The Unbearable Heaviness of the Bladder
Back home, urinating in the open is rampant. Most public offices have a secluded area, usually behind the establishment, where men relieve themselves. Other public spaces like bus-stands, markets, cinema houses, etc. have ambiguously marked corners that cater to the needs of the bulging bladder. Urinating in the open isn’t great fun, but when one has to go, one has to go.
This relief, however, comes at a price - the perpetual irritation of those who inhabit in close proximity to such places. The ground that soaks in the urine repays in kind with a stench that makes one wish one were born without the olfactory sense. And the malodour that emanates from all the piss slowly seeps into people’s lives. The shopkeepers, residents, and others who conduct business or live their lives near such places bear a frown that is long lasting, if not permanent.
Occasionally, someone comes along who belongs to the tribe of square pegs (the kind that don’t fit in round holes) and in a moment of pure ingenuity devises an idea that promises to keep the urinating Indian public away from his neighbourhood piss-ground. This man uses religion, a most potent weapon that’s resorted to when the laws of the land fail. He puts up an image of a deity on a wall or on a makeshift mound at the site. The divine presence among the squalor doesn’t get rid of the stink, but ensures that people no longer pee there. In the setting we have back home, this method is effective. However, the poor bladders, much like the elephants in the region, now-a-days suffer from this unabashed encroachment of their ‘rightful’ territories.
Image: Bhowanipore neighbourhood, Calcutta
Hand-pulled rickshaws, Calcutta, 2014
Booksellers of Bhawanipore
The disarming civility of the Calcutta metro commute
If you have travelled by the Bangalore metro, you’ve most likely been impressed by its swankiness; if you have been on the Delhi metro, chances are you’ve been appalled at the crudeness of the experience. The Calcutta metro has neither Bangalore’s swankiness, nor Delhi’s impoliteness. It is utilitarian and, to some extent, run-down – which is in contrast to its grand old buildings with massive pillars, wide corridors, and ornamental arches with brilliant spandrels. Subterranean Calcutta’s exclusive functionalism is certainly at odds with terrestrial Calcutta’s excessive grandiosity.
Calcutta boasts of the country’s first metro network. The first overground railway line was laid in the west (Bombay), and perhaps the powers in their fair-mindedness decided to lay the first underground railway line in the east. The Calcuttans have repaid in kind. They have ensured that the metro commute is a satisfactory affair, if not luxurious. We don’t feel lost in the metro stations here; we are almost never scared. We find the men at the ticket counters patient and helpful, and the policemen and policewomen at the security checks tolerant and cooperative.
Calcuttans take a perplexing delight in pulling in fellow-travellers, who in their zeal to beat the sliding doors, get stuck in the doorways of the metro trains. The doors close, a foot gets stuck, a thousand people try to pull it in along with the owner of the errant foot. Doors reopen to close again, and a new hand of a new body gets stuck now. Another thousand arms grab at it and tug it in while the doors readjust themselves. We’ve witnessed bags, footwear, palms, even a toddler, getting stuck in the hurry to get inside. Each time they were helped in by the people in the compartment. Perhaps the people help so, so that the trains move on time; perhaps they are selfish, perhaps they are not; we don’t know.
We find 40-year-olds asking 30-year-olds to give up their seats for senior citizens; we see senior citizens giving up their seats for 20-year-olds with broken arms; we see women giving up their seats for kids; we find 20-year-olds doing the balancing act leaving the hand rails to more lethargic people. Often we see people taking a nap standing; fellow travellers frequently wake them up so that they don’t miss their destinations. They do so in an obviously casual manner, their nonchalance premeditated. Likely, they don’t want others to know of the soft-corners in their hearts. A Mr. Basu, aware of Mr. Chatterjee’s approaching destination, bumps into him suddenly pretending to have been thrown off-balance by the bumpy ride. Mr. Chatterjee wakes up with a jolt, and almost scowls at Mr. Basu before realizing that his station is at hand. His grumpiness gives way to relief, which Mr. Basu duly takes note of with a satisfied expression – no, no smiles here – as Mr. Chatterjee alights hurriedly.
We also find the metro stations very airy, though smelly at times. The tunnelling effect blows in air through the steps into the underground confines; how sweet it is to experience the blasts of air while getting out of the stations! The cobwebbed fans and ventilators do their best to make the commuters comfortable which often doesn’t succeed, but we don’t complain. The television sets work. Though they play the same channels which play the same songs throughout the days, they still engage large audiences. Travelling in the Calcutta metro has been a becoming affair. We hope it continues to be so in the days to come.
P.S.: In certain cases, Mr. Basu and Mr. Chatterjee might be the same person in which case their name would read as Mr. Basu Chatterjee, much like the director of Ek Ruka Hua Faisla.
Business as usual, Calcutta, 2014
Pavements, Calcutta, 2014
It’s perhaps in the fitness of things that we find ourselves at the center of a yellow Hindustan Ambassador sea, while production of the same is under suspension at Uttarpara. Those who mourn the demise of the Ambassador only need visit Calcutta to become truly happy. If lucky enough, they might even be run over by one.
Dealing with auto-rickshaws and cabs (yes, the yellow Hindustan Ambassador ones) in Calcutta is a trepid affair. If you are outside, you run the risk of being run over by them. If you are inside, you run the risk of running over someone else. Both scenarios are equally risk-fraught. However, much like other Indian miracles, local statistics don’t quite agree with probability. Though the probability of running over or being run over is quite high, it almost never happens. Drivers and pedestrians perhaps share a telepathic mode of communication that ensures accidents don’t happen.
We’d quite forgotten the cacophony that greets one in Calcutta. Out of the railway station, and before you get to the Howrah bridge, you are already deafened. Then you cross the maelstrom of the city to arrive at your destination, visibly tired and inconspicuously shaken. However, unlike Bombay, Calcutta doesn’t intimidate you. It doesn’t threaten you with dire consequences should you refuse to adjust to its workings. Or perhaps, since we understand the language and the people a bit, we are more at ease. We see the city as our own. We simultaneously sympathize with, and enjoy it.
Our routine here has been simple - take a shared auto to Ultadanga, get into another shared auto for Shobhabazaar, take the metro from Shobhabazaar to Netaji Bhavan, and walk the rest of the way. The sights, sounds, and smells on the way are astounding. People say if you want to experience India, you’ve to arrive by sea at Bombay. We think taking a train to Calcutta is better.