One morning recently, someone in an old house in north Kolkata opened her front door as usual. Then she discovered that sometime in the night a small piece of magic had taken place outside her home.
There was an intricate alpana design on the street right outside her door. She had not drawn it. And she had no idea who might have. But there it was—a beautiful pattern of freshly painted, neat white curlicues, tendrils and circles, like the border of a sari, bringing a touch of sudden elegance to a tired old street.
It’s not the only house touched by alpana magic in recent weeks. Some have woken up to a line of alpana running along the concrete stoop in front of the house. Or it was across the threshold or on the steps leading up to the front door.
It’s the handiwork of Mudar Patherya, who leads his small team to different parts of the city on this hit-and-run art mission. He’s no stranger to out-of-the-box ideas to breathe new life into old cities. He was the brain behind painting drab electric boxes with pictures of iconic cultural figures who lived or worked in those neighbourhoods. He just led a citizen effort to repaint and illuminate a huge dome in the busy Maniktala market. He used a 94-year-old north Kolkata house as the backdrop for an evening of Saadat Hasan Manto and Tagore on the street. He leads a singing “club” next to Kolkata’s lakes at 6.30am on Sundays. But the alpanas felt different. It was a simple gesture. They would not last long. That made them feel all the more precious.
I found the photographs on his social media feed. One showed a grey-haired woman in a red and white sari sitting calmly on the street, carefully drawing the alpana in front of the red walls of the house that once belonged to the great scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose. In another, a man in blue jeans is painting the front steps of a north Kolkata house. In yet another, a tourist walking out of the boutique hotel Calcutta Bungalow, built in a restored house from 1926, carefully steps over the freshly painted alpana, her face glowing with delight.
Patherya tells me some people who saw them painting were amazed, some were puzzled, some grumbled and some offered tea. When people asked them “but why?”, he says the stock answer was “to beautify” or “to enrich”. But his real motive, he admits, was the desire to play a “good prank”. At one time, naughty children would ring doorbells and run away. In this version, they leave behind an alpana. Patherya says he can imagine the residents of the house spending several hours wondering “which clown” did this “without notice, cash or credit”. The thought amuses him.
Good people can volunteer hours to clean up a public space like a park or a lake or spend weekends teaching underprivileged children. All these are important acts of civic engagement and investments in a city’s future. But who would give up four hours of their morning to paint alpanas in front of the homes of strangers? What is the return on such an investment?
In real terms, not much. But what is lovely about this gesture is not the art, beautiful as it is. Alpana on the streets isn’t that unusual. Every Durga Puja, some neighbourhood clubs have teams of artists turning entire streets into works of intricate, massive alpana art that Instagram bloggers and influencers then photograph with drones. This is different, more modest, more intimate and infinitely more surprising because it’s not about grandeur and spectacle. It’s a gift of kindness that one stranger leaves at another stranger’s door.
We are taught to be suspicious of strangers (and rightly so). The news is filled everyday with stories of conmen. Someone asks for a glass of water from an elderly lady and then tries to rob her. An Instagram account steals a friend’s profile, pretends to be her and starts sending you phishing messages and sob stories. An elderly woman panics when she gets a message, allegedly from the electric supply office, saying her service will be terminated by this evening owing to unpaid bills. We live in a world that is hell bent on abusing our trust in it. As I stood on the street with a friend on Diwali, a perfect stranger came up and said casually that he could not find his wallet and needed help with some bus fare. We had no way of knowing whether he was really stranded or just a scammer. It was easier to assume the latter.
Yet come to think of it, a city, unlike a village, relies upon the kindness of strangers. In 2003, the magazine American Scientist published a global study about the kindness of strangers. Anthropologist Robert Levine and his students devised a series of simple experiments. If you pretended to have an injured leg and dropped a magazine, would someone pick it up? If you dropped a pen, would someone pick it up and return it? If you feigned blindness, would someone help you across an intersection? When they ran the experiment in different cities in the US, they found the more crowded the city (like New York), the less likely anyone would be to stop to help.
They then ran the experiments in 23 different countries. That’s when the results surprised them. Rio de Janeiro ranked first, Kolkata ranked fourth. New York ranked 22nd out of 23. Crowded cities with reputations for crime and politics instability, like Mexico City and San Salvador, were far more helpful than most. Levine concluded that helping rates were higher in countries with lower economic productivity (i.e. less purchasing power per citizen), slower pace of life (as measured by pedestrian walking speed, hello Kolkata) and in cultures that believed in social harmony.
Of course, there were exceptions. First World Copenhagen was more kind to strangers than Kuala Lumpur. But in general, it meant that in New York, a passer-by rushing down the street might at best call out to the experimenter to alert them about the dropped pen, while in Rio they would run with the pen to catch up with the experimenter.
As a student, I was taken on a trip to Moscow. We were taught to sing Mera Joota Hai Japani in chorus and told to be careful of KGB minders all around us. Even that grandmotherly woman in our hotel lobby was probably an informer, we were warned. Our friendly guides spoke more Indian languages than they let on so they could eavesdrop on us. I let my guard down and got conned immediately. Someone came up to me in Red Square, did an “I love India” act and proceeded to exchange his Russian watch for my trusty HMT one.
I still didn’t learn my lesson. I went to the post office to mail picture postcards. The counter clerk also seemed delighted to discover I was Indian. But language issues made it hard to figure out how much postage each card needed. She looked at the change I had and assured me in pantomime she would mail the postcards. We left in a chorus of cheery spesibas and dasvidaniyas. “You mean you didn’t stick the stamps on the cards and get them franked before you left?” our group leader asked incredulously, looking at me as if I was an idiot. “You just gave that woman your money!”
But lo and behold, one by one each postcard arrived, duly stamped. The stamps had cost much more than what I had given the woman. She had sent them out on her own dime as an act of kindness from one stranger to another. The watch, however, was truly a clunker and lasted mere days before giving up the ghost.
In hindsight, I am glad for both experiences. Today I probably wouldn’t give that man my watch. Nor would I trust that woman to send out all those postcards for me. But the stories still make me smile. The kindness of strangers should always leave one guessing.
Just like some people in Kolkata are still trying to guess who left a piece of alpana outside their front door.
The name is not important. What’s important is a stranger did it. And left a reminder that we too can do something for a stranger sometime.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr