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Hello Hooghly (at last !)



The sight that greets the eye outside the Howrah Railway Station - that serves a million passengers a day and links the country's south-eastern and eastern railway zones, is ... we have to say ... no different, these days, from the sight that the eye might behold outside any major city railway station in India.  So what happened to the famous 'shock value' that Howrah (and indeed Calcutta) was supposed to present the traveler (yes, even us Indian travelers), we wonder.  Has early 21st century India so completely homogenized as in so many other ways and consumed erstwhile holdout Calcutta as well?  Or has the rest of the country descended to the level of 'shock value' that Calcutta was once reputed to present? 


These thoughts occupy the back of our minds as we negotiate taxi & transport arrangements at Howrah station, which appear no more broken or more mysterious than the irascible-autorickshaw-driver-versus-unfathomable-BMTC choice that bewilders even the returning Bangalorean. Plus, if you deign to, there is also the ferry service to take you across the Hooghly, which, as we discover, can be a great introduction to the city in ways more than just visual.


The roads that carry us towards the Vidyasagar setu/bridge from the railway terminal buildings certainly don't suggest Shanghai - but aren't significantly worse than Bangalore's Gubbi Thotadappa (the main thoroughfare that fronts the Bangalore City Railway Station) either. And the newer bridge spanning the Hooghly looks a lot smarter than any of our undulating 'home made' magic boxes or the strange engineering that merges NH4 into the chaos of Old Madras Road over the railway lines at the eastern entry point into Bangalore.

We begin our tryst with Kolkata with these quick observations - a tryst that has been a long time coming.  Over the next several days we explore the city on the venerable Kolkata Metro (now closing in on 30 years of incessant duty), on city buses, on the ever-competing mini-buses, in share autos, cycle rickshaws and indeed the ferries at numerous Hooghly crossings - and most of all - on foot. We breathe, smell, taste the city, tramp its sidewalks and soil (sometimes damp with human use), meet and converse with people everywhere and take in the historic and plebian sights - neither of one kind any less spectacular than the other.


It doesn't take long to notice that central and south Kolkata are better maintained and managed than today's Bangalore, and there is little question that the traffic, while perhaps heavier, is managed more competently (might it be helping morale & their zeal just a little bit that the Kolkata traffic police are so smartly turned out, something an old Kolkatan once pointed out to us?) The ineptitude of every recent infrastructure project in Bangalore seems in less evidence here - although there may be some adventurous ones that we didn't notice.  Even the sidewalks are more functional. We should know - we walked everywhere in Kolkata and are regular foot soldiers - road warriors is perhaps a more appropriate term - and public transport users back home. And the public infrastructure, while not exactly rapture inducing, seems much more people friendly than in our own strange Frankenstein town, circa 2011. 


We hear Amit Chaudhuri's comment that Calcutta is fast vanishing and wonder if this may be what we are observing.  While Jorasanko, Barabazar, Baubazar and Taltala put on show all the dramatic, varied, dense and time-layered flavors of Calcutta, they do not appear to be what Kolkata is about.  That may be what the smart, successful and aspirational set we hobnob one evening with in New Alipore, as well as the taxi drivers we meet, whose wards are taking in well over a lac of rupees a month in Bengaluru, are energetically defining.


As we let the city seep in through all our senses, through conversation and transaction, via its living histories and the dead ones of its monuments, we construct new impressions even as we allow the stereotypes in our mind to morph and in many cases completely evaporate. The Calcutta of chain smoking, poet-revolutionaries at India Coffee House, a Calcutta of high idealism and the universalism of Tagore (token State impositions such as Rabindra Sangeet played at traffic intersections notwithstanding), the Calcutta of Moorehouse, circa 1970, with his images of the poor lying emaciated, diseased, defeated, almost motionless on the streets, the city turning into one vast dark shantytown at night, fires burning, dark silhouettes of gaunt bodies moving slowly amongst their dwellings, exhausted after the day's labors - et cetera.  The dignified & tireless sisters of the Missionaries of Charity and their streams of well meaning, if overwhelmed, unprepared & perplexed, volunteers from around the world. The silent and frozen moments of life and death at the South Park Cemetery, the pretty eateries of Park Street, the gloriously restored pipe organ at St. John's Church (roused to music by Johnny Purty) with its recently cleaned-up memorial to Job Charnock, the fading one of Lady Canning and the great deception of Zoffany. The incessant tide of people mixing ritual, ablution and prayer at the river at Babu ghat while others receive a massage, consult an astrologer or have their ears cleaned nearby. The snake oil sellers at the Shahid minar, a thousand cricket matches on the maidan, the steaming biriyanis of Fairlie Place, the streetscapes around BBD Bagh and the morning bathers in the Lal Dighi inside, the weary trams, the endless streams of yellow cabs, the motor ferries criss-crossing the river, the quiet, if night soil rich, gardens of Eden, the puchka and the puchka seller, the tanneries of Tangra, and its Chinese food, the roadside toast-butter-sprinkled-sugar-chai of the hard working men from Muzzafarpur, Darbhanga and Vaishali, the macaroons at Nahoum's Jewish Bakery in New Market (108 years in business, no less), the book sellers of College street, the dusty displays at the National Museum and its splendid, sunbathed courtyard, the frosty, bureaucratic reception you receive if you try to visit the reading room at the National Library of India at the Belvedere, the decrepit Alipore Zoo, saved only by a domestic kitten lying picturesquely outside of the enclosures and a clutch of gharials sunbathing, within.  The pilgrims headed to the Ganga Sagar mela, and the long rows of stalls selling trinkets and puja-ware at Kali Ghat, the stall of KC Das - Brother, nearby, the woollen caps in fifteen celsius temperatures on the street, the new consumerism of Gariahat and Dhakuria and stylish Kolkatans at the Saturday club. It would also be (although we did not find time to examine these for ourselves) the new economy of Salt Lake and goings-on at the Tollygunge club, culture soirees at Nandan and who knows what countless other things everywhere in this vast metropolis.


