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Land-grabbing deities: the politics of public space in a multireligious neighbourhood

Moumita Sen

A man used to stumble on a stone every day as he left his house. Having had enough, one day, he picked it up with great effort and threw it out of the way. A couple of days later he realised that he had flung the stone in such a way that it planted itself at the base of an ashattha tree, revealing a smooth, rounded top. Soon, his neighbours started worshipping this stone, which they thought had appeared by a miracle, as an embodiment of Shiva. Dhutro flowers, bel leaves and piles of garlands started appearing around it as days passed. The man would laugh at the stupidity of his neighbours - they could not tell apart a meagre stone from the street and Shiva! A few years passed and the shrine to the stone came to be known as particularly jagroto (; it had miraculous healing powers. At this time, the man fell severely ill; no amount of medication from different types of doctors could heal him. His neighbours kept urging him to pray to the stone Shiva. One day, having had enough, the man, now weakened from his growing sickness, walked from his house to pray to the stone deity that he had once flung out of his way.

This is the gist of a popular Bengali short story titled "Debotar janmo” (The Birth of God) (Chakraborty 1947: 7-29). It illustrates effectively how little it takes to build a street shrine. Indeed, the number of street shrines - small temple-like structures housing Hindu deities and stones worshipped as deities under trees - in Kolkata is remarkable. Every turn on a narrow alley or broad highway will have at least one. They stand lining streets, tucked away at the corner of lanes, the end of parks, at the gate of markets or at the gate of a private home. My initial forays in this aspect, led in no small manner by the traces of Marxist politics among the important men of local youth clubs,1 was that street shrines were an easy way to make money for the unemployed youth of the area. However, when I started asking questions about the patronage and production of a small street shrine in my own neighbourhood, Shodepur, I began to uncover other motivations in addition to the financial profit made by the local youth who established this temple in 1981. The shrine in question is a small temple dedicated to Shani. A malevolent deity, Shani is often considered inauspicious as a domestic deity in Bengal. However, since this angry god must be appeased, he is strictly worshipped outside homes. In 1981, when the temple came up in an even humbler form, the duties of management and the profits first went to the young men who came together to build it, then to the local Youth Club. However, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM) came into power, the young men. the local Youth Club and the temple came under the Marxist banner. As the temple started gaining popularity, the neighbourhood shared by Hindus and Muslims changed its name from the neutral “Shodepur” to the clearly Hindu “Shodepur Shani mandir” (Shodepur Shani temple) and sometimes simply “Shani mandir.” This query about naming uncovered almost forgotten histories of the neighbourhood in addition to another old forgotten name. The politics of majoritarianism, tied to processes of gentrification, altered the name, the demographics and the identity of the neighbourhood in 50 years. Yet, the minority Muslim population retained its identity, its shrines and its narratives. With the shift of the political regime from CPIM to Trinamool Congress (TMC) - who has a markedly different attitude towards caste and religious minorities - the Muslim community began to re-inscribe these forgotten names, shrines and narratives on the Hinduised neighbourhood.

This chapter unravels the longue-durée narrative of how one street shrine transformed the religious identity, the political allegiance and even the name of the suburban, lower-middle-class neighbourhood in Kolkata, in which it is located. In addition, it reflects on the acts of resistance against this majoritarianism. The focus of this chapter is as much on the "street” as it is on the “shrine.” The main questions I address are: Who owns public space? Who has the right to show what to whom? And what are their stakes?21 seek to answer these questions by exploring the history of the neighbourhood, the nature of the shrine and the history of its institution, the conflicts around it and, finally, the processes of competitive identity-building it unleashed among the residents.

