As the wedding guests were being served the Chutney and Papad there were whispers flowing all around. Some wanted to finish early and head home while some formed groups discussing the current political situation. The date was 6th of December 1992 and a nationwide bandh (Strike) was just announced by most of the political parties in the country. Being a twelve year old for me it was a bonus dropping from the sky the bandh would mean that Monday would be a holiday and no school. For my mother, she was more worried that the bandh would push the exam dates behind and my father was rushing to the neighbourhood shop for stocking up on bread and eggs from the next day.
The wedding party ended a bit early as most of the guests wanted to leave early and stock up. During the 90’s a bandh would for sure bring any city to a grinding halt and it was always wiser to be prepared than to be surprised. In the meantime, I was already planning how we could enjoy the bonus day off with my friends in the locality.
Next day morning every neighbour seemed to have been waiting at their doorstep waiting for the newspaper to arrive. Cable television was just non-existent at that time, only a few houses in our neighbourhood had them but the number of channels was limited to around 3 or 4. Television news for us always meant the one at 8.30 in the evening on Doordarshan which was a public broadcaster and always for sure edited as per the choice of the ruling party rather than broadcasting what was actually going on. Newspapers were the only source of information thus the next day’s newspaper was eagerly awaited by all in our neighbourhood.
The First Wave
After a round of cricket in the morning with friends I settled down to oil my bicycle chain which had been squeaking for few days it was almost midday by then, all of a sudden I see my uncle Robby running as he entered our locality, there were few other men also running along all of them shouting “coming, they are coming, they have started attacking”. My uncle was over six feet and was very lanky, seeing him run wild was something straight out of a Bollywood comedy. Almost instantly the entire locality was transformed into a complete panic mode. People started shutting their windows, mothers were seen dragging their kids back home and I wanted to see what was really happening. Did not actually get a chance as I was ordered back inside. The entire locality was in a complete commotion and it felt like the rioting had actually started right from here.
After a couple of hours when the dust settled it was learnt that a group of men gambling under a tree near the railway tracks had an altercation amongst themselves and that led into a sort of mini fist fight which in turn in form of gossip got transformed into a communal riot. So the first wave was just a misinformation and we were safe.
Our only source of information was the good old newspaper, my grandfather, however, was an ardent radio fan and till his last days listened to the news on the mini Philips radio. Cable television was in its infancy and only two households in our entire neighbourhood had them. Radio and television news were censored and it almost felt like nothing was happening around the country at that time. Newspapers were, however, pouring in news from different parts of the country in bits.
Our next door cousins were amongst the few with cable television and they kept us updated with news from CNN and BBC. One fine day that also stopped as the government had ordered the blocking of international media which could add fuel to the fire.
With no credible source of information, it was time for the gossips to flow wild. The chief among these was the milkman who would travel around the neighbourhood with stories of mass killing and sometimes how he alone led a group of people to protect a whole neighbourhood.
Back To Normalcy
As the rest of the country was boiling my city of Calcutta was, however, calm and things started getting normal. Shops were opening at their daily schedule and after almost one and half weeks of no schools, it was time for me to start worrying again as some schools were back to its normal routine and I was sure that my school would follow soon.
One fine evening our then Chief Minister of the state came on television to officially announce the resumption of school and other institution as things were back to normalcy. I was in deep shock as I knew that with few days remaining to Christmas the vacation for sure would get postponed and the school would want to finish up with the second term examinations before the start of the vacation. More than me my mother was panicking and I was dragged back to study table to catch up with the syllabus.
A Drunk Saves the Day
Potla (his nickname) was famous in our locality as a small time goon who was often seen flexing his muscles during any altercations that might take part in our locality. Though people considered a disgrace to the society he had a unique quality of being someone who would be the first to help during any emergency, be it a death in the family or a wedding he would always be the first one to help in various activities without any expectations. Equally famous was his unique way to help the elders and women of the neighbourhood to cross the busy streets or just to stop a taxi for them. All fine till it turned evening when Potla for sure would get drunk till his neck and would pass out under a street light.
Potla had no source of income and when the building promoters started their construction projects in our neighbourhood he saw the opportunity for becoming a sand and stone chips supplier almost overnight. Getting contracts were actually easy for his as he would often intimidate the builder and force them to give him the contract.
A new multi-storied apartment complex was being constructed in our neighbourhood and for some reason, Potla was not being able to get the contract for supplying sand.
