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Heritage walks and mosque tours, and a database of landlords who won’t discriminate on the basis of religion: Kolkata fights back against communal rabble-rousing

All in the game KYN’s walks go deep into specific areas and involve interactions with locals. Anuradha Sengupta & Pronil Mridha

On a muggy August Sunday, a group of around 52 people took a walk around the old Kolkata neighbourhood of Zakaria Street, observing the decades-old ittar stores and trying out fragrances, noticing the shop’s charming architectural details, and having spontaneous chats with the area’s residents. The walk was part of an ongoing initiative between Kolkata’s Presidency University and Know Your Neighbour (KYN), a social experiment aimed at promoting communal harmony in Bengal. The initiative was started in 2016 in association with SNAP (Social Network for Assistance to People) Bengal.

Sabir Ahmed of SNAP says he found the need for the initiative after seeing the increasing level of discomfort that other communities had about Muslims. He feels KYN is particularly important now when much of the fear is nurtured on social media and digital platforms like Whats-App. “My interactions with young participants revealed surprising misconceptions. Something like the practice of Dastarkhan, a traditional space for meals kept on a yellow cloth featuring Urdu couplets, had become the basis for speculation over why Muslims ‘eat in bed’. You hear about someone booking an Uber or a meal, finding the delivery person or driver is Muslim and cancelling the ride or order. I had a researcher from a reputed university abroad who wanted to do some study on the Muslim community, but refused to come to Kidderpore to meet me. I’d rather meet you in a café at Park Street, she said. Because she had heard it was not a ‘good area’. It’s all becoming so strange.”

Interactions with locals

As Ahmed says, there are many people who do not know a single Muslim person in their social circles. Combined with the bewildering array of misconceptions, it becomes a dangerous brew. KYN’s walks go deep into specific areas and are followed by interactions with locals. “For instance, we may explore Unani medicine by interacting with families who have been in the business for decades. We find out about Hindu zamindars who used to live in Zakaria Street, the big Durga Puja that happens in Raibari, the Mohammed Ali Library, which has books on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita — in Urdu. We take non-Muslim women into the masjid, breaking the myth that women are not allowed inside. All this opens people’s eyes to the reality, combating their ignorance,” says Ahmed.

This is one of the reasons that motivated Garima Dhabhai, an assistant professor with Presidency University to sign up her students for a walk with KYN. “We live in times when stereotypinghas become normal,” she says. “Today’s generation, and, in fact, a lot of us, are fed so many things on social media about a community — news, images, videos, memes. Misconceptions happen not because people are from a conservative background but because they are constantly exposed to such images. Then there’s an entire discourse about Muslim culture in Kolkata that’s associated with biryani, kebabs, Awadhi nawabs and so on, which is stereotypical in its own way. This is where initiatives like KYN become necessary. The idea is to get in there and see the actual reality.”

Dhabhai recounts how the ittar shops attracted the students, and how at an imambara, one of the students started telling them about his memories of the space. “He became our guide, in a spontaneous way.”

This de facto guide was Farhan Zafri, a Political Science student from Presidency. “This area was a major part of my childhood and I know how most people have a limited view of it. It’s been ghettoised as a run-down place, or identified only as an area to go to for kebabs, sevai etc. during Ramzan. But it is so much more.” He was excited that his friends and professors were exploring the musafirkhanas, the imambargahs, and ittar shops of his old neighbourhood. “I was able to show them where rituals are held, how a traditional majlis is held, the narrative behind Muharram. I was humbled by the appreciation this area so close to my heart drew.”

Cultural food tours

Apart from walks, KYN holds regular events across the city, including iftar get-togethers and Kolkata Mosjider Kotha (Tales of Kolkata’s Mosques). “Mosques are spread across the city but people only know of a handful,” says Ahmed. “There are mosques here named after the women of Tipu Sultan’s family — people don’t know about that.” KYN also hosts interesting cultural food tours such as Breakfast with Bakarkhani and Dosti ki Iftari.

Another initiative in response to the increasing and open distrust between communities is Open The Door. Started in April last year by voluntary group Sanghati Abhijan (‘campaign for people’s unity’), it is a citizen-led attempt to create a database of landlords in various cities and towns of West Bengal who will not discriminate on the basis of religion. The group’s Facebook page says it is “an attempt to fight rampant discrimination against Muslims’ access to housing.”

Sanghati Abhijan started off as a citizens’ initiative for direct action against communalism when “there was a series of communal flare-ups in Bengal, in places like Asansol, Naihati etc.,” says Kasturi Basu, a filmmaker, who signed up to help with the campaign.”

