Hello Kolkata, the cultural capital of India whose 14 million people mostly survive in poverty while living life on the chaotic streets. Every rainy season transforms the city with monsoon storms that shroud its grand but crumbling architecture in a watery veil to bring out its beauty.
The Bengali mind – poetic and elevated if you ask them – must appreciate the nuances of seasonal changes every two months. That may be why in Kolkata (or West Bengal state, of which the city is the capital) we have six seasons: winter, spring, summer, rains, autumn and late autumn. Probably no other Indian region bothers to differentiate climate in such detail.
Out of these six seasons, the rains are the most welcome. To apply the mere geographical term “monsoon” to this season would amount to blasphemy. In Bengal, it is called “barsha”, a word that brings with it the rolling of thunder in the skies and the parched earth turning a magical green overnight. People celebrate the end of the hellish, sweltering summer and welcome the renewed fecundity of the land with a romantic intensity.
The gargantuan River Ganga splits up into a vast delta at Kolkata and its surrounds, draining into the Bay of Bengal and giving the city an umbilical link with water. As my plane lowers to land at Dum Dum Airport, I can see patches of watery green lowlands amid the sprawling suburbs. No amount of urbanization can kill the beauty of large patches of green with frequent ponds covered in water hyacinth. The thatched huts along the road into the city, which still serve as homes to many underprivileged people, add to the landscape. They are like a throwback to some idyllic village scene, where the woven bamboo matting of the walls and roofs is painfully beautiful. Under the blurring veil of rain, the view could be a black-and-white rural scene from a Satyajit Ray film.
To negotiate the city during rainstorms means braving mud, slush, knee-deep waterlogging, traffic snarls and drains blocked with litter. But that is the physical. My spirits always soar, with the help of many a familiar monsoon verse, away into the ethereal realm of newly-washed tree tops swaying above the concrete clutter and the cool caress of the damp breeze carrying a whiff of wet earth.
Inside, people sit and work. Or chat. Maybe we welcome barsha because it is the best time for “adda”, the Bengali term for the conversation, reminiscing, analyzing and joking that we all love over endless rounds of hot drinks. When you cannot go out because of the rain, what better thing than to sit for hours with friends?
Each time I go back, it looks the same
The holy temple of adda is the Indian Coffee House on College Street. The Presidency University is Kolkata’s apogee of learning and contributes to the name of this street along with the nearby University of Calcutta. Presidency was founded in 1817 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and David Hare among others, and has the likes of Swami Vivekananda, Subhash Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen in its alumni.
It is also the alma mater of Sunrita Sen, a journalist now in Delhi, but with strong links to her home city. “Each time I go back to College Street it looks the same,” she says. “Scores of shack-like bookstalls lining the footpath, benches piled high with second-hand text books and the quick-study guide books; and the invaluable ‘old books’ are there too, although you really have to search for those nowadays. I while away hours browsing for a rare find.”
Down a side lane and up an old, grungy staircase, the Indian Coffee House has an ambiance and menu that seems unchanged in a century or more. “I love the bearers with their chappals (open slippers) and fancy white turbans, the high roof with suspended ceiling fans, the chatter from the tables and constant hail-fellow-well-met,” says Sunrita. “It’s a place that doesn’t change over ages, an adda place for students from the two universities across the road, writers, poets and ordinary folk, all of whom want to spend their time doing what Bengalis do best: discuss and argue things to death.
“Adda is a very Bengali pastime that can be very intense and must go on for hours. The chat is about politics, art, films, literature, the latest gossip, endless topics, endless talk, the closest of friendships. Hours just disappear in clouds of smoke – from coffee and cigarettes – and the occasional plates of Kabiraji cutlets (mince cutlets deep-fried in a frothy egg batter).”
College Street is the bridge between Central and North Kolkata, the latter being the truly Bengali residential area from centuries past. Bagbazar, Shyambazar and Shovabazar are the prominent neighborhoods of the north, with many a crumbling “Bengali Baroque” mansion bordering on dereliction, as are their occupants. This is the Kolkata of narrow by-lanes that have defied Google maps completely but have a buzzing life of their own, nurturing family homes, shops and small businesses.
