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‘We are all Park Circus now’

The organic nature and deep solidarity of the Park Circus protesters is ripe with lessons for the citizens of Kolkata’s other neighbourhoods

The protesters at Park Circus Maidan are primarily women, who are often joined by students.
The protesters at Park Circus Maidan are primarily women, who are often joined by students. (Photo: Alamy)

At about 8am, when Debu da, as he is known to the Park Circus protesters, reaches his Bhowanipore home from the Park Circus ground, he calls on a couple of neighbours before going home to shower and shave. He tries to speak with two different families every day. In every household, he makes the same request: Have you gone to the Park Circus Maidanprotest? Will you go once this week please? Bring the children along too if possible?

He had felt a real twinge of envy in the first days of the sit-in protest at Park Circus. How did it all come together in a snap, like the perfect surprise party? Somehow, he couldn’t see this happening in his own neighbourhood. Debu da had gone to the ground on the evening of 7 January itself, the day it began, after reading a Facebook post.

There were only 60-odd women under the small pagoda-like structure, and as the cool Kolkata night set in, the number dwindled to about half. Debu da slept on the ground at a distance from the women, where the husbands and sons of the women were. But he was not Muslim and not from the Park Circus neighbourhood, so he thought it wiser to sleep at a little distance from them as well. When he woke the next morning, he found a sheet covering him.

“I had only seen this in films before. I hadn’t spoken with anyone, yet these people were looking out for me," says Debu da. “The next day, I got someone to introduce me to the main organizer, Asmat apa. I have never eaten alone after that. The whole neighbourhood has come together for the protesters. That first week, there were no portable toilets (provided by the municipality) and the mosque behind did not allow women to go in (at first). People living around Maidan opened up their homes readily for the women to use the bathroom, or even to rest. It made me emotional, I can’t see my neighbourhood doing this."

Asmat apa, who lives in the Ripon Street area, began the sit-in protest—inspired by Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh—with her husband, three children and the women she managed to rally around. For some years now, her children have been distributing the food she cooks on Fridays among the poor, and she has a certain moral capital. A kidney transplant recipient, she will greet you by apologizing for sitting on a chair while everyone else is on the ground, then send a volunteer with lemon tea and cake in your direction. “Vitamin C, beta. It will protect you from cold in the ground," she tells me. Influenced by her, perhaps, protesters pass around strips of paracetamol and headache pills like chocolate or chewing gum, to protect from the dust and an unusually cool Kolkata February. It’s easy to spot her: When you see a knot of people bending forward, that’s her they are asking for instructions or suggestions. Early afternoon, late evening, night, she is always there. It is unclear when she goes home and when she returns. But you can tell that she has gone home by the colour of her anti-infection mask. Every day, she wears a mask that matches the colour of her outfit. “We have to look good for your cameras," she says.

The protest completed a month on 7 February. While other sit-in protests have bloomed at other sites, the number of women who stay through the night at Park Circus has swelled to over a hundred. Friday to Sunday, the place looks like a fairground packed with people, national flags and the sound of old, familiar songs of land and love (this was, in fact, a fairground until about 20 years ago, when it housed the circus companies that would arrive in the city in winter. Hence the name Park Circus).

The Maidan sits in a crook of the Seven-Point Crossing, an intersection of seven roads, the busiest traffic point in the city. Unlike Shaheen Bagh, it does not sit in the catchment area of a major Central university like Jamia Millia Islamia with a 1,000-acre campus, whose infrastructure supports the protest. There is only the 10-storeyed campus of the state government’s Aliah University nearby. There are almost no activists, researchers, journalists here, unlike Delhi, which is the nodal point of universities, NGOs, think tanks and media offices in the country, and few visiting celebrities.

Plain tarpaulin sheets cover the protest site, not a photogenic shamiana. You may not get the celebrated T.M. Krishna performing but you do have the silver-haired archivist and singer Moushumi Bhowmik. It can feel like a second-hand edition of Shaheen Bagh, but to its credit, Park Circus is its own thing, wholly managed by the Muslim women of the neighbourhood.

The ‘paara’ story

Kolkata has a reputation for being neighbourly. The word paara (neighbourhood) is often used in conjunction with Kolkata, a reference to the city’s culture of so-called amiability and affection—hence College Street is often called boi-paara (book neighbourhood), central Kolkata, or the business district, is the office paara, the refugee colonies are called refugee paara, some of us call Kalighat the chief minister’s paara. You see what that does—to call the business district an office paara instantly gives it a friendlier feel, doesn’t it?

