Living on the banks of a Legendary River

 

“It’s a Nullah (Indian for a traditional canal ).” People would warn us as we shortlisted a place to stay in Calcutta, about the tiny water body running alongside the house.

“Terrible smell from it on certain days”, we were told.

Considering it a temporary arrangement, we went ahead to begin unpacking.

Disregarding the stench, sometimes overpowering enough to close the doors, gradually the place grew on us. The Pipal tree would give refreshing air night and day. The mango tree would be abuzz with butterflies and birds. A hot favourite was the Red Silk Cotton tree (bombax malabaricum) which was conveniently located right behind the house and viewed from all back rooms. The squirrels would scamper on it all day. Spring would bring red flowers and birds of all colours; the yellow canary, flaming orange woodpeckers, Black Asian cuckoo bird and many more. There was one incident where we even spotted a family of Civets, confirmed by the fact when one of their members, smelling food on the table, made way right into our home and was chased by the cat.

In the afternoons, the loud drilling of a boat at the boat factory across the shore (if I can call it that.)  The late evenings, sometimes one can hear the horn of a patrol boat.

I was told this was the Tolly’s Nullah. During the British colonization of India, a gentleman called Tolly got the area cleared up of silt at his own expense  in the late 1700s. He has the nullah and a prominent colony to his name.

I might have forgotten about this back area, had it not been while reading Swami Vivekanand’s  memoirs (year 1899) that I chanced upon the mention of Tolley nullah again. He spoke about how the Holy Ganges was divided into “Hooghly” and “Padma” river before they deposited into the mouth of the bay of Bengal. He mentioned that “…the present “Tolley’s Nullah” represents the ancient course of the Ganges, and is known as the Adi ganga.” He also mentioned that foreign trade was carried out through a port called Triveni ( modern day Tribeni ) near the port city of “Saptagram”, on the river Saraswati. Triveni was the diverging point of three rivers during that ancient time, the Ganges, the Saraswati and the Yamuna.  It’s also known as Muktaveni to distinguish it from Allahabad Triveni.  Over time, the mouth of the rivers got silted. He further described how the gradual silting of the river course, led conquest forces to shift the port further and further. He also described how ships sank in a matter of minutes without a trace while trying to navigate these silted rivers. This is all estimated to have occurred over a time period of 400 -500 years from now.

At this point I mused how scholars are essential to our understanding of history and ourselves as a human race. Scholars such as Vivekananda provide a bridge between the present and the ancient times. So different from today’s scholars who selectively search and are given strict assignments. Swami Vivekanand mentions living in “modern times”, which of course from the future point of view, is history.

Coming back to the present times, Adi Ganga today is a forgotten mess. After it breaks away from the main Hooghly river, settlements over its banks, encroaching its soil with concrete homes of a few million plus. It traverses the side of Taj Bengal, but before that it accumulates all the waste and filth from Kidderpore market, and human and animal excreta from the poor living on its sides in Orphangunj. When we will stop mistreating the natural resources our country has been so abundantly endowed with? Wonder whether this silk cotton tree and its birds would remain part of the ecosystem in another 100 years or be gulped down by the insatiable human greed of land and forces of politics.

It also connects the city into two parts, one the side with Victoria memorial and the ultra rich Alipore, where once Warren Hastings had a sprawling estate, which is now a national library. The two were connected by the Zeerut bridge sometime in the British era.

There is another historical fact associated with this area. Less than an hour away from Tribeni and right on top of these ancient fertile banks, is the village of Singur. If you are wondering where you have heard about it, it is the place where the Tatas in connivance of the state government and under aegis of an archaic 1894 act, planned to set up a car factory for the world’s cheapest car called Nano, in 2007. An activist then stood up for the river, the fertile land and the people it supported and didn’t allow the plan to succeed. The rich man lost and was forced to shift the factory to the west part of the country. This activist is today the chief minister of West Bengal. Her name is Mamta Banerjee.

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Five secrets of an Urban Indian experience.

Most of my friends in India belong to India. Ironically, most of my social media friends belong to anywhere but India. Portrayal of India in foreign magazines and media sometimes makes the average urban Indian dweller like me giggle. Our generation, the third gen after Lord Macaulay’s 19th c. reforms of Anglicized education “making people Brown in color, but English in thought ” has living example in urban Indians even today. (Our education system hasn’t changed much since the British left 60 yrs back….)

So, don’t ask me if I have ever ridden an Elephant, because that is as exotic to me. Nor have I seen a snake charmer in 40 years. So, if you still want to know about modern India and not the stereotypes, I insist you read below.

Here are five things urban Indians (xenials mostly) enjoy doing:

Try out various cuisines

There was a time when India had few restaurants for multi cuisine. Cuisine was limited to Indian and its many regional sub cuisines. Then were the Chinese dishes; suitably localized with funny sounding names, followed with Pizza and then finally the Pasta. Its only in the last 10 years or so and mainly after Masterchef, that we are beginning to explore other cuisine; the raviollis, entrees and the chocolate mousses.

Watch English movies with subtitles

No matter how much anglicized some of us Indians might claim to be, it’s an open secret that we understand the English movies better with English subtitles! An American or Australian accent is just as foreign to us as some of our other regional languages. I don’t know who was the genius who first thought about having subtitles, but it’s always a packed hall in cinemas when it is.

Watch runs /reruns of friends, big bang theory, scandal, greys anatomy…etc.

While we are watching the movies, we are also catching up on entire series of soap operas that the world has seen and is done with. I remember watching “the old fox” and “didi’s comedy show” in the 90’s. Come 2000’s the entire book of cable tv soaps opened up. Sometimes 3-4 seasons of a single soap are broadcast one after another.

