Know

All fall down

Sandip Roy | Updated on September 14, 2018 Published on September 14, 2018

Promises to keep: “Even as the existing bridges and flyovers crack and crumble, we spin cantilever promises of more bridges to come”   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Despite picture-postcard clichés of structures named after the city’s icons, the fallen bridges and flyovers remind us of a Kolkata that is frayed at the edges

There is a morbid joke doing the rounds of Kolkata these days. Remember Mamata Banerjee promised to turn Kolkata into London? Now she’s kept her promise, say social media wags. Like London Bridge, Kolkata’s bridges are falling down.

Didi says at least 20 bridges in Kolkata are past their “expiry date”.

It’s strange to suddenly think of Kolkata as a city of bridges. Growing up, for most of us, bridge only meant one thing — the shimmering cantilever span of the Howrah Bridge, built without nuts and bolts. It’s the butt of the famous Bengali joke, where a “cool brij” always blows over the “Howrah Breez”. But for me it bracketed the beginning and end of our Puja holidays, imbuing its Tiscrom steel with both excitement and wistfulness.

It was our city’s picture-postcard cliché, raised eyebrows over the skyline, a shot in almost every film set here, yet, ironically, off limits to the casual photographer. Signs sternly prohibited us from taking pictures of the Howrah Bridge. No one knows exactly why. Perhaps it was because the bridge was built at a time when Japanese bombers were targeting Kolkata. They bombed the Kidderpore docks nearby but left the gleaming Howrah Bridge untouched. The bombers and the British have left. But the rule remains, flouted every day by thousands of mobile phone cameras.

If you go to the Kolkata Port Trust’s museum, you can still see pictures of the pontoon bridge it replaced. The old bridge’s parts were made in England. When it closed, the carriages and pedestrians crossed over. When it opened, boats would pass. Newspapers carried announcements about the timings.

Since then other bridges have risen, though it’s still the Howrah Bridge that makes it into the movies, from Do Bigha Zamin (1953) to Lion (2016). But there are other bridges, majestic in their own way: The Vidyasagar Setu, its cables rising like fans, and the cable-stayed Nivedita Setu near the Dakshineswar Kali temple, its height respectfully lower than the tip of the famous temple. And older than the Howrah Bridge is the Willingdon Bridge, with its hump-shaped arches, renamed Vivekananda Setu, an ageing bridge now past its prime. Bengal’s bridges offer tribute to its icons. Even the Howrah Bridge, like many Bengalis, has a “good name”. It’s actually the Rabindra Setu but we still only know it by its daak naam (nickname). Vidyasagar, Vivekananda, Rabindranath — supernovas all, now bridges to yesterday.

But the fallen Majerhat bridge (a flyover, actually) reminds us of another city, the one we all live in, humbler, frayed at the edges, creaky and crumbling. The layers of bitumen piled on bitumen, a slapdash way to create the illusion of repair, slowly increasing the load on the structure, till finally it gives way with a sigh that could be a metaphor for the city itself. We can blame the PWD engineers. We can blame the government, which just announced that 28,000 Durga Puja committees would each get a ₹10,000 grant to boost their Puja joie de vivre. We can blame the metro railway as it expands and digs. But, in the end, the bridges and flyovers of Kolkata tell the ramshackle story of a modern city, a story stained with gutka and paan juice, reeking of urine and plastered with faded, torn fliers of a coaching class or an astrologer, both guaranteeing a better future.

On shaky grounds: “WhatsApp dark humour says that in Kolkata two things can fall on your head at any time these days — crow shit and a bridge”   -  PTI/SWAPAN MAHAPATRA

 

