Kolkata is a city of contradictions. A city where the local bus conductors scream ‘aste ladij’ (slow there is a lady) when a lady tries to get off the bus; it is also a city where men fall on women in those very buses pretending it was an accident.
“I remember this one man who was standing behind me on the bus. He was very sweaty and smelled like a pig. When the driver applied the brake, he had to fall all over me and then did not have the courtesy of correcting himself. I had to shout at him to get him off me,” says Trishna, a college student.
“It was hilarious actually…it’s like he didn’t expect me to react. He seemed so frightened when I shouted at him.”
As more people from other states come to live in the city of joy, they find it hard to communicate with the locals. “Some people are nice though. When I tell them ‘ami bangla jani na’ (I don’t know Bengali) in my accented almost-Bengali, they smile and speak to me in Hindi. Some even try English.”
Roshni Sharma, a local who takes the bus from Dum Dum to South City every day, has a different story to tell. “I find these bus rides fun. I come via the by-pass…the lakes along the way and the breeze is very refreshing, especially early in the morning. I have made friends with the conductor. He keeps a seat for me behind the driver’s every day. He sometimes yaps about his kids and how the older one (a boy of seven) asked him what ‘bara’ meant and he was left open-mouthed, unable to answer.”
Roshni is best pals with the auto drivers and comments on how everyone is very approachable. “Bengalis are a peculiar breed. They can talk on almost every topic in the world and they have an opinion ready even if it’s on the US elections,” she laughs as she sips on her coffee in the Indian coffee house on ‘Boi Para’ commonly known as College Street to the non-Bengali resident.
Dilip, described by all as a ‘bhalo chele’ (good boy), complains about the city’s traffic and the concept of share autos. “The traffic is horrendous…especially during Durga puja. You should see how the drivers drive at that time of year. Everybody is in a hurry to go. Once the signal turns green, you can see the cars race as if they are racing for their lives. And I don’t understand why we have to share autos with noisy people. Why can’t I have an auto to myself and stretch my leg?”
Kolkata witnesses a constant fight between the pedestrians and the drivers. In places like Gariahat and New Market, one can see middle aged women adorned with more shopping bags than they can handle, break all traffic rules and cross the street with admirable confidence when the signal is bright green. They seem oblivious about the screams and insults thrown at them. After all, it’s their ‘baaper rasta’ (father’s road).
An elderly lady who had broken one of the many fundamental rules of crossing the road when the signal was green, had almost come under a yellow taxi. In the argument that followed, I heard her scream at the driver, “arrey dada ami pedestrian…ami age jabo. Apni dekhe chalate paren na?” (Brother I am a pedestrian…I am entitled to cross first. Can’t you look and drive?)
The metro in Kolkata tells a very different tale. Those who swear by it, say that it saves them from the hassles of the road but at the same time present a very stuffy situation every now and then.
Sayantan, a student who takes the metro from Kabi Subhas to Park Street on a daily basis says, “The conversations you get to hear on the metro are hilarious. Since there is no ladies compartment, even the men get to listen into the darkest secrets of a woman. How bad her mother-in-law is and how the mutton curry cooked by the maid had no potatoes in it, are some of the many things you get to hear.”
“Once a man accused a lady of molesting him in the metro. The poor girl had fallen on him when the train braked and he seemed very upset by that. The conversation that followed got everyone in the compartment laughing. It was a good way to start the morning.”
When you think Kolkata, you immediately picture the tram. A foreign exchange student in my ex-college was very thrilled by the prospect of getting on the tram. He begged me to take him on one. Despite my repeated warnings that that mode of transport was nearing extinction, he was adamant about his decision of getting on one.
“I need to tell my folks back at home that I rode a tram…it is going to make them jealous,” he said.
He was left visibly disappointed after the experience. The heat was too much to handle and to top it all, the turtle like pace got on his nerves. After all, the glamour of the tram does diminish after one has spent ten sweaty and slow minutes on it…especially on a hot May day.
Some of my fondest memories of the city are that of the boat rides along the Ganga. You would remember it with equal fondness if you can manage to catch the sun rise or set while on a boat with Bhatiali music (music of the fishermen) playing in the background.
If you are a selfie freak, then a boat with the Howrah Bridge in the back drop provides the perfect selfie moment. A walk along the ghat in the evenings is equally mesmerizing. One can feel the wind on their face and hear the sound of the goods ship entering the dock.
Kolkata in monsoons is much like Paris in the rains. There is something so romantic about it. Just get an umbrella and Bata chappals on and you are good to go. The smell of the earth just before rains is more noticeable in this city for some reason. If you walk down Park Street and Maidan during that time of year, you notice how the green trees become even greener and the ancient buildings donated to the city by the British start to sparkle.
If you happen to be in Park Street at 1 pm, you realize how proficient the Kolkata traffic police is at their job. The direction of the one way, switches at one o’clock and miraculously, there are hardly any traffic jams.
I find travelling in Kolkata oddly amusing and it makes for some great stories at the end of the day when I am back in the comfort of my bean bag and laptop.