Recalling a Kolkata park that lets cosying-up couples be

In about two weeks, the country will be celebrating Valentine's Day. I'm talking as if Valentine's Day were Deepavali or Christmas — but then, as far as commerce is concerned, it has assumed the status of a full-fledged Indian festival. After all, you can sell just about anything in the name of love — from diamond necklaces to candle-lit dinners, and everything in between.

As we prepare for the splash of pink in the newspapers and on TV screens, small groups of men must be sharpening their claws on the various lanes and byways, awaiting their 15 minutes of fame on Valentine's Day. They would raid public parks, humiliate young couples enjoying moments of solitude, perhaps even get violent, and raise slogans against ‘Western culture' if TV cameras happen to be around.

As it is, young lovers spending time together in public places are a vulnerable lot. Just about anybody can bully them and subject them to interrogation — from the moral cop to the real cop to extortionists who pretend to be cops. But, there is one park in India that is unlikely to ever witness such ugly incidents. This park, in the truest sense, is a lovers' paradise — as I discovered during my morning walks on a recent, week-long visit to Kolkata.

It would be unfair to call Central Park in Salt Lake area just a park. I would call it a well-kept miniature forest which, complete with water bodies, can be a delight for the botanist as well as the bird-watcher. The greenery stretches as far as the eye can see, and far in the horizon loom buildings housing various departments of the West Bengal Government. It is a different matter that you will rarely see a botanist or a bird-watcher here: only pairs of countless heads sprinkled across this mini-forest.

Until nine in the morning, when entry is free, the park is overrun by morning-walkers and fitness freaks. From 10, entry is ticketed: Rs. 20 for a person. That's when the couples start arriving in droves, from various corners of Kolkata, disgorging from yellow-black taxis. Right outside the entrance are two stalls — competing with each other — that sell chips and biscuits and rent plastic mats (for a deposit of Rs. 20, of which Rs. 10 is subtracted when the mat is returned).

Since I usually wake up around nine, I had to pay for my entry on most days. The ticket would be issued by a disinterested clerk, his cigarette packet and matchbox carefully placed next to the ticketing machine. It would be examined, in an equally disinterested manner, by a beedi-smoking guard. The plus side of making a late entry into the park is that you have the walking tracks all to yourself — not a soul in sight except the couples hidden in their cosy corners.

Each time I ran into an amorous pair, I would quickly avert my gaze, lest they thought I was a voyeur in the garb of a fitness freak. I needn't have bothered. I found an actual voyeur out there: a portly, bald, sunburnt man always carrying an umbrella. He would go from tree to tree and peep at the couple sitting under its shade. Alas, I've never been close enough to record the shock in their eyes on seeing a sunburnt face with bulging eyes emerging from behind the tree.

“Does he come every day?” I once asked the guard on my way out.

“Every day, around the same time,” he replied.

“Have you ever stopped him? He disturbs people.”

“How can we? He buys a ticket.”

The guard told me that once upon a time, families used to frequent Central Park. But as it transformed into a lovers' haunt, they began to keep away.

The Government decided to act: on an adjacent plot, it built a smaller park, complete with play equipment, for families and strictly barred entry of couples into that.