Fear and a longing for home
Three hundred and twenty-five kilometres from Kolkata, a city and an entire nation is burning. So, it's only natural that the heat emanating from Dhaka would be felt here, too, across the border.
Firoz Khan, a transport worker manning the booking counter for travellers to Bangladesh on Marquiz Street, has been warning those lined up for tickets against making the trip on Friday or Saturday, when snatches of a conversation among the waiting commuters left him shaken.
"The Jamaat-e-Islami is bent on driving Bangladesh to hell," quipped a visibly tense Bangladeshi national waiting to buy three tickets for a Dhakabound bus.
His neighbour, awaiting a ride back home, was about to air similar sentiments when Khan, an employee of Shyamali Paribahan, cut him short and asked waiting commuters not to make any political comments. "We have visitors of all political hues and don't want any trouble that might hamper our business," Khan said in a loud voice.
A momentary pause proceeded before one of the waiting commuters asked, "Aren't you aware that Jamaat has supporters here in Kolkata?" This served as a cue for bystanders to pipe down any anti-Jamaat rhetoric, fearing reprisals.
This interaction is testimony to the air of panic and fear that was palpable across areas adjacent to the crossing of Mirza Ghalib Street, Marquis Street and Free School Street - known in common parlance as 'little Bangladesh', so named due to the sheer numbers of Bangladeshi boarders in local lodgings and hotels, and the number of buses operating on the cross-border route.
While Bangladeshi's come to avail of better healthcare facilities, some plan a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif, while others come to call on relatives. Quizzed on the events back home, the majority of the Bangladeshi nationals refused to open up before the media, and some even claimed they weren't Bangladeshi at all.
"I don't know if and when I'll be able to get home, but I have to start today," Mohammad Kamauddin, a Chittagong-resident who arrived on February 19 for a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif, told HT.
"The day I started for India, my bus left at 6pm as opposed to its scheduled departure at 2.30pm," he said, seated at the office of S Alam Services, another travel agency.
Pintu Basak, the proprietor of Hotel DK International on Marquis Street said only a fair few visitors had checked in from across the border in the last few days, while those staying in were anxious to get home. "They are keen to either book a ride back on Friday or Saturday or extend their stay till Tuesday," Basak told HT.
The staff at Shyamali Paribahan warned the visitors against booking a ride on Friday or Saturday, as the commute back home may be fraught with danger. They suggested the visitors extend their stay in city till Monday when the Jamaat's two-day shutdown across Bangladesh is slated to end.
However, the visitors panicked over rumours that the 48-hour shutdown may well be extended beyond Monday. "There's no telling what's in store back home on Monday or thereafter," a visitor buying a ticket for Cox's Bazaar told.