'City of Joy': A Few Observations

March 18,2011

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit Kolkata, which has been immortalized by the great humanitarian service rendered by Blessed Mother Teresa and her congregation of the Sisters of Charity and the famous novel, the ‘City of Joy’ written by Dominique La Pierre in 1985 and a film adapted from the same novel in 1992, directed by Ronald Joffe, starring Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Ayesha Dharker, late Patrick Swayze and Pauline Collins.

Calcutta, the seat of power of the British Empire in India till 1911, was renamed as ‘Kolkata’ in 2001 as there has been a trend to rename various Indian cities following independence. Like Mumbai and Chennai, the British had played a major role in developing Calcutta into a modern megacity whose foundation that they had laid with Fort William. Presently, as the capital of the West Bengal state that has been ruled for over three decades by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the city had seen little development in terms of infrastructural progress though attempts have been made since few years to provided the city with broader roads and flyovers in order to decongest the already overcrowded city.

Returning from Raiganj to Kolkata after meeting the Bishop of the Raiganj Diocese,  Dr. Alphonsus D’Souza along with his brothers-Bernard and his wife Regina, his youngest brother Andrew and sister, Sr. Eugene-Superior General of the Sister of the Holy Cross of Chavanod we had just half a day to visit some of the important landmarks in Kolkata before flying back to Mumbai.

In a vehicle provided by the Holy Cross Provinciliate House in Kolkata accompanied by Dr. Salvadore Lobo, Bishop of Baruipur,  we first visited the grave of Blessed Mother Teresa at the ‘Mother House’, the global headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity founded by the Nobel laureate. Even thirteen years after the death of Mother Teresa on 5 September 1997, admirers of the Mother and tourists from all over the globe spend quality time at the Mother House. Apart from paying obeisance before Mother Teresa's three-foot-high cement grave on the ground floor of the whitewashed building in central Kolkata, the visitors can view the exhibition on the life and work of the Mother.

Our next halt was St. Xavier’s College which was established on 16 January 1860 by the Society of Jesus. The college was affiliated to the Calcutta University in 1862. It gained autonomy in July 2006, thus becoming the first autonomous college in West Bengal. Renowned for its heritage, St Xavier's College is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious institutions of India  and has been ranked as the Best Commerce College in India. St. Xavier's College has produced outstanding alumni in the fields of business, politics, literature, cinema and education. In the college, we met the present Principal Rev. Dr. Felix Raj S.J. 

As we moved from one spot to the other, I had my eyes transfixed on the road and the surrounding areas of the city which presented a  pleasant and unique experience of a megacity. While some of the roads are broad enough the streets and lanes have been quite crowded with all forms of vehicular traffic right from the buses, private cars, ambassador taxis, three-wheeler rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and even hand-pulled rickshaws. On certain artery roads the old relic of the colonial era-the trams moving slowly remind one of the old days making Kolkata a unique city linking the colonial era with modern age. The heritage buildings of the British colonial period dot the central portion of Kolkata.

Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, the seat of the archbishop of the Kolkata Archdiocese is one of  the oldest catholic churches  in one of the former Portuguese settlements in Kolkata. Situated in the north-eastern side of BBD Bag, the administrative hub of Kolkata, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Rosary was built in  1797on the site of an earlier chapel by two Portuguese brothers, Joseph and Louis Barretto.  Being the Lenten season,  a life-sized statue of crucified Christ in horizontal posture has been placed on one side of the church and the statue of Mother of Sorrows and the representation of the suffering Christ also could be seen  within the church.

The road  in front of the cathedral presented a picture of hectic activity as people squatting on floor to take their morning breakfast from a make shift eatery, a barber shaving a transporter, sugarcane juice seller waiting for customers, and cycle rickshaw trolleys transporting goods, etc. These scenes may be common in other crowded cities, but none like in Kolkata.

Next we headed towards the world famous Howrah Bridge, the identity of Kolkata. The bridge that spans the Hooghly River was renamed in 1965 as Rabindra Setu, after Rabindranath Tagore, a great poet and the first Indian Nobel laureate. However it is still popularly known as the Howrah Bridge and connects Kolkata with its twin city of Howrah on the other side.