The larger question I address relates to Hinduism and the claim to public space. While a lot has been written on contestation over public spaces in India during religious processions (Jacobsen 2008), this case study brings up the question of small-scale constructions for the purpose of everyday religiosity. Processions are large-scale and highly visible; but they occupy the space temporarily. They also have distinct relationships with the civic authorities such as the municipality and the police in Kolkata (Guha-Thakurta 2015: 77-116). Street shrines, on the contrary, arise rhizomatically and are sanctioned later, if at all. Instead of top-down processes of civic governmentality, some scholars argue that the "metaphysics” of the Indian street is governed by "adjustment, osmosis and porosity” (Gandhi 2015). Studies of footpath-dwellers and street-hawkers have repeatedly argued for the street as a space of the "counter-archive” of civic governmentality, subversion, libidinal energies and transgressions (Bandyopadhyay 2011). Instead of seeing the social, lived space of the street simply in relation to the abstract mapping of civic governmentality, I focus on the question of "adjustment” by looking at the inhabitants and actors on one particular street. I argue that the imaginary of the street as a subversive space homogenises the people who lay claim on the streets - because not everyone has the right to stake claims on the so-called public space, nor is every claim staking approved. The street, even though it resists several forms of governmental control, is traversed by other kinds of power and hierarchy. While an Old Delhi street appeared to be “the most democratic space” to one scholar (Gandhi 2015), historians of Calcutta have repeatedly pointed to ghettoisation of Muslims and Hindu majoritarianism (Siddique 2005 [1974]). From naming to claiming public space, in my research the bargaining capacity of a group or an individual depended on their politics of communal belonging.

When the “home” stands in the “field”: a note on methodology

In fact, ethnography usually works best when conducted by an outsider with considerable inside experience. The reason is that the ethnographer’s job is not to replicate the insiders’ perspective but rather to elicit and analyze it through systematic comparison between inside and outside views of particular events and processes. This task includes detecting tacit knowledge, something that by definition is generally invisible to insiders. The ethnographic stance requires mental distance. Insiders do indeed know what is going on in their practice settings, but such inside knowledge is not the same thing as a systematic and analytical overview of the situation.

(Forsythe 1999: 130)

A long-standing idea in standard methodology handbooks reflects the aforementioned argument: insiders are often steeped in the ideology of their field-site, making them incapable of systematic and “scientific” analysis. Kirin Narayan’s germinal article (1993) has very effectively questioned the assumptions that underlie the binary between the “insider” and "outsider” in ethnography, including those that originate in the colonial history of the discipline which separated "native informants” as sources of data and the ethnographer as the producer of scientific knowledge. Many scholars have questioned the dichotomy between familiarity and strangeness, "home” and "field," and the markers of identity that still render the expertise of scholars of the Global South practicing ethnography in their "own” regions as somewhat suspicious (see Gupta and Ferguson 1997). However, on the other hand, when anthropology came home to the Global North, many saw it as positive. It was perhaps essential given the critiques coming from questions of reflexivity and “objections to intellectual imperialism,” in addition to pragmatic questions of funding and the tightening of rules around research permission granted to foreigners, among other factors (O'Reilly 2008).

But perhaps more important was the development of ideas that has led to the recognition of our own role in research and writing and the impact this must have on the naive distinction between insider and outsider. Anthropologists and sociologists are now less wedded to the idea of a science of society; they have more or less accepted that research is complicated, messy, personal, and subjective, and so are less concerned with achieving distance. Or at least they are aware of the problematic nature of trying to achieve it.

(O'Reilly 2008: 3—4)

Michel de Certeau, a pioneer of urban studies scholarship, prefaced his germinal study thus: "I myself come from this neighbourhood. The division between the objective data of the study and my personal roots here is not obvious” (de Certeau and Mayol 1998: 10). In this study, similarly, the "field” comprises literally the street where my Calcutta “home” stands, my para (neighbourhood) and my people. In researching the history of this street shrine, I have uncovered “forgotten” stories of communal violence. I have analysed the politics of majoritarianism in the neighbourhood as a member of the majority Hindu community. I have sat in tea stalls with my father's friends and laughed with them as they made jokes about the history of communal rioting that no one tells the youth of the neighbourhood. While most of the data represented here came from recording oral narratives with the permission of my respondents, some of the information comes from my own memories of growing up in that neighbourhood. Perhaps this qualifies as auto-ethnography in the way it was conceived in the 1970s as "insider ethnography,” or perhaps it qualifies because this narrative in many ways embraces the uncertainty, mess and chaos of being part of a social life. Instead of defending against the disadvantages of such insider-ness, let me argue for the advantages. The unique advantage of being an insider in many capacities to this area - which has layers of necessary social amnesia about communal disharmony and no historical accounts - allowed me to a contextualise the events in the longue durée. As I switched between being perceived as a "local girl” and a note-taking, earnest interviewer with a recorder, my Hindu respondents shared their memories with me as if I already knew or should know these stories as a Hindu in that para, specifically because I was seen as an insider. My partial belonging to the insider identity also led me to contextualise the lip service to peaceful communal cohabitation that people pay almost as a routinised performance in front of individuals they can readily perceive as outsiders.

