The pigeon-hole principle in Mathematics states that if there are more pigeons than there are pigeon-holes, then at least one pigeon-hole must have two pigeons. This goes to show Mathematicians know nothing about Indians. In India, one of the pigeons will be asked to vacate its apartment and go elsewhere. In Uttaran Das Gupta’s story, this is exactly what happens to Ranjan & his missus. Their landlord evicts them because there’s another pigeon willing to pay a bigger rent.
Ranjan is the kind of Bengali gent, who when faced with his landlord’s visit, thinks of a translated Yiddish joke involving God and the Tsar. The missus serves chai, and the landlord begins his disproof of the pigeonhole-principle by talking about Operation Sunlight, the commie government’s efforts to gentrify certain neighborhoods. How this works out in practice is the rest of this enjoyable story.
For me, Das Gupta’s writing evoked the Kolkata of the 90s. One of his writing’s achievements is how it uses an Indian register, as it were, to depict the thoughts and actions of its characters. Das Gupta achieves this, I think, by writing the story as if it had been translated from Bengali into English. It offers an interesting example of how one language can accommodate many disparate realities. Get used to it, Mathematics.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
A visit from the landlord early in the morning can only be bad news for the tenant. Anyone who rented accommodation in Calcutta knew this.
Ranjan knew it too. A son of refugees, he had lived all his life in homes on short-term leases. So, as soon as he saw Sashi Bhushan on his doorstep, he felt the milk tea turning sour in his oesophagus. It was a few minutes after 9 A.M. on Monday.
He was also reminded of a Yiddish story he had read recently in Bengali translation. In the story, villagers ask their rabbi: “Is there a perfect blessing for the Tsar?” “Of course,” the rabbi replies, “may the Good Lord keep him far away from us.” Would such a charm work for the landlords of Calcutta wondered Ranjan as he let Sashi Bhushan into the drawing-room of his flat.
“Have you heard about the hawkers?” said the landlord, settling into one of the woven-cane chairs. The chair groaned under him.
Hawker was a catch-all term for street vendors in Calcutta.
“What about them?” said Ranjan.
“Haven’t you heard? It’s in all the papers today. They are calling it Operation Sunlight. It’s going to be a clean-up.”
Sashi Bhushan often reminded Ranjan of pigs—black, fat ones, rolling about in the gutter near the tanneries of Tangra on the eastern fringes of the city. The man could not stop sweating even though he was sitting right under the fan. Nor could he stop talking.
Operation Sunlight, he explained, was an eviction drive. The government had decided to remove the hawkers from footpaths near major traffic intersections such as Gariahat in the south, Esplanade in the centre, and Shyambazaar in the north. Ranjan had never heard of this before. The hawkers were mostly men who had no jobs and were staunch supporters of the Party. Like Ranjan, many of them were descendants of refugees.
He remembered how the hawkers had started appearing in ones and twos on the footpaths at Gariahat. They sold cheap t-shirts, smuggled electronics and perfumes, crockery. In the beginning, they rented space from the shops and showrooms to keep their wares at night. Their numbers multiplied quickly, and the wooden tables and umbrellas they began with were soon replaced with more permanent structures of bamboo, tin and tarpaulin. Now, the stalls of the hawkers stretched all the way from Gariahat to the Rash Behari Avenue crossing, a distance of about 3 km. The Party had obviously provided them with logistical support and a carte blanche to do as they pleased till now.
“Why does the government want to remove them?” he asked.
Sashi Bhushan had a ready answer, something he must have picked up from the Party’s official propaganda.
“The hawkers are a safety hazard,” he said. “Don’t you see how they have encroached on all the footpaths? They have left no place for the pedestrians. People are forced to walk on the roads. This is leading to more accidents.”
Kalpana, Ranjan’s wife, served them tea. Sashi Bhushan picked up a cup and continued:
“The hawkers also do not follow any fire safety norms. Their stalls are a mishap waiting to occur. It could lead to a major loss of life and property. Besides, it all looks so ugly.”
“Where will the hawkers go?” asked Ranjan.
“The government is giving them an alternative space near Jadavpur railway station.”
