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COMING HOME IN 2025

- When Calcutta fulfils its promise

Calkolcutta, 2025. Binoy Haldar, age 31, manager of one of the best artisanal mozzarella making units in the Campania region of southern Italy is returning home to Chandannagar for his winter holiday.

Binoy gets out of the metro train from the airport at Kol-Central/Esplanade and takes his time looking around. He knows that if he rushes he can get home much quicker. In fact, the shortest route to C-Nagar is by direct bus from NSCB airport — if he’d taken that he’d have been much nearer home by now. But Binoy knows that the single week he has will be taken up by his family and relatives and this is probably his only opportunity to enjoy the rejuvenated old city centre on his own. He loves the feel of the Kol-Central station on a winter morning (now that proper Bengal winters are back) and he loves the transfer and commute he is now about to make. The bus would have taken him on one of the expressways, with a few glimpses of what he calls ‘city-fields’, the small farms (oddly missing animals, he sees far many more water buffaloes in Campania than he does here) ringed by the limited height tower blocks (no more than seven floors), and the clusters of manufacturing units, now all clean and almost antiseptic, and not much else. In the old days, he really loved that bus-ride because around him was laid out the miracle of a recuperated hinterland, greened, and cleaned not just of the post-20th century detritus of dead industries but also — in just one magic generation — of the chronic violence and despair that used to almost define the mofussil belt. He had enjoyed the physical reminders of the fact that he, Binoy, was one of that beneficiary generation, that he and many other young men like himself had escaped being trapped on the old treadmill of resentment and perennially rusting, self-defeating machismo. For the first few years just the fact of the unbelievable twenty-five minute bus ride from airport to home had kept him entranced, but now he is bored by it.

By taking this far more round-about route Binoy can briefly feel the buzz of the great metropolis, the grand urb which somehow still retains the fresh, moist intimacy of a proper, tropical conglomeration. It’s something that he just doesn’t get in quaint, small-scale Rome or in the much warmer, chaotic, nearby Naples. In any case, while Binoy loves his work, he values his annual escape from the troubled, grim edge of the ex-first-world, from the dirty, fraying Mediterranean apron of geriatric grandma Europa.

As he walks past a discreet plaque-poster of ‘Her’, or who he thinks of as ‘she-who-made-all-this-happen’, or, at least, ‘she-who-finally-had-the-good-sense-to-not-stop-this-from-happening’, Binoy feels a low but unmistakable elation. Through the large, crystal clean station window-walls he can see the people lining up in orderly queues at the new tram-terminus outside. Behind the airy looking terminus, the Shahid Minar resplendently catches the winter morning sun. He notices the family of street acrobats at one side of the Metro concourse, the kids going through their somersaults and tight-rope walking. He has read somewhere that this is indeed another happy story: the kids all go to school but they are also encouraged to maintain their nat traditions; school timings are now tailored to suit different children and their needs; the family itself is not dependent on money thrown by passers by, they work at the station for a good, fixed fee (paid by the Metro to the many registered artistes) and the 50-rupee and 100-rupee coins are just a small bonus.

Moving from the station on to the pedestrian belt, Binoy enjoys the feel of his suitcase-wheels bouncing on the tropicalized material underfoot; he notices with satisfaction that the belt is quite clean and devoid of the immediate careless damage that used to scar all such things in his childhood. Binoy is now in a long, graceful transparent tube that rises out from Kol-Central Esplanade and curves past the Shahid Minar to link to the river. On his right, he can see the old Esplanade buildings, all now beautifully repaired and restored. Below him, the whole area till the road bordering the Governor’s House is a pedestrian area, one of the linked no-vehicle zones that stretch from the Esplanade to the New Market and from there to the Rabindra Sadan complex. It’s still early, but by afternoon Binoy knows the area will be filled with strolling lovers, busking musicians, performers of all kinds and tourists. The small outdoor cafes will have tables with umbrellas under which they will be serving the world famous Cal-Kol street food and and beer and wine, traditional tea and good coffee. The coffee, almost as good as in Italy, has featured prominently whenever he has described the Es-Plaza to his girl-friend, Gelsomina. Most importantly, Binoy knows the majority of customers will be people from his own background and not the so-called upper-crust who used to occupy the first, fancy cafes that proliferated in the first decade of the century.

To his left, the Shahid Minar slides by at a smooth pace. Next to the tower is a top-angle view of the new tram terminus designed by the architect firm from Jaipur, the building that has won all those international public architecture awards. Beyond the Minar complex stretches Chowringhee and the interlocking greens of the Maidan, with the Vic Mem shimmering in the distance. The bus and tram lanes along the big road are busy already, in an orderly, smokeless way unimaginable even 12 years ago, but the real achievement is that there are almost no private cars. The walkway has several exit ramps, for B.B.D Bag on the right and for Eden Gardens, All India Radio and the Indoor Stadium on the left. As he scans the beauty of the scene, Binoy notices tourists are already using the ramp for sightseeing, going up and down with their binoculars and image-pads. When it was first built, some people had questioned the aesthetics of the walkway. Especially after the Park Street flyover was broken down and re-built to keep clear the sightlines to the façade of the Indian Museum. People had protested that the walkway would chop right across the buildings on Esplanade South. The reality (and far better architectural vision than that of the unlamented flyover) proved that the almost clear tube actually provided a lovely visual contrapunt to the refurbished buildings, while brilliantly joining the important nodes of central Calcutta’s east-west axis from Dharmatalla to Babu Ghat.

As the walkway begins its descent towards the river, Binoy looks around one more time with some regret. If only he wasn’t trapped in his highly paid job in Italy. He had been glad when he left Calcutta 10 years ago, in 2015, his Schengen work permit warming his pocket. But what he’d thought of as an escape was by then already tinged with doubts: something was shifting in the culture of the state… should he not wait and see what would happen? Well, what was done was done. He had risen in the mozzarella industry, he now earned very good money, especially for southern Europe, and he had met the woman he loved.

As the walkway slides towards Babu Ghat, Binoy can see the new hotels and children’s rides on the playgrounds across the river in Howrah. On the water itself, there are now floating clusters, restaurants, handicraft emporiums and yoga schools. The hover-taxis curve in and out from the jetty, taking passengers to points north and south. As Binoy climbs aboard a hover-taxi and takes a seat, he sees the new bridge coming up beyond Vidyasagar Setu, this one to be called Satyajit Setu. It’s supposed to look like several intertwined strands of old celluloid film, and one can see that actually taking shape with the new material they are using.

The hover taxi takes in the specified number of passengers. There is no fuss — no one overloads these hover-boats. The engines power up, tilting up the nose of the boat and Binoy can feel the throb as the vessel lifts and moves out over the water. Soon, they are heading north. He raises his folded hands and murmurs a prayer to the great mother river before settling back to enjoy the cool winter breeze in his hair.