Friendly interventions

Even as the group was holding its first few meetings, two incidents took place. Four junior doctors were thrown out of their rented home because of their religion, and a student was refused a house after the landlord learned her last name. Sanghati Abhijan took up the cases, spoke to the landlords, and got them to rethink their decisions. That was how Open The Door started.

In the beginning, they were contacted by people who had faced similar issues. “We used to deal with it case by case. We would go and speak to the landlords, and in most cases we were successful in changing their minds. Sometimes, the landlords wouldn’t budge. One said, ‘It isn’t me — it is my old mother who has these biases.’”

Later, Sanghati Abhijan started its Facebook page, where flat or homeowners could post, but only if they agreed not to discriminate. “Later, we also added that there should be no discrimination based on sexual orientation, caste, etc. It has started rolling, and now people don’t need to come to us. Many people have found accommodation through the page.”

Basu recounts the strange ‘Only vegetarians allowed’ ads that she and her husband came across while searching for a place to rent in Kolkata. “We were intrigued. What does it even mean in a city like Kolkata where most people are non-vegetarian? Then, after calling up a few places, we found out that it was actually code for No Muslims. They had no problem with non-Muslims who they imagined would eat meat but not beef.”

Basu thinks the government needs to step in and declare a no-discrimination policy for the housing sector — “or else Muslims will just not get to decide where they can live. They will always have a limited choice and be pushed to live in those few ‘Muslim areas’, and they will get ghettoised further.”

The freelance writer is founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, a media collective for children and youth.

The NRI mum apologised again, her voice close to tears. ‘I’m sorry but she just doesn’t listen to me.’ The boy in front shrieked in approval of his co-perpetrator

getty images/ istock

My recent return flight from London was divided into two legs, with a changeover at a busy airport in West Asia. The first leg of the flight had the usual international mix of passengers and was uneventful except for nasty clear air turbulence over Germany and the Czech Republic.

CAT is highly unpleasant and visually unnerving as the aircraft yo-yos in bright sunlight at 41,000 feet, with the nearest clouds a vast duvet of white about 10,000 feet below. This phenomenon has been getting worse over the last decade and I’ve read in many places that it’s a direct result of global warming.

No matter, we landed safely at the desert hub. As I approached the departure gate for the second leg I could see from a distance that this was a flight filled with compatriots — desis ignoring zone announcements for boarding and jostling to get ahead. They included some passengers who’d been on the earlier flight with me and were so well-behaved at Heathrow. As always, it was a case of when nearing home begin to do as the Indians do.

Ear-piercing shrieks

The flight was packed. There were several parents with small children. Specifically, a three-year-old boy in the row in front of me was announcing his presence by letting loose ear-piercing shrieks every 45 seconds. I settled down, hoping the kid would calm down. The night flight was scheduled to be four-and-a-half hours long.

About five minutes after I sat down, the small of my back began to feel as though the CAT from the previous flight had started again. The aircraft hadn’t even begun to taxi but a focussed force was rhythmically punching my back. When I got up and looked, I saw a small girl in the seat behind me. A girl with very strong legs; legs of just the correct length that, when fully stretched, they sank into the back of my seat. I sat back down and reminded myself of the many times I had flown long-distance with my own children, first one kid and then two. I couldn’t remember either of them shrieking or feeling free to kick the seat in front.

The trauma continues

We took off and reached cruising height. The boy kept shrieking. The girl kept kicking. I got up and had a polite but firm word with the boy’s mother and grandfather sitting on either side of his seat. ‘What can we do?’ said Nanaji in a checkmate tone, ‘He’s only three!’ ‘You can tell him it’s not okay to scream like this.’ ‘We are. But he doesn’t listen,’ snapped the mortally offended mother.

I sat down, defeated, feeling like an ogre. The girl kicked my back in punishment. The boy let loose another bloodcurdler. His mother might have said what she did to me but her child’s appleness clearly remained unplucked from her eye — she didn’t even glance at the brat. After another 10 minutes of lower-spinal pummelling I got up and engaged the mother of the little girl with the ski-champion pins.

This woman was shepherding her daughter alone. She had the harried look of someone who has been bombed out of their home and is now being accosted by an unsympathetic air-raid warden. ‘I’m really sorry,’ she said in a Punjabomerican accent, ‘but we’ve been travelling from Houston and she’s really tired.’ She’s anything but tired, I wanted to snarl, but refrained.

Feeling sorry

By now people were looking at me and I had caught the cabin crew’s attention. When one of them came up, I explained the double whammy I was undergoing. She nodded and got her boss who was also very sympathetic ‘Sorry, but nothing we can do sir,’ she said. As I sat down, the girl kicked again. The NRI mum apologised again, her voice close to tears. ‘I’m sorry but she just doesn’t listen to me.’ The boy in front shrieked in approval of his co-perpetrator.

