Travelling through the bonedi bari (traditional, gold merchants’ households) Durga pujas, a jatra (Bengal’s street theatre) show, and a Dashami (tenth day of Durga Puja) spectacle by the Indo-Bangladesh riverine border.
A flashy neon sign promising to grant the prize money of thirty lakh rupees to the ‘best’ Durga Puja pandal of the para (colony) blinked outside the window of my rented middle-class apartment in Kolkata. The speakers blared of upcoming puja contests interspersed with shlokas, during the course of the day. I turned up the TV volume, as the Indian cricket team played against Bangladesh, then I folded the newspaper emblazoned with Sarbananda Sonowal's NRC-backed slogan of Jati, Mati and Bheti (home, hearth and base), and made up my mind to look for the elusive peace and quiet that beliefs soaked in tradition have always thought to provide the distressed.
Of Tradition & Shared Nostalgia With Bangladeshi Brethren
Lore has it that a bonedi (gold merchant) ‘dreamed’ of the Goddess Durga, in circa 1785. In the grand courtyard of Baishnab Das Mullick’s, an (erstwhile) zamindar of North Calcutta, who later expanded into real estate, this ‘dream’ spectacle is recreated every year since. At 32 Darpanarayan Tagore Street, generations of married women are found validating their family's lineage through the 235-year-old practice of having the burning malsas or earthen pots placed on their palms and head by the purohits (priests).
A boli (animal sacrifice) is performed under the shamiana in the courtyard in broad daylight. A local caterer is seen frying luchis by the hundreds, at top-speed. An ‘Incredible India’ sponsored tour guide quips to a group of wide-eyed Westerners about how even the Nawab of Awadh, Siraj-ud-Daullah, had a special corner in his heart for the Mullick residence.
Around this time, I decided to head towards the rooted, inclusive and non-communal town of Taki, a picturesque place set against the backdrop of the Ichhamati River. The riverine border splits right through the middle of the river, and crowds throng there every Dashami, to relish the shared nostalgia over the ‘days of Milan’ with Bangladeshi brethren on the other side of the ‘friendly border’.
‘Ram Narayan Ram’ & Disco Lights
Just as I spotted the village folk painting 'Ram Narayan Ram' in bright red brush strokes on the barks of trees along the highway to Taki, I happened to meet a jatra troupe. Welcoming me to their fold, the party or pakkhi (birds) — as they like to call their wandering selves — headed to perform their all-night song and dance spectacle for the villagers of Chaitali.
By 9 PM, the stage was set. Under the moonlit sky, people from all over the district buzzed up the maath (large, open field), although there were separate dining areas for men and women — a Jatra custom followed since the 16th century.
Through loud make-up, disco lights, popular Bengali songs, and exaggerated acting and movement, the show managed to satisfy the entertainment-deprived village folk. Or so the director, who had bhodrolok (gentry) leanings and a few Tollywood (Bengali film industry) serials to his credit, liked to believe.
Display of Power Replaces Theatre of Oppressed
The eve of Dashami in Taki however, did not have traces of subversion in the theatre of the oppressed. It was just the opposite. A sheer display of power, it went more along the lines of ‘keder parai ache amar parake dhongsho korbar takot’ (which neighbourhood has the strength to destroy my neighbourhood). When a group of neighbourhoods come together, it translates into a show of strength among the neighbourhoods.
A loudspeaker at a nearby tuck shop informs people about the best dhunuchi naach (traditional dance performed during Durga Puja) to commence their para (colony) puja. I walk towards the said area but end up watching intoxicated men struggling with the wrappings of a traditional red-bordered white Bengali saree sloppily draped on him, while insisting on pulling off the naach (dance) at the behest of his equally intoxicated brethren.
After giving up this failed display of power, he gets back to the more promising crowd-drawing antic of drinking a mouthful of fuel and letting off fumes from his mouth.
It all ends with them breaking the window of a car that had been parked near their area since the morning as they couldn't find the owner to come and move it.
Muslim Men Driving Around Hindu Goddesses
The primarily Muslim men driving chariot-after-chariot of idols, that would come to the Rajbari Ghats by the shoreline for the bhashan (immersion of the idols), either rode by without a twitch or waited patiently in the queue.
For many stall owners along the Ghat road, there could be no better time to make a quick buck. There could also be no better opportunity to ‘pass on the buck’ to what one shopkeeper refers to as ‘the Titli-storm-like Bangladeshis who all entered India on this day before Mamata drew the line in 2010, and took away not only healthcare services meant for my family, but also denied me this opportunity to open a small shop here!’.
“You’d only find the shoreline lined up with tons of shoes whose owners had fled past our BSF personnel barefoot in the pretext of paying homage to the deity,” says a rickshaw wallah sipping from a large tumbler of tea.
‘Mob Violence’: Business as Usual?
As I drove back following the course of the Ichhamati — which is believed to change course quite frequently — I was met with the strangest of sights in the lesser-known town right after Taki — Hasnabad. A man was tied to the base of a banyan tree next to the river ghats, where business was going on as usual, with boats loading and unloading goods in bulk.
A huge group of vendors had surrounded the man and were thrashing him black and blue. Onlookers seemed nonchalant, and blamed it on the man for being a ‘Bangladeshi suspect’. I saw the helpless man begging for water and even brandishing a passport. The frenzied mob, however, refused to pay heed. The police finally showed up after I repeatedly dialled 100, and finally registered an FIR.
Question of Immigration, NRC, Fear & Loathing
When I look back in hindsight, there are stories behind the spectacle, harsh truisms that ‘performance’ always tries to brush under the carpet. Shumona Choudhury, the editor of a fortnightly newspaper called Tapoban from 24 Parganas, happened to come across my social media post on this incident, at a Hasnabad tea shop.
She threw light on the reality of lynchings in the area: around four mob lynchings had taken place this year itself.
The people of Hasnabad believe that, because Taki has ‘stolen the thunder from their equally, if not more, spectacle of a bhashan, it's getting increasingly difficult for people here to get basic employment.’ “They detest these immigrants, leave alone even acknowledging them as refugees,” Choudhury said.
The Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunal) Act 1983 which was scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2005, put the onus on the State, Police, and the complainant, to prove that someone was an undocumented foreigner. It went against the one the rest of India followed — Foreigners Act 1946 — where, proving citizenship is solely the job of the accused. Today we find, the SC urging the state governments to ‘think like the State and not the individual’, about documents concerning requests from the 40 lakh people excluded from the NRC.
Meanwhile, through the window of a rundown rajbari, one by the Taki Ghats, I see a child looking out. Her forlorn expression upon seeing the spectacle through her window bars, sums it all up.
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(Joyona Medhi is a freelance writer/research assistant based out of Kolkata. After assisting on in-depth, long form interviews along the Indo-Bangladesh border for Samarth Mahajan's documentary titled ‘The Borderlands’, she traveled to the riverine bordertowns of Taki and Hasnabad in West Bengal.
Abhishek Basu is a freelance photographer.)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)