I have two framed pictures on my bedroom wall, always placed together. An old print of the iconic Rajabai Tower of Bombay and a Calcutta tram moving across a colonial era building, taken by the well-known photographer, Jagdish Agarwal. These two cities, as Bombay, Mumbai, Calcutta, Kolkata, define my life.
I did not study at Bombay or Mumbai University, but the Rajabai Clock Tower and its story of being partly funded by Premchand Roychand, founder of the Bombay Stock Exchange, who insisted it be named after his mother, appeals. The clock was modelled on London’s Big Ben, and designed by Gilbert Scott. A quintessential Bombay story, of collaboration, grand design, looking west for inspiration and then, someone’s Mummy brings us back home. And is it true as the story goes that George Bernard Shaw once said that the height of the tower was matched only by the depth of Bombay University’s ignorance? How rude, if he did!
But why trams for Calcutta? I could not exactly tell you why. When I was about 10, my maternal grandmother left her comfortable home and life in Waltair for a few years, to move to Calcutta to fight a family court case. This grandmother was a bit of a personality. Dynamic, charming, a bit mad and hellbent on getting her way. So, living in the ancestral home she was fighting for in North Calcutta, she had to learn to use public transport. And thus, in the early 1970s, on our annual summer holiday to Calcutta, I was bitten by a tram bug.
Those slow, sinuous machines gliding silently on shiny tracks were a magical novelty. There was a magical quality to a tram, as if you were somehow removed from the mad frenzy of normal Calcutta traffic. You hopped on and off and you had time to watch the world. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you could even do a tour of Calcutta’s historical spots by tram, a whimsical winding tour to the quirky and fabulous.
Calcutta’s trams, the last in India, are on their last rails, if you will. And just as the world is recognising them as an eco-friendly form of transportation, Calcutta wants to get rid of them. The tyranny of the motor vehicle. The Calcutta Tram Users Association is trying to build up public support to keep the trams alive, and if possible, back to their former glory.
In most of India, tramways ended in 1964. And yet, the ‘T’ in Mumbai’s BEST used to be for trams. The TT of Dadar TT was for tram terminus. Wellington Mews, on the edge of Colaba and Cuffe Parade, was once a depot for horse-drawn trams and a stable for the horses. It is now a fancy Taj property.
American city images and its literature and cinema are full of “streetcars”. I have travelled by trams in Oslo many years ago and most recently, in Manchester. The tram system there is a marvel, and most impressive in these environmentally-conscious times, are the sedum plants laid between the tramlines. You feel like you’re gliding over a carpet of flowers.
Cities are in some ways defined by their transportation methods. London, New York, Paris, all with their tubes, subways and metros. All exciting, useful. And giving truth to the cliché of bustling commuter crowds moving as one entity with no thought but to get from this point to that and then repeat in the opposite direction a few hours later. What can one say about Mumbai’s local train system that no one will have heard before? Maybe that weird walk to work practically through the homes of those who lived by the tracks, a shortcut from the station to one’s place of work in Tardeo? They had got used to the commuters and carried on with washing clothes, shouting at children, making dinner, as we ducked and weaved through their lives. A very Mumbai experience of intersecting lives and lack of privacy!
But maybe it was travelling on the 3D to college in Calcutta? You climbed on to into a stationary bus because you were female: “Aastey ledies” said the conductor to the driver, another cliché but also true. After that, who knows what happened. You did not need more than one leg on the ground and the crowd kept everyone upstanding. By crystal-ball gazing, you moved towards the door when you thought you had to get out. Between people talking about some esoteric art or politics in foreign lands and occasional cries of “Inquilab zindabad” and “Cholbe na” wafting in from between those crammed in front of various openings.
Don’t forget this is intellectual Calcutta, where you might be able to spot the opening verse of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard painted on the back of a rickety bus. Then “Aastey ledies” and you jumped off: “Go slow, a woman has to get off” if you must get a translation.
Sometimes, you had to take a minibus, that Calcutta creature that followed no rules. Bedbugs, “chharpoka”, is how the bigger buses referred to them. Their depot was BBD Bagh. Which used to be known as Dalhousie Square. And this is a true story from The Statesman of the 1970s. Two young English women visited Calcutta. After a few days, they gingerly asked their host: “Why is only one place known as The Lousy Square when the whole city is not that lovely?” Truly, Calcutta was not all that lovely then but not all lousy either and so much for colonial history!
How many cliches can I fit in here? I have made one classic Mumbai commuter train mistake: got into a Borivili fast at Churchgate and tried to get off at Andheri. It did not happen. I was heckled and blocked as everyone knows I would be. I had to get off at Borivili and backtrack. The rule is simple: avoid a fast train to a destination beyond your own stop. Luckily, I never made the mistake of getting onto a Virar train. I have heard the punishments are much worse.
But it’s trams I’m thinking of the most. They can be integrated so easily into city life and they are successfully used in many cities. There were rumours that Mumbai would make one more attempt, but only as a tourist attraction. Mass transportation will save our cities. And why not include a bit of elegance and grace amidst all the honks and high speeds?
Meanwhile, I realise that I’ve abandoned by grandmother on a Calcutta tram. More on her next time!...