I supplement the text with my drawings in the interest of both showing a lived space as opposed to an abstract space (See Figure 11.1) and conjuring up spaces from my memory that no longer exist in the neighbourhood. Almost a decade has transpired from the time that I started drafting a research proposal and conducted a pilot study to the time of conducting in-depth interviews in order to write this chapter. Over these years, I have put together vignettes from my neighbours; collected bits and pieces of gossip, anxieties and aspirations from the people around me; and seen political regimes change the climax of the story at least twice.

“Ghosts in the city”: a brief history of the neighbourhood

Instead of using the demarcations of a "ward” in the language of civic govern-mentality, I have been using the term "neighbourhood” to signify a lived space without strict or clearly agreed- upon boundaries. It is not clear where Shodepur ends and Adarsha Palli, the neighbouring para, begins; the answer varies from person to person depending on where in the street they live, which lane they take to walk to the nearest auto-rickshaw stand, where their corner shop stands and

The neighbourhood, drawing by the author

Figure 11.1 The neighbourhood, drawing by the author.

so on. To answer the "embarrassing” question "What is a neighbourhood?,” de Certeau maintains:

The proposition of Henri Lefebvre, for whom the neighborhood is “an entrance and exit between qualified spaces and a quantified space” - a key proposition for the inauguration of our first step. The neighbourhood appears as the domain in which the space-time relationship is the most favorable for a dweller who moves from place to place on foot, starting from his or her home. Therefore, it is that piece of the city that a limit crosses distinguishing private from public space: it is the result of a walk, of a succession of steps on a road, conveyed little by little through the organic link to one's lodgings.

(de Certeau and Mayol 1998: 10)

A history teacher of the area claims that the neighbourhood now called Shodepur was an extended part of Tipu Sultan's family property in the late 18th century, in the western part of Calcutta. Around 50-60 years ago, it was called Syedpur Mouja (colloq. for mahakunia or an administrative division denoting a sub-district). The oldest residents of the neighbourhood recall that when they were children, it was located right outside the limits of Calcutta. Even 30 years ago, the residents of Calcutta would not have considered Shodepur or the adjoining Haridevpur area habitable for bhadraloks.3 It was a swampy area with paddy lands; one could even hear foxes howl at night. There were a few poor Muslim households in the area. There was also a Sufi shrine called Fatema bibir dargah ("Dargah of Fatema Bibi”) at the outer limit of the area.

When the Naxalbari movement (1965 onwards), an armed Maoist uprising originating in North Bengal, swept over the youth of Calcutta, many tried to escape the police by hiding out in the outskirts of the city. In the late 1960s, this neighbourhood became one such hideout of the rebels. An elderly Hindu man, who dabbled in Naxal politics in his youth, reminisced that the Muslim families protected them from the police. However, there were one or two Hindu families too in that area. These were rather rich families; the men had little education but a lot of wealth. Some of them, I was told, were called "dacoits” or dakats behind their backs. An earlier name for the main street where the shrine is located, was “Binod dakater goli” (“The lane of the dacoit Binod”) (name changed). In demographic terms, the para was a Muslim one with a few rich Hindu households who had money and power, if not social status in the eyes of the elite of South Calcutta.

However, in the last 50 years, Hindu families who lived in rented kacca and pakkd houses4 in slums in South Kolkata started buying land and building pakkd houses in Shodepur. The Muslim families, whose only asset was land, were selling this land to the newly gentrified Hindu Bengalis. Several of my Hindu respondents repeated that Muslinira jomi byache ar khaye (“Muslims sell their land and eat”). Soon upwardly mobile Hindu families, mostly from the lower castes, became the majority. Muslim men were working as manual labourers and living in a small slum-like area surrounded by the pakkd Hindu houses on all sides. As a young adult living in that area. I saw that in order to get employed as domestic help, Muslim women would try to pass off as Hindu by putting sindur (vermillion) in the parting of their hair, but Hindu women would not employ them. Yet, I have also seen Hindus of this lower-middle-class neighbourhood repeat set phrases when asked about their feelings about Muslims by “outsiders”: jet rani shei rohim ("Ram and Rahim are the same”), or jato mat, tato path ("many paths but the same goal”). The Hindu women of the area regularly take their children to the mazar or dargah (Sufi shrines), where the Muslimpir baba exorcises evil spirits out of them or blows around them a magic shield that protects these children from the tantric black magic of other women in the family. However, these women also warn their daughters from time to time: "If you fall in love with a Muslim boy, I will break your leg.” The men who will quote Ramakrishna's phrases5 when asked about the difference between Hindus and Muslims are also regularly heard complaining about how the federal government of West Bengal shamelessly pleases the "minority” (Muslims) as the heated debates continue over several cups of tea at the tea stall adda (informal, regular gathering of men).