The most impressive thing about the Howrah Bridge is that it crosses the river in a single span, without any pylons connecting it to the river bed. It is one of the longest bridges of its type in the world. The bridge is one of the finest specimens of the  Cantilever Era, and is one of the best cantilever bridges in the world. This is a great contribution of the British engineers and the Indian heritage is enriched with this exquisite masterpiece of technology. The new bridge after going through a series of procedure was opened to traffic in February 1943. Approximately 150,000 vehicles and 4,000,000 pedestrians use the bridge each day.

The Victoria Memorial Hall that we could see only from the exterior due to paucity of time is a memorial building dedicated to Queen Victoria which currently houses a museum and is a tourist attraction. The memorial was designed by Sir William Emerson  using Indo-Saracenic style, incorporating Mughal elements in the structure. The foundation stone of the memorial was laid in the year 1906. The monument was intended to serve as a tribute to the success of the British Empire in India.

The all-red edifice known as the Writers’ Building serves as the secretariat of the West Bengal State Government. The office of the  state Chief Minister and other cabinet ministers are situated in this building. The colossal all-red building originally served as the government agency for British East India Company writers, basically who served as clerical and administrative staffs. The building has thus come to be known by its contemporary name. Designed by Thomas Lyon in 1780, the Writers` Building received its extraordinary Corinthian facade in 1889, a rare illustration of Neo-Renaissance.

Other important landmark that we saw was the Anglican St. Thomas Church built in 1833 in the compound of  Free School. The foundation  stone of this church was laid by Lady Bentinck in April 1830.  The church was consecrated by Anglican Bishop Wilson in February 1833.

Besides these few monuments and historically relevant places that we could visit, I was quite intrigued to see a number of hand-rickshaws or pulling rickshaws which I had believed to have been abolished some years back by the West Bengal Government. According to historical tradition, the hand-rickshaw  was brought to Kolkata by Chinese traders in the late 19th century, primarily to carry goods. With the passage of time the British rulers made the hand rickshaws as a cheap mode of transport, eventually turning them into a symbol of the city.

Though the West Bengal Government had banned these hand-rickshaws at the beginning of 2006 on grounds that it intended to end a backbreaking, ‘inhuman’ form of work, its real intention has been  to attract foreign investment  and these hand-rickshaw pullers created an uncomfortable image of the city. The pullers themselves do not have any ethical problems. They do not believe that their trade is in anyway inhuman and degrading and justify their profession saying that these rickshaws provide affordable transportation for the poor, do not pollute the environment and provide a desperately needed source of income. The hand-rickshaw is one of the oldest vehicles in the city and there are an estimated 18,000 rickshaw pullers who fear that the ban would reduce them to poverty and impoverishment without any other alternate employment.

Kolkata is the only major city in India that sports the colonial relic-the tram which has been considered as the cheapest mode of transport in the city. The trams and other vehicles vie with each other for some space in the congested roads of Kolkata. Started on 24th February 1873, between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Street, it is one of the oldest means of modern transportation system in West Bengal. Trams are actually light weight rail borne vehicles, running on tracks, primarily on the road. They are also called tramcars, trolleys, trolley cars, or streetcars. The tram service in Kolkata, as rest of the world, was dependent on the horses in the beginning. However, with the introduction of electricity for such purposes, trams became a popular and comfortable medium of transportation in the 20th century. According to an estimate there are around 170 trams running on the streets of Kolkata  regularly.

In the overcrowded city Kolkata, as in any other city, poorer people make their home on the footpaths and earn their livelihood by doing odd jobs, pulling rickshaws or transporting goods through their mechanized, cycle or hand-pulled rickshaws or any other improvised mode of transport. They do not have any qualms of  having bath or washing their clothes or utensils by the roadside or fear of any danger for their children as they  play by the roadside.

In spite of the chaotic traffic and loud honking of horns people of Kolkata manifest a lot of patience and perseverance. Rickshaw pullers or vehicle drivers follow few traffic rules. The rickshaws and buses are usually overcrowded as they carry more passengers than prescribed by rules and people even use rooftops of the buses or other public transport system to travel in the crowded city.

