The Aftermath of Goondas at the Gates

Before the night after Saraswati Puja, the night of the "Barbarians at the Gates" more aptly here, the "Goonda's at the Gates" life was already challenging — just the work of raising 12 children with different needs, schooling, nurturing, guiding, and having fun with them.  Now it is clear we must move, but where, how, when?  How do we maneuver through what I see increasingly as a lawless community, lawless city, where only mob rule prevails. 

The night of the riots, there were groups of men out on the road getting reports of what was going on at Shishur Sevay.  They were apparently prepared to intervene if (after) anything happened to us.   Translated, these local leaders, political and community leaders, vicariously joined in the mob led threats of violence against us.   This is what I hear, "Everyone knows what is going on, but no one will do anything."  This has been much of my experience much of my last ten years here.  I sometimes describe this city, it's leadership, as a patient who has nerve sensation but no motor response.  They can say "ouch" but cannot move to remove the inflicting thorn.  Does it make me feel safer that all these men watch the criminals wage riot against a 68 year old woman and her twelve girl children?  It sickens me.  Yes, finally I drop all pretense and say that what I see around me sickens me.  Maybe it was easier to believe that no one outside our lane knew what was going on and that's why there was no help.

I'm up in the night because I probably will lose this house.  I've put a lot of money and heart into making this a Home and a School.  But here, once a house is empty, even for an hour, it can be seized, and one can spend twenty years in court trying to get possession.  The courts are slow and the police…. well they are the same ones who told me it was illegal for me to take a picture of the Goonda who was yelling at me outside my gate.  I used to think, "Well, we have the house, so at least we always have a place to live."

The trouble started before the girls even came here.  Of course, we bought the house not knowing that the lady who sold it did so because of these criminals.  I can't fault her.  I'll try to do the same, but I think they will prevent my selling it.  After buying this old house, I had hired one of the goondas as contractor, highly recommended by a neighbor.  At a certain point he threatened to walk off if I did not give him an extra $2000.  I resisted, which led to the first riots.  We had a Board Meeting.  We also had our government inspector who was working with us to open this home.  One day we had a meeting and the Board President and government inspector met with the Goondas.  They were told that if I didn't pay, they would not make it safe for children to come here.  I was told I had no choice if I wanted the children.  I could have tried to move then, but we were already approved and it would have meant another year of delay, so I paid.  And I've paid protection money along the way, but of course the demands always escalate.

ON THE OTHER HAND I have the girls, and it's been four years of raising them here and I would not have been willing to wait another year.  But I am angry that these two powerful people capitulated then.  I'm not really afraid here, because as the local councilor once told me, "they don't want to hurt you. They just want your money."  But I can't raise these children here where we are under threats and where there is obscenity against them and me even as we walk out of our house.  And I always wonder if some of the people who have quit have done so because of threats or nastiness coming down the lane to our house.

I had bought the house and then left for the US to see my two daughters graduate, one from Barnard, the other from New York Law School, and to pack up to move.  When I came back to Kolkata, the goondas had taken over the house during renovation and I'd find a group of strange men hanging out inside the house.  But when the children finally came, I was able to kick them out, while they continued to insist they should have free access.  They have tracked everyone who came and went.  They have offered alcohol to our guards, and rioted against us for the right of guards to stretch out and go to sleep at night, while on duty.

The local municipality is finally putting in sewer drains here.  The goondas tried to get the workmen to charge me an extra $140 to fix our water line.  Remarkably they refused.  The next day they fixed it for us for $10.  The goondas were not there, as one of the local women had attempted suicide and everyone was at the hospital.  She is back.  I don't know the story.  I only know it was quiet here for a day, no music blaring from the store.  Sometimes I'm reminded of times in the US when I'd go to the beach, or camping, to feel close to nature and instead of quiet, there was the blaring of someone's radio.  That's how it is here now, and it wasn't this way before.  The music comes through even with all doors and windows shut.  There is no place of quiet.

Three am now, and maybe I can go back to sleep.  I woke up agitated, thinking it was morning, hungry, needing to write.  I made coffee, and then heated a chapatti, and spread peanut butter on it, so it was melted and gooey, and reminded me of when I was little — comfort food.

On other fronts, the girls, things are very good.  The new school is going well.  There will be a fete at the school Friday and the girls want us ALL to come, little ones and all, so we will all be there, the rest of Shishur Sevay.  Today the girls were asked about their religion and caste.  They learned about caste at some point in school but apparently it didn't sink in.  So they came home asking about caste because the teacher told them to come home and ask their mother.  We talked about caste a little but actually they weren't interested.  They just wanted to know what to tell the teacher.  I told them to tell her, "General Caste" which seems to be a common category.  When I get applicants for jobs, most include caste in bio data, and they write Caste: General.  So, that's what the girls will be, Caste -General.  Yes, I was inclined to write a letter to the school but the girls prefer I don't as it will further "identify" them — (children of mother who writes such letters).




This is the new room on the roof, another space for us, for dance, for quiet, for another classroom, for my exercise bike.  I love making beautiful spaces!  Everywhere I've lived I've made beautiful spaces.  So this has to be a model of the next space.  That's what I tell the girls, to remember this room because that's what we will do again in the next place.

But I also think about the Goondas sitting in this space, feeling victory in driving us out, finally getting the house from me, which is what they have wanted all along.  It doesn't feel good.  But my life is not about a house.  It is about the children.  Focus on the children… don't let go of the cow… that's another story I will write about one day soon.  Some people tried to take my cow and I fought back.  I didn't let go.  The children are my cow, not the house.  Good, I've settled that in my mind.  Maybe I will be able to sleep now.






Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

February 2011
%d bloggers like this: