By Rafikul Islam
In the 1960s, a group of young Calcutta poets protested against conventional themes in Bengali poetry. The metrical experiments started with Jibanananda Das, who moved away from Tagore’s trademark rhythmic pattern. However, these younger poets moved even beyond Das and chose to write on taboo topics like sex. They came to be known as ‘The Hungry Generation.’ Malay Roychowdhury, Shaileshwar Ghose, and Shakti Chattopadhaya were some of the prominent poets in this group.
In 1964, the Time Magazine reported that some of these poets were prosecuted in Calcutta Bankshall Court for obscenity. While national and international pressure forced the public prosecutor to seek a deferral, the young men walked free temporarily and, allegedly, vandalized an art gallery, on their way back home. While commenting on their theme, the Time wrote: ‘Somewhat, unoriginally, they insist that only in immediate physical pleasure do they find any meaning in life, and they blame modern society for their emptiness. On cheaply printed paper, they pour forth a torrent of starkly explicit erotic writings, most of them based on their own exploits…’ One of the prominent representatives of the group, Shaileshwar Ghose, a school teacher offered, ‘My theme is me. I say what I feel. I feel frustration, hunger for love, hunger for food.’
While the Hungry Poets are gone and there is an increasing attempt to endow the city spaces with bourgeois respectability, nights in Kolkata (not Calcutta, any more) offer enough elements for the emergence of another group of subversive poets.
‘Suniye, thoda pani dijiye na…’ I was really taken aback by one of the girls’ request. It was close to midnight and I was waiting at the Park Street crossing to return to my apartment on the other side of the Hooghly River, across the Second Hooghly Bridge. At this time of the night, I rely on hitchhiking to get home; sometimes an occasional policeman or a vegetable truck gives me a ride.
I offered my bottle of water that I always carry in my backpack.
She, along with her partner, waits for six days a week on either side of Park Street to look for clients, who need sexual gratification. They are usually accompanied by an elderly woman, who they address as ‘mausi’ (aunty).
My daily life follows a circuit of school (where I teach), Rabindra Sadan (Nandan, one of the main cultural centers in Calcutta, is located here), and a usual foray into the Park Street area (mostly for food). Here, often I sit and talk with a patti seller, before returning to my apartment. Since I am a regular visitor in the area, he is more of a friend now. He speaks to me about Kolkata’s underbelly: about women, who wait in the dark for clients; about men, who pick women on the move; about pimps, who whisper if you need a ‘college girl’ (and they are not necessarily college girls).
Seeing me regularly at the patti seller’s spread on the sidewalk, the ‘mausi’ drops by one day and starts chatting with me. She complains, ‘The market is so hard. It is very difficult to find suitable clients these days. Now our potential male customers themselves are working as gigolos, serving the high society girls and wives, whose husbands travel away for long periods of time. Why would they pay a prostitute for masti (enjoyment)?’
The elderly lady tells me that these girls live in Chetla. They earn somewhere between Rupees five hundred and a thousand from each client. Usually, both the girls board a taxi with the clients and the ‘mausi’ sits next to the cab driver. She works as a security to them.
If you walk from Park Street, past the Birla Planetarium, to Rabindra Sadan, late at night, you will find other women and girls like these two, waiting under the shadows of flickering street-lights. Women in saris, girls in closely-fitting western clothes emerge at every nook and corner of this stretch. Occasionally, a passing car stops and bargains for a ‘fair price’. The police patrol this area and these women pay a regular hafta (bribe) to the police.
At the mouth of the Mayo Road, on the left side, the ‘She-Males’ with their revealing b**bs and half open bottom/skirts/jeans congregate. One night, I, along with some other spectators, were returning after watching an Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket match at the Eden Gardens, which is a walking distance from Park Street. Just as we were about to approach Park Street, we spotted a moving car. It came to a screeching halt. From the back of the car, three or four ‘she-males’ emerged and tried to force open the front door. They started shouting at the driver and wanted to drag him out. Hearing the driver crying for help, we rushed to the spot. It turned out that the driver was an army officer, who had fun with them. They demanded Rupees two thousands, which the officer was not willing to shell out. They snatched his mobile phone. After a brawl, he managed to snatch back his phone and zoomed off in the Dhoom-style. Before we could intervene, one of the ‘she-males’ with a massive cleavage, threatened us: ‘Tum log jaao…yeh humara apas ka mamla’ (You dare not intervene. It’s between us). They chased the army officer’s car in a yellow taxi.
The IPL matches, which start at eight o’clock, usually end at eleven thirty at night. After the matches, I often go to the Russel Street Dhaba (named after the street) for aloo paratha and special chai. Close to midnight, this street throbs with life. After a busy day, the typical Kolkata yellow cabs line both sides of the road. Women and young girls hide behind the cabs and wait for potential clients. Once a girl encountered me, ‘Jabe’? (Will you come?’). I joked, ‘Yes. But I charge around Rupees five thousand. Would you be able to pay?’ She looked angry and walked off.
Another day, I encountered a girl, who was wearing a sari. She suggested that we can have sex either in a moving cab or I can take her to my apartment.
‘How do we have sex in a moving cab?’ I asked
She replied tersely, ‘I’ll lie down and you can have sex for as long as you want.’
I was puzzled, ‘Is that even possible in a moving cab? Will not the cabbie object?’
‘I’ll manage. There won’t be a problem,’ she said in a matter-of-fact manner.
I often noticed a security guard, manning one of the important Govt. Buildings at the Park Street crossing. Often our eyes met but we never spoke. One day, I saw him taking one of the women, I often encountered, inside the building. After around half-an-hour, they both emerged. I spoke to the guard. He said, ‘I’ve a family in the North-East India. I rarely go home. But you know it’s difficult to control our carnal desires. Moreover, seeing men picking up these women from outside my work-place, I cannot resist.’
There is an Arsalan Biriyani outlet, just off Park Street. I was returning after a sumptuous dinner. As I approached the Park Hotel, a girl, who was standing right opposite, walked up to me and said, ‘Come with me. I’ll be very sober with you. I have a rented place near Gariahat.’ There must have been something in my school-teacher appearance that prompted her to be mild with me. While I refused, another guy, whom I knew, went with her. Next day I called him to ask about his experience. He narrated to me that the girl took him to Kalighat (which happens to be the place where a famous Kali Temple is located and where the current Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee, lives), instead of Gariahat. There she knocked on the door a room, where people were already sleeping. The sleeping couple came out of the room and waited outside, while they had sex. The couple lets out the room to sex-workers, regularly.
Once the city curls up after a feverish day, Kolkata’s senses awaken to transgressive desires. Like any other city, Kolkata, despite the tag of a dead-city, throbs with life, laughter, and the possibilities of momentary pleasure. In these moments, the king and the commoner inhabit the same uncertain contours of the city, which wraps its warmth around them.
Pic credit: here
[Rafikul Islam teaches at Howrah Rabindra Vidyamandir School. He obtained his M.A. in English Literature from Burdwan University and his B.Ed. from Calcutta University. He is passionate about his voluntary role as a Kolkata City Guide.]
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