The last day of 2014 held a lot of promise for me. I was in Kolkata on a holiday along with my daughter. I had planned to go to the Kali temple to have an auspicious start to the trip. But a local friend had disagreed. "Go to the temple on the second or third day," she had said.
So there we were, in a long queue outside Victoria Memorial, waiting to buy entry tickets. The police presence was noticeable, and so was the constant whistling to keep things in order. A bullet-proof vehicle with a couple of armymen inside was parked close by, so the queue moved smoothly. Right behind us was a middle-aged Bengali gentleman accompanied by a lady of around 80, obviously a foreigner, who stood supporting herself with a walking stick. As she unfolded the stick into a stool it was clear that she was a little tired even as she sat.
"The police and the army here are really disciplined and efficient," she told her companion. Just as I began puffing up with pride, she deflated me with the next phrase, "Trained by the British, of course." I went through the monument nursing a bruised ego.
The next evening, we decided to go to the temple. Mentally prepared for a long queue since it was New Year's Day, we bought a garland of tuberoses, some prasad, and headed for the shrine. The inner courtyard was milling with people.
But the cops were there, wielding lathis and shouting at people.
"It is almost time for the aarti," we overheard the murmur. The confusion became suddenly chaotic then, and a wave of desperation to get inside was perceptible. A pundit could be seen breaking through the crowd, dragging some devotees along, whispering a magic password in the ears of the cop stationed at the entrance of the sanctum sanctorum.
Invariably, the magic password worked and the cop opened the iron gates to push the pundit and his band inside.
It was a moment of triumph when we finally stepped inside the door. But the elation was short-lived. The small place was jam-packed with the same door for entry as well as exit, and there was no queue worth the name. The crowd heaved threateningly on the slippery stairs at each new push; toddlers screamed in panic at being crushed; and the lovingly bought prasad and garlands fell at the feet of devotees. It was getting difficult to breathe. As I stood trying to shield my daughter with my arms, probably two metres away from the shrine, the gravity of the situation hit me. It was just a question of one person losing foothold and the result would be a stampede. I shouted loudly above the din to my daughter: "Turn back, now!"
We threaded out of the crowd with some difficulty. As I took in gulps of fresh air, a sentence from some document on display in the museum zoomed out from the memory of the previous day: 'The British practised the policy of non-interference in the administration of Indian places of worship.' And almost simultaneously, the old lady outside Victoria Memorial flashed before my eyes, sitting smugly on her stool.
(The writer is an assistant professor in a Chandigarh college.)