Ranjan did not think this was a suitable alternative at all. Jadavpur was several kilometres further south, away from the commercial hub of Gariahat. It was very unlikely to attract too many customers and the hawkers would surely not agree to be shifted there.
He recalled that the previous government had also cited similar reasons when it had tried to evict the hawkers earlier. But it had not succeeded. The hawkers had unionized with the blessings of the Party.
Sashi Bhushan had not stopped talking. He was now explaining the reason for the nomenclature of the eviction drive:
“You will not be able to see the sun if you look up while walking down the footpath. Your view will be blocked by the tarpaulin sheets of the hawkers. Once their stalls are cleared, the footpaths will be washed with sunlight.”
The longer this conversation malingered on the subject of the hawkers, the more uneasy Ranjan felt. Surely his landlord had not turned up early in the morning to discuss this.
Having finished his tea, Sashi Bhushan put down his cup. He thanked Kalpana and released the chair from beneath his posterior.
“Can we go out for a smoke?” he asked Ranjan.
The house was in a cul-de-sac off Raja Basanta Roy Road. The two men walked for a minute or two to Rash Behari Avenue. Sashi Bhushan offered Ranjan an India Kings. This brand of cigarettes was way more expensive than his regular Gold Flake.
“You have a month,” said Sashi Bhushan. “This is your notice.”
Ranjan’s heart sank. “But this is so sudden…” he began.
“I can’t help it. I have sold this house. You have a month to find a new one.”
The house in which Ranjan and Kalpana lived with their two children was a squat cube of concrete. One floor with two rooms. The rooms were small. They had insufficient windows that barely let in any sunlight. One of the rooms opened into the cul-de-sac. They called it the drawing-room. It had two cane chairs, a sofa-cum-bed on which Ranjan slept at night, a glass-top centre table. It also had their B&W Clarion TV. Kalpana and the children slept in the bedroom. Between the two rooms was a narrow veranda with a corrugated asbestos roof. This was their kitchen. It had no ventilation, so if you burnt something the odour lingered in the corners for days.
Despite all these disadvantages, the house was prime property. The reason for this was the land it stood on. If you had a house or a plot in some of these areas of South Calcutta, you were as rich as a sheikh with an oil well. Promoters, as property developers in Calcutta were called, were buying up all the old houses, empty plots, even ponds, and converting them into blocks of flats.
In their eagerness to develop new buildings, the promoters sometimes tore down old houses that had historic or heritage value. Such as a house in which a freedom fighter or poet had once lived. News of these events caused outrage for a few days. They would inspire a few opinion pieces in Anandabazaar or Yugantar about the loss of the city’s heritage, the menace of neoliberalism, the degeneration of Bengali culture and society. But then, the new building would come up. Its residents would contribute generously to the fund of the local Durga Puja. So would the promoters. They always had a lot of cash. You could not resist them.
Ranjan threw away the cigarette and looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to ten. He thought he could reach Lake Market by ten if he walked fast. He hoped to catch Dibyendu, the broker, at the tea stall. Dibyendu had helped Ranjan find his current flat. Ranjan wanted to get started on finding a new one as soon as possible. The short deadline and his limited budget made the task challenging.
That’s exactly what the broker also told him.
“There’s no paucity of houses in Calcutta,” said Dibyendu. “You need to do something about your budget.”
“It’s been less than a year that I moved into this house,” said Ranjan.
“Yes, I know that, but why would a landlord listen to it? The rents have gone through the roof in this part of the city.”
Ranjan did not say anything. He stood there feeling helpless.
What Dibyendu had said was accurate. The rents had indeed shot up in these areas over the past few years. Some of it was, of course, demand and supply. As the locality became more gentrified, the demand for flats also increased. But brokers like Dibyendu were also responsible for manipulating the rent. They charged a fee, usually a month’s rent, to help house owners find tenants and tenants find accommodation. So higher the rent, better for them.
“Who bought Sashi Bhushan’s house?” Dibyendu asked.
“I don’t know.”
Ranjan had not thought about this. He did not think this was relevant information.
“Poltu,” said the tea seller.
He was listening to their conversation, as he listened to every conversation at his stall.
