The gully cricket I played in my neighbourhood also had a tournament, where different neighbourhoods of north Kolkata competed. I once played in such a tournament which was being held in the far north of the city, some distance from my own neighbourhood. I don’t now remember the game, but I met there a savvy boy, somewhat older than me, who opened my eyes about Kolkata politics.
When he asked me which locality I was from, he stopped me when I started answering with a geographic description. He was really interested in knowing which particular mafia leader my neighbourhood fell under. Finding me rather ignorant, he went on to an elaborate explanation of how the whole city is divided up in different mafia fiefdoms, and their hierarchical network and different specialisation in different income-earning sources, and their nexus with the hierarchy of political leaders as patrons at different levels. After he figured out the coordinates of my locality, he told me which particular mafia don my neighbourhood hoodlums (the local term is mastan) paid allegiance to. I recognised the name; this man’s family had a meat shop in the area.
Since that day my whole outlook to local politics changed, and soon after I saw a newspaper photo where this mafia don was sharing the dais in a political rally with the chief minister. This was the beginning of my academic interest in gangster politics and its role in the power relationships in different parts of the world. Later when I read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (before the movies based on it came out), I realised that this was a feature of metropolitan politics in rich countries as well. Now, of course, there is a whole industry on this, in literature and TV (in India, more on the Mumbai underworld, less on Kolkata’s).
I started closely observing the methods of operation of the local mastans, how they work out their demarcation of the business of extortion (sometimes the system broke down, and violent turf wars took place, like when we heard loud boom-boom noise of explosions coming from the street where the brothels were), how they mesh their organisation with that of the political and cultural mobilisation by the local politicians. Two of their characteristics immediately struck me as a young observer.
One is about how they start. In the neighbourhood many young men start body-building (in gyms, called akhras, or outside). Soon these musclemen go for the job entry tests for the lower ranks of police. Those who pass the tests become policemen, and those who fail turn to apprenticeship with the mastans. This in general is probably true in most parts of the world, as the line between the police and criminals at the lower level is usually rather thin. Max Weber is known to have described the state as having the “monopoly of violence”. In most such neighbourhoods there is actually an oligopoly of violence.
Secondly, I used to see in the mastans a peculiar mixture of cruelty and almost sentimental loyalty. They can be quite brutal in their crimes elsewhere but in the immediate locality, they can have touchingly sentimental relationships with what they consider as their extended family (including those who have established family-like relationships with them). They’d have no scruple in assaulting women elsewhere, but they’ll give their lives to protect women in the locality who have established some “fictive-kinship” relationship with them as “aunts” or “sisters”. Mario Puzo’s book also emphasises the special role in the mafia of loyalty to family and other close relations in the locality.
Talking of violence, I should mention that my earliest memory of violence is from the immediate pre-Partition Hindu-Muslim riots in Kolkata. I was too young to comprehend what really was going on, but from overheard snatches of grown-up conversations about the killings (usually of innocent people like the old Muslim umbrella-repairman in our neighbourhood whom my father knew), the oppressive grip of tension and fear all around, and whispers of rumours (often about horrific rapes committed by villains always of the “other” community), I could form a ghastly picture in my mind. Then at night there were these screams of “Allah hu Akbar” from Muslim neighbourhoods and rival screams of “Vande Mataram” from Hindu neighbourhoods, the aggressiveness of each shout barely concealed the fear and desperation underneath. I saw how under that unrelenting pressure even ordinary people with ordinary feelings of humanity turned into ferocious beasts with fangs and claws.
One day the news came that Muslim mastans of a nearby slum were massing to destroy a Shiva temple in the gateway to our neighbourhood, and then maybe attack all of us. The local elders asked all the households to get ready (for example, by boiling large amounts of water which we were to pour on the invaders from rooftops). At the end of our street lived a group of sturdy young men who were sweepers and latrine-cleaners by occupation. The mastans in our street mobilised them to defend the temple — watching all this from our window my father wryly commented that these low-caste latrine-cleaners in normal times would not be allowed entry in the temple they were now being herded to defend. After some agonising time, “all-clear” notice came; I was not sure if the battle was won or did not take place at all.
I have always noted how in normal times Hindus and Muslims participate in one another’s religious/cultural festivals, how Hindus in thousands go on pilgrimage to visit Muslim shrines, for generations they live together in relative amity (though inter-marriage is uncommon), how there is so much cultural integration in classical music, art, architecture and cuisine, how much of the beautiful rural folk music of both communities embodies deep syncretic values (which Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru used to exhort us about), and yet at times, and at the provocation of interested parties, it all turns out to be so fragile.
A couple of years after the partition of India, a destitute refugee widow once came and pleaded with my mother to hire her as a domestic maid. After some hesitation my mother hired her; when we asked what her name was she said, “Just call me Gauranga’s mother”. The whole day she used to work quietly, and at night for lack of space in that cramped house, she’d sleep in the kitchen. In the next room was my study table where I worked until quite late. Long after everyone else in the house fell asleep, I could hear coming from the kitchen, first a groan, then a prolonged high-pitched wail. I rushed there and found the woman wailing in her sleep — the same thing happened every night. When in the morning we asked her about it, after long silence the story came out. In her village home, where she lived with her son Gauranga and her husband, one day when the killers came, they all ran, and hid in the nearby pond. But the killers found out, and as she swam away she saw her husband and son decapitated, and the water in that part of the pond turning dark red. To this day I cannot forget that piercing wail, rending the nighttime sky, the wail of a wounded subcontinent.
The author is Professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley. The article was first published in the blog 3 Quarks Daily