Amitav Ghosh acts as a trigger for long forgotten Calcutta memories. Inspite of my great love for the city, I can hardly claim to be a resident. The two years that my family did live there, I was far away in Hyderabad. There were the occasional vacations and the visits of course but little else. It is a testament to the City’s almost magnetic hold on me (and most East Indians in general) that I still consider it almost-home. It is the Eldorado of my subconscious.
The first thing that hits you in Calcutta are the crowds. There are just an awful too many people. You step out from the grand red Howrah Station and there they are, milling about. Very few of them are Bengalis. Mostly dirt poor migrants from Poorvanchal, they come in droves to their promised land. You can see them pulling their trolleys along, sweat dripping down their face as they race through the twenty odd platforms of the station. Yet there is an element of order in this chaos. Stroll across to the vegetable market in the subway leading upto the ferry (“launch”) ghats and you’ll see a mass of people going one way or the other depending on the time of the day. There is no pushing or shoving. I spent an hour walking in the opposite direction and not once was I yelled at or cursed. The violence that one associates with a crowd in North India is oddly missing in Calcutta.
For a kid nothing could be more fascinating than Calcutta’s modes of public transport. The buses are unlike anything in Delhi or Bombay. Painted in garish colours, with a wooden floor and with seats that would gladden a Spartan Utilitarian, these buses rule the Calcutta roads. The fuel guzzling old monsters belch out thick black smoke that hangs over the Maidan on wintry mornings. It is impossible to imagine any of them as new-ever! Then there are the ferries. A bit out of favour after the opening of the second Hooghly bridge, the launches (as they are called) were for close to a century the lifeline between Calcutta and its twin across the Hooghly. The overcrowded boats and the Colonial ghats (Armenian, Princep, Outram) saved thousands of Calcuttans from the long jaunt across the Howrah Bridge. One of my happiest childhood memories is of taking the launch to Garden Reach or Babughat from the Howrah Station Jetty. The view as the launch took on the curve after Vidyasagar Setu was wonderful, especially in the evenings with the sun shining brilliantly over the river.
My favourites are however the trams. Much maligned and now almost condemned to extinction, the trams were a wonderful thing to all of us non-Calcuttans. There was a day (till 1993) when you could hitch one right opposite the Howrah Station and have it take you all the way up to Kidderpore for nothing more than 25 paise. Slow and very noisy, especially over cobbled streets, the trams are almost always full. Their distinctive clanging bell can be heard before they are visible in the maze of vehicles. Taxis reluctantly abandon the track as the ancient machines rumble on, swaying and lurching all the way to Park Circus, Esplanade or Dharamtala. Even today, one can take the Kidderpore-Dharamtala service and watch the tram as it passes through the crowded streets, crosses the Adi Ganga bridge, moves on to the Maidan (providing arguably the best view of it) and finally negotiates the crush of Esplanade with the Ochterlony Monument looming in the background.
More Calcutta reminiscences to follow some other day.