As soon as Dibyendu heard the name, his expression changed. “Bad luck,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if it were some other prompter, I could have got you a good deal.”
“Do you know how difficult it is to legally evict a tenant? What would Sashi Bhushan do if you refuse to vacate his house?”
“He would go to court.”
Both Dibyendu and the tea seller started laughing.
“Court?” said the broker. “Do you know how many eviction cases are pending in court?”
“Promoters are paying tenants to empty out their houses. It cheaper than going to court. Have you seen that new building coming up at Janak Road? The old house that stood on the plot before had two tenants. The promoter paid each of them two lakh rupees. I got the deal signed. Ten percent commission for me.”
There was, however, no such hope with Poltu.
“Why not?” said Ranjan.
“Don’t you know who he is?”
Ranjan did not, so Dibyendu explained. Poltu’s sister was married to the local municipal councillor. Poltu was actually his nom de guerre. His real name was Pradipta Chakraborty. He was earlier a Youth Congress member. But after the Emergency, he had switched parties. Over the past decade, his real estate business had flourished, with the blessings of his brother-in-law and the Party. He had a lot of cash and was now muscling out other property dealers from the area.
When Kalpana heard everything, she responded with despair. “But it has not yet been a year,” she said. “We have a three-year contract.”
“The contract allows him to let us go with a month’s notice.”
“How can he do this so suddenly?”
“I have already spoken to Dibyendu.”
“Where will we get the money to move?”
Ranjan did not answer. He knew how expensive it was to move. You had to put down two months’ rent as a deposit. You had to pay the broker and the transporter. You had to get repairs done to the new place before you could live there. And, invariably, the furniture got chipped and the crockery smashed during the move.
“It’s a curse to not have a house of your own,” said Kalpana. “You are like a refugee.”
Refugee: the word remained with Ranjan for the rest of the day like a half-muted ache. Like everyone else who lived in Calcutta, he knew what it meant to be a refugee. When his parents had come over from Jessore and Chittagong in ’47, he had not been born. But he remembered the hordes of those who escaped the butchery in ’71 and washed up on Calcutta’s streets. Ranjan recalled seeing thousands of them living in Sealdah or Howrah stations, at the Maidan, by the thoroughfares. They hardly spoke unless they were begging for food. Their bodies were emaciated, their rags odorous, their eyes drained of hope. Many died in the camps that lined both sides of Jessore Road, from the outskirts of the city all the way to the border of Bangladesh. Others were struck down by malaria, jaundice, typhoid, cholera—or hunger. The Congress government did not know what to do. It probably hoped that they would be blown away by the wind like locusts. That did not happen. The refugees did not go anywhere. Instead, they regrouped, turned militant, and began demanding to be treated like humans. The Communists helped them organize into a powerful lobby. The refugees paid them back by voting them into power.
A change in government, however, did not improve the situation in the state. Some said the Communists made it worse. Their militant trade unionism led to factories shutting down. Calcutta was once the second city of the British Empire and a hub of trade and commerce. Now, the international firms began to move their headquarters to Bombay or Delhi, even Bangalore. The trained labour force migrated. The word brain-drain entered the Bengali dictionary.
Many of those who could not leave or get a job turned to hawking.
Ranjan told his colleague Sukanta about his predicament. It was lunch hour at St Teresa’s Academy. The two of them had taken a stroll out of campus to smoke in peace, away from the eyes of the students.
“You can’t be evicted at such a short notice,” said Sukanta. “Have you spoken to anyone at your local Party office?”
“I don’t know anyone there,” said Ranjan.
“That does not matter. The Party is working for everyone—member or not.”
Ranjan did not reply. Everyone knew that Sukanta was a member of the Party and an office-bearer of its teachers’ union. He often took leave from the school to do the Party’s work—taking part in processions and protests, organizing various cells and units, election campaigning. The administration of St Teresa’s was not happy with Sukanta playing truant, but they could not discipline him. You did not mess with the Party members.
There was something else that worked in Sukanta’s favour. He was a very popular teacher. His subjects were physics and maths. This meant he had ample opportunity to supplement his meagre schoolteacher’s salary with private tuitions. He made full use of this opportunity.
