The grounds of Victoria Memorial Hall have seen a remarkable makeover in the last few years. In winter, things get even better with flower beds in bloom dotting the greens. A key attraction of spending a weekend in our ancestral home in south Kolkata is to go for a brisk early morning walk there and, should it be as bracingly chilly as it is now, the cup of good feeling runs over.
This is so for those who can easily afford the Rs 4 entry fee and either live nearby or have a car to get there. Except for the old woman who sits huddled and miserable out there in the cold to earn a little by begging. In the great divide, on the other side of the fence are not just the walkers but also the posse of policemen, adequately covered and fed, on duty at the gates, presumably to ensure security for the VIPs among the walkers.
Early into the walk, I realise it is not a typical day. The music of pipes playing a martial number is streaming through a public address system. The gaps in the hedges reveal the road crammed with trucks and buses of the army and other security forces. Then comes into view the shining nozzles of olive green field guns looking as smart and polished as their operators. It is a full-dress rehearsal day for the Republic Day parade two days later on Red Road.
As I turn the corner, I spot the army band, formed in a circle by the roadside, stomping to keep time and warm up as it belts out the music. Then come into view dozens of Sikh soldiers putting on their ceremonial sashes and helping each other get it absolutely straight, looking more like actors in a green room close to curtain call than soldiers readying for battle.
If the soldiers look benign, almost unbelievable are members of the city’s traffic police contingent. They are sporting sashes I have never seen before and are ramrod straight and alert, totally bereft of the slouch and lackadaisical manner with which they conduct traffic on a regular day. But those who manage to look both smart and not so different from their normal selves are middle- and high-school boys and girls from some of the better-known schools. Composed and trying to look grown up, they seem oblivious of the cold and radiate not the slightest shiver.
A group of NCC cadets catches my eye — in unisex uniform, hair tucked beneath smartly tilted berets, slim to the last individual, with faces sans even the hint of any adolescent sprouting. How come, I wonder, considering they look in their mid-teens. Then I spot the giveaway earrings. They are girl cadets!
As I turn the Birla Planetarium corner, the readying for the parade drops away and for a moment the other India returns. A little boy, keen to help his ragpicker father, has made a little mess. An empty liquor bottle has dropped out of the sacking in which he has been collecting recyclable trash and splintered on the pavement. He carefully collects the pieces and piles them up by the railings, his father looking on patiently, letting him learn how to undo a mess.
In the evening, the wife and I go to see Shunya Awnko at the nearby Nandan, host to serious films and festivals. It displays the professionalism and boldness that mark the better parts of the current Bengali film industry. Though over two hours long, director Goutam Ghose has managed to make a compact work, maybe because it has a lot to say. The dominant theme is of adivasis fighting a losing battle to save their incredibly beautiful forests, mountain streams and way of life form global mining interests.
Woven into it is the issue of the Hindu-Muslim divide, captured in the demons within that a Muslim couple running a homestay has to fight. They lost their reporter son while he was on an assignment in Kashmir. Their trauma makes the hero recall the loss of his elder brother at the height of the Naxal movement in West Bengal. He was picked up by the police from home at night. Later, his dead body was dumped on the sidewalk.
The dilemma of tribals caught between the Maoists and the security forces and Salwa Judum is brought out. MNC operatives seeking to safeguard their large project are depicted as normal human beings. Fake encounters and abrasive security forces are matter-of-factly handled. The republic frequently stumbles but is moving in the right direction, I thought. Most would vote for it — leaving aside the old beggar woman, the ragpicker and his son.