I decided to ditch cabs and take the tram service to meet a friend for coffee.
It wasn’t like I had hours to spend on commuting, but I felt like I was losing touch with the simple old ways of doing things. For the people of Kolkata, trams hold a special place in our hearts. Which is why when we hear the suppressed murmurs and continual mutterings about the possibility of trams disappearing from our city, there is a sadness as if some close family member just got detected with 4th stage cancer. Ok maybe I’m being dramatic, but trams in Kolkata are a big part of our heritage and something we don’t want to lose.
Will Kolkata give up its heritage to keep up with the developed world? Photo source: navbharattimes.indiatimes.com
In a few days I am set to leave my hometown again to conquer what school principals at morning assemblies refer to as ‘the real world’ aka a full time job. The thought that by the time I make it back home again, the streets that I grew up on will wind their way across my city without the cantankerous rumbling of trams makes my heart heavy. Will Calcutta really give up on its heritage and history to keep up with the ‘developed’ world? As recently as 2011, tram routes in Calcutta were cut down from 54 to a mere 21. Many routes have been reduced to one-way (e.g. Belgachia to Esplanade) in lieu of increased traffic.
Trams will always hold a special place in our hearts. Photo source: tourhq.com
For now, I decided to make the most of it and put it in my memory box, to revisit and cherish when I am far away. True, the amount of time it took me to reach was exponentially longer. But the lingering thought that that might just have been my very last tram ride only made me cherish every delayed minute even more. En route, to abstain from self-imposed and premature nostalgia, I distracted myself by doing what I do best - talk.
K.C. Majhi is a conductor who has been with the tram company for 34 years. He has been transferred back and forth between different tram depots of Calcutta over the years, serving as a bus conductor as well for 6 years. He kept me company during those slow trudging twenty minutes as we chatted, many of our words getting lost in the gurgling clamor of the tram’s rusty engine. It seemed like the two of us were engulfed in a quiet, almost fragile embrace of reminiscence, clutching onto the iron headrest of the seat before us tightly,
Majhi kaku (uncle) could see that I wasn’t there to write a scoop on him, although initially he tried to shoo me away by saying “you can find everything online”.
Tales and talks in trams
“Tram gulo ki shotti tule debe kaku? Eta toh amader oitijjho,” (Will they stop the trams uncle? This is a part of our legacy) I said.
He replied in Bengali saying, “I have been in this company for so many years. When I joined there was no such thing as a red signal. We would just have policemen stopping vehicles manually. At that time roads were reserved solely for trams. Now there are more roads on which trams aren’t allowed. Then in 1991 the company started buses and the number of people using trams reduced. Even till 2000, trams would draw a fairly healthy number of commuters.”
“How many people use trams today?”
“When I started working, there were so many people using trams that they would be hanging out of them. Today I actually have a seat to sit on and talk to someone the way I am to you.”
Could this be my last tram ride?
Before he got up to collect money from the five passengers that evening, he said, “Oitijjho toh botei. Tule dile smriti hoye jabe” (It is definitely a legacy. If they stop, it’ll only remain a memory).
Two days later I was stuck in traffic on my way to the hospital to visit a friend. A ray from the headlight bounced off the glass of the rolled up window of my Uber, creating a thin long shaft of yellow in tandem with the reflection of the galumphing old tramcar lagging behind. It was almost gasping for breath in its resilient effort to keep up with the new world’s expeditious vehicles. It reminded me of those blind-man bluff sessions where grandpa would run blindfolded with his arthritic legs in his zealous attempts not to be left out from my life because of his age.
You think of Calcutta you picture trams. Photo source: akashmondal.com
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By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Suman Quazi
Cover photo credit: flickr.com