As the local train chugged out of Asansol station, the soft light of the winter afternoon flooded in. We were in a chair-car, with rows of seats facing each other, and an aisle running through the middle of the coach. The train was crowded, four people had squeezed in rows meant for three. We, Bengalis, love adda more than Omar Khayyam loved wine and women. Our group of eight perfect strangers soon started chatting, with the people standing on the aisle chipping in from time to time.
The amiable young man in a checked jacket sitting by the window was a school teacher. He enquired about connecting trains, ‘Do you think I can catch the 9.30 local to Canning from Sealdah? If I miss it, the last train is at 11.20.’
We didn’t miss the touch of nervousness in his voice. A student sitting in front of us said, ‘Going to Canning at such an hour?’
‘No, actually, to the previous station, Taldi. From there, I have to walk half an hour to reach my home.’
‘Wouldn’t it be risky? I mean’, the boy said, ‘going by what one reads about Canning and the places around it, don’t you run the risk of being robbed at that hour?’
The son of Canning smiled, ‘I know, it’s rather dicey. If I am lucky, I’ll come across a vigilante group before I meet the friends; in that case, the vigilante fellows will take me home.’
The strange use of the word “friends” confused me; he used the exact synonym in Bengali. But the other passengers got the drift. The student asked, ‘And if you meet the friends earlier?’
‘Well, if I happen to meet them first, I’ll reach home in my underpants.’
‘And you’d catch a cold in this weather’, quipped a man, who, we had found out, worked in a steel plant.
‘But should you take a chance in that case?’ enquired a senior citizen, sitting between the teacher and me.
The teacher responded philosophically, ‘Well, sooner of later, your turn comes. It doesn’t matter if it’s today or tomorrow.’ Then, as if to demonstrate the practical side of his mind, he added, ‘It’s twenty-third today, so there isn’t much risk. But if it were the first, when people go home with pay-packets, I could bet my shirt on being robbed on the way.’
The student: ‘Can’t you stay back and catch the first train tomorrow morning? It would be good if your name is on newspapers, but what’s the point if you can’t read it?’
‘No they don’t kill, usually. After all, they know us. Take for example Rahamat’s gang. Rahamat was my classmate. He was the centre forward and I was the outside-left in the school team. He scored many goals off my centres. Would he kill me just like that?’
We couldn’t refute such an irrefutable argument. But you would find Doubting Thomases everywhere. One such asked from the aisle, ‘Aren’t they scared that you might recognize them?'
‘Oh! You have to follow certain basic rules. You are not supposed to look at them. If you recognize them and try to exchange pleasantries, you are dead. So, you turn your head and pretend that you didn’t see them. After all, it’s your money they are after.’
After a brief pause, the teacher continued, ‘If you have a gun in your house, you run an unnecessary risk. Guns are in big demand. Our neighbour had a licensed gun. One day, some friends came in, faces covered. They called the eldest son of the house by his name. That family runs a business of poultry at their house. Salamat was playing cards; he opened the door expecting a customer. They put a shutter on his head and beat him black and blue. They took the gun away, and whatever gold and cash they could lay their hands on.
‘After some time, one of the friends walked in, his face uncovered now, and innocently inquired about the stolen goods. He was doing an audit; he came in to check if a part of the booty had been pilfered by a deviant gang member.’
The discerning reader wouldn’t have missed the peculiar use of the word shutter here. It is amazing how a respectable English word becomes part of the slang in another language. The shutter, meaning pistol or handgun, an instrument of death. My Oxford dictionary says it’s “a device that opens to allow light to pass through the lens of a camera”. The recent adaptation of the word in South Bengal stands for a device that opens to allow darkness to pass through its nozzle. But semantics apart, what surprised us most was the cool with which the teacher narrated the incident! It was as if he was talking of some real friends who had come in for dinner.
‘What was your vigilante group doing?’
‘The vigilante group operates from nine in the evening. This took place at seven.’ Then he lowered the voice, although he didn’t run the risk of being overheard by the thugs, ‘Some of the friends are members of the vigilante party too!’
‘You mean to say, everyone knows them?’
‘Of course, we do, most of them. The last time I went home, some of them dropped in for a cup of tea. I offered them sweets for good measure … You have to be polite with them. … One of them told me that he was in the business, but insisted that he operated only outside our village. The friends are invariably invited for wedding feasts.’
‘Do they take away the bride's ornaments while leaving?’ enquired the steel plant employee innocently.
‘No, never on the wedding night!’
‘But tell me’, the elderly man asked, ‘why nobody reports to the police?’
At this point, the train entered Bardhaman, my destination. Apparently simple things sometimes have complex causes. Like the falling apple. The teacher answered with a silent smile.
But we know the answer, don’t we? The answer was hidden not in what he had said, but in the air of resignation with which he had narrated the situation ... and the euphemism used for thugs. Over the years, our sensitivity has been blunted, we accept any report of crime with a sense of déjà vu. But this helpless acceptance of crime that so completely dominates an area turned my blood into ice. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear is being relived at a place two hours away from my home. The paddy fields of Canning would be totally unlike the coal mines in Doyle’s Vermissa Valley. But there are chilling similarities between the two. In both places fear dominates life. Places ruled not by law, but by illicit guns. Places with two classes of people, the organized thugs and the common people, the latter being victims and accomplices at the same time.
This happened on 23rd December, 2000. But for two fictitious names and minor garnishing, I have reported the conversation verbatim. On 3rd January, 2001, newspapers reported that in another place in the same district, 40 houses were looted by a gang of 35 hoods, who happened to be local people. One newspaper (The Times of India) even stated that the dacoits had put the villagers on notice a few months earlier. It was also reported that nobody dared to lodge complaints with the police.
Eight years have passed since then. Is the situation better or worse in rural West Bengal? I request my readers from the state to share their experience.