As I knew that school was reopening the next day my mother had forced me to bed early and at around 1 AM there was a huge commotion across the street where the new multi-storied apartment complex was being constructed. As usual Potal in a complete drunk state was throwing stones at the gate of the construction site and alternating between bursts of verbal abuse and crying which almost sounded like howling.
The neighbourhood was awake and some tried to approach Potla to go back home but Potla did not listen. This continued for almost an hour till everything got settled and just as the neighbourhood was going back to bed a strange noise started filling up the air. We could clearly hear voices of men in the distance and surely they were not friendly and mostly sounded like an attack was eminent. This was followed by a barrage of blasts from country bombs.
As minutes passed we could hear the sound getting louder and louder. People started panicking and the men in the locality started gathering up sticks, the workers at the construction site were woken up and was asked to cut metal bars of around six feet of length to be used in the event the mob reached the locality. Ironically Potla was nowhere to be seen and was busy snoring under a lamp post.
The Mob Is Approaching
As the sound of the mob grew louder and louder people in the neighbourhood was preparing for an onslaught, we were asked to switch off their lights and bolt all the doors and the windows. During that time our neighbourhood had very few homes with a telephone connection and our house was one of them. I could see my father and few other men frantically trying to call the local police station to ask for help but there were no one picking up. After almost a dozen calls someone picked up only to tell that the entire police station was empty as all the forces available were deployed across the city to stop the outbreak of riot.
With no other option, the men in the locality decided to take things in their own hand, people were divided into groups and given different points of the main road to take positions. Bags of sand from the construction site were being used as an improvised bunker. Some of my father’s friends were seen gathering glass bottles and fluorescent tube lights. As the sound of the mob started getting louder in the distance it was time for our locality to respond. Every time the mob gave a shout the men from our locality responded louder just to show that they were ready. Some started banging the lamp post in response creating an even louder noise. All this continued till around 4 AM, I wanted to peek out of the window to see what was going on while my sister was hiding under the blanket and in tears of fear.
Shoot At Sight
By early hours of the next morning the army trucks started pouring in as an emergency had been declared and shoot at sight orders had been enforced. As the trucks were approaching our locality it was time for all to take covers as they would not know who was there to defend and who was there to attack. People hid behind bushes and buildings as the trucks passed by announcing on load speakers that curfew has been imposed.
When the sun was up the entire neighbourhood wore a look of a ghost town, there was pin drop silence. No newspapers that morning neither did the milkman come in his bicycle. Only regular updates on television and radio announced the curfew in the city and the time when it will be lifted for a couple of minutes to allow people to stock up on food.
At around 10.30 AM the first break was given, my uncle residing on the edge of the city came to pay us a visit as they had a car and could come to check on us. He bought a can full of milk, a block of butter and a pound of bread. This was real precious as shops were closed fearing of being looted. Through him, we also got information on our other aunt who used to live in a locality which saw fierce fighting.
All this while my mother kept worrying about the scheduled exams which were supposed to be held, calls to the school went unanswered and almost after few days we managed to get hold of someone who informed that the school has been shut until further notice and will only reopen after the new year. This was no way for me to celebrate as the curfew also meant that I could not play outside and had to stay back at home studying for the exams which never happened ultimately.
And Then Came Christmas
For our family, things come to stop when it’s time for Christmas but with the ongoing curfew and riots, things were different that year. Buying new clothes for Christmas was still pending and our first priority was to bake cakes that winter. With the ongoing tension in the streets, there was almost no taxi that was plying the city roads thus with no other option my father decided to take his bicycle to the bakeries at Beckbagan to back cakes.
The bicycle had been transformed into a mobile cake van with two small buckets hanging from the handle which had eggs and the carrier in the back had stocks of bags filled with flour, sugar, dry fruits and other ingredients. My father pedalled all the way with the load to Beckbagan and to the surprise of the bakery owners he managed to bake cakes and also bring the finished products back home. That year the cakes were really special
Rebooting the city
Things were slowly started becoming normal and by New Year things were back as if nothing was wrong in the first place. Slowly news started trickling in about the violence that had gripped different parts of the city. Schools reopened in the New Year and it was exam from day one which I obviously did not like as I was still in Christmas mood.
Even though things were quite in our city things were already heating up in other places across the country. A chapter in our nation’s history which everyone wants to forget and as our country becomes a superpower with technology as the backbone the younger generations will have no memories of these events and for people like me these small stories will forever remain etched in our memories.
p.s. For the record, the mob that was approaching our locality did not belong to any religious group but was rather a group of looters going street by street looting shops and houses.