Shampa Sengupta stayed away from pandal hopping but had a room with a view this Durga Puja
Three separate incidents during Durga Puja this year – all witnessed from my window. All of them made me think and rethink about gender issues.
It’s a well known fact that despite tall claims, Durga Puja is not an inclusive festival – it’s drenched in patriarchy with caste-based rituals and, of course, like in everything else in life, class also plays an important role in Durga Puja. So, for someone like me, who’s scared to go out and be face-to-face with this festival, what better than to remain homebound, stand by the window and gaze at the neighbourhood?
There’s a pond in front of my house. Recently, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation built a narrow park between the pond and my window. The park has some cement benches but usually remains empty. Durga Puja time, people were anyway busy with festivities and the park remained mostly unoccupied. But there were a few exceptions.
Saptami (October 16, 2018)
At 8 am in the morning, I saw a young woman sitting on one of the benches. Her face was covered with her dopatta and she was alone. A purse was kept beside her. I was intrigued because she didn’t look like someone from the neighbourhood. I told myself that I wouldn’t have reacted in a similar way if this was a young man. After all, men occupy public spaces singly all the time. People of all genders have the right to sit in public places I reminded myself, but a ‘but’ remained in my head.
I got busy with house work. But the woman remained seated there for hours. Now why should a young woman, who looked like a college student, sit all alone in a park for more than five to six hours – that too, during Durga Puja time when the whole city was supposed to be enjoying the festivities? This question kept on coming to mind. And then what if she was suffering from depression, what if she was contemplating suicide? I even thought of offering her food, or asking her if she needed to use the toilet.
Her mental health aspect worried me. Sometimes I offer guidance or try to talk to unknown people who I meet on Facebook, if they express loneliness or depression. Shouldn’t I have done the same for someone who’d been sitting in front of my house the whole morning?
My questions and doubts remained unanswered as the woman left the park around 2.30 pm after another woman joined her there. So was she simply waiting for a friend, girl friend, partner or relative? Perhaps, but this made me think that though I consider myself gender-sensitive, how much internalization of patriarchal values must I have gone through? Why should a woman sitting alone in a park make me imagine so many things?
Navami (October 18, 2018)
Once again, I was at my window. A young man, probably drunk, was sleeping on one of the benches in the park. Suddenly, an angry young woman, an infant in her arms and a boy of about seven beside her appeared. She started hurling abuses as she found her husband sleeping in the park. From whatever shouting was going on, I could follow that this rickshaw-puller hadn’t been home the whole night. He’d been having a good time with his friends while the wife was left at home with the responsibility of looking after two children. Now that she had found him out, she was furious.
The whole family drama was being acted out in an open park. The man didn’t have strength even to stand up as the woman started hitting him with a tree branch. She looked very similar to the image of Durga to me, beating up a man fallen at her feet, with her children looking at her in awe. But this was not a celestial fight – it was domestic violence (albeit not the usual variety and more in the form of revenge). And wouldn’t I have intervened if it were the man beating up his wife in a public place?
I saw some other rickshaw-pullers come over to stare at the whole scene, but even these ‘fellow men’ didn’t intervene. I was too scared of course. Was this nari shakti jagaran happening in front of me? Should I have told the woman that just as in the case of sexual harassment, a legal or ‘due process’ was required to seek justice in matters of neglect?
Too many questions remained unanswered as the woman dragged her husband out of the park and took him home. Questions around the biases and binaries we nurture in our mind, our ideas of private and public matters . . . The beating of the dhak in the backdrop as this fight ensued made the incident too dramatic to be ignored!
Dashami (October 19, 2018)
The festivities were now coming to an end. The sun was already set. This time it was a couple in the park. A man offered alcohol to a woman, but she refused. He tried to kiss her. I’m not supposed to intervene in situations of public display of affection, I told myself. But the kiss seemed a forced one and the woman didn’t seem to enjoy it. But how does one understand if ‘consent’ was taken or not when you’re watching from your window?
It was dusk and the Durga Puja fairy lights were far away. This woman in a red saree didn’t look like Durga – she was not a fighter. She didn’t ask for help, she didn’t try to get up and go away. I was again being judgemental, I thought. But intervening seemed impossible.
While the whole city was supposed to be revelling in the joy of seeing a man being killed by a woman, it was stocktaking time for me, trying to comprehend how gendered my own understanding and actions were till date.
Photo credit: Shampa Sengupta