From Dumdum to Shalimaar: A first-timer’s view of Kolkata

Following an extremely turbulent flight, I arrive at the Dum-dum airport in Kolkata. Almost at once I see the difference, right from the twinkling eyes on the pretty faces to the vibrant shades in their clothing. I had heard a million things about Kolkata- some good and some horrendous. The stories about the rampant flesh trade are still fresh in my mind.

 

I walk to the taxi-stand and I’m greeted by about a dozen taxi drivers, each trying his best to outdo the others. Arriving from a comparatively hostile city, I am suspicious and in my mind I try to spot the trafficker among them. Not being a psychologist or an interviewer, I fail miserably at figuring them out. Playing it safe, I pick the leanest and (apparently) weakest taxi driver, just in case. He’s all smiles and no one complains and I start getting even more suspicious. I get into the taxi, strategically position myself for a quick escape. My mind is replaying every self defence video I’ve ever watched on YouTube.

 

“Right! Here we go again,” I tell myself as I realize that we’re stuck right in the middle of the parking lot. But then, every other taxi driver a.k.a. competition, leaves his business- be it his spiced tea or his unfinishedbeedi, and comes over to make way for our taxi to move. Five minutes later, we’re leaving the airport after moving almost twenty cars. The asphalt on the tarmac and the road was probably the same, but being on the roads ofKolkata is something different. Though he looks like he hadn’t seen food for over a week, the taxi driver rips through the traffic with such finesse that even Jason Statham would gasp for breath. The taxi’s no Lamborghini. But, he can’t tell the difference. Am I starting to respect an Ambassador? I don’t want to answer that now. Anyway, I notice the large numbers of Ambassadors that flood the roads of the city. It reminds me of a documentary on Mother Teresa I had seen some time ago. In a flash of a moment, I’m transported back to those times. And it was then that I saw it.

 

Kolkata has changed a lot post Independence. But, the pain and struggle that it has gone through is visible. The City literally breathes and I shift in my seat not wanting to sit too hard on the City. Oh, my God! Am I starting to forget the basic laws of Physics? I don’t think I care. We overtake buses with wooden seats and I see a tram for the first time in my life. Like a curious child, I stare at it so hard. I think a rivet exploded!

“Saab, Aage bahaut milenge,” says the taxi driver smiling.

I manage to turn the embarrassment into a joke by laughing casually.

 

I notice the buildings. They’ve been refurnished to look glossy and I can spot showrooms of every brand under the sky on my way. But, the walls on the sides of the buildings remind you of what has been, of what our parents and grandparents have been through to get the City to be like it is today. Right from the vents on the window shutters to the peeling paint off the walls. The heavy influence of the British architecture is visible in their buildings and it doesn’t take too much imagination to believe that you belong to that historical era when the real heroes were celebrities.

 

I’m jolted back to reality as I spot the Howrah bridge- beautiful as ever. I have always wanted to know why people make a big deal out of ‘just another bridge’. Trust me when I tell you that I found my answer right then. My brain immediately tries to calculate the technical specifications; the loads and the tensile strengths. I give up on the crazy arithmetic and choose to fall in love with her trillion rivets in stead.* As we leave the bridge, we’re caught in a jam that is too crowded even for our local ‘transporter’ to navigate through. I guess that explains why Mr. Statham gets to keep his job. Oops! Let me not stray from the topic now. I brace myself for awkward stares I expect to receive from the neighbouring vehicles. But none of that happens. The transporter greets another taxi driver and though they were strangers moments ago, I could tell that they now shared a bond for life. And I see the spirit of the City living in every person who walks her streets.

 

I smile!

 

Kolkata reminded me of who we were at the end of the day. Of our origins. Few are lucky to have great origins, for Heaven isn’t some place we are headed to. Heaven was right where we let it be. And despite the painfully moist weather or the lead oxide in the air, Heaven was on that crowded street.

 

Tarun Bali

7th September, 2010

*The author urges you to check it out yourself! 🙂

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