ByÂ Priyanjana Pramanik:
I have lived in Kolkata all my life. Since high school, I have taken to wandering around by myself, often after dark. My mother tells me I should be more careful, that my city isn’t safe anymore. I fight back; argue that I am old enough to take care of myself. It is hard to feel unsafe in a city which feels so… mine. A city where every building, every leaf, every pile of sand by the side of the road seems to belong to me. Kolkata is filled with dark alleys; in my favourite haunts, I know every single one. They are the shortcuts I take, the shortcuts everyone knows. Kolkata’s main roads are not meant for pedestrians, after all. What could go wrong?
Jodhpur Park is one of our most ‘posh’ neighbourhoods, with its square blocks and lovely buildings. I walk through Jodhpur Park several times a week; I have for as long as I can remember. My aunt lives in the adjacent neighbourhood of Lake Gardens, juniors from school live down this road, a friend of my brother’s lives down that one; people I know from college are scattered here and there. Everyone knows everyone. A professor of mine lives behind the marketplace, right next to one of my classmates, much to her consternation.
And yet Jodhpur Park was where a Frenchwoman was chased, men screaming obscenities about what they wanted to do to her, where her male friend was beaten up by the same ruffians, for trying to protect her. The road she ran down is next to the marketplace my friend lives behind; one of those roads which I use so very often. The incident happened at 10:30 pm; by 8:30, half of Jodhpur Park’s alleys are deserted, and even those which are not are dimly lit. The golden lights make the streets perfect for photography; they make one feel uneasy just the same.
I walked down the path the Frenchwoman took last week (the Telegraph published a map, some time ago). I walked past the tiny shop where my friends and I drink tea, the shop where we get our photocopies done, the corner where we sit and chat. I looked at these familiar things, and I wondered what the poor woman felt when she was here. I wondered how I would feel if my city became a terrifying stranger to me too.
Those men were drunk, the Frenchman told the police. He could smell the alcohol on their breath. But alcohol isn’t the problem; those men, their behaviour, their bikes, none of these are the problem. The conflict is far greater, greater than them, greater than any of us. Kolkata is changing. She is growing up. And even I, who love her dearly, must say this. My city is no longer safe. She is not safe for men, for women. Not safe for those who have spent their lives here, or for those who are just visiting. She does not discriminate. She does not care. Kolkata is… not a stranger, perhaps. More like a childhood friend who has gone down a dark path. You watch her helplessly; you hope she will come back to you. You worry that she never will.
All photographs are a copyright of Priyanjana Pramanik