There are a million homeless in the city
In these alleys, the city’s hand-pulled rickshaws come into their own. In the rain, they are a welcome way for people to stay somewhat dry while being pulled through knee-deep water. Samantak Das, a young neighbor to my mother-in-law, is a professor at the Jadavpur University, who has contributed a sensitive essay on rickshaws to a recent book, Strangely Beloved: Writings on Calcutta.
“It is near impossible to estimate the number of people who live their lives on the footpaths, under the bridges and flyovers, in the parks and alleys of the city of dubious joy,” he says. “The Encyclopedia of Homelessness puts the number of homeless in Kolkata at ‘approximately a million’, while the Census of India 2011 pegs it at 70,000… Equally confusing is any attempt to estimate the number of hand-pulled rickshaws that ply in the city. Of the world’s major metropolises, Kolkata is the only one that has this form of transport.
“This species of hackney carriage, as the British defined hand-pulled rickshaws, serves a vital function in ferrying people and goods, particularly during the monsoon. In recent years, they have become increasingly popular for fetching and delivering children from and to school. Yet no one knows for sure just how many ply in the city.
“Officially, there are 5,693 or 5,937 (the figure depends on where you look) licensed rickshaws and no new licenses have been issued since Independence. But unofficial estimates put the number of rickshaws at anything up to 30,000. As in the case of the homeless, or street kids, or beggars, for that matter, figures are hard to come by.”
Most rickshaw pullers are migrants from neighboring states of Bihar and Jharkhand, where poverty is even more grinding than on the streets of Kolkata. Samantak interviewed one such man called Bhuvan. “As near as he can remember, Bhuvan came to Kolkata about 30 years ago. ‘There was nothing for us in our village in Darbhanga,’ he said. ‘So my father decided to join a friend who ran a tea-stall in the city, and I tagged along. I must have been about ten then.’
“Some years later, Bhuvan met a man who offered him a job as a rickshaw puller. And he’s remained one ever since. Bhuvan has also never had a roof over his head in Kolkata that he could call home. Like thousands of others, the streets of Kolkata have been the only home he has ever known. ‘I preferred to sleep by myself,’ he says, ‘usually in the rickshaw itself but more often out in the open, on the footpath’.”
My favorite spot was the front verandah
I have never used a rickshaw since becoming a thinking adult, due to the sheer indignity of human labor, but I have childhood memories of taking one to play on the swings in the park at Maddock Square from my grandparents’ home in Lansdowne Road.
My mother grew up at 63B Lansdowne Road and I would go there for holidays as a little child in the 1960s when we lived in Mumbai. My favorite spot was the front verandah overlooking the busy road. On the pavement was a chhatu stall – the rickshaw pullers’ lunch halt. Chhatu is roasted gram (chickpea flour) kneaded in water and spiced up with salt and chili. It is still the staple of the working class in Eastern India due to its ability to fill stomachs as well as provide high-value nutrition.
I salivated over the sight of famished rickshaw pullers mixing their meal of chhatu on shiny bell metal plates, and making large balls to pop into their mouths with relish. Years later, I actually tasted a chhatu meal myself, and my palate recoiled. Another naïve notion from my childhood evaporated into the world of adult reality. The chhatu stalls are still there but the shiny plates are gone, sold as antiques, or pawned for quick money. In their place are battered, blackish-grey aluminum plates, and the house on Lansdowne Road is no longer my grandparents’.
Change is a constant in Kolkata. Dalhousie Square, the central downtown area of past and present, is a World Heritage Site that travel guides call one of the finest examples of a colonial city square. The density of British heritage structures is impressive, but their grandness is well hidden. The posters, billboards, jumbled electric wires and pavement stalls hide every vestige of former glory. A constant sea of humanity weaves in and out of this chaos. Adding to the picture is the sound of horns honking, vendors hawking, loudspeakers blaring, protestors shouting, men arguing; and the pungent smells of fried street snacks, rotting garbage, cow dung, perfumed hair oil, human sweat and toil.
Dalhousie Square is now known as BBD Bagh, named after Binoy, Badal and Dinesh, three young freedom fighters who were hanged for assassinating the British Inspector General of Prisons in 1930 at the Writers’ Building premises. The two names are used with equal frequency. The past does not leave Kolkatans easily, and it is this complex mix of history and modernity that characterizes the city, now being ruled by a non-Communist government after a record-breaking 25 years of Leftist rule.