Give somebody a “missed call” to save money on telecom

Whats the height of miserliness? To call someone on their cellphone. Let the phone ring once and then quietly disconnect before it is answered. Before Whatsapp made our lives  connected and even before we had telcom wars vieing for our attention; we had few telcom suppliers for mobile services. Cashing on to first mover advantage and a naive market, they had exorbitant rates per minute of calls. To get around this, we devised an informal model using the “missed call” message service. Works also when you need to call someone you don’t want to speak and justify…”but …I did give you a missed call.”

Send each other Good morning messages on WhatsApp

Late night TV and smart devices have stretched our bedtime much past the culturally accepted time. So there are many smart alecs who like to rub it in by sending floral image heavy Whatsapp messages with cute quotations at daybreak. Apparently, google servers are known to crash during the morning time in India. Hopefully by now, they have sorted this out.

 

The Goddess and her temporary shelter

Goddess Durga is worshiped in Calcutta. Just like Ganpati is said to descend during its Festival in Maharastha, Goddess Durga is said to descend onto Earth during this time. Months of preparation goes into  conceptualizing these temporary shelters for the Goddess, known as the pandal. A pandal “hopping” in early hours of morning helped me get these pictures above. These structures are a fascinating treat to the eyes.

A more critical analysis is given on my other blog, Pursuit of Imagination, as the post titled ” Five lessons in Installation Art 101 with Puja Pandal Hopping

Calcutta on a chariot

Today is Rath Yatra. As an Indian, its tough keeping track of all our festivals. There seems to be one every single day.

A very cute deity picture appeared in the local daily as an advertisement and that is what informed us, the outsiders, of the event.

It is surprising how many such events a single city can have. Marketers opportunity indeed! Apart from a handful (a million?) of the population, there is not much involvement of the middle and above middle classes in these events, unless ofcourse there is some political affiliation.

Bengalis seem to like two things, one is things to eat and the other is intellectual pursuits. It is ironical however that a place which gives the world so much talent, itself hasn’t grown with the rest of the world.

Reading an eighth grade textbook with a neighbor’s kid enlightened me to some historic facts. Amid many yawns that history textbooks bring, it was almost like a modern day thriller.

In short here is what happened:

1500s: Europe wanted cinnamon for their bread. and silks. They form trading companies and set asea. They find Bengal, a treasure trove of natural resources, gold and silks.

1600s: they establish east India trading companies, after bowing a part of the profits to their queen.

1700s: last of mughal rulers died. British companies look at the divided princely states and start their policy of quietly  annexing states one by one. They promise to protect one ruler of a princely state from another, however, they annex one state after another.

1800s: Industrialization begins and Europeans want coal for their trains and markets for their “manufactured” goods. They kill the self sufficient cottage industry of Bengal and start sending in imported “manufactured” goods to the natives. An age of plundering and corruption begins. They take the 16 year old son of the last ruler, give him passage to the royal family in Britain along with a British military doctor, as his guardian. Shrewdly they get the young king to pass over the family jewels to the crown. The Kohinoor diamond included.

1900s: world wars happen. Britain transfers debt of war to India and exits.

2000s: Neo colonials, unscrupulous traders and political machinery still carries forward the legacy of loot and corruption.( I need to stop here, otherwise they put people in jail)

People tend to turn a blind eye (?) and carry on work as if nothing happened. Education machinery works overtime and kids are brought up to be prepared to be “educated” and mostly they leave the state.

Then some religious event happens and all unite to celebrate the forgotten prosperity and good times. Of some 400 years before.

The Rath yatra today, celebrates an event of 625 years before.

 

 

Park Circus to Chetla market

Kolkata sleeps early. So when by chance I met a certain gentleman (whom the local newspaper later reported was a Mr. Poddar) at around 9.00 pm somewhere on the street, we were intrigued by his car.

“It’s a custom made car….” He said. The vehicle was a twin seater with huge wheels resembling a Go-karting sportster. We were amazed at the unusual vehicle. What we didn’t know that he was probably just returning from an exhibition of these jet setting beauties at a prominent mall.

Fast forward to Chetla market. Nestled at the backside of the outrageously priced Alipore Road is this humble settlement on both sides of the road. Gracious local shopkeepers invited me to view their merchandise.

“No, I’m not interested in the fishing nets, but can I stand here and wait for my cab?” They seemed surprisingly courteous.

The road was lined with buses. Tomorrow is Election Day. Cars are moving at snail’s pace. Its takes us 45 minutes to cross a 2 km stretch. Somewhere in a building nearby, a supervisor seems to be giving instructions to party workers in Bengali. A hand cart vendor tries to negotiate the road. A pedestrian tries his luck as well in an attempt to board his bus. Among this chaos, a premium styled Jaguar is also stuck with the same fate. With traffic, it equalizes the rich and the poor. No one furthers faster.

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Kolkata calling.

Elections were on in Kolkata. The city branded itself in Blue and White. The railings were blue and white, the LED covering itself on its quaint old world lamps was also the same colour. Some random thoughts follow.

Too much traffic. Its like Bombay , but moving in slow motion.

Too many traffic rules. Too many one way restrictions.

Fresher air than Mumbai. More trees. More birds.

Too hot and humid. Again combine Bombay and Delhi weather at its worst…or maybe its the dry spell.

Beautiful old world buildings. Same issue as Mumbai, neglected and covered with telephone wires.

Parks. Schools. A city that studies.

Stark Rich Poor Divide.

Poverty. Saw a beggar woman licking an empty bowl of curd.

Better lighting than Mumbai/Delhi for historic monuments.

Sleeps at ten.