New Market is the first place dewy-eyed photographers turn their b/w lenses on to capture the breathtaking, crumbling Brit buildings that define their city, the place the average proud Kolkatan shows off to his Mumbai and Bangalore friends. And it was in this same New Market that goons chased down a 21-year-old girl and beat her up as a number of people watched in silence.
Till long after sundown the office-market district in the heart of Kolkata is a pleasant big city market. Hawkers, beggars, frantic men late for a date, young girls loaded with shopping bags, drivers looking for a short-cut and deeply competitive dahi vada wallahs lunge for your attention, feet and on bad days, at your patience.
But by 11 pm, the neon banners have started to sputter and die. Barrista is cleaning up its tables and the KFC guys round up the day’s sales. All good middle-class Bengali households will tell their girls to stay off New Market after sundown. Loud catcalls in Bengali ring in the air, amid a row of distracted taxi drivers unwilling to budge an inch without double the fare.
The same market where the mother zealously works her way around under the scorching sun and amid hundreds of sweating, eager shoppers in the day becomes perilous by night.
What Kolkata calls safe comes with a bunch of deadlines, no venture zones and a mandatory Bengali lesson on ‘common sense’ that requires you to keep walking if someone hoots, not make eye contact, not to linger in unfamiliar, quiet-ish areas, and not look like a hippie.
Scores of women have been harassed by cabbies and in share-cabs they take from the IT sector in Salt Lake on the eastern fringes of the city. Hardly a handful of them have been booked. Complaints against taxi drivers pile up in the traffic police department and the most that is ever done is confiscation of a license which can reclaimed for a measly Rs 100. The first panic call that a girl makes if followed by a drunkard or miscreant is to her family, where the frantic mother dutifully asks her to take a cab and rush home. Police, she knows, haven’t ever been an option, and a good Bengali girl will ideally never visit at a police station unless she wants her higher secondary certificates attested.
Just five days back, a woman unfamiliar to the part of the city she was in, turned to something that she knew hundreds of other women do everyday. She got into a private car, which like hundreds of private cars plying the city, was operating as a shuttle cab. Ruchita (name changed) thought she was taking the safest way out of a semi-deserted Kolkata office street. Only she got raped by the driver and dumped on the streets next afternoon. She had gone to meet her ailing husband at the SSKM hospital, that serves as most of the city’s lifeline.
Kolkata’s reputation of safety, evidently, relies on the compliance of its women – who may well pay the ultimate price even if they follow the rules.
Years back, when the CPI(M) ruled the roost, a Unicef worker was raped and murdered in Bantala, then an up and coming leather complex in the southern fringes of the city. CM Jyoti Basu told the shocked media, “Why did she go there? No one in her senses would.”
Little has changed in our “safe” city. Women, as always, have to bear the responsibility of their own well-being, and its loss. We live with it, just as we live with a prehistoric university syllabi. The alternately bullying and lethargic traffic cops. The extended lunch hours, the sleepy government offices. This is poribartan.