It took on Kafkaesque dimensions
The Writers’ Building still stands today and is undergoing a much-needed renovation. This labyrinthine red brick structure originally housed the clerks of the East India Company in the 19th century, and later became the West Bengal government headquarters. Over the years it took on Kafkaesque dimensions, and was occupied by ministers and their legions of government staff. The grand Ionic columns and Greco-Roman portico seem always lost behind layers of wall painting and posters. Protest is as much a part of Kolkata’s culture as poetry and music.
Another imposing red building here is the Calcutta High Court, which was built in 1862 in the style of the Cloth Hall at Ypres, Belgium. A stone’s throw away is one more British legacy: the enormous domed General Post Office. Buzzing around it is a micro-ecology of its own, that of professional form fillers and letter writers. They are the most powerful go-betweens in coping with the frightening beast of officialese for the helpless applicants who come long distances to the government offices and courts.
The sky above the white GPO dome is dark and I scurry on, wary of being caught in a sudden shower. Tram No.36 has begun its snaking journey from the crowded terminus at Esplanade and I board it on Chowringhee Road for the slow and picturesque ride through the central artery of Kolkata. The first electric tram in Asia, No.36 began plying from Kidderpore Docks to the city center in 1902. Ever since, it has been ferrying workers, office-goers, school kids, and shoppers going downtown to busy Dharmatolla and New Market.
Trams are as much a part of Kolkata as some of the cobbled streets on which they run. A slow but sure option of transport compared to the otherwise life-threatening rides in public buses, speeding mini vans and black-and-yellow taxi cabs, trams are used by elderly people visiting relatives, women on the way to the market, mothers picking up children from school, and visitors who want to soak in the sights and sounds of the city.
My tram snakes pass the Maidan – an enormous area of open green that ends in the Race Course on one side. The rhythm of the tramcar is a soothing motion, much gentler than trains, and the conductor’s clicking of his punch is strangely reassuring, as is the nominal price of the ticket. My father loved to tell of how he was returning excitedly with the color negatives of his wedding photos in 1952, shot in the wondrous new Kodachrome, only to find that he had been pick-pocketed when he alighted from the tram. So he was left with only black and white images of my parents’ traditional Bengali wedding. We had to imagine the gorgeous red shade of my mother’s gilded sari and the bright Benarasi silks that her sisters wore.
Kolkata’s most famous sight
Prominent on the edge of the Maidan is the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata’s most famous sight. The imposing white marble building is a curious blend of Mughal and British architecture, and in the central garden is a statue of the Queen herself like a ship in full sail. The monument was built by Lord Curzon to commemorate the recently departed Regent and the might of the British Empire in India – perhaps because signs of its waning were apparent.
Later that afternoon I meet a cousin for tea at Flury’s on Park Street. This institution is where Kolkatans turn to if they want to experience an old-style British teahouse. The chicken sandwiches are bland with a hint of mustard, but the white bread is wafer thin. The cakes are iced in quaint pinks and whites, and the éclairs have the correct lightness in the pastry.
Arpita Mitra is in her 40s and has some lovely memories of growing up in this city. “One afternoon my college friend and I walked down Park Street to visit Oxford Bookstore, when suddenly there was this literal cloudburst,” she says. “We two girls had no umbrella, no raincoat, just our college bags. The shower swept us off our feet, and in a wave of madness we ran to the phuchka-wallah, who was winding up his food stall, to force him to give us a few phuchkas. [Phuchka is a spicy street snack, literally bombs of chili and tamarind water that explode in your mouth and heat your very inner core on a rainy day.]
“Is tamarind water a bit intoxicating? I don’t know why we were high all of a sudden but we really, really danced in the rain. We sang too. We walked from Park Street to Southern Avenue in knee-deep water, our clothes completely drenched... only to reach my friend’s place and have another round of monsoon intoxication. Piping hot pakodas (vegetable fritters) and tea this time. And adda and laughter.
“That night it was impossible to return all the way home, so I told my parents and slept over. My friend and I stood on the balcony at midnight, stretching out our hands in the pouring rain as the last blinking lights of vehicles with weary wipers slowly passed on that green shady avenue. The view from the overlooking balcony was eerie, with reflections of the flickering lights and shadows against the downpour.
“Even today, I still associate monsoon in Kolkata with that gush of refreshing madness.”