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Monday 19 December 2011

The horror of the AMRI fire overshadowed news of another dreadful incident in West Bengal in which so far 148 people have died after drinking spurious country liquor earlier this week

Calcutta Corner
The horror of the AMRI fire overshadowed news of another dreadful incident in West Bengal in which so far 148 people have died after drinking spurious country liquor earlier this week

Outraged But Resigned
It’s been a week since the fire at AMRI Hospital in Calcutta killed 93 people— 90 of them patients. In the past seven days the incident has been reported on extensively in both print and electronic media, and it has been analysed from every possible angle. For most jaded Calcuttans, immune to surprise of any kind, much of the revelations are well-known “secrets”. The abysmal state of fire safety measures including lack of basic firefighting equipment even at the most ostensibly high-tech establishment in the city, for instance, doesn’t shock us anymore. In fact, in Calcutta we feel grateful if anything functions efficiently because usually it’s beyond our expectations. So to find that the AMRI Hospitals and others, who mint money at the patient’s expense, don’t even hold emergency fire drills, standard in hospitals, schools and other public buildings in more ‘civilized’ countries, we don’t exactly gape, ‘Oh my God! Really?’ So after a week, news of hospital staff running away leaving patients to burn or choke to death or hospital owners issuing statements absolving themselves from culpability, becomes just one of those things that we get used to and we go about our daily lives. This incident, perhaps one of the worst instances of flagrant negligence in the history of hospitals, doesn’t make us squirm. We are outraged but we are resigned. Our attitude is: "Well, what can we do?" Maybe this collective apathy is part of the problem. We accept the arrogance of public servants, we bribe bureaucrats and police to get work done that they are duty bound to do, we tolerate despicable public nuisances like people spitting on the roads. Our standards and expectations are really low and maybe that’s why incidents like AMRI continue to happen.
The Real Tragedy
The horror of the AMRI fire overshadowed news of another dreadful incident in West Bengal in which so far 148 people have died after drinking spurious country liquor earlier this week. The victims were men from Sangrampur and other surrounding villages near Calcutta and were mostly poor unskilled labourers like construction workers and rickshaw pullers. They toil through the day and patronize the city’s illicit hooch shops in the evening. A little respite from a hard life. The ubiquitous liquor dens are run by powerful organized crime lords in collusion with police and politicians. They prey on the men’s vulnerabilities with the lure of drowning their troubles in alcohol.
“Earlier, my husband said we will send our children to school and we used to save money,” says the widow of one of the men killed in the incident. “It was hard because neither of us earned that much. But he was very keen that our children not be illiterate like us. Then his friends started teasing him saying that unless he drank he was not a proper man. Then he started spending all his money on booze and even tried to steal from me. He started coming home drunk late at night and beat me if I told him to stop.” Most of these men’s wives work as domestic help in middleclass households and are paid as little as five hundred to one thousand rupees per month for seven days of service. They do backbreaking work all day come home to congested slums to cook, clean and rear children. Sometimes they try to save money from their meagre incomes to send their children to school and give them a decent upbringing. Often they dream about getting out of their situations. Some of the husbands come home drunk and beat them up. Sometimes a husband simply grabs what precious little his wife has managed to save - a few rupees at a time - over many arduous weeks and months, so that he can go drink some more. But most husbands, whether or not they drink (and whether or not they get violent when they drink) are considered a source of security for their wives. They provide protection from outside dangers. They bring in desperately needed money, however little, at the end of the day. And now, many of them are dead or wrestling with death in some hospital.
The men fell ill after imbibing a toxic mixture of methyl alcohol and pesticide which reportedly caused the deaths. At last count close to a 100 men who had been seduced by the hooch dens, are struggling to stay alive. It is not expected that the goons who run these hooch dens will be kept up at night by their conscience. It’s unlikely they will feel even a tinge of guilt at their deaths. It would be naïve to imagine that. But that we expect as little from our police and politicians who make these joints possible, is the real tragedy here.
Law of the Land
In 1999 the Indian government scrapped the urban ceiling law that had limited the amount of land one can own in any given city. Then the states began lifting similar restrictions under its respective state laws. The argument was that urban ceiling laws deter large investments in urban infrastructure projects. Every state followed suit. Except West Bengal, that is. Not surprisingly, the previous Communist government opposed the idea of private entities buying up large tracts of the city’s land — exceeding 7.5 cottahs. The current government seems to share that position. CM Mamata Banerjee, in an interview on local television, has put an end to speculations about a change of policy by declaring that the existing law will prevail. To drive home the point that the land ceiling law was not being scrapped (and that this was in the best interest of the city’s denizens) she pointed out that with this law in place, no one could buy out our city. “What if someone decides to buy Calcutta?” she asked rhetorically. “(With this law in place) people feel protected. There is a sense of security.” So if you have been nurturing ideas about buying out Calcutta lately, perish the thought!
Raja Lear
The Minerva Repertory Theatre’s production Raja Lear, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear has been playing to packed houses in Calcutta. Bengali theatre lovers are queuing up outside the box office to watch veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee in the lead. He delivers a touching performance as the frail and majestic monarch consumed by his hamartia. In an interview to us, Chattjeree said, “It is every actor’s dream to play Lear at least once in their life time…For an actor Lear is a challenge. You need the experience of an old man and the energy of a young man.”
According to director Suman Mukherjee the production cost nearly two lakhs and had been stalled for a time because cost recovery did not seem possible at the Minerva, which could only seat 300 people. Since then, the play has been staged at other theatres with greater capacity. Tickets are selling for a record 200 rupees each and are getting sold out within minutes of counters opening. Mukherjee tells us that the demand is high but more frequent shows are not possible as Chatterjee’s health would not permit it. Chatterjee is battling terminal cancer. The Bengali audience’s emotional response — standing ovations after each performance — is perhaps as much influenced by this awareness as the powerful performance. The play will be staged in Delhi on January 17, 2012.

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