In all the years that I have lived in this neighbourhood, I have never witnessed any open hostility or violence between Hindus and Muslims. However, I have witnessed micro-events: fights around sexual harassment of young Muslim girls, difficult negotiations about whether the Eid celebrations can occupy the main street, and so on. Nevertheless, the difference in wealth between the Hindus and Muslims stands as a stark fact, as new cars line next to the pakkd houses of Hindus and middle-class Hindu families move into newly built apartment complexes. Next to them we see Muslim women fight and struggle to fill their pots and bottles around a single municipality "time kawl” (public water taps that work for three hours every day) every morning and evening. This is true, not just for this small para, but for all of West Bengal. As Kenneth Bo Nielsen points out:

West Bengal's Muslim minority are in many respects excluded from both the developmental and political processes in the state. Muslims score significantly lower on a range of socio-economic indicators compared to other sections of the population, and their representation in the political sphere is poor.

(Nielsen 2011: 345)

However, the politics of Hindu majoritarianism in the para is perhaps best understood by the fact that at some point during the 1960s or 1970s, its name changed from the clearly Muslim sounding Saiyadpur to the more neutral Shodepur. An older resident, whose family lived in Calcutta before the Partition, told me with a wink that the East Bengali refugees could not pronounce "Saiyadpur” because of their strange dialect, so the name changed "because of their tongues.” What he meant by this joke is that refugees who fled to Calcutta from parts of contemporary Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) were hostile towards Muslims, unlike the Hindu Bengalis who already lived in Calcutta before Partition. The revision of the name of the neighbourhood was so complete that the youth of the para had no idea about Saiyadpur. When the Shani temple became popular, the name was changed a third time to Shodepur Shani mandir.

The malevolent deity who changed the religion of a street

Shani is an angry, malevolent deity who is too dangerous to be worshipped at home. To quote my Brahmin respondent. “He is an anti-hero of the Hindu pantheon.” In Bengal, the common knowledge is that, even though it is inauspicious to worship Shani at home, he must be appeased because his wrath can wreak havoc in a person's family life or career. Growing up in Bengal, we heard that Shani is a chhotolok debta, or a subaltern god. Several marginal communities, particularly low-caste Hindus, exclusively worship Shani (Channa and Mencher 2013). Some argue that Shani is a subaltern deity like Shashti, Shitala and other "small” gods of Bengal (Sircar 2017). However, since the airing of Karmaphal Daata Shani, a television serial (2016) in a dubbed Bengali version that became immensely popular in Bengal. Shani is now being hailed as the earliest and highest of Vedic Hindu deities. Not only do the Brahmin priests quote the mythology shown on the TV series in great detail, even the women in my family and neighbourhood are fluent in the "Vedic story.” It remains to be seen if the inauspiciousness and low status of Shani will eventually change with such narratives connecting him to the Vedic pantheon.

Coming back to our Shani mandir, it is now a small red square building with a pyramid on top and a trishid (trident) on its shikhar (peak). It now holds a range of deities, not just Shani. A clay image of Kali, just as tall, stands next to Shani. Around them there are framed posters of Shiva and other deities. In a corner, there is a Hanuman image donated by a resident of the para. A priest is formally hired by the club to carry out pujas (ritual worship) every evening, but these are more elaborate on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Women from all over the neighbourhoods along the main highway, Mahatma Gandhi Road, come to visit the temple with fruits, sweets, garlands and other ritual offerings every Saturday afternoon. One of my Brahmin respondents told me that the owner of the shop across the street, despite being Muslim, has been a generous donor for the temple. Even though I have not seen Muslim women around that temple, I was told that they do puja too to get wishes fulfilled.

