Changed every year
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.
As the hover-taxi turns north in the water, Binoy automatically looks up after having paid his respects to the river. Binoy is looking for Howrah Bridge which should be looming in the near distance but he doesn’t find it. With a shock he realizes someone had made the old bridge disappear and then he remembers reading about the Libyan artist who works with the idea of mirage and absence and his work for this year’s Howrah Bridge project. Every year, for a period of three months in different seasons, an artist is invited to transform Howrah Bridge, Calcutta’s great iconic structure. Once someone had covered the metal frame with an echoing bamboo scaffolding, another time a Ghanaian woman had covered the bridge in bright African colours and cloth, yet another time, an Argentinian, a ‘performance artist’ had built a small office high up among the rods and got himself winched up every day to sit there and write a novel about what he saw; he filmed himself while he wrote, transmitting to watching people below and the book came out in Spanish, Bangla and English. Now Binoy remembers what this Libyan has done. The crazy fellow (they are all crazy men and women, whoever takes on this project) has put lightweight wrap-around screens and tiny cameras on each and every bit of the steel scaffolding. What the cameras do is film the exact view and relay it to the corresponding screen on the other side of the bridge; the effect is that instead of the metal you can ‘see’ the sky and water on the other side of the bridge while the material of the structure seems to disappear. As Binoy looks he can see a bridge shaped pixellation of the sky, (the screens are always a few seconds later the actual sky) and the traffic moving on the curve of the cantilevered road, suspended as if by magic. As you get closer the effect lessens but it’s great when you are further away. Binoy promises himself he will come back with his family and take one of the river cruises so that they can all experience the full effect of the crazy work.
Leaving H-Bridge and this spectacular welcome behind, Binoy takes pleasure in the quieter reality of the river and riverside which is, if anything, actually an even more unbelievable achievement. Within Binoy’s adult life, in a space of 17 years this stretch of the Ganga-Hooghly has been completely transformed. The dirty, polluted river of the late 20th century is gone. The water — being Hooghly water — is still opaque with silt but you can see that now it’s a much cleaner opacity. All sorts of fish have reappeared and so have birds that prey on the fish; in the middle of this buzzing urban scene you have a strong reaffirmation of nature. The effluents and sewage that used to pour into the river are gone. The new buildings on both sides of the river do not elbow out the repaired old ghats and structures but enhance them. Some of it is high-end commercial real estate, no doubt (Binoy’s factory exports their extortionately expensive mozzarella to a floating Italian restaurant near Belur that has 26 out of 30 in the Dalal-Sanghvi Ratings) but there has been a lot of very inventive and heartful turnaround of the old factories and slums for lower income housing on the river.
It hasn’t all been done from CalKol, of course; for instance, others worked to arrest the melting of the Himalayan glaciers that would have disastrously raised water-levels of the river all the way into the Sunderbans; but the way the whole city and surrounding areas came together under Her leadership to change the river was not something anyone would have believed in the first two years of Her rule in ’13-’14. The crucial moment was in 2014, after the shock of the CPI(M)’s huge recovery in the Lok Sabha elections, when the then state government realized their days were numbered unless they did some honest and drastic things.
Binoy knows that further north, away from the spread of the CalKol urban region (a spread, a citification of the countryside that was deliberately and assiduously stopped), stretches the transformed Bengal without which there could not have been a reinvented CalKol. There too, amazing, unlikely change has come about. The battles over farmland now almost seem to belong to the last century. The new formulas worked out have meant that West Bengal still remains a huge agricultural state, but one that now delivers some of the best organic and ecologically sound produce in the world. At the same time, there have been sound deals with people who have sold their land for the manufacturing zones; all the industries are, or were in ’15-’16, what could be called ‘sunrise’ industries. The now legendary, cheap but effective Sonar Bangla solar panels have radically changed power consumption in previously poor countries in Africa. The innovations in wind farm technology, the locally manufactured Khola Hawa turbines, have found markets in the former wealthy countries that still have the money to pay for good quality products.
W-Bengal is not rich like some of the other states, especially the southern ones and Maharashtra and Gujarat (where the income disparity between richest and poorest is huge) but the crucial thing is, it’s no longer poor. People mostly eat well and many millions can now think beyond where the next meal is going to come from. In Bihar-Bengal-Bangladesh there is certainly none of the dire poverty and devastation, the aftermath of the recently finished civil war that’s so evident in Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Bengal is, for probably the first time in its history, in a balance.
As the hover-taxi nears Chandannagar, Binoy’s phone pings with a message from his mother — she will meet him at the ferry jetty. Binoy smiles as he replies. He has just remembered what Ma said when the Leader retired: “O eto bhadra bhaabhey khamata tyaag korbey ke boltey paarto? (Who could have said She would retire from power in such a civil way?)” “O’r jaa koraar chhilo korey beriye gelo! (She did what she needed to do and then took herself off.)”
Binoy thinks of the twists of time, fate and politics that have now brought the TMC into an oppositional alliance with their old enemies, the CPI(M). He thinks of this new formation that has just taken power last year, the Green Bengal Alliance, who in their propaganda at least have proved to be more red than the communists and more green than the TMC. He remembers Her speech as she stepped down from first Chief Ministership (despite all that she had done, the public is ever ungrateful and fickle) and then from leading a party that was obliged to be in a forced marriage with the unpalatable CPI(M). “Those might be the exigencies of politics, but the people of my Bengal will, I hope, forgive me if I now move away from politics and go paint some flowers and mountains.”
The unimaginably great thing is, Binoy thinks, that once She got the focus, She actually did a lot of good and difficult things. And She left gracefully, leaving behind an incomparably better legacy than all the B.C. Roys and Jyoti Basus of this world.
The hover-taxi slows in the water as the pilot pulls it to the jetty. New passengers wait patiently for the ones getting off to move away completely before climbing on themselves. Nobody pushes and nobody shoves. Among the people waiting are a lot of schoolkids ready for an outing to the city. Most of these youngsters were born after the CPI(M)’s grip was loosened from Bengal. Binoy looks at them and only briefly feels envy that these kids never knew the really dark times. In 2012 and ’13 it had looked as though people like himself were so close to spending their young adulthood in an even darker period but luckily genuine paribartan had arrived in the nick of time.