From Tollygunge with consternation

The great city of Kolkata is in a free fall. But has it reached the bottom yet? 

Kolkata, like no other Indian city, gives you the impression the moment before was always better than the moment after.

Early morning, Saturday,  a cool breeze lifted off the Hooghly, and filled a plastic bag off the road, and blew it against the cracked windshield of Bus 228. The driver waved his hand at it like a wand and it vanished. And now you could see the ravages all around well. I got off at Tollygunge, a case in point.

Tollygunge is named after a British colonel, William Tolly, in 1770s, because he tried, to clean up and widen Adi Ganga, a canal that flows by the area, and connect Kolkata to the hinterlands of Bengal.  Or some such notion that gives purpose to the life of a homesick stranger in a foreign land, whose nostalgia must have to do with the English weather and the cleanliness that he associated with his orderly civilization.

In essence, the West is a superior sanitary notion of history.  And the man who drove the British away, Mahatma Gandhi, brought his own indigenous sanitary obsessions into play, which proved more appealing to us if only because, being indigenous, we could perhaps eventually whittle and wear it down until it became the opposite of cleanliness, discipline, health and even beauty. For the natives, it is always easier to take down what they built up with their own hands.

This is a favorite trick of ours: to accept something as an ideal, and dig it up from within and even behind it, so it can be turned inside out, so the shell is there and the substance gone, thank god. This way we both have it and, even better, don’t. We believe in Maya, remember.  The Adi Ganga is now a sewer canal and is choked with plastic and waste — and William Tolly is much dead.


I got off the bus and, uncertain, lingered for a while under a loud signboard that said, ‘Always Private Detective Agency’. It had not yet opened. All my life, I had wanted to hire a private agency just to keep a tab on myself. I resisted the temptation, and wandered off the main road called Desi Pran Samsal (a great freedom fighter whom I had not heard of ), and found myself on the narrow Charu Street lined by the shabby, peeling row of yellow houses packed tight like matches in a box, and where a three-story block looked like a skyscraper. Most house walls carried their address as Charu Place and once, in the distant past, when the street set out, it must have been an aspirational place.

All houses had iron grillwork. All of it was now uniformly a dull brown with dust. The balconies were festooned with washing: a brief or a pair of torn trousers might be just as well a house’s flag. Republica Domestica.

I followed the street to the even more run-down Tollygunge station where three passengers and one sex worker were being served a breakfast of spiced potatoes on small dry leaves from a cycle. The man who was selling the potatoes said Calcutta was going down the hole, it was Adi Ganga everywhere. He said it cheerfully as if it was a happy outcome of his hard work. The sex worker hawked and spat expertly onto the tracks. She did not much care for the opinions of the potato seller.

I waited for a train to pass for half an hour so I could recall a particular feeling attached to a memory from the kindergarten years, perhaps around the time Charu Place must have been happening. I could be wrong. Maybe nothing happened here; it was always this way: a tragedy that would not be a disaster. A goods train came along, and the guard waved at us a green flag from the platform of his cabin. The sex worker spat again.

When I came back to the main road, the Always Private Detective agency was open, but I did not feel like stepping in now that the day was looking as if it was spotted with turmeric in the winter sun. A good time to walk, I thought.

Somewhere further along the road, I waved down a yellow Ambassador car from another millennium and asked the driver to take me to Howrah bridge. He said his was a No Refusal car, and that that was why he would take me there, though it was too far for an Ambassador, he said.

We discussed politics in the car, and he sounded like The Telegraph when he said Mamata Banerjee was the Prime Minister of West Bengal, and soon she would be Kolkata’s chief minister for India. Only hours before there had been a mass exodus of MLAs from the Congress to Trinamool Congress. It was wise to agree with him.

As it happened, he lost his bearings while talking and we reached Koyna Expressway Toll Plaza. It was impossible, he said. The car was making noises, too, as if a spanner was getting thrown around in the engine works. We thanked each other profusely.

I crossed the road, took a three-wheeler. Where do you want to go, the driver asked. I would like to catch the ferry, I said. We went a long way, past GT Road, which at one point reeked so much with cheap perfume that I had to turn my face the other way, and past Foreshore Road, with the air cooler and more bracing from the closest river breeze. At the jetty, a launch was waiting,  and I crossed the river with the Howrah bridge to my left and it was easy to see what made the British love Kolkata. The noblest buildings in the city still belong to the invaders, as they are in Bombay and Delhi.

The Baboo Ghat wharf decayed even as you watched it. It was like stepping on a corpse. It must have all been perfect at one time. Kolkata, like no other Indian city, gives you the impression the moment before was always better than the moment after. She guarantees deterioration at every step of the Strand Road, choking with vendors and traffic, the whole place asphyxiating slowly in inextricable cable knots.

I took another cab back to my room, and the young driver spoke on the phone to his girlfriend about life and the beautiful things he would like to do with her if and when they met, and the girl cried for love, and he turned and said as if in explanation, “She is in Patna.’

As we passed Eden Maidan, a stretch of chaos-free green, built, again, by the British,  the driver stopped the car by the side and pointed out to me a black stallion in the distance, galloping through the trees.

(CP Surendran’s novel One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B (Niyogi Books) is out on Amazon and at all leading bookstores)

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