Ranjan had been assigned to teach geography in the middle classes. He has a degree in commerce but that was not taken into account. Geography was not a lucrative subject like the sciences, or math, or English. No one cared to take tuitions in geography.
“I heard the promoter’s brother-in-law is a Party leader,” said Ranjan. The two men were walking back to the school. “A municipal councillor.”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“The brother-in-law is apparently helping Poltu with his business.”
Sukanta stopped suddenly. “What are you suggesting?”
“Are you suggesting that a leader of our Party will help his relatives illegally?”
Ranjan realised he had stepped across a line. “No, I did not mean that,” he said.
“It is true that we have to work within this pseudo-democratic framework and cannot offer a truly socialist programme to the people. However, it is ridiculous to suggest criminalisation among senior leaders.”
Sukanta’s voice had changed. He was using his lungs like a pair of bellows and projecting it as he did during the Communist rallies at the Brigade parade grounds. Before any of the senior leaders went up on stage, Sukanta would often warm up the crowd with his speeches. Now, he was using this training to harangue Ranjan.
“It is not only ridiculous, but it is also revisionist. It is an example of Trotskyite thinking that we must weed out.”
Ranjan hoped desperately that Sukanta would stop right away. He had the first class after lunch and he did not want to be late for it. He did not have the licence of the Party like his colleague.
“No, I am not suggesting anything like that,” he said.
“Good,” replied Sukanta. “If you believe in the Party, the Party will help you.”
“I believe in the Party.”
Sukanta promised to take Ranjan to the Party headquarters at Alimuddin Street on Sunday evening. There was a meeting of some senior leaders of the Polit Bureau. They would sort it out for him.
On Sunday morning, Dibyendu took Ranjan and Kalpana to see three flats. The children stayed home. For some reason or the other, all three were rejected. The first one was at Pratap Aditya Road. It was not a flat, but a couple of rooms separated from the rest of the floor with a plywood wall. Another family lived across this temporary partition. The rooms they were shown did not get any sunlight or air, but that was not the dealbreaker. They could not accept this flat because they would have to share the toilet and the bathroom with the other tenants. With two children, hygiene had to be your priority.
The second flat they inspected, at Rajani Sen Road, was large enough. It had two bedrooms, a balcony that could be used as a dining room, a proper kitchen. However, when Kalpana opened the windows in the kitchen, she found herself looking directly at a public urinal. Three men were relieving themselves right under her watch, their backs turned to her. A strong odour of urine travelled from the public facility to the kitchen of this flat. Kalpana choked on it, shut the window, and decided to go for the next house.
They actually like the final one they were shown that day. It was a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a new building on Lake View Road. A postage stamp of a flat, but it would have been enough for their family. There was a proper kitchen, a western-style bathroom, a living room with a balcony. The rent, however, was way out of their reach.
“Six thousand,” Dibyendu informed them after giving them a tour. Ranjan and Kalpana exchanged a look of disappointment. Ranjan’s monthly salary was five thousand rupees.
By now the broker was frustrated with them.
“I told you that your budget was too little for a flat in these areas,” he said. “I can find you a nice place at Bagha Jatin or Sulekha. My cousin is a broker in those areas. Should I talk to him?”
Ranjan hesitated a little. “Those places are a little too far,” he said. “My school is at Hazra. The children got to school at Park Circus.”
Dibyendu screwed up his face. “As you please,” he said in a disinterested voice. “I will tell you if I can find something else for you.”
The three of them had walked to the tea stall at Lake Market that was a rendezvous point for all the brokers in the area. There was a roadside public meeting in progress not too far away.
“What’s going on?” asked Dibyendu.
“The hawkers are protesting against Operation Sunlight,” said the owner of the tea stall. “Didi is supposed to come.”
Didi, the Bengali word for elder sister, referred to Mamata Banerjee, the most well-known opposition leader in the state. She was in the Congress.
“These opposition leaders think this is an opportunity to create trouble for the government,” said Dibyendu. “Mamata is a little girl in front of all the CPM leaders. What can she do?”
“Where will the hawkers go if they are evicted?” Ranjan said.
“The government is giving them space near Jadavpur.”
“But that’s so far away.”