In the late 1970s, when young Hindu men of the area decided to build a Shani mandir. they selected a plot of land next to a lake because Shani is supposed to be worshipped next to a water body. However, the Hindu man whose house was next to that plot was vehemently against living near a crowded temple and the commotion he anticipated. Being an influential person in the para, he was able to stop the construction. The young men had to "adjust” and shift to another venue that they had in mind. They decided to build the temple at the corner of a crossroad on the main street. They made this decision for a number of reasons: they wanted to liven up that corner, but they also wanted to stop the corner from becoming a spot for men from other neighbourhoods to indulge in gr/nyn-alcohol or to set up a pr/n-cigarette shop or even a snack cart. However, the main motif was to make money from the offerings devotees would bring. The mandir, according to an older resident who was part of this process, is “successful.” He defined it thus: "When you set up a shrine and people come in big crowds, you have to admit that there is something there! People from all over this area now know of this mandir ... so obviously it is successful.”

The success of the mandir extended beyond the lives of the women who gather around it every Tuesday and Saturday. It ended up changing the name of the neighbourhood a second time. When it became a popular node in the street, cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws started parking there. Eventually it became a "stand,” a designated spot for the vehicles, with the name “Shodepur Shani mandir." Having become an auto- and cycle-rickshaw stand (see Figure 11.2), now the area was not simply called "Shodepur”; it came to be known as "Shodepur Shani mandir".

The debris of lost shrines: uncovering dangerous histories

In 2008, when I first started talking about this shrine to the locals, I spoke to a relatively wealthy Muslim man whose family owns a grocery store near the Shani mandir. After having lived in this area for 15 years as a Hindu, I heard the "real” name of the neighbourhood for the first time: Saiyadpur. Ali'da (name changed) had a strong Muslim identity and was deeply disgruntled by the way Hindus had

The Shani mandir, photographed by the author, Kolkata 2017

Figure 11.2 The Shani mandir, photographed by the author, Kolkata 2017.

Land-grabbing deities 153 infiltrated and changed the hawa-pani (the feel/identity of the place) and even the name of his native place. He told me: "The Shani mandir now defines this neighbourhood, but it used to be our mazar [Muslim shrine/tomb].” In 2008, this is what that mazar looked like (see Figure 11.3) - a grave with a chadar and a chad-owa with a small green bulb shining on it. However, at that time the Muslims in the neighbourhood barely made both ends meet, a situation that has only slightly improved in the last decade. As a result, this man was trying to collect funds from other well-off Muslim localities in Central and North Calcutta. Back in those days when most of us could not call other cities from our mobile phones, as I walked past this shrine to call my friends from the local STD (telephone) booth, I kept wondering if they would manage to build it up.

Over the years, I found out hidden stories of the neighbourhood. In the 1964 riots in East Pakistan and West Bengal, one mosque was burnt in the para. I immediately recalled that an auto-rickshaw stop on this lane was called pora mosjid ("burnt mosque”). I recalled the deserted remains with some red walls and piles of bricks. But my generation of Hindus never asked how it got burnt, even though we lived next to it.

Fatema bibir dargah was razed to the ground and occupied by young men to form the Ajeya Sanghati Youth Club, which to this day is one of the most prestigious sites for Durga puja in the city. My father's friend, a Brahmin man, who has lived in this area since he was five, said that the men who broke and burnt these shrines are still part of their adda. Paran-jethn (uncle) (name changed), who recently passed away, was known as "the footballer” to many. I knew Paran-jef/m

A remembered shrine, drawing by the author

Figure 11.3 A remembered shrine, drawing by the author.

as a fair-minded man and my father's friend; he used to walk around in a grey shawl and socks for half of the year. Unlike other men in the para, he stood up for me when I alleged his neighbour of molestation. Unlike others who prefer to marry off their daughters as soon as possible, he bought me a big bag of bhujia (snacks) when I was travelling to the West for higher studies. He gave me advice about running techniques, when all the men in his generation were scowling at a woman running in public in Shodepur. Paran-jethu, I found out, led the gang that broke the dargah. In his home, like in many other older Hindu homes in the area, one can find silver plates with Muslim names engraved on them. After the riots, the wealthy Muslim families fled. Their abandoned homes and belongings were looted by young Hindu men. The ciddci that Paran-yei/n/ was a part of for decades met at a Muslim man's tea stall. "Did the Muslims forgive what Paran-jethu did?” I asked. “The Muslims are good, honest people, they want to live with us,” my father’s Brahmin friend repeatedly told me. “The Hindu immigrants are the hooligans,” said one of the oldest Brahmin residents of the area. I wonder if this so-called goodness meant that they had accepted their place in the social hierarchy in this gentrified neighbourhood. It appeared that both the Hindus and Muslims needed to look away from these dangerous histories of violence. To aid the process of forgetting these tales of violence, the Hindu parents who knew these stories did not share them with their children.

