Bengalis ate rice, dal, and vegetables at lunch and supper. Most Kolkata homes had no refrigerators; food would be cooked twice a day by housewives or domestic helps. Hiring a full-time help was much cheaper than buying a fridge. There was always a full-time cook in our house as mother went out to work. Fish was relatively inexpensive and was a part of our meals. I used to look forward to Sunday mornings, when I would take Rs.4 from mother and stand in a queue to buy a kilogram of mutton. In fact, if one walked through residential districts of the city on a Sunday morning, one would often smell meat being cooked. Chicken was a rare delicacy and cost much more, possibly twice as much as mutton. Milk was not freely available, the only supplier being one government run dairy farm. For their daily quota of milk, families had to procure a “card”, after overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles. There were long queues – queues were a common sight those days – before government run milk booths every morning. Bananas were available through the year, and mangoes and oranges in their seasons. But apples, pears, and grapes cost a fortune; they were expected to be consumed only by those who were unlikely to live long. (Personally, I recall having bought one apple on behalf of my family while I was in school.)
Today, all these are available in abundance and even the poor can buy milk and eggs, and to a lesser extent, poultry and fruits. This must have been one of the greatest achievements of independent India, particularly in view of the three-fold increase in population.
Hand-pulled rickshaws are extinct everywhere in the world except Kolkata. Although their number has declined, they remain as a definitive symbol of a city that lives in the past. Nowadays, mostly women and the elderly use this mode of transport, but one also comes across well-dressed overweight men carrying I-phones or Blackberries being pulled by scantily clad wiry rickshaw pullers. Bygone times drive the twenty-first century in Kolkata, both on its roads and in the realm of political philosophy.
Fifty years ago, the idea of man pulling man with bare arms was accepted without questions. In the morning, men were often seen carrying two bags overflowing with vegetables travelling by rickshaws from the marketplace to their homes. For short hauls, particularly in narrow lanes and alleys where no buses went, rickshaws were the only means of public transport. I think the rickshaws were cheap and the pullers earned a pittance for all the hard work they did. But they extracted their pound of flesh when the city went under water after heavy showers, which happened often. They were invariably from Bihar; Bengalis were either chary of physical labour or too snooty, or both, to undertake the job. Even now, rickshaw pullers of Kolkata are invariably from Bihar or Jharkhand, although mostly Bengalis run cycle-rickshaws, which ply in the suburbs.
Rickshawallahs lived on the roads of the city and many slept on the footboards of their rickshaws, curled up like shrimps. They ate dough of powdered chickpeas with salt and chillies. At quiet street corners, one would often find a man sitting with a weighing balance, a few shining aluminium plates, a bagful of gram, salt, chillies and an earthen pot of drinking water. Rickshaw pullers and other manual labourers had their meals there. Those were perhaps the most rudimentary eateries in the history of mankind.
Taxis – some of them Fords and Dodges – were driven by amiable stately Sardarjis with flowing white beards that fluttered like flags of eternal peace. They were impeccable and saintly and never cheated a client. Women would board a taxi driven by a Sardarji without apprehension. Incidentally, I am writing this memoir thanks to one of them. Once I tried to run across a road ignoring the traffic signal. A taxi driver exhibited exquisite driving skills to save me. A bearded face smiled at me from the cab, said nothing, and drove on.
Sardarji taxi drivers of Kolkata have been replaced by men from Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh, depriving the city of one of its most charming mascots.
Newspapers claimed that Calcutta Tramways Corporation was among the best transport systems in the world. I was too young to make any comparison, but the spanking tramcars were always clean and packed to capacity most of the times. They had large windows and were spacious and airy inside. Above the windows, there was a broad panel with neat, hand-painted advertisements. Outside, the shape and colour of the lights above the driver’s cabin would tell you which depot the tram was headed to. The first tram rolled out punctually at four in the morning and the last reported to depots only when the city was fast asleep. They continued to be punctual even until the seventies, when one of my friends, Jyoti, commuted from Park Circus to a jute mill outside the city. He took the first tram at Park Circus at four in the morning towards Sealdah station. In the four years he worked in the mill, the tram didn’t let him down even once.
Kalighat tram depot was a little farther down the road from our house, on the same side of the road. Once, late in the night, a tram driver mistakenly thought he had reached the depot when he came in front of our house. He turned the tramcar straight into the petrol station next to our house.
The only other means of public transport were buses. There were private buses when I was very small, but over time, they were replaced by “state buses”. These buses were red and sported the CSTC (Calcutta State Transport Corporation) logo with the head of a Royal Bengal Tiger. Many of them were double-decker Leylands imported from England. I now know that the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy was unlike Bengalis. He spouted no philosophy, but did solid work like setting up the largest dairy farm of the time (the sole supplier of milk to Kolkata), many heavy industries, several residential townships and engineering colleges, including the first IIT in India. As a child, I neither knew nor cared for his other achievements, but CSTC was a part of my world. Dr. Roy set up the public transport company and employed refugees from East Pakistan to run the buses. They were also known as “Bidhan Babur bus”.
I travelled by a “Bidhan Babur bus” daily for a year.
[The picture of the rickshaw is courtesy Wikipedia. The tram is from www.calcuttatramways.com]