Dibyendu lit a cigarette. “Either they will go on their own, or the police will escort them there with batons.”
Further conversation became impossible because one of the speakers at the protest began delivering his speech. It was broadcast through megaphones all over the area:
The CPM leaders blame the poor for making the city look ugly. They say we are illegal encroachers. But what about them? Their party cadres are illegally selling land to developers. And why blame the cadres when the chief minister himself is giving away land in Salt Lake to his family and friends? He gave a plot of land to his biographer. She wrote a nice book about him. The CPM wants to punish us, but we are just filling our stomach. We will not accept this. The people will not accept this…
A meeting of a disciplinary sub-committee was in progress when Ranjan and Sukanta arrived at the Party headquarters at Alimuddin Street.
Traffic was usually sparse around central Calcutta on Sunday evening. A bout of unseasonal rain ensured that the streets were more deserted than usual. The windows of the gothic buildings that served as offices for the government or private enterprises were dark squares. There was something old and haunting about the streets. Ranjan and Sukanta alighted from a bus at Esplanade and hurried through the wet gusts of breeze to their destination.
The Party office was abuzz with people. A large number of party workers were milling around in the large reception area. Ranjan detected a sombre, even belligerent, mood among those who had gathered. The men stood in small circles and whispered to each other. They belonged to two different factions of the Party that were now at loggerheads, Sukanta told Ranjan.
“A minister in the government has done the unthinkable,” he whispered. “He went to the famous Kali temple at Tarapith and offered puja.”
This was completely inconsistent with the ideology of the Party. Communists were supposed to follow Marx’s principle and treat religion as the opium of the masses. Most communist leaders in the country professed atheism and would never visit a temple or a mosque. They had also managed to keep the politics of religion that had become mainstream in India out of Bengal. When a mob of Hindus tore down a medieval mosque in Ayodhya and communal riots spread across the country, the Party had acted swiftly in calling in the army and preventing a flare-up in the state.
The minister had gone to Tarapith, a well-known Hindu pilgrimage about 200 km north of Calcutta, to inaugurate a bus stand. After the inauguration, he went to the temple, performed puja, and gifted a sari to the resident deity, Kali. His pictures were on the front page of all the national dailies the next day.
The chief minister, Jyoti Basu, publicly disapproved of the minister’s antics. “He has gone mad,” Basu told Ganashakti, the mouthpiece of the Party. The Polit Bureau had summoned the minister to a disciplinary committee meeting.
“So what will happen now?” asked Ranjan.
“What do you think? He will be sacked. No one dares to violate the discipline of the Party—be that a small-time promoter or a state minister.” Sukanta was obviously enjoying the developments.
Ranjan had also heard about all this, read some of it in newspapers. The erring minister’s name was Mani Ganguly. He was one of the grassroots leaders, not one who had been in Oxbridge or came from wealth. Mani had climbed the ranks of the Party from cadre to minister and had even been to jail during the Emergency.
Though Sukanta seemed confident that Mani Ganguly would be rusticated by the Party, Ranjan was not so sure. He had heard that Ganguly was the leader of a powerful—and rich—faction of the Party, close to the promoters who were reclaiming large swathes of land from the eastern fringes and wetlands of Calcutta and building multi-storeyed buildings.
“Of course the promoters make a profit,” Mani had told a newspaper. “But they are also rendering a service of making the city beautiful.” Ranjan had also heard that Operation Sunlight was Mani’s brainchild.
The meeting of the disciplinary committee continued for several hours. The leader whom Sukanta and Ranjan had come to meet could not make time for them. He stepped out of the meeting room around nine in the evening, for five minutes.
Sukanta spotted him and rushed to talk to him. But, there were many others who had been waiting. The leader was surrounded by a crowd and seemed to agree to everything that everyone said to him. Sukanta barely got a second or two.
Ranjan was standing at a little distance. When Sukanta returned, he asked: “Any hope?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Sukanta. His voice seemed to be too full of hope. “I told him everything. He said it would all be sorted out.”
Ranjan felt a weight lift off his chest. The Party was known to intervene in such matters and help out people.