These structures are mostly not named after heroes and legends. They are not engineering marvels. They carry the names of congested neighbourhoods — Santragachhi. Dhakuria. Gariahat. Sealdah. Chingrighata. Ultadanga, Kalighat, Baghajatin. News reports suggest that there are some 48 bridges, flyovers and culverts under the audit of the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority. They do not feature on any “heritage walk” of the city. But, in many ways, they are far more embedded in the city’s life (and death) than their more iconic siblings. Chief minister Banerjee complains they cannot fix the Sealdah flyover, near the railway station, because of the huge bustling market under it. A BJP leader warns that “Bangladeshis” live under the bridges, turning them into hubs of illegality. The Bijon Setu was the setting of a gory massacre of Ananda Marga monks in 1982. Amidst the garbage and stench near many city and rail bridges, sex workers plied their trade, drug users got a quiet fix, gay men cruised before smartphone apps; tea shops supplied them all with doodh cha (milk tea) and biscuits while pigs nosed around the trash. Every now and then someone jumped off a bridge, though these days the metro station seems to be a more favoured destination for those seeking the last exit. In a city where common space keeps shrinking, the bridges solidly sheltered both the outcast and the respectable. But now Majerhat reminds us that the concrete is not as solid as it seems. The latest WhatsApp dark humour says that in Kolkata two things can fall on your head at any time these days — crow shit and a bridge.

****

The other day I stood on a footbridge near Gariahat, taking a picture of the swarming traffic below. An officious man rushed up, wagging his finger, pointing to a grubby sign that said “No Photography Allowed”. I wondered if that was his job, to sit all day in the sweltering heat and catch errant clickers. When the Vivekananda Road flyover collapsed in Burrabazar in central Kolkata in 2016, it left behind a Mad Max nightmare of mangled steel and concrete and the carcasses of trapped lorries and cars. The disaster site was cordoned off but crowds of selfie-seekers were already there, posing against the backdrop of the fallen flyover, moved along by a volunteer with a lathi. Yellow taxi WB 04 E7696, its roof caved in, its windshield shattered, the lime and chillies meant to ward off the evil eye still swaying gently, was a selfie magnet. “But where is the Tata Sumo?” asked a man. “I read there was a Sumo.” The half-finished flyover, now a bridge to nowhere, loomed over it all. “Hyan, bhanga dekhte eshechhi (yes, I have come to see the broken),” shouted a man into his phone.

For most of us, bridges and flyovers are symbols of modernity and thus their collapse a morality tale of sorts. Governments keep promising bridges and flyovers, double-decker, triple-decker, progress piled on top of progress. When Banerjee opened the 4.5-km Parama Island flyover, it caused such a traffic jam that it had to be shut down. Now it’s renamed Ma flyover, a name perfectly in sync with the umbilically attached Bengali bhadralok. Yet every time the disembodied voice on the Uber driver’s smartphone tells us to take the right lane onto Ma, I cringe. It’s a surreal view of the city at night, Mamata’s beloved blue lights twinkling against the eerie backdrop of the darkened shells of half-finished mega-hotels, like some noir version of a five-star Stonehenge after the apocalypse.

What lies beneath: In a city where common space keeps shrinking, the flyovers take on a life of their own. Seen here is an open-air chess club under the Gariahat flyover in south Kolkata   -  REUTERS/RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI

 

We cross these bridges without thinking. On the newer flyovers soaring about Park Street or Gariahat, we get a bird’s-eye view of the city below us while those who once looked out at lakes and maidans now complain that cars and buses whizz past their windows. We read about plans for a six-lane bridge connecting Kalyani and Dankuni, just outside the city, touted to be an architectural marvel. Even as the existing bridges and flyovers crack and crumble, we spin cantilever promises of more to come, because there’s just something about a bridge.

****

When my parents got married in the ’50s, my father was building a bridge, across the Ken River deep in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. My mother, a city girl through and through, went with some trepidation into a mud bungalow in the forest with a man she barely knew. The little bungalow was quaint, though there was no electricity. The cook had an orphan fawn as a pet. But the romance of a jungle getaway was soon ruined by the monsoons. One night, my father was marooned on the other end of the unfinished bridge he was building, unable to get across. For four days he was stuck on one side, my mother on the other. For four days, they would come to each end of that unfinished bridge and shout to each other across the surging waters. When he finally made it back, unshaven and tired, my tearful mother made him promise to quit his job.

It’s not a spectacular bridge but it’s still standing. In my mind’s eye, I can see my parents, both younger than I am now, standing on either end of that unfinished bridge, straining to meet across a swollen river. For a moment, the idea of a city of bridges feels almost romantic.

Sandip Roy, the author of Don’t Let Him Know, is based in Kolkata

Published on September 14, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor