There is perhaps no reason for an inconsequential little dead girl to be occupying this space. perhaps the editorial pages of newspapers should concern themselves with larger things — with men and women and events that make eras and epochs and history, however horrible a job they do of it. So why this inconsequential little girl? Why Shahida? She made no history. She made nothing; her life, in fact, was a life of constant and dreary unmaking.
She became a mother before she could fully become a girl — at 14 — and died before she could fully become a mother, eaten up in a hospital ward by a host of predators, including anemia, pulmonary tuberculosis, jaundice and that most terrible killer of them all: poverty. The fact is Shahida initially only had a few burn injuries in a domestic accident, the kind of injuries that are easily treatable these days. Her real problem lay not in her injury, her real problem lay in herself: she was poor, as poor as a million others in this country who die the way she did last week at age 16. But then Shahida died in Calcutta. That gave her death a signature.
In no other city would the death of Shahida Khatoon, pavement dweller, have made news. But here in Calcutta, she was on the front pages. Perhaps that is why she can justifiably occupy this space as well. Insensitive and crude as it may sound to Shahida’s kin, this has not so much to do with Shahida as with Calcutta. For all the stains on her stars there was one bit that shone for Shahida: she was born to Calcutta and she suffered and died there.
It rained the morning she was reportedly lying at the gates of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters. She had been very badly burnt, trying to save Jarmina, her one plus daughter, from a stove flame. She was frail and lacerated, she was in urgent need of attention and she had nowhere to go because she hd no money. The old man walking up to the gates of the CMC in the steady drizzle that morning must have read all that in the newspapers and that spirit called Calcutta must have driven him out of home, umbrella in one hand, a few crumpled notes in the other. It wasn’t a morning for limping old men to go out walking but this one was there, desperately seeking Shahida. Shahida wasn’t there that morning; the rain had pushed her out into a bylane by the piggery on New Market’s northface. Mother Jubeeda was there — she perhaps knows Calcutta well. she knew for sure that morning Calcutta would send out a few of her human beings. She was waiting for them right there at the CMC gates, where Shahida was supposed to have been. That is where she met the old man who had come with a plamful of rupees for Shahida.
It was a classic Calcutta moment unfolding: around the face of Jubeda. The old man stood there, rupees on his palm like crushed rose petals for offering. And Jubeda stood there grabbing the notes hurriedly and pushing them down her blouse, furtively ensuring nobody saw and loudly assuring the money had gone to the right place. It was poverty extracting the price of its spectacle. It was a scene out of a Ray film, or an avant garde documentary that routinely gets lambasted around coffee tables on one side of the intellectual fence for selling poverty in exchange for pelf. Jubeda that morning was definitely the face of a woman expecting and demanding money for her misery. She was the face of stereotype that had successfully been sold off as Calcutta; perhaps a white man in place of the old calcuttan would have given that stereotype the hype and edge you sometimes require in documentaries.
But depending where you were looking at the scene from, or depending on where the camera was positioned, there was another Calcutta moment unfolding: around the face of the old man with the umbrella and the palmful of rupees. He was no do gooderchasing fame; he had not brought reporters and camera crews in tow and it was clear he intended to do what he had come to do with the minimum fuss and in the littlest time required. He was no Richie Rich trying to get donation rebates on his taxes either; he hadn’t come with receipt books in his pocket. There wasn’t anything there apart from the crumpled notes he had come to give. He did not seem like a man who would have too many tax problems; his chappals were torn and the rain had worsted them more. Scarcely anybody noticed him arrive, give and leave. before Jubeda could put away the money he had brought the old man had become a walking umbrella among many walking umbrellas on Corporation Street. You won’t find that kind of man in too many other cities. In Calcutta, you won’t have to look too far. There is enough concern to be found, even in the time of the cholera of crime. Collapse on a street in New Delhi and collapse on a street in Calcutta, you’ll know the difference.
In no ther city would Shahida have died cared for and mourned as she was here. In no other city would they have had time for her. Calcutta has time for its dead, and a little bit of honour (if space in the newspapers could mean that). Which is why life still lives here.
For the India flying into the 21st century in Kentucky fried wings, satellite dish tucked in armpit, cellular phone in hand, this might be a great area of darkness. Why India, even for the Calcutta south of Park Street the city might be the great area of darkness where there are no air-conditioned Wimpy’s burgers and no Mexxs next to Allen Sollys. The prided Mero might have been sneaked afielf underground breaking the great north-south Calcutta barrier. But then, isn’t the poor northern underside responsible for the mess that the Metro currently is in? Those fellows in Shyambazar and DumDum do not know how to use modern tansport, they ruined it for Calcutta.
But no, South Calcutta is not Calcutta. Not, at any rate, the Calcutta that is the area of darkness, the Calcutta where life still lives, the Calcutta where Shahida belonged — vibrant, throbbing, terrible, miserable, colourful, dark, bright, dead, alive. That is the Calcutta of the street and the slum, where man comes against man without his name, address or social label attached. That is where Calcutta scores.
Bombay has its showpiece in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia (that’s something to take pride in) and a convenient set for the film industry. What would they do without Dharavi? New Delhi has its share of shanty towns — the JJ (jhuggi-jhonpdi) colonies they call it. When the capital holds its big festivals — a non aligned movement summit for instance — its rulers put bamboo screens across the JJ colonies so its honoured guests are spared the ugliness.
Calcutta lives with its heart poured out onto the streets, nothing comes between people and their lives, not even the misery of poverty. take a ride one late night across Park Circus and Raja Bazar or Kadapara. It might teach you that life or joy does not necessarily have to do with that thing called money. bathing under streetside gargoyles can be more fun than eating a Wimpy’s burger — at least it is more unrestrained, more unrestricted fun. Or just be in Calcutta during the puja. It is celebration and everybody celebrates. There is, after all, no toll on being festive, not yet. And during the puja Calcutta is festive like no other city can be. And the important thing about the festivity of Calcutta is that the beaten underside of Narkeldanga, tied down with all the difficulties of a dying-dead economy, can be as festive and funfilled as posh Alipore or Ballygunge, The underside certainly is more unrestrained, more felt, more pristine joy.
Their lives and conditions would make the festivities seem so out of place — there is very little in Calcutta not to complain about. But there is very little calcuttans complain about. Perhaps because they are too busy living and making a life of it with a smile where there is so little to smile about. Shahida may be dead and a hundred others may be dying but they are less inconsequential than they might have been elsewhere. This is no dying city, this is a city trying to live. Someone got it terribly wrong.