Several studies of West Bengal’s Muslims have repeatedly pointed out the “adjustments” that Muslims had to make after the Partition when communal relationships became tense. Joya Chatterji, in her micro-history of another Calcutta neighbourhood, writes:

But almost everyone who stayed on recognized that they had no choice but to eat humble pie, proclaim allegiance to the doctrine of a communal harmony which had ceased to exist in practice, however much people paid lip-service to it.

(Chatterji 2005: 232)

Under the new law and order of postcolonial India, Muslims faced “intimidation and harassment” in their daily lives, being particularly vulnerable to volatile communal relationships in the decades following the Partition (Chatterji 2005: 236). Public rituals, graveyards and places of worship became contentious issues after the Partition with refugees migrating to mixed settlements in Calcutta. One of the ways they could extend the olive branch both to the disgruntled refugees and to the West Bengali Hindus - and this applied even to Muslim elites who had lived in Calcutta before the Partition - was to readily surrender their claim over public spaces which had been historically used for public observance of Muslim rituals, such as cow sacrifices. The British rule, which upholds the primacy of "precedence” in all rulings regarding conflicts around public rituals, was upheld by the Indian Constitution too. Yet, one of the ways Muslims embraced their minority status was precisely by voluntarily abnegating their rights to continue observing religious rituals in public spaces (236-237). The role of intimidation. ghettoisation and the lurking spectre of a violent post-Partition Calcutta is often subsumed under ideas of peacekeeping and goodness of heart. However, this situation was about to change in Shodepur.

The return of Saiyadpur: re-inscriptions

In 2011, Mamata Banerjee became the chief minister of West Bengal as the Trinamool Congress came into power replacing the earlier Communist Party. CPIM's version of secularism meant that their influence or patronage of religious institutions and festivals was largely tacit and formally disavowed. In contrast, the Trinamool Congress's main domain of political mobilisation is squarely in the field of popular religiosity. TMC defines secularism as equal support of all religions. Mamata Banerjee's support for the Muslim community is well-documented: building housing for imams, building haj houses and sanctioning the institution of new madrassas, in addition to her offering namaz, reciting the kalma and other such public symbolic gestures, have led to a popular opinion among Hindus that she is "pro-Muslim" (Nielsen 2011). Hindus in the para complain that she desperately tries to appease the minority in the interest of securing the Muslim vote (roughly 30% of the population). The CPIM were questioned for living privileged lives as Hindu upper-caste males while marching under the bamier of communism. Under the CPIM, Hindu public rituals were seen in terms of "nostalgia” or “fun” and not as religious rimais that occupy major city streets annually (Nielsen 2011). However, unlike Banerjee’s predecessors, the Brahmin, bhadralok (elite) men, her policy towards caste and religious minorities has been remarkably distinct, particularly in her open support of public religiosity of all groups (Sen 2018).

Firhad Hakim, one of the most prominent ministers of TMC, has had a profound role in the religious festival culture of Calcutta. On the one hand, he is the major patron of Kolkata’s Durga puja (Sen 2018), but on the other hand, he has supported the endeavours of Muslim communities to build or rebuild their places of worship and observe rimais in public spaces. Under the TMC, with the help of funds generated by Firhaud Hakim, the Muslim community rebuilt the рога masjid (burnt mosque). However, when the debris was cleared and the new building came up, iridescent with shining red granite on its façade, the name of the site was also changed. The site that was known as рога masjid for decades was rechristened baro masjid (big mosque), playing on the phonetic similarity of the words рога (burnt) and baro (big). The words Baro Masjid now appear in bold English letters on the façade of the building. It is not clear if Muslim grandparents tell their children about its dark past; but the glory of the new, shimmering building stands for all to see.

The mazar from my memories was also rebuilt (Figure 11.4). The humble grave with a chadar, chadowa and a light bulb has transformed into a large pakkâ mosque-like structure with green domes and an ornate facade. When I returned home after a year abroad, I saw Ali'da's dream project standing next to the shop where the STD booth used to be.

The rebuilt mazar with the name Saiyadpur written in iron letters on the gate

Figure 11.4 The rebuilt mazar with the name Saiyadpur written in iron letters on the gate.