With the election for the state legislature being fixed in April this year and the battle lines between the incumbent CPM government that has been ruling the state for over three decades and the Trinamul Congress led by the inimitable Mamta Bannerjee waiting for an opportunity to take over  the reins of the government from the CPM, the people of Kolkata keep their fingers crossed about their own future.


Dr Eugene D'Souza - Archives:

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  • Enchanting Nainital, the Lake District of Uttarakhand
  • Urban Castelino: Afflicted by Polio, But Living with Dignity and Honour
  • 26 Aug : Birth Centenary of 'The Saint of the Poor'
  • Few Morning Hours in Rainsoaked Megacity of Mumbai
  • Desert Safari in Dubai: A Lifetime Experience to be Cherished
  • Kemmannu-The Enchanting Land of Islands, Coconut palms and Backwaters
  • Focus on Women on ‘World No Tobacco Day’- May 31
  • Travel through the City of Mountains, History and Present Day Wonders
  • Metro and Abra : Modern and Traditional Mode of Transport
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  • Prof Wilfred D'Souza - Third Generation Teacher Who Achieved Greater Heights
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  • Kanakadasa - The Humble Devotee of Lord Krishna  
  • Chikmagalur : In the Cradle of Nature
  • Monsoon Musings - In Search of Past Memories
  • A Journey Through Rain-soaked Northen Konkan
  • A Journey through History and Nature
  • Mangalore to Belthangady - A Journey Through Hinterland
  • Konkan Revisited - Changing Colours in Autumn
  • Jul 26: 500th Anniversary of Krishnadevaraya's Accession
  • Sri Sri Sugunendra Theertha Swamiji - a Seer with Global Vision
  • Sri Madhvacharya - Founder of the Ashta Mathas
  • Malini Bhandari - Girl Who Conquered Physical Disability
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  • Vasai – Destination for Pilgrimage and Exploration
  • Ganeshpuri-Vajreshwari - The Land Sanctified by Swami Nityananda
  • By Dr Eugene D'Souza, Moodubelle
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    Comment on this article

    • A.S.Mathew, U.S.A.

      Tue, Mar 22 2011

      Great article. Perhaps, Kolkata
      is far wealthier than any other
      city of India in her cultural

      But, the State of West Bengal
      to the whole of India
      the naked reality and the end result of experimenting with an
      impractical political ideology
      of "world communism" is a shameful

      I had been to the northern parts
      of West Bengal bordering
      Bhutan, and it is very sad to say
      that they were about 60 years behind Karnataka or Kerala, in
      their standard of living.

    • Subhash G. Shinde, Nanded, Maharashtra

      Fri, Mar 18 2011

      Simply great article. Apart from actual write-up the marvelous and articulate photographs communicates a lot about various aspects of the 'City of Joy' i.e. Kolkata

    • Antony Herbert Crasta, Mangalore/Sydney,Australia

      Fri, Mar 18 2011

      A very good article by Dr. Eugene. The write-up and the beautiful photos brought back so many memories of my own, when I had visited the city way back in the year 1967, i.e. about 44 years ago. I had gone to visit my brother in Jamshedpur who was doing his final year of Engineering Apprenticeship at TELCO, and we decided to make a trip to the city of Kolkata. We spent the entire day in the city travelling by buses, trams and the boat etc., visiting the Gardens, historical places and tourist attractions, among other things, various Temples (Durga and Mahakali) and Churches, Victoria Memorial Hall, Museum, Planitorium, the famous Chowringee Street, Howrah Bridge etc. While the other metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore, have substantially progressed for the better over the years, looking at the various photos presented and going through the article, it appears Kolkata has not changed much over the past three or four decades, as the CPM Government which has been ruling the State for most of the period has not carried out much development in the infrastructure,roads, and as a whole, as we still can see those old scenes like the hutment dwellers, handcarts and cycle rickshaws driven by men for carrying goods and human beings, olden types of buses and trams, people taking bath on the roadside every nook and corner, during the day time, which incidentally also I saw way back then. Apparently the rich have grown richer, and the poor peasants have been left behind.

    • Ronald D, Udupi

      Fri, Mar 18 2011

      Very nice article with real time pictures. Big city with lot of poor people and the communist govt!

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