It was almost my first personal encounter with Kolkata. I have been here on short visits before, but never encountered it like now. I did it alone walking around and exploring. I have heard a lot of stories and not-so-good epithets about the city and I expected a chaotic hell. I did see a ‘hell’ all right, but it was not dissimilar to many other ‘metropolitan hells’ in India. What it displayed was a quite ease and predilection with its disposition than the usual uneasy grumpy rashness of metropolitan India elsewhere.
On the morning of December 26, I reached the Dalhousie square; the epicenter of Kolkata; the seat of its political power. Compared to the pompous aloofness of Bangalore’s Vidhansoudha and its pretentious facade, this red building looked more like a huge distinguished but ravaged old man standing by the roadside. The pompousness of arcades and barricades and also the battalions of police and other vehicles around made it seem formidable and powerful though. The bamboo scaffolding put up for painting made it look precarious as well.
I walked across and strolled into the side streets. And the city really punched me hard.
Frying masala. The smell of it and the hiss of cooking on kerosene stoves and make shift fireplaces on the sidewalks hit me. It is on and on endless in all the streets. Smell of food and the sound of it being served and eaten by people sitting on wooden benches and tables, the clutter of plates and tumblers, the smell of dirt and filth mixed with water, the sound of rushing water from hoses and hydrants, the sound of chattering men and women bathing and washing clothes on the road from those hydrants, the sound of tinkering and welding , the men repairing small electrical machines on the side lines, the shout of rickshaw pullers with their shameful burden of yore, the bells of cycles and horns of cars, the clickety-clackety relics of trams, laugh of happy looking men and women, the tactility of walking on rough broken pavements, the slush of mud, the colorful clothes hung on steel barricades separating the road and sidewalks, the thud of things thrown down from roofs , colourful ads of digital cameras and laptop computers, and the mosaic of clothes and mobile phones and electronic goods on the elegant shop windows of rundown buildings, men and women in soiled working clothes, babus in their best attire, puppies, street dogs and cats, dying flower plants on broken planters, food gadis under colourful cloth umbrellas …Ah a rioting attack on all of one’s senses.
The centre and old part of Kolkata presents no evidence of glittering sheen of consumerism dominant in new urban spaces and in central part of other cities. It does not mean consumerism is not there. One look at Park Street tells a lot. However, hardly one finds any new buildings there. All old ones have seen paints decades ago, no new aluminum windows or structural glazing covering the facades. All these are reserved to comparatively newer areas a like Salt Lake City or Rajarhat and other peripheries. Capitalist real estate dreams are catching up the citadel of communism on the periphery.
One finds an addictive abandon. (Gay abandon?) Starting from the beautiful pond of the centre, there are many useful relics of the past which are abandoned to languish. Kolkata is the only city in India continuing to run the transport heritage of trams. But what they have today is an apology of its early traffic wizardry. Its coaches are rattling ramshackle of wood and steel, the connectors are archaic slipping the electric network so often that the conductor has to do a repair magic with a rope more often, the people who travel are all too poor to pay a decent fair. No wonder that the Calcutta tram company (CTC) runs buses to rehabilitate their redundant employees, who cannot be retrenched and to cover the losses. All the main streets of old Kolkata have hydrants established by the east India Company with water pumped directly from the river for washing the streets. They are still there, used by poor to bathe and wash. Nobody do bother to remove them though they add to the filth of streets. It certainly serves the migrant labour.