|Encounters of Bengal||.|
by K. L Kamat
When I was in Syracuse U.S.A.(1964), I had read an article in the New York Times about the dirt and pollution of Calcutta and had exclaimed angrily -- "Why do the western journalists only go after the poverty and the filth? Calcutta is a portal of literature, arts and culture." But after my repeated visits to this gigantic city, I was convinced that the American journalist was very kind to Calcutta. There was stagnant water, broken china, fruit skins and coconut shells everywhere. To say that one has to think where to put his next step would not be exaggerating. As I walked in some parts, I had to cover my nose and eyes to control the stirring of my stomach. The people seemed to keep their houses clean, but threw all the dust and garbage onto the streets. Much of the household garbage had parts of fish. Stray dogs, crows and other scavengers were roaming around freely. Some cattle were also on the road to feed on leaves (plantain) in the garbage. The fleas and mosquitoes bred with gay abandon.
Once this great city had served as a capital of our great nation. Generations of Bengali poets romanticized the city and sang in its glory. It still is a portal for Bengali arts and culture. But the local administration was incapable of solving any of people's problems. It is estimated that there are more non-Bengalis in Calcutta than natives and about one in ten lives on the street. The water supply system belongs to the previous century and the transportation system, to the one before that. The United Nations engineers recently (1969) have established that the city's water and sewage are linked to each other in many spots.
The Hoogli river separates the city of Calcutta from the Howra district. The adjoining Howra bridge (Ravindra Setu) is like the heartbeat of the city. Refugees from Assam, Bihar and East Bengal transport people and goods in bicycles, bullock-carts and taxis. One can see the skyline of Calcutta with skyscrapers and buildings of traditional British architecture; under the bridge thousands of devotees bathe in the holy waters of Ganga. The river also serves as a toilet for those without its privilege; body builders, yogic masters work out on the shore; young orphans were playing in the water swimming and fighting.
Even a slightest disturbance to the bridge traffic causes a lot of turmoil in the city. That is the very reason all the student protestors, union marchers begin their processions from here. I have heard about the alternatives to the bridge for years but no progress is in sight.
I do not know the relationship between the famed nude show "Oh! Calcutta!!" and the real Calcutta; probably both reveal bare truths about mankind that we do not see otherwise. Like most Indians outside of Calcutta, I had come to see a historical, beautiful -- almost romantic Calcutta; instead I saw a decaying city and experienced a new kind of helplessness.
I have since stopped complaining about western journalists' passion for portraying poor and destitute India. To deny Calcutta's poverty and filth would be a great betrayal to the great city.
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