What would a week of weekends be like? Would we like it? We started out with a destination in mind and headed out to the area taking a bus or tram till maybe halfway, and then walking the rest, getting a ‘feel’ of the place.
Apart from walking, we also took a ferry on the way.
The trams were a unique experience in themselves – mainly because of their age. Newer trams (as the ones we have boarded in Amsterdam or Dresden or the other places in Europe) feel just like buses on rails – all neat and clean, but sadly no thudding along, large windows, air cooled, no old layers of peeling stickers on the walls of the trams and so on. Sometimes, it is nice to step into something old, and see, for example, stenciled text asking you to “Please tender exact change. No 5 or 10 Rupee notes will be entertained” instead of a LED display board with text streaking past. This text has stood still and has captured indirectly the fare for a ticket in the past – when 10 rupee notes were considered “big currency”. Immediately, the mind wanders to search for a place where the date of manufacture would be painted or embossed in. Maybe on a metallic plate screwed to the walls? Apart from the signage, there were these huge fans which were quite a sight in themselves alongwith a naked light bulb hanging around.
We also took several of the local buses to get around the city. Most of them were “BS3” compliant. BS3 is Bharat Stage 3, which is an emission norm comparable to EU2 (European emission norms for vehicles). That was probably the most inflated thing in Kolkata. These buses were proudly called “Volga” in an optimistic imitation of the Volvo buses.
The drivers of these buses were called “pilots” and it had everything to do with they way they
flew drove their buses. Check out the word pilot scribbled on the bus next to ours seen through the window.
The buses had wooden seats and wooden shutters as windows and of course rattled a lot. But, somehow, they felt nice and even cosy. A ride in these buses reminded me of the common joke one hears in India about buses:
The scene: An old, tatterred bus waiting at the bus stop. The driver is having tea while a passenger carries his bag and walks up to the driver and asks:
Passenger: When does this garbage van leave?
Driver (after sipping his tea): As soon as the rubbish has piled in.
We always take public transport wherever we go, and buses offer a glimpse to almost the entire section of people of that particular city. In this ride, we saw a couple of bengali people chewing paan (betel leaf) and gutkha – including a girl who was literally storming her way through a packet of ‘Tulsi Gutkha’ and painting the town red by spitting through the window. A less fortunate(?) bhadrolok (gentleman in Bengali) was equally indulgent in his efforts of chewing this intoxicating concoction, but he had no seat and was jam packed in the aisle with people all around him. The poor fellow, unless he enjoyed being marinated in his own gutkha juice, had collected a mouthful of the same and had no place to spit it out! Of course, that’s when the bus conductor came to him and asked him where to go. To open his mouth would have meant a deluge for half of Kolkata, and the conductor, probably trained by habit, understood quickly. The conductor proceeded with a rapid fire round of questions, asking him names of destinations and where our gentleman wanted to get down. As soon as the conductor was close to the destination, our bhadrolok looked towards the bus’s ceiling and gargled a ‘hmm!’..!!! Hilarious! Job done.
Buses were very frequent on the main routes, although we had to tune our ears to understand which destinations the various conductors were screaming out. There were atleast 3-4 conductors within earshot and of course there was the background noise you always have in India. As we travelled more in the buses, we saw that the people were friendly, the left row of seats were reserved for ladies (in most cases) and if ‘gents’ were sitting in these seats, they did get up and vacate the seats. Nice. Bangalore, are you listening? We also saw that people who wanted to get down promptly went towards the rear of the bus and there were even queues of people waiting to catch buses at the stop! A queue where none is enforced, is one very welcome sight anywhere!
As if Kolkata does not feel relaxed enough at times, if you want an even relaxed way of travelling, you may take a ferry across the river. We took one, which was called “Calcutta” and it proceeded along slowly, with people hanging on the deck, and old songs blaring out on a speaker.
We caught view of the old Howrah Bridge and went under it and the hundreds of people and vehicles passing over it.
The Hooghly river acts as a main highway for a lot of people as well. We could see several small boats crossing and going down the stretch of the river.
All in all, a good day spent walking through different areas of the city, watching people and discussing stuff, while we hopped across Kolkata’s public transport and eventually made it to where we wanted to go.