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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A tourist in my own country?

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Her sari was bright, like a few jumbled prints.He sister’s sari was brighter with stripes of printed juxtaposition. The child’s clothes were not left, they were equally demanding in visual attention.

They stood like a monument at side of the dusty Odisha village road, attempting to cross their road overtaken by the city traffic moving outwards at the beginning of the Christmas weekend.

“Perhaps this is what tourists think about when they think about India.” I thought.

This bold combination worn by simple village ladies is actually called “Kitsch” and has fattened the wallets of many Indian and foreign designers. It is remarkable how the scenary changes every few kilometers in India. 100 kms back, I was in Calcutta and the colours were muted and the skins were darker.

Then we moved west and the bright saris and bright homes dotted all alongside the periphery. Its a big indicator of the community of the towns and villages of India. While modern cities mainly look like cousins or replicas of each other, its the small town which preserves the communal heritage, language, script and customs.

And we city people, are but tourists in our own country!

 

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.

 

 

 

Strolling through the Lonavala market

After having lived in tourist destinations for some years, I had long written off the idea of visiting another tourist destination nearby but eventually made a trip. It’s called Lonavala and it is around 2 hours drive from Mumbai. It’s a much favored spot for domestic tourists seeking respite in the hills from the neighboring cities of Bombay and Pune.

Lonavala has positioned itself as a Chikki destination. The market centre (not longer than 500 meters on road) is lined with shops selling Chikki on either side. Chikki is a hard sugar candy, generally in block forms. Peanuts, dry fruits and sesame are added to make different variations. Some enterprising shops have created figs based rolls, but we preferred the chocolate and strawberry fudge.

I wouldn’t go into the accommodation aspects, because we didn’t eventually stay here, but there are many little hotels and resorts along the road. A Mc Donald and KFC have also set up shop a little further from the market predominantly for tourists.

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A Samosa ( potato filled local savory, usually had at teatime) lined for frying.

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The band setup and “bandwallahs” for a marriage party procession. The bride groom will be riding that horse which you can see in the background.

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A sadhu crossing the city centre. We don’t get many such sights in cities.

Tourism being the chief occupation of the locals, you’ll find many tours being provided to sight see nearby places. This was off season time. The best time to visit is during the monsoons as rivulets of water run over the hillocks dotting the scene with mini waterfalls.

I’ll write next about Karla, the place nearby, where we actually decided to stay.