My Journey to Kolkata

Chaitanyamoi Chetia

© Copyright 2021 by 
Chaitanyamoi Chetia

Photo by Maud Beauregard on Unsplash
Photo by Maud Beauregard on Unsplash

I am born in Dibrugarh in Assam and Assam is my home state.

I am reading my school text book in the table. One of the chapters dealt with the extinct animals and I am looking at the picture of the woolly mammoth and its long tuskers. In curiosity, I wondered, “Is it possible that an animal with long tuskers once roamed on the earth?”

I came to my father who was taking tea then, and asked him about this woolly animal and its long tuskers. Father said, “Yes, mammoth used to have long tuskers. One day, I shall take you to the Indian Museum in Kolkata. There you will see the tuskers of the mammoth enclosed in a transparent glass case.”

For many years, my father had been an approved travel agent, though he is not now. He gave up his profession as a travel agent, giving a letter to the concerned office stating about his inability to run the agency in a sorrowful mind as he has been running his agency for many years with his team: besides, during that time many clients became acquainted with him. There were also instances that some clients of Kolkata, on their arrival to Assam, confirmed their booking for their return journey from my father’s travel agency. While he was operating the agency, he used to go to Kolkata occasionally for his office works as Kolkata had been the regional office of his travel agency: besides, he knows about a few things that are at the Indian Museum.

I shall remove my self doubt about the tuskers after I shall see them in the Indian Museum,” I said to my father. I also said to him, “Where will we stay in Kolkata if we happen to go there?”

We will stay at Assam House which is in Kolkata at 8, Russell Street. Whenever I go to that place I stay at Assam House,” father said. He also said that he takes tea at a tea stall at 8, Russell Street.

A day came, and my parents took me to Kolkata. Father has had an annoying habit and he has been adhering to this habit for many years; and my mother detests it. Father takes tea frequently and at any time he asks my mother to prepare a cup of tea immediately after taking his dinner. Mother advises him to curtail it; but he does not listen to her advice. “Tea! I shall listen to your advice, don’t worry,” father used to say; it seems as if he has been addicted to it.

He does not hesitate to ask for tea wherever he goes and wherever he strolls. While strolling in Kolkata he goes to the tea stalls near the street and confines himself to sipping tea.

Father said to me, “In Kolkata, tea is served in earthen cups.”

I believed it when I saw the tourists as well as the pedestrians assembling in the tea stalls with earthen tea cups in their respective hands. Serving tea in earthen cups is an old tradition in Kolkata, and tea stalls have been clinging to the tradition of serving tea to the customers in earthen cups for years. I saw in the pavements where the tea stalls are located that people sip tea in earthen cups and having finished it, they throw it into a dustbin. Tea is a refreshing drink, and after sipping a cup of tea it rejuvenates us; and many people like it’s aroma. The earthen cups are used once and then discarded. My father said, “The taste becomes different in earth cups, the aroma of the tea as well as the earthen flavour can be felt whilst taken in an earth cup only.”

My parents took me to the Indian Museum. Entering the museum, I saw the long tuskers of the mammoth. I was surprised looking at the long tuskers. “What an enormous animal it must have been!” I exclaimed.

The diet of the mammoth was mainly grasses and sedges. Fossil mammoth ivory was previously abundant in the mediaeval times and it was frequently exported to China and Europe from Siberia. After some time I became sad looking at the long beautiful tuskers of the extinct woolly mammoth because humans were also partly responsible for their disappearances due to hunting. Humans built tents from mammoth skin and used mammoth’s bones to support the tents. Their tusks are very long as they were used for digging in the deep snow as they lived during the ice age and also for fighting. It is said that sled dogs were fed the meat from frozen mammoth carcasses that had begun to thaw out of the ice.

Then I came to the upper gallery having a collection of Egyptian antiquities. It is one of the most prized possession of the museum. With my parents I spared a little time there looking at the air-tight box containing the exhibit. How the mummy came to India from Egypt is not known. According to the digital records of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (volume 111, dated 1834), the mummy was a gift to the Asiatic Society, which founded the Indian Museum. There is a male mummy there and the mummy is believed to have come from the tombs of the kings at Gourvah in Egypt.

Kolkata is a beautiful city, and the city was built by the British Empire and was considered the capital during 1773 to 1911 during the British rule. Some say that it was the capital of British India in 1772. Kolkata is a colonial city developed by the East India Company and then by the British Empire. The city has been providing tram services since 1902. It is operated by the West Bengal Transport Corporation after Calcutta Tramways Company was dissolved: and it is the oldest operating tramway in Asia. Slow tram speed as well as the people’s perceptions that the trams are outdated and occupy too much road space, there have been occasional discussion of either to shutting down the network permanently or to lowering the operation of the system. However, the system is also considered environment friendly and an icon of Kolkata. My parents and I saw one tram approaching our side. Seeing it coming, I raised my hand as we were desirous to travel by tram: the tram paused and we all got inside it and took our seat. After all, it was a beautiful experience. There have been recent efforts to sustain the system with newer trams.

During this time, father took us to Victoria Memorial Hall. Father did one interesting thing there. For many moments he has been looking at the statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Victoria Memorial Hall, and then he asked my mother and me to stand in a particular position near the statue so that he could click a photos. He clicked and got the photos washed.

The Victoria Memorial Hall is a large marble building in Kolkata. This building is dedicated to the memory of Empress Victoria and it is one of the most famous monuments of Kolkata. King George V, the then Prince of Wales, laid the foundation stone in 1906 and this majestic British architecture was formally opened to the public in 1921. It is now a museum under the Ministry of Culture. In 1876, the British Parliament voted to grant her the additional title of the Empress of India.

Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun from Kolkata, who served the sick , dying and the destitute received the Medal of Freedom in 1985 from the US President, Ronald Reagan, and the Medal of Freedom is the highest US Civilian decoration. Mother Teresa told while receiving the award that she personally was unworthy but was accepting the honour in the name of millions of poor people in the world to whom she had been dedicating her life. Referring to Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan said, “The goodness in some hearts transcends all borders and all nationalistic considerations. Some people, some very few, are in a true sense citizens of the world.” Referring to Mother Teresa’s dedication to the poor, the president said jokingly that it would not be surprising if she melted down the medal of gold and silver alloy to try to turn it into something to help the poor. Her order of the Missionaries of Charity has spread throughout the world, serving the poorest of the poor. Besides, Mother Teresa also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her charitable work. Mother Teresa’s resting place is in Kolkata.

Rabindranath Tagore was born in Kolkata and he was the first Asian Nobel Laureate. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his book, Gitanjali. He was one of the most celebrated poets of the world. He wrote the national anthem of India – Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya he.

Rabindranath Tagore was also a novelist, dramatist, story-writer, social reformer painter and many more. “He is widely read in Russia. In 1917 several Russian translations of Gitanjali (one edited by Ivan Bunin, later the first Russian Nobel Laureate in literature) were available, and by the late 1920s many of the English versions of his work had been rendered into Russian by several distinguished translators,…Boris Pasternak translated him in the 1950s and 1960s” (Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian. Penguin books, 2005, p. 112).

Kolkata is also a place where hand pulled rickshaws ply on the narrow alleys and streets of Kolkata. It is said that it was first introduced in Simla and then in Kolkata. Over the years, human rights groups and governing authorities have tried to eliminate the use of hand pulled rickshaws which some see as a degrading colonial anarchism. Local authorities banned the vehicle in 2006 and have stopped issuing or renewing licenses. Many rickshaw pullers are migrants from the neighbouring state of Bihar. They come here looking for work, leaving their families behind in the villages. The government of West Bengal (Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal) described the jobs of the rickshaw pullers as ‘barbaric, despicable and inhuman'. But the city’s residents disagree. These rickshaws carry packages in the old part of the city where taxis, cars and auto rickshaws do not move due to dirty and stagnant water logging in the thick of monsoon. Once, the mayor of the city said, “Though for many, it is regressive to see a person pulling other people, but it is true that hand pulled rickshaw is not only a means of transport but it has become a part of the city life and cultural heritage. Hand pulled rickshaws not only give bread to many people but also one of the identity of the city. We cannot ruin the tradition of Kolkata.”

Most of the clientele of the hand pulled rickshaws are local residents as well as school and college students and aged men. I heard one pedestrian saying to a man of his age, “I never board a hand pulled rickshaw. It is a pity to see a barefooted man carrying another in the heat and in the rain. l feel uneasy watching one man pulling and another man sitting comfortably.”

Kolkata is also known as the 'City of Joy.’ The hand pulled rickshaws are surviving due to a number of socioeconomic reasons. Firstly, pulling a rickshaw does not require skills; it requires physical labour. Unemployed and unskilled labourers find employment as rickshaw pullers in Kolkata. Most rickshaw pullers do not know the name of the streets as they ply their trade, nor do they understand the various traffic signals. Secondly, urban planning has also played a part in their continuance of this mode of transportation. Due to poor drainages, streets in the low lying areas get flooded frequently. During heavy monsoon, the hand pulled rickshaws are the only mode of transportation which can navigate flooded street. It is less expensive and non polluting; and its compact size allows easy ride through the narrow lanes of Kolkata. They stand as a socioeconomic contrast to the modern infrastructure of skyscrappers and flyovers. In 1919, the Hackney Carriage Act was passed by the British allowing hand pulled rickshaws to be hired as a passenger transport vehicle in Kolkata. Post World War II, colonialism declined in Asia and the hand pulled rickshaws faded out of use from erstwhile British colonies. Strangely, the legacy of hand pulled rickshaws continued in the city of joy, i.e., Kolkata and it has become an icon of the metropolis.

Kolkata is the first city in India to offer underground metro services. I like the place for its affordability. During our stay there, my parents and I strolled from 8, Russell Street to other road and we came across a few book sellers displaying books in the footpath. Books are cheap there, and the sellers are ready to give discounts. I purchased a Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (Printed and bound in India by Thomson Press India Ltd. Printing History. Bantam edition published 1995 with introduction by Carl Sagan and by Ron Miller).

The price of the book is rupees 399. I said to the seller, “I shall pay you rupees 150.” The seller assented and I bought it. Though I did not read then, it lay near my pillow during our stay at Assam House in Kolkata. Purchasing that famous book with my parents in Kolkata shall always remain an important moment in my life. Reaching 8, Russell Street, and entering our room I immediately wrote the purchasing date and time in the front page of the book. “A beautiful book I purchased,” I said to my parents.

Western influence is dominant in many of Kolkata’s architectural monuments. The dominant language is Bengali. The elocution of the Bengali speech spoken there is sweeter to listen to. The density of population is absolutely high. A number of national government institutions, viz. the National Library, the Indian Museum, and the Geographical Survey of India are in the city. Many of the city’s residents live in some of the worst conditions. The city’s former name was Calcutta. It is an Anglicized version of the Bengali name Kalikata. In 2001, the government of West Bengal officially changed the name of the city to Kolkata.

After three days’ stay my parents and I returned to my home state with a mixed feeling. I came to my reading table and again started reading my school text about the extinct animals

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