Writer Amit Chaudhuri, among others, has pointed to the way the architecture of old Kolkata houses alludes to the centrality of the paara in social life. Many of these houses have a feature known as the rowak—a slender groove on the ground-floor façade of a house, enough to seat three-four slim bums and gather for a conversation. This gave rise to the term rowaker adda—literally, conversations on the rowak—leisurely all-male conversations accessorized by tea and cigarettes, a practice now only glimpsed in old films and photographs. The heart of the paara was the “club", a room with a carrom board or a table to play cards on. The club would collect donations to organize the annual Durga Puja, the biggest social event on the Bengali calendar, and help with medical and other neighbourhood emergencies. Typically, it would be patronized by the political party in power.

With corporate funding becoming available over the past decade, event management firms have taken over from the paara club. Arguably, this is a mark of the paara’s passing. The sense of community has, in fact, withered everywhere, including Kolkata, for broadly the same reason(s)—capitalism works systematically towards private and individual rights. But the paara in Kolkata has retained an influential afterlife as a cultural artefact: it is a nicely handy term for state tourism and boutique hotels and stores to capitalize on.

What remains unsaid, outside academia, is that the city is sharply segregated in spatial terms. Sociologist Anasua Chatterjee offers the most recent discussion of the continually hardening boundaries between Hindu and Muslim Kolkata. Neighbourhoods are Hindu, or mixed, meaning Muslim and Christian and a smattering of others. Hindus and Muslims have almost never lived next to one another, except among the embarrassingly wealthy or the savagely poor. Though this has changed recently, it was well-known that pizza companies would refuse to deliver in certain “Muslim areas".

A civil society initiative called Know Your Neighbour was started in 2016 to address Kolkata’s spatial-communal segregation. “We believe in the need for peaceful coexistence, not in the sense of living together separately but through actual interactions and meaningful relationships," says their introduction note. They organize walks in Muslim neighbourhoods as well as discussions, spreading the word through social media. The multidisciplinary artist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee has started site-specific theatre performances in neighbourhoods, using the homes of friends and acquaintances.

Debu da tells me his appetite for neighbourliness was whetted by his experience of collective action as part of the United Guardians Forum, an association of parents formed to lobby against incidents of sexual harassment in schools as well as steep fee hikes. Arguably, this is the most diverse and active of the groups—the high-handedness of private schools unites parents of every religion. Members of the forum have been actively discussing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on their WhatsApp group, and visiting the Park Circus protests. “In my daughter’s school, which is a Bohri Muslim school, the Bohri kids sit in AC classrooms while all other kids sit in non-AC rooms," says Mohammed Asadullah, a member of the forum. “The fight against the CAA and NRC is a reminder that our Constitution promises us equality. We have to fight for it everywhere, no, because the impulse for inequality is also everywhere."


I, too, am learning neighbourliness here. Everyone in Park Circus helps me—not only do they speak readily, they also effect introductions and help me locate people. “Do you have enough for your story?" a number of people ask. It looks and sounds like chaos at the Maidan, with the traffic of seven roads and loudspeakers in use, yet all interviews take place at the set times, there are no last-minute cancellations.

They are also good neighbours for the other protests—the Park Circus regulars are in demand at the other sit-in sites in and around Kolkata, in Khidderpore, College Square and Metiaburuz. They go there in shifts. Amid all this, they are busy with chores too, organizing tarpaulin scaffolding, drinking water, fixing the sound system, keeping an eye on the portable loos.

There is only one thing: Very few give out their last names. “Just write Imran Park Circus," says a young man who works in the retail space, a protest regular who introduced me to many of the other organizers.

“Tell me your full name," I say.

“I am Imran. That is enough. I won’t tell you my full name, and I won’t show you any papers," he says, but not unkindly.

That sets the tone. Debu da and other regulars don’t give their full names either, nor details of where they work. I notice that most of the contacts I am sent on the phone have apa (sister), dada (elder brother) and bhai in place of surnames. Perhaps this is in the spirit of these protests: We are all citizens, we are all Indians, we are all neighbours. Why do you need more? One evening, I tried it myself. When someone asked for my number, I said: “Save it as Sohini Park Circus."

“Yes, we are all Park Circus now," he said, and took down my number.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a Kolkata-based journalist.

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