The most iconic landmark of this city is undoubtedly the Howrah Bridge or the Rabindra Setu, which has outlived its colonial architects by more than 70 years. This Colossus stands, spanning the two shores of the muddy waters of the Hoogly, like a piece of period furniture- much in use but in a constant struggle to fight the decrepitude that creeps up in the form of killer rust, filth and daily wear and tear .
But in its shadow pulsates another life. It almost seems like a host of lower end organisms who live their common lives dwarfed in the shadow of the Goliath that towers over them. This is the Mullick Ghat Flower market- which is no bed of roses I assure you!
The flowers that find their way to the garlands of gods and demi-gods, the bouquets for loved ones, the wreaths for the dear departed- are all sourced from this large market, which spills over from the bathing ghat which lies behind it.
An imposing structure that is crumbling notwithstanding the coat of paint, stands overlooking the ghat that is the living space of the homeless and hapless.
The accumulated waste that sits on the banks of the ghat, jostles for space as more and more garbage is washed onto shore and also disposed off right there. The scene defies all standards of hygiene and logic- standing in waist deep water unclean, credulous devotees pay obeisance to the gods to sanitise themselves of all past misdeeds!
And there are the people living on the ghat; there are the bathers- who come to the river every day or on special religious occasions; there are countless nameless faces who seem strewn over the ghat, busy doing nothing, sleeping or curiously staring at every new visitor. There are the huddlers- crouching around a cigarette that offers more than regular nicotine. There are the persistent beggars who are annoyed at the audacious miserliness of the visitors and seem tired of waiting and asking. The empty looks on these gaunt faces are also faces of my city.
Then there are the children- many pairs of little hands, feet and eyes roam the ghat selling the sacred mud from the sluggish river that flows by apathetically. Or they take a short breather before heading out to form a part of the invisible contingent of child labourers who grapple with the city that threatens to swallow them up. Do they have dreams of another life? A better life? Do they dream about themselves?
My city inducts new arrivals daily (either from the womb or from the station within arm’s reach) but falls short of any guarantees of being fair to them in any way.
The non-human presences in this vicinity are the birds- the bully Calcutta crow, the timid sparrow, and the pampered pigeons; an assortment of street dogs and puppies and a band of sly cats who move around like the secret service, rarely seen but definitely there!
But what could be the greater oxymoron than this place, when squalor and dirt cohabit with beauty and colour in the form of the millions of flowers that lend their fragrance to the stench that clings onto one’s clothes! Marigolds, lilies, lotuses, hibiscus, lilacs, orchids put up brave faces, wilting in the hot morning sun- while shopkeepers haggle vociferously over mobile phones with buyers.
And then in the middle of all this chaos, a pair of chapped rough hands walks by with a bunch of sun-kissed sunflowers and I look on mesmerized…before I am elbowed out of my reverie by this wave of moving people, bodies glistening with perspiration and faces marked with furrowed eyebrows. And I am on my way again…
So it is with the Calcutta that lives under the shadow of the song carved out in heavy metal melody. It is always on its way- flowers, people, buyers, sellers, dreams, hopes, illusions, hearts, souls- all arrive and leave, are lost and found, are trampled upon or celebrated, wilt or are revived to a second lease of life. Calcutta treats all of them with the same indifference, sharing the river’s nonchalance.
The bridge stands overlooking the hustle and bustle of the Mullick Ghat, and I wonder the tales she would have been able to narrate!
Till she speaks, I covet that position of being a self-appointed chronicler of the sights and sounds of my city- and till I venture out of myself to meet my Calcutta head on again, I wait for her call, and I know she will…she has already…