Lives on and around Howrah Bridge: ‘Underbelly of the Indian Boom’

I visited Jamshepur and Ranchi of Jharkhanda India between 20 and 26 Decemebr 2016. In the section between Kathmandu and Kokatta I used air travel. Between the airport and train stations I travelled by taxis. This blog is the collection of my two Facebook posts which reflect on the lives in Kolkatta, mainly on and around the Howrah Bridge.

On 20th December I left the airport to go to Shalimar train station via a new bridge over the Hoogly River. My first impression traveling in the street of Kolkata is that the roads are wider and cleaner compared to four years ago when I first traveled through the city (though smog remains, and this time I avoided the often clogged Howrah road and station). Creepy colorful lights on all street poles throughout 21 km travel from Netaji SC Airport to Salimar Train Station was amazing.

Train Station

On the 25th I returned to Kolkatta, this time via the Howrah Station. I spent a night at Howrah. Here is my quick observation as I walk through Howrah bridge and station. This is my relfection posted on the 26th December.

Last week I posted about my encounter with the changed and advanced Kolkata (described above). Yesterday I revisited the Howrah area (the station and the bridge) and did not notice much improvement there. The bridge is said to be the busiest in the world and the station to be the largest in India. Navigating through the movement of thousands of people and vehicles every day, and finding a place to maneuver is very difficult and requires skill. The honking of vehicles and the hubbub of people, harassment of agents to buy goods and services in a filthy and smelly environment make the experience very chaotic and dizzying. (A range of eateries sign-posted as ‘Hindu Hotels’ filled with people is evident of the state of society).

Howrah Bridge

With the ‘king-sized’ headache, I tried to sleep at night, but it was hard to sleep as noise of a street-fight penetrated the hotel room.

But it was amazing to see how people were carving an order and managing their lives even in the chaos on and around the bridge.
Howrah Bridge
I saw many families living in open in a narrow walkway (not sure how they were providing for themselves). Each family here had a small coal-fuelled stove and were busy preparing meals in the evening. One family was roasting rats, with kids sitting around and watching their father plucking a rat’s hair. Some kids (in the morning) were still finding a way to play by drawing somethings on the floor. I have no idea where do they go to defecate but I saw a child with a proper nappy. Some kids were not wearing any clothes; thanks to the warm winter life has not been as harsh as it could have been.

As I walked down the (northern) cantilever of the bridge this morning, the visibility towards the Hooghly River was very poor due to smog. I felt a burning sensation in my nostrils. A young boy was trying to snort something with a match stick lit up under the foil paper, and one person passing through told me that he was taking ‘smack’. On my return, after 15 minutes I saw him continuing. He could not care less about his surrounding.

Further along my walk, a beggar lady was exchanging her coins with a petty trader who was carrying his goods on his head. Under the bridge at the eastern bank, people were moving with their trading goods rested on their head. There were several flower shops there.
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Hindu hymens were played through loudspeakers, and people were seen coming back putting their wet clothes on their soldier having taken holy dips in the river. So many people were moving around from one end to another, for one reason and or another; it looked very confusing.
Howrah Bridge
At the end of the bridge, there were small makeshift kiosks to sell stuff as well as to sleep.There were other people with small workshops (with smoke coming from the coal fire created in a small tin case) mending shoes and rubber slippers. There was a section selling chilly powder, turmeric powder and other spices. In the street to the east there was a small place for prayer, and a place to take shower. People were pushing carts, selling stuff from their carts, loading and unloading, and so on.

There is certainly an order even in the chaos, and it is so localised for a stranger to understand it through a cursory view. It is clearly evident that life can be managed even in the most difficult circumstances but who knows the hardship, suffering and suffocation people are going through unless you are bearing it with them.

Howrah Bridge

Informal economy makes up the bulk of the Indian economy. Even though the Howrah bridge has been providing a vital link to the Bengali (and Indian) economy, with big businesses such as fish-trading flourishing, what we see on and around the Howrah bridge and also the station definitely signifies ‘the underbelly of the Indian boom’ (to borrow the words from Alpa Shah). As I hit the road to the Airport I passed through other chaotic and congested areas, as well as more developed, clean and well organised places. The world class Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport boasts the Indian boom standing in contract to the reality of lives around the Howrah bridge and the station. The shadow left behind by the ‘shining India’ is far too big to comprehend.

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