Photo: Abhishek Das

Right across the street there had been a disputed plot of land that, despite the gentrification, had been empty for decades. It was used by the Muslim community as a graveyard before the influx of Hindu families. Hindu respondents tell me that originally the land belonged to a Brahmin Hindu man who did not claim it legally However, when Hindu families started settling around that plot, they complained

Land-grabbing deities 157 about seeing the ghost of a Muslim man in a fez and lungi walking in the air above that land at night. They managed to stop future burials on that land, but the local datais (informal real estate agents) could not negotiate with the Muslim community and sell it. At the same time when the mazar was rebuilt, the dispute over the graveyard was also settled. The husband of the Hindu local councillor - everyone knows Sunil’da (name changed) is the one "really in power” - came with a truck full of men under the orders of a TMC minister. He stood on the spot, to avoid violent resistance from Hindu men, as the workers built a boundary wall around the area. After the wall was built, it was painted green, and a façade with green domes to mirror the mazar across the street was also built. In addition, on the gate now it says in large iron letters: Saiyadpur kabristan (Saiyadpur graveyard). In a para that was made to forget its old name, where every shop and every household has signs stating its address as “Shodepur,” the gate now stands proclaiming clues to a hidden history.

Conclusion: readjusting questions of street “adjustments”

In this chapter I have shown how a poor Muslim neighbourhood was gentrified into a lower-middle-class Hindu-majority neighbourhood. By placing a temple strategically, the Hindu population was able to Hinduise not only the hawa-pani (the feel or identity) of the area, but also its name. Nevertheless, with the change in political regimes, the Muslim community found a way to reclaim its lost heritage and its forgotten name. In a study of a disputed graveyard in South Calcutta, Joya Chatterji writes:

This is why the history of Selimpore, itself a tiny episode in the wider history of West Bengal's Muslims, warrants its place in the larger account. Calcutta's landscape is dotted with Selimpores. Most Muslim burial grounds in the city bear similar marks of retreat and defeat.

(Chatterji 2005)

Shodepur is yet another Selimpore, and contemporary Kolkata holds many such stories under the layers of social amnesia. Yet, the "marks of retreat and defeat” are often construed as peacekeeping in a multireligious space. Alternatively, these negotiation processes are seen as "adjustments” in studies on shared public spaces. While the study of public religious festivals clearly shows how social hierarchy is negotiated and displayed in these processions, the study of pavement religiosity is often limited to working out the politics of sacralisation in the "secular” public space, and their resistance to civic govemmentality (Sekine 2006). I argue that in a multireligious neighbourhood, the men of the dominant religious group, by default, have the right to claim it. In this case, I have shown that the intervention of civic govemmentality, instead of thwarting the possibility of religiosity in public spaces, encouraged and aided it.

When “adjustment” is raised as a quick fix - informal, innovative common sense among Indians (Singh et al. 2012), which can be understood in line with

jugaad (a hack, shortcut or innovative solution6) - one should not look away from what the “adjustment” entails. Who has the right to make claims, whose claims are successful and who has to “adjust" repeatedly for lack of economic and political status, which translates as bargaining power in these negotiations?

Alongside studies that justifiably read the deepening of democracy in these processes of claim-staking in the public sphere, or those that read the street as a space for subversion, we cannot homogenise the policies of different states towards pavement religiosity. Neither can we celebrate the subversion of pavement life, religious or otherwise, focusing on the binary between secular and sacred spaces.


  • 1 Local youth clubs are semi-formal civic organisations of mostly men, which represent neighbourhoods in Kolkata.
  • 2 Here I follow Jacques Ranciere’s idea of the distribution of the sensible (Ranciere 2013), where he reflects on the mobilisation of the sensory by employing aesthetic forms towards the making of a community, which Birgit Meyer calls an aesthetic formation (Meyer 2009).
  • 3 Bhadralok: prosperous, westernised men. a result of Victorian morality, tastes, etiquette. For a detailed genealogy of the bhadralok figure, see Chatterjee (1994).
  • 4 By kaccci (unbaked/unfinished) houses I mean one-storeyed, one-room dwelling units with a thatched or asbestos / brick tile roof. By pakkci (baked/finished) houses, I mean multi-storeyed concrete buildings.
  • 5 The iconic jato mar tato path was coined by Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886), who is perhaps the most popular 19th-century mystic and Kali worshipper in Bengal.
  • 6 For a deeper understanding of the concept, see Kaur (2016).


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12 Making the “smart heritage city”

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