Once upon a time I was planning a trip to Kolkata from Kerala on a budget of ₹2000/- which never happened.
Its been years now and finally my plan to visit Kolkata materialized on November 2019. It indeed is an interesting Indian city. What captivated me the most was the colourful streets of Kolkata. I am on a journey to explore Kolkata. But then you need to move around in a new city to experience it. So here is my story of moving around in Kolkata.
This story takes place during Novemeber 2019, exactly during the time the cyclone bulbul decided to pass through West Bengal coast.
Kolkata metro gave me the first surprise.
Before reaching Kolkata I had no idea about the metro system in Kolkata. I had only heard about the tram service. So on my first day when my Uber motorbike rider dropped me near a metro station, I had to ask him where exactly was the metro station. I was looking out for the elevated metro line just like in Delhi or Bangalore. But I was unaware that the whole Kolkata metro line is constructed underground!
Kolkata metro is the first metro service in India which started operations in 1984. It is also the first underground metro service in India. It is currently operated by Indian railways and it is the only metro operated by Indian railways. Compared to its counterparts, Kolkata metro is super economical. The minimum fare is ₹5/- and maximum is ₹30/-
Before finally decided to get an uber ride to the metro station, I was on a look out to find a bus which was suggested by Google maps. I could see plenty of buses crisscrossing the junction at any given point of time. Exactly according to Murphy’s Universal Law, even after waiting for half an hour or more, I could find all the bus numbers except the I wanted to get in.
Even though I couldn’t get my bus, it was interesting to watch people getting on and off the buses, standing there in a busy junction. One word for that whole scene was ‘Struggle’!
It was a T intersection or rather a big junction, where two streams of traffic -mainly consisting of buses, merging into a big three lanes of road. This chaotic movement is somewhat controlled by traffic lights on both sides of the ‘T’. When the traffic light turns green on one side, the buses will pour into this bigger middle lane with the three lanes, one after the other.
The first bus which reaches there, stops closer to the designated bus stop to let people in and out. A pack of people goes in and another pack gets down, and this ‘carefully choreographed’ performance happens in a matter of 10 to 15 seconds. Those who still couldn’t make it within that time period, runs along with the moving bus to get in. Those who couldn’t make it even after running along with the bus – since bus had already picked up some speed- comes back and get ready for the same exercises in the next bus.
Those buses -which couldn’t get the designated spot as it came behind in the race to grab the first spot at the bus stop- overtakes the first place winner and goes and stops way ahead of the actual stop so that when it finishes unloading and loading of people, it can leave much before the first place winning bus or at least block its way and prevent it from going ahead and stealing other passengers on the way.
But in order to make it to this bus, the passengers have to make a sprint- from wherever they are standing to wherever the bus has finally decided to stop- before the driver decides to leave half of the passengers behind, so that he can probably get the whole pack of passengers in the next bus stop or at least win the race with the bus which is now right behind him.
When I hear the name Calcutta, it reminds me of history lessons where I learned about steam ship Calcutta and the bright yellow taxis of Calcutta. Many of the history lessons, stories and other literature painted a picture of Kolkata in my mind. These Yellow Cabs are one of the brightest pictures in that collection.
Voted as the World’s best taxi by BBC’s TopGear, Hindustan Ambassador is an icon of an era. This ‘King of Indian roads’ used to be the beloved vehicle of all politicians of India before they decided to upgrade themselves (even after Make In India campaign and such PR stunts) with more luxurious options. This is the very Ambassador that predominantly visible in most of the old Indian movies irrespective of the language.
Considered virtually non-destructible vehicle, it didn’t take much time for “Amby” to be taxi driver’s favorite due to its low maintenance, sturdiness and spaciousness. And to make things easier for the taxi drivers of Kolkata, there was an ambassador plant in Hooghly district of West Bengal, which is not too far from Kolkata. (Though the production of Ambassadors have stopped from 2014, but there are news that it is making a come back)
The line of people who wanted to procure a permit to run Yellow Ambassador taxi went long.
But that wasn’t the case anymore! With more and more new players coming in the scene such as App based taxi services, driving a yellow cab isn’t a great choice as it used to be.
The “No Refusal” signs on the taxi made me curious. Maybe they won’t refuse anymore, since they aren’t as powerful as they were used to be. Even now if they are refusing to turn on the meter or to go to a certain area in the city, the future really isn’t bright for these Bright yellow taxi service when you compare the doorstep pickup service available on App based cabs.
Just like the name Calcutta phased out, just like the yellow ambassadors are disappearing slowly, rickshaw pullers of Calcutta will also be no longer seen in the iconic visuals of this city. One can have debates on the topic if modern Kolkata needs such icons or want to be known for such visuals. But in a city like Kolkata, it will be very difficult to support one side of the story.
On a humanitarian point of view, a man belongs to a lower socioeconomic strata pulls another man or woman or a pair of them in a rickshaw who belongs to slightly higher strata is not considered appropriate anymore in this modern world . But if a government simply bans a human powered rickshaw altogether on these grounds as well as to maintain a modern and prosperous outlook of the city, that is also not right if proper steps haven’t taken for their welfare.
The country where pulled rickshaw was invented – Japan has already banned it, so is China and many other countries. In fact these pulled rickshaws were banned in Kolkata too, many times. But they are still running.
Its a tricky situation for the rickshaw walaahs I guess. People who are compassionate wouldn’t want to ride a human powered rickshaw. People who want to go far has other options. People who are in hurry have faster solutions. People who have money have their own transportation. Thus these rickshaw pullers are left with people who want to travel short distance by paying much less than other options. So at the end of the day, these rickshaw waalahs don’t make much money for their backbreaking job!
Unlike the pulled rickshaws, these cycle rickshaws don’t have any special uniqueness to claim as it is widely used in many parts of the world. But still as a natural upgraded version of the pulled rickshaw, these mode of transportation is also an important one in the Kolkatan landscape.
Then you have cycles, auto rickshaws, cars, jeep and trucks, like any other part of the world. But there is another very unique mode of transportation in Kolkata- The Trams.
It is the only tram system presently running in India. It is also the The oldest operating electric tram system in Asia. Right from 1902, it has been running. But it was quite unfortunate that I couldn’t take a tram ride while I was in Kolkata. I waited, waited more, walked towards the main terminal looking at the map, following the tram line on the road, but as an elusive mythical creature the tram stayed away from my sight.
I asked one of those local people, while waiting near the tram stop as marked on the map, “Is this where the tram stop and What time will the tram come?”.
He replied after taking a sip of cha from the typical clay cup, “Tram stops anywhere. Just flag it down. It is definitely going to come, but can’t say when. But it will definitely come.”
Realizing the condition of tram schedules and after looking at the dark sky ready to pour down anytime, I decided to make it my mission to find the tram during my next trip. Cyclone Bulbul hadn’t really left the city. I joined the ever flowing crowd and headed back to my hostel.
More Street Photographs such as the one below coming in the next post.
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Streets of Calcutta. . . . It was so much fun walking around in the streets of Kolkata and take pictures. Every corner of the street something or the other would be happening. Though it's the same almost everywhere in India. But so far i haven't seen a street magic happening all of a sudden out of nowhere, the way it happened in Kolkata. Then all of a sudden a tram would cut through all the traffic like a king. And in the whole scene, the background is lined with the grand looking, age showing Heritage buildings. Where else can you experience this in India?! . . #kolkata #Calcutta #kolkatadiaries #kolkataphotography #kolkatastreets @sokolkata @dd_kolkata @lbb.kolkata @calcuttatimes #tripotocommunity