Geoffrey Moorehouse's account of Calcutta, the 'second city of the empire' as he positions it, a work of impressive sweep and competence in other respects, concludes darkly, painting two desperate, holocaust-like scenarios of doom for Calcutta on the threshold of 1971. One of total urban breakdown - "a plague on a medieval scale" during which, people "maddened by their loss" will rage "through the city with torches, with knives, with bombs, with pistols, with axes, with bare hands" "will burn everything .... and mutilate anyone who gets in their way" and another scenario of a bloody uprising of the poor against the oppressive rich, "hauling them out of their cars and butchering them on the spot ..." and concluding that "the time for compassion will be past".  First time visitors to Kolkata, forty years on, having put themselves through his paces, may just find themselves relieved and reassured to meet a vast, living and thriving city, and compassion still alive and co-existing amidst the deprivation and the doomsayers.


We travel north beside the Hooghly one day - up to Bansberia & Bandel, Chinsurah and Chandannagar to get a sense for the land that attracted the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French, besides the English, to construct home and outpost here.  This is pretty country, but long settled and much trammeled.  The bleak, grey, Czarist cupolas of the Hanseswari mandir (built circa 1800) are set-off in contrast by the burnt-red terra cotta of the Vasudev mandir, built a century earlier, just past it.  We get a quick glimpse of Hanseswari herself, seated on a lotus, before the pandit shuts down the shrine for the afternoon. A newly wed couple is posing quite appropriately for pictures amidst the wonderfully detailed figurines and in the tidy garden around the Vasudev mandir.


Haji Mohamad Mohsin (the much traveled and enlightened philanthropist, revered for his relief work during the great Bengal famine of 1770) built the famous Imambara of Hooghly that plays sentinel at river's edge and is a sanctuary, that afternoon, for a handful of devout and a family listening to Hadiths in the delicately arched corridors.  We take a short, quiet boat ride with a fisherman awaiting the start of the spawning season of the anadromous Hilsa and paddle a short distance upstream towards the famous church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary) at Bandel.  The church (first built in 1599 by the Portuguese, under permission from Akbar, then sacked in 1632 by his grandson Shajahan and reconstructed by his own generous grant made in a moment of contrition, thereafter) is not without its storied miracles - of the return of the original statue of Our Lady of the Rosary during the reconstruction, the donation of a ship's mast by its captain who was saved from a terrifying storm at sea by Our Lady of Safe Voyage and of the sparing of Father Joan Da Cruz by the elephants in the court of Shahjehan in Agra after his capture during the sacking - leading to its classification as a minor basilica. The current, modern structure, we note with disappointment, is a distasteful simulacrum of what might have once stood there.  Save a keystone that says "1599" and the famous 'mast of Bandel' now wrapped in plastic and lying in a corner of the yard, perhaps awaiting its return to dust, there has been consummate disregard for preserving any of the aesthetics of the past. 


The graveyard in the famous old town of Chinsurah (now Chunchura) provides pause to our roving minds and we hop about between gravestones and markers trying to reconstruct the temptations this area might have presented the Dutch (the trade value of high quality Bengal opium, grown along the Hooghly, was certainly one of them).  Temptation that kept them here until they ceded it for Sumatra, to the English in 1825.  We learn that Chinsurah was where Bankim Chandra Chatterjee studied at Mohsin College (established by the same Haji Muhammad Mohsin who built the Imamabara) and Debendranath Tagore (Rabindranath's father) lived.


Chandranagore's (Chandannagar's) extant river front has the stamp of the French in India.  We wonder what this might have looked like before contemporary India started consuming it from both ends. A pavilion at the centre of what is known as the Chandannagar Strand is conspicuous.  We learn this is a reconstruction of the pavilion that was built in 1921 by Shamachorone Roquitte (Sham Charan Rakshit, spelt the French way) in honor of his father Dourgachorone (Durgacharan), a businessman & trader who was awarded  the Chevalier (Knight) de la legion d'honneur' for his services to the French.  A short stub of street away from the river is the Eglise de Sacre Coeur (Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), established in 1875, with its elegant altar, stained glass alcoves and a small, but decrepit pipe organ all of which the gardener pottering around in the small church garden is happy to let us in to see. Back on the river front, is the "Institut de Chandernagor" located in what was Joseph François Dupleix's residence, with its tall, collonaded verandah and louver windows, housing a museum, library & a French language study centre, closed unfortunately on the day we are there.


It is sundown and the hand carts are out on the street selling jhal-muri and chops. As the lights twinkle on, on the Strand, we leave town, the Hooghly flowing on quietly into the late evening.