I tried to consider dire counter-measures but came up with nothing. I realised it was actually the parents I wanted to punish. I’ve been on many flights with lots of high-energy children, why is it that only desi children behave this way? Leave aside flights, why do privileged Indian children feel free to behave badly in all public spaces? It’s because their loving parents giggle and look on proudly when they do. Because their parents reward this behaviour without imposing any limits or consequences. Because desi parents often let the child run away with the idea that he or she is the centre of the universe. This leads to young adults who have no civic sense, who have little consideration for others, who always try to jump the queue, who scream when they want and kick how they want.

With two world wars, the 20th century, not surprisingly, saw a profusion of anti-war books. Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, Irène Némirovsky — to name a handful — wrote on the devastating impact of conflict. In Heller’s absurd war novel, Catch 22, American bombardier John Yossarian justifies to himself that his bombing missions over Italy are at odds with his intention to “live forever or die in the attempt”. But if Heller’s satire is about fear, Ernest Hemingway’s chilling, boots on the ground novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about love and loss, life and death. When it was published in October 1940, The New York Times hailed it as the “most moving document” on the Spanish civil war and the “first major novel of the Second World War.”

War despatches

Hemingway had followed the Spanish conflict and reported it firsthand for the North American Newspaper Association, highlighting in his despatches the debilitating effects of war. In Spain, when a group of generals, Francisco Franco among them, rose against the ruling liberal Republican government in 1936, civil war broke out. For three years, Franco’s army (or the Nationalists) was resisted by a coalition of Republicans/ Loyalists and Communist forces that included the International Brigades, paramilitary units set up by the Communist International. But the Nationalists, which had sought the help of fascist forces in Germany and Italy, won and unleashed a reign of terror that continued long after the war.

In this backdrop, Hemingway writes the story of Robert Jordan, an American embedded with the International Brigades as a dynamiter. He is attached to an anti-fascist guerrilla unit in the Spanish Sierra and has to blow up a bridge crucial to the Nationalists so that the Republican Loyalist forces may advance. Over the nearly 500-page book, Jordan, who is a professor of Spanish in Montana, learns of the dangers of war and the close friendships it inevitably forms. In the pine forests high in the mountains, he runs into Maria, a young woman who has fled from Franco’s rebels after facing terrible atrocities. Drawn to Maria but lost in the cause, Jordan battles questions about life, death, war, politics.

Seizing moments

Jordan quickly acquaints himself with the guerrilla group led by Pablo and his strong wife, Pilar. Asked if he is a communist, he replies, “No, I am anti-fascist.” Pilar is curious: “For a long time?” she asks. “Since I have understood fascism,” he quips. Pablo is initially reluctant to be part of the bridge mission as he feels the fascist forces would hunt them down. But slowly the members come around. El Sordo, called the deaf man, is wary of the complicated plan which looks simple on paper but as Jordan knows, “paper bleeds little”. With uncertainty hanging in the air, Jordan and Maria can only talk about love and happiness, seizing moments to be together. “…in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow… he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it.”

Pared down descriptions — “your nationality and your politics did not show when you were dead” — and a poignant make-belief conversation between Jordan and Maria about the good times ahead lead us to the final battle. The fascists get wind of the offensive and are ready; Jordan sends a message to the commander but it’s too late. “Robert Jordan saw them there on the slope, close to him now, and below he saw the road and the bridge and the long lines of vehicles below it. He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything.”

A word on the title: the story goes that Hemingway was unhappy with his initial choice, The Undiscovered Country. Finally, Hemingway found what he was searching for in The Oxford Book of Verse. Reading John Donne’s lines, “No man is an Iland… every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine… any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”, as his grandson, Sean Hemingway, writes in the Library edition, he thought they spoke of the “interconnectedness of humanity that matched the aspirations of his work.”

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

What makes Bear Grylls a star and a forest guard posing with a cobra an offender?

Celebs The forest guard with the king cobra; and (top) Bear Grylls with PM Modi in Man vs. Wild YouTube screenshot & ANI

In the second week of September, news sites and newspapers carried a report with the pictures of a West Bengal forest guard posing with a just-rescued king cobra draped around his shoulder. The grainy pictures that went viral, taken most likely on mobile phones, also showed at least six other people clicking pictures of the guard with their phones, and the official clearly ‘posing’ for the camera.

The forest guard was eventually admonished and an enquiry has been initiated against him. There has also been condemnation — it was a dangerous act, unethical and could set a wrong precedent for common people. who might also then begin harassing and disturbing wildlife for such ‘photo-ops’.

While the forest guard perhaps knew he should not be handling the snake the way he did, the incident raises important questions. Why did he do what he did? Would he have done it if there had been no cameras around to record him?