“It’s not as if we are refusing to vacate this house,” he told Kalpana later at night. “We are just asking for a few more months, till we find something suitable.”
A visit from the landlord early in the morning can never be good news for the tenant. Ranjan knew this, but he forgot it momentarily when he saw Sashi Bhushan at his door the next morning. He thought that the visit to the Party headquarters had already borne results.
The landlord, however, had not come alone. He was accompanied by another man who looked more like a pig than him. He was wearing a white kurta over his jeans. There were patches of sweat near his underarm.
“Will you please come out?” said Sashi Bhushan to Ranjan. “We would like to talk to you.”
“Why not come inside for a cup of tea?” said Ranjan.
The landlord hesitated.
“It is better that you come out than we go in,” said his companion. The man’s intonation had the aggressiveness of the slums, so alien to a polite conversation.
Ranjan felt something was wrong. His stomach was suddenly hollow.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Why did you do this, Ranjan?” said Sashi Bhushan.
“Why did you go to Alimuddin Street?”
Ranjan felt his ears turning warm. He was also getting confused. Sashi Bhushan’s attitude was not conciliatory as he had expected it would be after a visit from the Party officials. Instead, he seemed to have dropped all the pretences of politeness he had displayed during his last visit. His voice was definitely accusatory.
“You thought we wouldn’t get to know?” said Sashi Bhushan’s companion.
“I am sorry, but I don’t think I know you,” Ranjan replied.
“This is Pradipta,” introduced the landlord. “You might have heard of him as Poltu. He is the promoter who bought my house.”
Poltu folded his hands in a gesture of greeting. “You are a schoolteacher, isn’t it?” he asked Ranjan.
“A polite, middle-class man, with a wife and two children. Why are you getting involved in the matters of the Party? Leave the dirty work of politics for us.”
“I am sorry, I just wanted to…”
Even before Ranjan could finish, Poltu stopped him. “Now listen to me, teacher. Sashi is a polite man like you, so he has given you a month. I am not a polite man. I am a promoter. You have a month. But only a month, OK?”
He lit a cigarette. “I am not as polite as him.”
When the two men left, Ranjan collapsed on the sofa-cum-bed. His mind was clouded and he could not think. Panic was rising like an acid taste up his oesophagus. He was sweating; his breath was strained. He remained like this for several minutes. At last, he decided to call Sukanta. He would know what to do.
Ranjan did not have a phone at home, so he went out to the nearest telephone booth. Sukanta also did not have a phone at his home. But, he had given his neighbour’s phone number to his friends and colleagues. Ranjan dialled the number and waited as the phone rang.
“Hello?” It was the voice of a young girl.
“Hello,” said Ranjan. “Can you please call Sukanta for me?”
“Sukanta?” The voice hesitated. Someone else—an adult man—came to the call.
“Yes, whom do you want to talk to?”
“Can you please call Sukanta for me?”
“Are you his relative?”
“No, I am his colleague from the school.”
“OK.” There was a brief pause. “I guess you have not heard. Sukanta had an accident this morning.”
Ranjan’s stomach felt hollow again. “Accident?”
“Yes, he was out for his morning walk when a car hit him. It is nothing major. Some of the neighbours have taken him to the hospital. I can take a message for you.”
Ranjan hung up and stepped out of the booth. He felt as if his head would start spinning.
Another public meeting of the hawkers was in progress. Operation Sunlight was almost upon them. Their union had filed a case at Calcutta High Court against the proposed eviction. Some of the more militant ones among the hawkers had decided to arm themselves. Their weapons were glass bottles, old tube lights, wooden rods, bricks. They wanted to confront the police and the eviction team whenever they arrived. “We voted them into power, and now they want to kick us in the stomach,” they cried. Others among the ranks of the hawkers, the more timid or pragmatic ones, were already stripping their stalls, removing their wares to safer places. They were children of refugees who had survived many eviction drives. They knew that if you lived today, you could continue with your struggle tomorrow.
Dibyendu was not at the tea stall at Lake Market when Ranjan arrived there.
“Do you know when he will come?” Ranjan asked the owner of the tea stall.
