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Memories of ‘What A Jolly Street’

We knew our neighbours because we sat on front porches and drank tea together. Now the porches have been torn down—we have retreated inside

Tea shops in Kolkata are the site of debates and disagreements that threaten to turn volatile but never do.
Tea shops in Kolkata are the site of debates and disagreements that threaten to turn volatile but never do. (Photo: Getty Images)

They made for the oddest of neighbours at the Kolkata Book Fair.

Stall No.370 ( I kid you not) belonged to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. It was covered with pictures of Sri Krishna and holy men in orange robes and a saffron flag flying overhead. Smack opposite was the green and white facade of the stall of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat. On the last day of the book fair, a line of uniformed police was standing nearby, ready to spring into action. A couple of days earlier, Bharatiya Janata Party supporters and anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) activists had come to blows in the area.

These are troubled times in the neighbourhood.

Kolkata-based photographer and documentary film-maker Ronny Sen says his CAA posts angered someone who lived in the neighbourhood, not a friend he had grown up with but a “chena mukh" (or known face). That man attacked him with a bhojali, or dagger, he had hidden in the waistband of his trousers. Film-maker Debalina Majumder had organized a small peace rally with a few friends in south Kolkata during the recent protests. Afterwards they were having tea in the local tea shop when men shouting “Jai Shri Ram" attacked them with hockey sticks.

I grew up in south Kolkata opposite a tea shop famous for its strong tea and the even stronger opinions of the tea drinkers. Every morning, the street outside would buzz with conversation and debate. After elections and football matches, it would rise to a dangerous crescendo, with the threat of fisticuffs, but eventually everyone would finish their umpteenth cup of tea and go home peacefully.

Lake Market was an ordinary hotchpotch south Kolkata neighbourhood, hardly exceptional. My father was an engineer. The man who lived opposite was an Ayurvedic kaviraj. The uncle on one side ran a printing press. Others were known by what they sold—beediwala, daabwala, coalwala, button-babu, who had a pavement stall selling buttons and clips. Jam-ma lived next door to us. Her niece had started calling her Jam-ma and she became Jam-ma to the rest of the children on the street. By impeccable logic, her husband became Jam-baba. Sometimes during the summer holidays, Jam-ma would corral all the neighbourhood children and put on a play with us. A professor, she would recite Rabindranath Tagore and William Wordsworth to us, coach laggards in Bengali and find us books to read.

Jam-ma and Jam-baba’s house was a treasure trove of books. I remember piles of National Geographic magazines, Russian classics, a candy-striped Mary Poppins. But my all-time favourite was the one I called “What A Jolly Street". Years later I realized it had another name—365 Bedtime Stories by Nan Gilbert, one story for each day of the year. It was about a street somewhere in middle America. The children who lived on that street had so much fun that everyone always exclaimed, “What a jolly street". Their lives were nothing like mine. They were all white and Christian, they ate pumpkin pies, celebrated Thanksgiving and had snowball fights. Yet I would read and re-read that book savouring the feeling of living on “What A Jolly Street". That was my ideal neighbourhood.

Looking back, I realize our little street was not that different. Three brothers lived in the house next door. They all followed different political parties, and passionately so. It never seemed to get in the way of anything. The house behind us, where all the men were short and their wives tall, shared a wall with us. We carved a door into that wall. No one in that house ever used their own driveway. They went in and out through our house, stopping to chat with my grandmother and great-grandmother. When my grandmother was dying, it was the neighbour who would come through that door to give her a sponge bath. Long before everyone got their own televisions, all the neighbourhood children would pile on the big bed in the big house at the end of the street to watch Test cricket matches on their black and white television.

It was not always a jolly street. Neighbours fought with neighbours. Someone’s daughter would fall in love with someone’s less-than-suitable son across the way and ignite a neighbourhood scandal. The couple next door would have raging fights that would be executed in stereo sound and we would stand behind drawn curtains in our kitchen and eavesdrop. But finally it would all subside and life would return to its unhurried pace. We never doubted that when push came to shove, our neighbours would have our back. When my father was sick and someone recommended some miracle homoeopathic medicine, it was one of the tea-drinking “uncles" on our front porch who insisted on going to procure it.

At the Kolkata Literature Festival, sociologist Ashis Nandy remarked that in his study of Partition-era violence, he found 40% of the survivors saying they had lived through the barbarity because someone on the other side of the communal divide had helped them. He said he would be “very, very surprised" if anyone could find “any other instance of genocide anywhere in the world which can show a figure even as much as 4%". The audience broke into loud applause. Lok Sabha member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor agreed, saying that Firoz Khan Noon, who went on to become prime minister of Pakistan, was saved by Hindus. Tharoor said when he was with the UN during the height of Yugoslavia’s bloody civil war, “neighbours with whom you would entrust your key when you went on a summer vacation were raping your daughter".

But there is little to indicate that neighbourliness is indelibly imprinted in our DNA. I remember social activist Harsh Mander telling me that during the worst of the 2002 Gujarat riots, for every act of unspeakable cruelty he could still find three acts of kindness by Hindus in the local area. When he travelled the country after recent lynchings, he remarked: “I keep saying, you know, somebody must have saved you. Please, I beg you, tell me about some kindness. And I am not finding it." When the young Muslim boys playing cricket during Holi in Gurugram came under attack, their home was ransacked and they were beaten with iron rods, hockey sticks and water pipes. When Mander met the family, they said no one from the neighbourhood came to their rescue.

That, more than a random act of gruesome violence, feels unimaginable. Some vestige of our old neighbourhood still remains even in these fragmented times. Our tea shop is still going strong, with tea-fuelled impassioned conversations and vociferous arguments. Our local councillor, a card-carrying RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) member, sits on a red plastic chair in his khaki shorts. Right in front of him is a poster board with the Communist Party’s mouthpiece Ganashakti pasted on it, warning us daily about impending fascism. Someone vociferously disses Trinamool Congress and Didi (the chief minster) while someone lauds her guts. And they all drink tea together.

In hindsight, I realize why it was easy to Love Thy Neighbour or at least tolerate them on our “What a Jolly Street". Our neighbours were fairly interchangeable with each other—largely middle to upper middle-class upper-caste Hindu Bengalis with a handful of south Indians and others thrown into the mix. We did not truly confront the “other". But at least the aloowala’s son played street cricket with the company vice-president’s son, something that rarely happens in the hermetically sealed apartment buildings that have replaced the old houses on the street.

We knew our neighbours because we sat on front porches and drank tea together. Our mothers hung out on the balcony in the fading afternoon light talking across balconies. Now the front porches have been torn down. The balconies are empty except for drying clothes.

We have retreated inside with our smartphones, which have brought the world closer. But somehow, in the process, the old neighbourhood seems to have receded further.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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