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.
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 book, Strangely Beloved: Writings on Calcutta.
“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. ‘I preferred to sleep by myself,’ he says, ‘usually in the rickshaw itself but more often out in the open, on the footpath.’ Like thousands of others, the streets of Kolkata have been the only home he has ever known.
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