If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Where have all the pavements gone?

In the government school I studied at, fans were not switched on from November to February, or maybe, March. This was as per some government regulation, and those days, fans were not used in any government office in Kolkata during these months. Air-conditioners were rare, and were savoured by the hoi polloi only in cinemas.

Although I can recall some warm November days, we didn’t need fans in November. Compared to that, the November this year was unusually hot and humid. Global warming is no longer a matter of academic discussions. We are living it and making it happen. Last month, we read weather forecasts in the morning, fumed and fretted through the day, and switched on our ACs at night.

But it all changed yesterday, the first day of December. The morning was ushered in by a cool breeze blowing in from the north. There was a real nip in the air; as darkness gave away to light, a haze hung over the lake in front of our house. The park around it – a place packed with morning-walkers every day – was almost empty. Only a few brave men and women had come out, swathed in sweaters and scarves. Being highly susceptible to cold, I take pride in the fact that I am the first person in the city to put on a sweater every winter. That pride got dented.

Many things about this city you may not like, but it indeed has a glorious winter. Kolkata is perhaps one of the best places to be in during its brief winter. The sun is bright and crisp, one doesn’t smell sweat in buses and the metro; people are less aggressive on the roads. In The Summer of Forty-two, it was said, “When there is love in the air, no burden seems heavy.”  When there is winter in the Kolkata air, life seems fun!  

In my childhood too, winter was the happy season. It meant visits to the Botanical Garden and the Zoo, a picnic at Baruipur, circus shows at Park Circus. The icing on the cake was the annual cricket test match at Eden Gardens.

After we outgrew zoological and botanical gardens, for some of us, afternoons were reserved for long walks through quiet, spotlessly clean neighbourhoods in Alipore or Ballygunge. Some of the lanes had exotic names like Lovelock Place, a narrow alley with quaint bungalows on either side, where I smoked my first cigarette under the expert guidance of my friend D. D in fact had voluntarily taken up the task of mentoring me in those difficult days of early adolescence. It was he who handed over the first girlie magazine to me on a deserted road.

However, our walks ended at a less carnal destination. We would spend hours in the National Library reading room, which had a lovely section for young readers. The other favourite haunts were the Indian Museum and the Birla Technological Museum in Gurusaday Road that had lots of working models to fascinate us. If we felt lazy, we just stretched our legs and watched cricket matches on the CCFC ground or Deshapriya Park. 

We went to all these places on Bus No. 11, as we were fond of saying. Walking ten kilometres was considered perfectly normal. And there were roads on which you could walk.

Sadly, footpaths have been stolen from the city dwellers of a “shining” India. Whether it is Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Kolkata, walkways have been hacked down mercilessly to widen roads for the ever-increasing number of vehicles. The footpaths are so narrow and badly paved that even for a short distance, one has to take a taxi or auto rickshaw. In Bengal, It’s been a double whammy. Thanks to competitive populism of political parties, hawkers have taken over our pavements completely. The situation is worse in small towns, where roads and railway platforms have been turned into bazaars.

This is kind of funny. On one hand the government lecture us to reduce carbon emission to arrest global warming, and on the other, they make it impossible for people to walk or use bicycles in cities. I don’t know of an Indian metropolis that has earmarked some space as pedestrian zones or cycling zones. The likely-to-be chief minister of Bengal promises to turn Kolkata into London. Even if one ignores the colonial hangover implicit in the promise, one must tell her that we don’t aspire so much, Madam. Give us back our pavements, and Kolkata will be happy to be Kolkata.


  1. "... This is kind of funny. On one hand the government lecture us to reduce carbon emission to arrest global warming, and on the other, they make it impossible for people to walk or use bicycles in cities...."

    Imagine this. Yesterday I was speaking to a junior official of a public sector organisation. He has a 10 to 5 desk job entailing no travel, but every month he is entitled to 120 litres of petrol. Any wonder the roads have bumper-to-bumper traffic?

  2. In my concern about global warming, I forgot to comment on the nicer things you wrote about - the pleasant Calcutta winter. I'd give my right arm to be back in Calcutta in its 'glorious winter', taking endless walks in the Maidan.


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