The desperation in women who cross over from the other side is perennial as their battle to adjust is relentless. The theme of illegal migration resurfaced a few years back in the wake of the Nandigram crisis. The West Bengal government’s attempt to turn over 14,000 acres of farmland to the Indonesian Salim Group to build a special economic zone did not go down too well with the people who depended on that green patch of land for their livelihood. They resisted by scooping out the earth, creating a dry moat, and turning Nandigram into a well-fortified island in an attempt to keep out the ambassadors of industry, and the red bandanna-wearing men on motorbikes posted by the ruling Left to facilitate the land resumption effort.
The increasing number of women molested on the streets of Calcutta is, of course, to be blamed on the randi-‘cutting’ lipstick some of them wear when they go out. ‘Cutting’ could be a superbly trenchant — cutting-edge, if you like — word when used in Bengali. In the Bengali language , ‘cutting’ could exist on its own, as a gerund, as in “You two have a similar cutting, are you related?” Or it could be a suffix to a compound word, used as an adjective — a “faltu-cutting chhele” (a two-bit rascal lacking the ability to do anyone real harm), for example.
I have a thing for the word randi though. It’s a Hindi swear word, meaning a hooker — a name I have been called on the streets of Calcutta by irascible auto-rickshaw drivers more often than I can bring myself up to believe. The arbitrariness with which the label is slapped on women who step out of their homes and into spaces traditionally taken to be male domains in India might be disturbing if one took this to be an index of the nation’s moral health. There is in fact nothing all that ‘arbit’ (as tech school students like to call a college test paper they don’t like, believing it to be a reflection of the paper-setter’s whimsy) about calling a woman one doesn’t know a slut. In Calcutta, any woman getting in the way of the men who cannot wait to get what they’re after is potentially a whore.
Randi, in the western context, carries almost the exact opposite meaning of the Hindi swear word. The Urban Dictionary describes randi as “the most beautiful, funny, caring, loving, understanding person in the world”. She’s the ideal bride who stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, the ‘homely’ sort of girl ready to trade a career so that she can raise children and never look her mother-in-law in the eye, an attribute that ‘foreign-returned’ IT professionals seem to look for in the matrimonial columns. But then she probably won’t cut it if she were homely (i.e. unattractive) in the looks department as well, since every Indian man with a steady income is entitled to a trophy wife. They usually get one.
Randi brings to mind the word’s homonym randy. It’s also possible to read it as a shortened pet name for random (as one contributor to the Urban Dictionary does). And then random in slang suggests someone who tries too hard to stand out in a crowd and ends up a bit pathetic for her efforts — a character who is both despicable and worth pitying. Stir these ideas together and what emerges from the pot is the smoky image of a shrill, slightly-miserable streetwalker, a bit desperate for attention. Men are drawn to her for the raw, in-your-face sex appeal and also despise her for that very reason.
Randi/randy is the woman whom Calcuttans love without necessarily caring for her when they visit her in the “pros quarters” of Bowbazar, Sonagacchi, Khiddirpore and Kalighat. Shortening prostitute to ‘pros’ is meant to be a semi-camouflage, as if it was a cuss word, whispered quickly in hushed tones.
Bengali writers seem to be particularly fond of prostitutes though, most notably the novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938). The archetype of the good prostitute who conceals a tear-bathed heart of gold underneath the flimsy sequinned fabric and cheap, abrasive make-up that she is made to wear was Bengal’s major export to the mainstream Indian film industry in Bombay until fairly recently, almost a 100 years after Chattopadhyay wrote them. In Rajsekhar Basu’s (1880-1960) short story, Birinchi Baba, (later adapted into a hugely-entertaining satirical film on a pair of hustlers by Satyajit Ray, The Holy Man, 1965), a character flipping through a stack of novels finds each one of these to be about a “virtuous and chaste courtesan”. Despite Basu’s obvious sarcasm, the comment is probably an accurate reflection of the mid-C20 popular fiction scene in Bengal.
While the figure of the prostitute is consecrated in Bengali literature, the real-life women who are randomly called whores on Calcutta’s streets are often looked upon as no better than excitable vaginas begging for punishment. The naked, unfinished back of the otherwise extravagantly embellished Durga idol that Bengalis seem to worship with exaggerated and unrestrained devotion during the fortnight-long autumn festival is emblematic of this contradiction. It is informed by the same ostrich-like duplicity that makes Calcuttans use their rooftops as storages for things they do not want and cannot let go of. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s astute take on Calcutta’s ugly rooftops in ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ — “broken furniture, smashed earthenware and pieces of torn canvas or sack’ which makes ‘the irregular upper surface of Calcutta … more jagged still by the edges and points of this junk” – published in 1951 applies equally well to the present scenario. Spiffy new high-rise buildings shoot up next to factory shades, looking out over the dark, corrugated asbestos roofing and the irrepressible plant life cracking up and spreading across the lime-and-lichen coated walls. Tattered piss-stained quilts are hung out to dry on the cast iron railing around the mausoleum of Job Charnock, almost as if to dispute and mock the claim that the East India Company trader had helped in laying the foundations of what grew into the city of Calcutta, when he bought three villages and settled down on the banks of the River Ganga in 1690. 
Such glaring instances of visual pollution do not seem to add “gamaxin in the prestige” of Calcutta, as its Bengali-speaking residents like to put it, although the very same people reacted sharply when the city was labelled a ‘nightmare’ or as ‘dying’ (as two of India’s prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi, did, forty years apart, displaying an atavistic exasperation with a place whose chaotic nature did not lend itself to easy solutions). Especially since ‘prestige’ is more highly valued than its rarely used Bengali counterpart in Calcutta-speak. It is as precious and fragile as the “slim figure” that most Bengali-speaking women crave but only a few manage to hold on to for long.
 Banerjee, Sumanta, ‘The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta’; Seagull, 1990.
 The exact figures are difficult to pin down. PN Luthra’s book ‘Rehabilitation, Publications Division, New Delhi’, 1972, says a little under 5 million migrated from East Pakistan to India between 1946 and 1964.
 Dasgupta, Subhoranjan, ‘Unwelcome Now’; The Hindu, July 30, 2000.
 Gupta, Monobina, ‘Didi: A Political Biography’; HarperCollins India, 2011.
 ‘Looking back at Khejuri: Our men, their men – the straw men’, article published in Sanhati website on April 16, 2008.
 Chaudhuri, Nirad C., ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’; MacMillan, 1951.
 I. B. Watson, ‘Job Charnock (1630-1693)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Chitralekha Basu is a writer of fiction, translator and singer of Tagore songs. Her book, ‘Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta’, was published by Stree-Samya in 2012 with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri. She is also published in The Caravan magazine and Asia Literary Review. She is writing a series of essays for China Daily. She lives in Hong Kong.