The tea seller was not serving his customers that day. The stove was cold, no milk was boiling. Instead, he was doing something that caught Ranjan’s eye. The man was planting tiles with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses on the sides of his wooden stall. Most of the pictures were of goddess Kali and Durga.
“What are you doing?” Ranjan asked him.
“Invoking the gods and goddesses,” the man replied, nonchalantly.
“To protect me, why else? And since I am named after a goddess, she should be in my stall, no?”
Ranjan did not understand a word of it.
“What is your name?” he asked.
The man looked up from his task and smiled. His teeth were stained black with beetle juice.
“My name is Kali,” he said.
Operation Sunlight took place at midnight.
The officers of the municipal corporation entrusted with the duty of evicting the hawkers arrived at Gariahat with industrial pulverisers and crushers well after the last tram had departed, all the shops had closed, and people had gone home. The streets were the dominion of mongrels who engaged in byzantine territorial contests, barking and pissing. The municipal officers were accompanied by a battalion of the police. The constables were in full riot gear but they were not expecting any resistance. So they sulked in groups of two or three near the bus that had brought them to the site. The officer-in-charge made an announcement over the loudspeaker that the operation was starting. He added that any resistance to it would be illegal and dealt with suitably.
There was no resistance. The pulverisers got to work, reducing the tin and bamboo stalls to rubble. They made a loud, grating sound that kept the genteel residents of these neighbourhood awake well into the night.
If this seemed like an anti-climax to the months of rising tension, it was because the plans for it had been leaked to the media weeks before. The newspapers were full of it, though they could not decide on the exact date when it would occur. The hawkers had already emptied their stalls by the time the actual eviction took place. They had taken their wares somewhere safe. Their union had already sued the government. There were rumours that they were planning major protests, like blocking the thoroughfares, making deputations to the state’s governor, even taking the matter to Delhi.
The demolition of all the stalls on both sides of Rash Behari Avenue was finally completed just before sunrise. Clearing the rubble was not the job of this municipal team. Another team of scavengers would come in the morning to collect the garbage from homes and remove the leftovers.
By the time Ranjan came out to wait with his son and daughter, even the leftovers had been cleared. There was some traffic already—an ambulance, the early trams, newspaper delivery men. But the streets seemed very empty, quiet without the hawkers. The crows seemed louder that morning.
Ranjan could see clearly till Lake Market with the stalls no more blocking his view. He had not seen the footpaths so clean since his childhood. He decided to take a walk. The air was pleasant enough and he was not in a hurry. His plan was to buy jalebis from the sweetshop in the market and take it back to Kalpana.
On his way, he saw a red flag lying in the gutter. It was a familiar flag—the hammer, sickle, and star of the Communists. He wondered why it was lying there. Perhaps a hawker, remember the benevolence of the Party so many years ago, had it in his stall. Perhaps he had forgotten to remove it and the team of municipal scavengers had missed it.
As he reached the market, he saw that one hawker’s stall was still intact—Kali. There was in fact a small crowd around it because all the other tea stalls had been demolished. Its owner was fussing over his stove, trying to conjure rivers of tea from his pan to satiate the thirst of his demanding customers. His radio was also playing Hindi film songs. Perhaps its volume was the same as on other days, but without the ambient background score of the other hawkers, it seemed louder to Ranjan.
“Hello, hello, how are you?” Kali greeted him. “Do you want a cup?”
The tea seller seemed extraordinarily pleased, and why not? Ranjan accepted a cup of tea from him.
But when he tried to pay for it, the tea seller refused. “No, no, it is free today,” he declared. “I am celebrating.”
“Look around you. My stall is the only one that survived last night’s destruction. Tea at my stall is free today—I am doubling the price from tomorrow.”
Ranjan could not help laughing. “That means I am not coming to your stall from tomorrow.”
“Where else will you go?” Kali winked at him.
“So how did your stall survive?”
“The blessing of the goddess.”
The tea seller pointed to the tiles with Kali and Durga on them that he had planted on the walls of his stalls. The walls were made of tin sheets and the tiles were attached to it with wires.
“Even the Communists are scared of Kali!”
Ranjan suddenly felt he was standing in a circle of sunlight. His heartbeat had increased and he decided to hurry back. There was no time for jalebis.