Central to the entire episode is the idea of spectacle and performance. It was perhaps the guard’s shot at recognition and fame in a world that is increasingly driven by the possibilities of instant celebrity-hood, even if only for a moment.

Why did he do it?

This then becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The posing is done for the cameras, the photos are circulated, they are then commented upon because they were taken in the first place.

The forest guard ended up creating an object for consumption, aided by technology that allows documentation and communication with a speed and a reach not conceivable until recently.

But there is also another answer to the question of why he did what he did. It is quite simply this: That he has been made to believe that it is possible. That it is okay. And indeed that it is an acceptable route to recognition.

One does not have to go further than Bear Grylls to see how this plays out. The show he did with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Corbett Tiger Reserve was hailed for its conservation messaging and for simultaneously highlighting India’s tourism potential.

If there is one answer to how Grylls has achieved international stardom, it is the ‘spectacle for consumption’ that he has created through his television show Man vs. Wild (ironic in itself as a conservation message).

And if Grylls can drink snake blood, eat the heart of a moose or the eyeball of a sheep, all on TV, and yet (or perhaps because of this) get to do a show with the Indian Prime Minister, what’s wrong in the actions of this forest guard, who only occupies the bottom rung of the hierarchy? He was in any case only posing with a snake he had rescued, and one that, most probably, was released back into the wild.

Grylls becomes a star, while the forest guard becomes an offender — there is a completely different kind of food chain operating here. Conservation is a serious and complicated endeavour, and turning it into mere spectacle can only do it great injustice. Whether it’s done by Grylls or a forest guard.

The author researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society, and technology.

Non-stop questions

Getty Images/ iStock

Respected Madam/Sir,

It is with greatest pleasure that I am informing you of latest addition to the Mathrubootham household. It is a very small fellow, and it is sitting near the mixie in the kitchen.

What is it you are thinking? Confusion is there in your face? I can see, I can see through computer screen itself.

I will explain full story. Yesterday I went for Seniors Intermediate Yoga in the morning. During return journey I was walking with usual friends group of Dr. Shankaramenon, Mohammed Usman and all. And Usman suddenly said, “Hey JMB you are always asking nonstop questions everyday, no? I have one idea for you.”

I said, “First of all please don’t call me JMB in public places, people will think I am tractor or some vaccination for small children. Second of all Usman what do you mean nonstop questions? Curiosity is a crime in India now? Should I not ask questions? Should I just keep quiet every time?”

Usman said, “My dear JMB you have already asked seven questions in two seconds. Even Derek O'Brien is not asking so many questions. Now you are seeing my point?”

I was about to open my mouth but it was also a question so I immediately closed my mouth and made insulting movement with my hands.

Then Usman said “JMB, my son has purchased one new device from Amazon website. It is the latest model of old product I am already having. My son said, ‘Papa, shall we sell it in secondhand market?’ I said, ‘What dhuddu-moneys we will get for this. I will give it to my friends. Maybe they can use.’”

So we went to Usman’s shop. He took out one box and said, “Take it, Mathrubootham. Now you ask whatever questions you want at home only, please stop eating heads of friends. It is like new, only some masala stains on the box, apologies for this.”

Madam/sir this device is called Amazon Alexa. Have you seen? I took Alexa out of the box. Then I carefully read the manual and then connected to internet and then kept it on dining table. And then I said, “Alexa, tell me names of novels by Alistair MacLean.” Suddenly in full volume one lady like Margaret Thatcher started saying one after one the names.

Immediately Mrs. M came running out and said “Who is that lady? Where is the lady? You have brought foreign lady home? I have been waiting for this day for many years. Long time back itself members of Ladies Association said be careful Mrs. Mathrubootham, these days old men are sitting on internet and doing antisocial activities….”

Madam/Sir, after 30-40 minutes she stopped. Then I said, “It is Alexa. Ask any question.” Mrs. M started asking one question after another. Then she took manual and connected to one music station. She said, “Thank you, I am keeping it in kitchen to listen to music during daily work.”

I said, “Kamalam, please let me also use? How can I use Alexa if I am in living room and Alexa is in kitchen?” Finally, after 2-3 hours frank discussions it is now in the kitchen. Whenever I have any questions I go to the kitchen to ask.

But unfortunately, madam/sir, for some reason it is now only listening to Mrs. M’s voice. If I ask any question, Mrs. Thatcher is shouting like anything. “I did not understand. Please repeat. Hello you are man or muttaal please speak properly.” Like that.

But Mrs. Mathrubootham is happy. She is saying, “Look, I can finally do long talks with someone who is not irritating.”

Yours in exasperation,

J. Mathrubootham

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