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.


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.