When the shirt drenched in sweat sticks like a second skin to the body and the high noon of humidity leaves even the palms moist, the lovers—like many other lovers in the area—gaze silently into the shimmering waters of the Rabindra Sarobar in south Kolkata. The sun is fighting a losing battle against the gathering rain clouds but has enough strength left to turn the lovers into an entwined silhouette.

The clouds melt generously. Joggers, walkers, hangers-on, hawkers scamper for cover—the two lovers open an umbrella and snuggle cozily under the little shelter it offers. Some other couples, on other lake-facing benches, do the same—as if signatories to a hell or high-water defying passion pact.

Currently, an ambitious government-sponsored renovation and beautification plan is under way at the Sarobar. The 192-acre lake area provides breathing space for south Kolkata, a chance for residents to come into their own before they are swallowed up again by the city. Daily, hundreds descend here between daybreak and sundown, even later. They use the area for jogging, yoga, brisk walking, playing cards, carrom or cricket, socializing, introspecting, or a romantic rendezvous.

They flock to the auditorium, the stadium and the football club in the Sarobar area, the places of worship. They use the clubs on the fringes of the lake—The Bengal Rowing Club, Calcutta Rowing Club and Indian Life Saving Society, among others, which also double up as watering holes.

The Sarobar has its champions and loyalists. Take, for instance, the woman many regulars refer to—more deferentially than disdainfully—as Lake Mamata. The lady, who gets her moniker from the street-fighting days of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, has successfully campaigned against encroachers, pet owners, beggars, revellers and polluters.

There is Paritosh Sutrodhar, a tea seller for four decades who wears reddish locks and a beard and dresses “like a cowboy to the hilt, including a dangling belt, only short of a revolver in the holsters," notes photographer S.S. Kumar in his recently published coffee-table book, Rabindra Sarobar-Lakes. Octogenarian S.N. Balotia, who uses the area for walks, is a familiar face.

Paritosh Sutrodhar, the ‘cowboy’ tea seller
Paritosh Sutrodhar, the ‘cowboy’ tea seller

Rabindra Sarobar, declared a national lake in 2002, was once known as Dhakuria lake, and many still refer to it by that name. The 20 crore renovation and beautification programme—of which 10 crore has been sanctioned by the state government—is the biggest outlay for the area since the lake was created out of marshy land in the early 1920s.

According to its custodian, the Kolkata Improvement Trust (KIT), a statutory body under the state government’s urban development department, the budget far exceeds the 6.96 crore sanctioned in 2002 by the National Lake Conservation Plan.

Work started earlier this year on the project, which will be implemented in two phases. The work for the first phase should end in two months. KIT will then give a detailed budget and work plan for the second phase to the state government.

“Seventy-three acres of the 192 acres is water. In the land area, we are developing pathways and sitting areas, doing landscaping work, putting up boulevard lights, growing new grass, painting, erecting walls and fences, among other activities," says S. Nandi, executive engineer at KIT. “Work for the first phase, involving the Dhakuria side of the lake, will be over in a couple of months, after which we will ask for fresh allocations for the second phase."

Standing near the gate of the Lake Club, Mudar Patherya, a green activist and communications professional, speaks of how development is often interpreted as concretization of areas. A sprawling patch of green has been converted into a cemented parking area, he points out. Grass sprouts defiantly from small gaps in the concrete. Eight trees reportedly made way for a moss-green-colour statue of Rabindranath Tagore by sculptor Sandip Chakraborty, installed recently in the southern end of the lake area. Would the poet have approved?

It’s early morning, and the walkers and chirping birds make their presence felt. Fish skim the water’s surface, egrets keep watch, lichens mark space on tree trunks and squirrels speed across paths.

A group of laughing-club members.
A group of laughing-club members.

Since he started living in the vicinity in 2000, Patherya has taken up conservation causes at the Sarobar. He crowdsourced funds for sprinklers near the Menoka cinema hall entrance to the Sarobar, got companies to install lights at heavily discounted rates at the cash-strapped football club, worked for the upkeep of lily pools at the Sarobar, helped organize live walk-in music concerts on Sunday evenings, relocated concrete junk and replanted uprooted trees. Often, his efforts came up against a rusty sarkari (government) system.

“For example, the sprinklers helped in greening an area. But now the grass has grown tall and there is no upkeep. This is understandable since there is no dedicated mali (gardener) agency at work here. We started many initiatives here but couldn’t sustain them as individuals. The government’s apathy towards Rabindra Sarobar has been immense," complains Patherya.

Almost underscoring his point are two dry, garbage-filled lily pools, waiting for the rain to revive them. Men sleep inside what used to be an aquarium; others chat inside what was the deer enclosure of the now defunct mini zoo. The platform of the Swapnapuri station of the toy train service that was stopped in 1990 is used for socializing, while portions of the water body carry volumes of plastic waste.

“Concretization and water quality are two areas of concern. The right technology for tree transfer should also be employed and like in Mumbai, there should be greater civil society participation," suggests Kumar, whose book details the flora and fauna at the Rabindra Sarobar and introduces people to the many regulars—laughing-club members, yoga and physical-health practitioners, carrom players and karate kids, young and elderly couples.

A partial tree census in 2012 that covered about 45 acres revealed around 50 different species, says Sarika Baidya of the census body Nature Mates. There was an abundance of birds, butterflies, even a small civet population. “The significance of the Sarobar is immeasurable for Kolkata," says Baidya.

It also has sociocultural import. Over the years, the open-air theatre Nazrul Mancha, now being turned into an air-conditioned auditorium, has hosted doyens of Indian classical music as well as foreign rock bands and musicians like Wishbone Ash and Richie Havens. The Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, at the southern end, has hosted the likes of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and rock guitar icon Joe Satriani. The lake area has come a long way since the infamy it gained as a site for political killings in the Naxalite era.

Kumar, who is also a member of the Royal Photographic Society, England, talks about the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim places of worship in and around the area. One of the prettiest spots in the Sarobar is a hanging bridge leading to an island that houses a mosque.

The privately owned mosque belongs to the family that reportedly owned large parts of the marshy land before the government took over to create the lake. “The government paid us a small sum for the land and for much of my young life, I saw my father visiting the courts to settle land and property matters," says Saifuddin Ahmed, scion of the family and a businessman. “The mosque is all that is left with us."

The wall flanking the path leading to the mosque clearly bears the warning, “No Lovers Point". In this, one of the few open spaces in south Kolkata, lovers have often been a concern for the authorities and moral police. But here too, they’ve marked their presence through heart-shaped graffiti on the walls. It seems emblematic of the many cross-currents at Rabindra Sarobar.