Visiting a tenant early in the morning is an unpleasant business. Especially if you are going to ask for rent or to evict them. Every landlord in Calcutta knew this. Sashi Bhushan knew it too. Yet nothing could have prepared him—or Poltu—for what they would find when at Ranjan’s house that morning.
Even as they got off the taxi outside the cul-de-sac, they saw a small crowd gathered around the house. As they neared it, they saw that a puja was in progress in the drawing-room.
The appearance had changed marvellously. All the furniture was gone. In their place, stood an idol of goddess Kali. Ranjan was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of it. There was also a Brahmin priest, performing an elaborate ritual for the goddess. The people who had gathered were neighbours who had come to assist with the puja. They had put up tarpaulin sheets and were cooking an elaborate feast under it. There was a generally festive mood around the place.
Sashi Bhushan also noticed that the floor of the room had been dug up. Someone had gone to work on the cement floor with axes and spades. Now, there was a large hole behind the idol.
The landlord and the promoter were wondering what they should do when Ranjan spotted them. He smiled broadly and got up from the mat on which he was sitting. He walked up to them and greeted them.
“What is going on here, Ranjan?” asked Sashi Bhushan.
“You will not believe me if I tell you, but a miracle has occurred it.”
“Yes.” Ranjan’s smile was both cunning and beatific. “I saw her in my dream.”
“In your dreams?”
“Yes, just the other night. She told me she was buried under my drawing-room. When I woke up, I went to the market and bought the spade. But what do I know about digging? I am only a school teacher. Anyhow, after for four hours, sure enough, I find an idol buried under my drawing-room.”
Both Sashi Bhushan and Poltu were staring at him like they had been hit by a truck.
Ranjan smiled and continued. “I called a colleague in the school, a historian. He told me this statue must date back to the Pala dynasty that ruled Bengal before the Islamic invasions in the 12th century. Many temples were destroyed by the invaders. Someone must have buried this statue. I think we should build a temple here. That’s what the priest was also telling me.”
The tenant said he had a lot of things to attend to that day. The puja would end soon, but the whole neighbourhood had turned up for the feast. Everyone had contributed to it.
Though Ranjan asked them to have lunch, Sashi Bhushan and Poltu made excuses and left immediately. As they were waiting for a taxi at Rash Behari Avenue, Sashi Bhushan asked the promoter: “Now what do we do?”
“Nothing,” Poltu replied. “There’s nothing we can do. Your house has now become an offering to the goddess.”
“Can you not ask your brother-in-law to do something?”
“What’s he going to do? This is a religious matter, not a social one. The Party will not intervene.”
Poltu lit a cigarette. “Your tenant is a very smart man,” he said. “He played us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think the goddess really appeared in his dream?”
“He made up this story. Don’t you see what’s going on with temples and mosques in this country? It is best to not get involved.”
“There must be something we can do about it.”
The promoter thought for a while. Then he made a suggestion. “Go back to Ranjan tomorrow and tell him that we will give him a flat in the new building. Or money, if that’s what he wants. I will also build a small Kali temple in the compound of the building. I think that will sort out the matter.”
Poltu got into a taxi and left.
Sashi Bhushan stood for a while, not really sure what he should do.
On the footpath in front of him, a hawker had set up a stall on a foldable wooden table. He was selling cheap t-shirts and fake perfumes. He also had a small garden umbrella to provide shade from sunlight. And, he had a small idol of Kali in one corner of his stall, complete with a marigold garland and incense sticks.
The landlord realised that the events that had unfolded over the past few days were not tragic but comic. He began to laugh as he walked back home.
The Communist Party of India (Marxists) and its allies ruled the eastern Indian state of West Bengal continuously from 1977 to 2011, winning seven consecutive elections. “Operation Sunlight” is based on the real “Operation Sunshine” carried out in the mid-1990s. Ananya Roy’s City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) provides intimate details of this and other projects of the communists in Calcutta (Kolkata). After decades in the opposition, Mamata Banerjee is now the chief minister of West Bengal.
Uttaran Das Gupta
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has published a book of poems (Visceral Metropolis, 2017) and a novel (Ritual, 2020). He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.