Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guwahati and Kolkata

Guwahati remains a man-child of a city, unsure of its direction.  There are flyovers and malls, the usual symbols of urban development; but there is also a gentle “Malgudi days” feel to the airport.  Roadside stalls sit on bamboo stilts by the airport road, and billboards advertising 3G wireless are installed in the middle of green cultivated fields.  I wake up in the morning at home with a rooster crowing, a hen running around in the backyard, and my laptop registering a number of wifi spots within a scanner’s throw. 

 One day I am given a little plastic bag with some mail and papers in it.  Someone wishes to find a long lost brother who had disappeared in the United States in 1980. Could I try to track him down?  The bag contained correspondence they had received from the brother, or letters that were addressed to him at his parent’s address. There was one, written in the conservative style of the times, to his father and his sister in 1968.  The well-preserved aerogramme showed the sender’s address: H. Roy, 1869 Monroe Street, Madison, Wisc 53711.  There was a more recent letter and booklet from Strathclyde University in Glasgow to his parents’ home, soliciting alumni donations.  The booklet’ creamy pages had campus photographs that painted a place for serious study and fun.  These letters, speaking of Monroe Street and Glasgow, appearing deliciously temperate on a hot and humid summer afternoon, seemed incongruous in this Guwahati house where the business of living goes about with the bright sounds of an Indian city and a road out of the house leads to a nearby busy flyover.  Hemendra K. Mitra Roy finished his bachelors in engineering from Bengal Engineering College in 1965, and went on for higher studies to Strathclyde and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At some point in the 70s he moved to San Jose and started calling himself H. Mitra.  And then, in 1980, he ceased contact with his family abruptly and the trail ran cold.  His sister has been looking for him since, caring enough even after 32 years to carefully retain these mementos.

It starts raining the morning that I will leave.  The intense humidity, the heat, the forces of nature here are so distilled that everything is alive and green and wet and slimy.  Tree barks and walls are coated with algae: blackish, brackish, moist, slippery undulated films with varying textures from rough to rubbery to gel.  In this drizzling rain I speak with a neighbor, he standing across the low boundary wall of our backyard, protected from the rain by the leaves of a tambul tree; I sitting on the steps of a wet concrete porch glazed by the streaming water.  We speak across a small patch of greenery and wet earth,  with a bush bearing bright orange rongon (Ixora Cocchinea) flowers in the middle.

Guwahati University is a sprawling linear campus lining the road leading to the
airport.  Dignified single storey Assam style wood framed homes serve as faculty housing.  A rickety gate and dirt path leads to the front porch, where there may be a man sitting on a wicker chair.  The front of the porch will have a few flowering plants tended to by the lady of the house.  At the back there may be a few gamosas (towels) hanging.  It reminds of a gentler time from the past.  Department buildings  line both sides of the road. There is the general air of dignified dilapidation that buildings in hot tropical climates have.

Kolkata airport has a new, enormous domestic terminal.  With giant sheets of glass, glistening mosaic floors that scream for a statesman’s footsteps, and a curved metal framed front, it looks like the way emerging airports are supposed to look in Asia.  It makes Kolkata appear to be just one more modern Indian city.  An artistic rendering of Bengali letterwork on the ceiling attempts at a feeble differentiation, but the airport does not capture the soul of this city.  Some of the construction appears questionable: when the rains fell some of the glass panes shattered.  There are many baggage carousels to chose from and a number of doors through which one can exit the airport.  This poses a probabilistic problem for passenger pickup.  The size of the airport can be intimidating.  I am not the only befuddled guy standing there in this vast space. I see other passengers speaking in deferential whispers not quite sure of their bearings.  They see a door and wonder whether this will get them out, or lead them into another unmarked cavernous space.  A famous scientist once said that our knowledge represents but a grain of sand on a vast beach.  Satyen Bose might have compared our humble wisdom to the size of a passenger in Kolkata’s new domestic terminal.

In the one day that I have in Kolkata, I criss-cross the city in a hired car.  Traffic flows better compared to my last visit and rules are enforced rigorously. Traffic light mounted cameras detect those who jump lights and the violation notice is sent by mail. “Bujhlen, man’ey ektukhani Paan thekey chun ghoslei ticket pathiye debey”—they give you a ticket as soon as the lime slips off the betel leaf by a hair. 

India has evolved a new metropolitan species among its population, and the airport is their watering hole.  It is the sports coat and jeans clad Indian man.  Some of them have watches with enormous dials on their wrists.  If they are not bald, they mostly have jet-black hair, regardless of age. They can speak with eloquence and can be imperious and dismissive if the mores of their hierarchy require such behavior.  They have perfected both the art of the firm handshake and the distancing, limp variant that they grant to a solicitor while they pretend to look away.  They are well read. Many of them appear to look heavily pregnant.  When they alight from the aircraft they immediately hold their smart phones up, scroll for email, and then bark into it.  They are as if ina game of “Red Light Blue Light”, unleashing their mobiles and setting a world, frozen while they were airborne, into a flurry of sudden instant motion.  This species originated in the more commercially successful metros of India, but they are a common sight in Kolkata today.  Occasionally some of them may even wander as far East as Guwahati and I understand that Guwahati is building its first five star hotel to house them in their natural habitat.  It is expected to be a less of a struggle compared to protecting the rhinos.

In Ultadanga we drive by a new flyover where an entire section of the flyover has collapsed and is lying in the brook flowing underneath.  A 16 wheeler loaded with marble was on the flyover and the section collapsed under its weight.  A lot of finger pointing is currently at play.  One defensive argument has been that the trailer hit the railing by mistake, which it shouldn't have.  God forbid other cars that might touch the railings on other sections of the freeway.  The car drives down the Eastern Bypass, an artery encircling the eastern side of the city.  Memories fly by.  Twenty five years ago this road separated the margins of the city from the jackals that roamed the fields beyond.  It was lightly travelled and my friend would gun his Ambassador up to 80 kmph, top speed for the car.  Late at night you could be held up at gunpoint.  Police jeeps stamped with “Tiger Patrol” on the panels patrolled the road.  It was a romantic time, if you were downstream of the winds of age. Today the road is packed till late night and there are five star hotels built or being built beside it.  The romance of the Ambassador is long gone.  Descendants of the bandits have had to choose alternate careers.

1 comment:

  1. I thought you'd write about Azad Hind Restaurant in Ballygunge when you wrote about Kolkata (I like the old name, Calcutta. Kolkata feels somewhat like a toungue twister). It's a round the clock eating place on Circular road.