Kolkata is a unique city in all of India. Imagine what it would be to live in colonial British India. Trying to imagine this is difficult in any other city. It is only in Kolkata I feel little remnants of British India surviving in the nooks and corners of the city.
Many roads have the old tramway rails. These are relics of the past. That’s what I thought until I saw a tramcar pass by. I am surprised that this old system is still in use. It was a sight to see – old tramcars rattling away smoothly and sparks flying off the cable that attaches to the overhead power delivery system. It is interesting to know that the earliest tramcars introduced in 1880 were horse-drawn.
As I walked from Sealdah Train Station trying to find a decent hotel, all of a sudden I see a hand-drawn rickshaw. I knew that they still existed but seeing it for the first time brings to my imagination an India at the start of the 20th century. Such rickshaws are commonly used in old parts of the city to commute people as well as to transport goods.
One morning while walking along Sudder Street within the city center, I noticed many such hand-drawn rickshaws pulling up at the gates of a school with their loads of school kids and parents. Rickshaw wallahs go about the streets barefooted.
Then there are the taxis that ply within the main city centers. Auto-rickshaws are not allowed in certain central areas in the manner of Mumbai. The eye-catching thing about these taxis are that they are all Ambassadors brightly painted in sunset yellow.
What can I say of the Howrah Bridge? Beautiful. An achievement of engineering. This too is an icon of colonial Calcutta.
The place where I am staying is near Sealdah, a dirty part of the city. Thankfully my room is not that bad. The hotel is named Hotel Savoy. Don’t be mesmerized by the name which sounds full of colonial posh and sophistication. The building is perhaps a hundred years or older. It has a wonderful facade of decorated stucco work but the upkeep is bad. I was most attracted to the toilet! It is an old circular ceramic toilet bowl embedded into cemented masonry. It is of English make. I don’t think it will be easy to find such a piece even in England. It may be said that many things colonial survive only in Kolkata. After all, it was the second largest city of the British Empire.
But the city I love is the imagined Calcutta the way the British left it. The great buildings were built by the British. They founded the oldest museum of the country. They started the tramways, laid out the roads and introduced railways. They started the system of despatch and collection from which the early Indian Postal System was inaugurated. Colonial Calcutta, particularly before 1912, was truly a place to be.
Kolkata of today however is a disaster. For sixty years our politicians have been sleeping and they are yet to awake. All they have done is to change the city’s name and in the process acknowledging silently the failure staring at them. Despite numerous means of public transport, infrastructure is a big problem. Traffic jams are phenomenal. On average I have found that it take 15 minutes to travel a kilometer by bus during peak hours. Pedestrians never see traffic lights before they cross. There is madness on the roads.
The buildings are not enough. Vendors take up half of most of the city’s pavements. Sometimes it is easier to walk on roads than on pavements. It is a sure sign of the city living beyond capacity and spilling over. The area around Howrah is a sight to see.
For now I am happy to imagine Calcutta and lose myself in a colonial world than confront the Kolkata of today.