasree Mukherjee from Shyambazar. Her green blouse is soaked in sweat. She holds on to a walking stick in one hand and her son’s hand in the other. He has a plastic bag with the caption “A complete man – Raymonds”.
“I felt too sad about what happened,” she says. “But I wanted to take part no matter how difficult it is for me to walk. I really wanted to.”
“This is not just about women,” says her son, a sportsperson. “ It’s about Bengal. Bengal used to be the leader. So many people have left. I want them to come back.”
The rally winds its way past the famous Bhim Nag sweet shop and the refurbished Hind multiplex, past the barebodied men standing silently on a balcony looking down and the poster for Khukumoni Sindoor and Aalta. Mamata Banerjee beams down from a poster on the street. No one raises slogans against her though her presence is palpable. Only the lozengewalla who sells us chutney lozenges says with a sly smile “Mamata hatao, desh bachao.” Business is good. His bag of lozenges is more than half gone. A policeman walks alongside the rally. “Are you on duty? Or walking with us?” laughs one marcher. He does not reply.
Finally the rally disgorges onto Esplanade near the Shahid Minar. The crowd, suddenly aimless, seems to not know what to do. Someone says 7-10,000 people walked. A group of transgenders stand by their banner. “People did ask why are you here? Why are people from the LGBT community walking? says Anindya Hajra. “The only response to that is this is beyond identity politics. Violence affects us all. I hope this has some impact.”
As we leave the rally, we try to hail taxis which have all miraculously evaporated into the muggy air. Finally we find one. We tell him where we want to go. He does not respond. “Will you go?” we repeat in exasperation, hot and sweaty. Slowly, reluctantly, he shakes his head. In silence. The marchers might not have paid any heed but the taxi drivers seem to have taken the exhortation for a silent march to heart.