One of my first memories of Posta is the intensely rancid odour of rotting potatoes that used to assail one’s nostrils as the bus took a turn from Kali Krishna Tagore Street to enter Strand Road. So I was taken by surprise when I discovered the other day that that stink is gone. Anarchy still prevails on the thoroughfare where thousands of trucks and labourers are engaged night and day in fervid activity, but the nauseating smell is no more. Deodrant' No. Sailendranath Choudhury, an employee of a godown, has the answer. Being slowly pressure-cooked inside the tobacco godown without a single fan on, the lean 76-year-old’s dhoti was hitched beyond indecent-exposure limits.
“Potatoes don’t come here any longer. So no smell. Earlier, people came from all over to the wholesale mart here. Now they can buy everything from district centres. If they carry cash they run the risk of being mugged. Most warehouses have changed hands. They belong to non-Bengalis today. The volume of traffic has increased several-fold and pavements are fast disappearing,” says Choudhury.
Strand Road from Rajakatra, off the Brabourne Road flyover, is a melancholy concourse of godowns and buildings, many of them very handsome examples of masonry that are either decayed or have fallen into disuse. These streets and pavements have been the home of thousands of labourers, who, for generations have been breaking their backs loading or unloading trucks. So as countless men with glistening torsos carry huge loads on their heads in the relentless sun, there is a sense of great physical turmoil. Change their costume from loincloth to Mr Toodle’s canvas suit “abundantly besmeared with coal dust and oil” and this could be Dickensian London. The sense of anonymous humanity toiling away to further the mercantile interests is certainly there. But whereas mid-Victorian London held the hope of a better tomorrow, Calcutta gradually slides into the slough of despair. The legacy of architectural excellence it had inherited from the British has been willingly forfeited. Nothing could be more depressing than taking a ride in the circular rail as it snails past shantytowns, relieved by occasional glimpses of grandeur-turned-rubble.
Mayo Hospital, constructed in 1874, looked splendid to the last. The state government had sold it off some time ago, and the huge concrete cage that has replaced it stands testimony to the aborted attempt at building the Eastern India of Medical Science & Research Hospital, as a large signboard declares. The structure stands amidst a wilderness of vegetation growing unchecked, debris and garbage, so typical of a depressed area such as this.
The Doric columns and the pediment are still intact. But this resthouse that Rani Rashmoni had built for those who wanted to breathe their last half-immersed in the holy waters – antarjali yatra guaranteed safe passage to heaven – has become a timber godown (part of the chain in Nimtolla) with a pissoir attached. This is the area where it is conjectured that Job Charnock had landed over 300 years ago. Yet nothing could look so ground-down.
The Gujarati numeral on the best-kept building in Nimtolla announces the origin of its inhabitants. R. Thakore, who has lived in that house off and on for 40 years (in-between he would be away in Orissa where his manganese mining interests lie), says: “There never used to be much traffic. However, for the past 15 years transport offices with storing capacity have opened in every house in every street and lane here. People have given their courtyard and ground floor to store commodities. Trucks two to three deep stand on the road. They start coming in around 10 at night to 2 in the morning. The movement starts again at 4 am. Labourers eat and sleep here. And eateries and teashops have sprouted everywhere.”
The rot has set in. But nobody is bothered. The tragic consequence of neglect is embodied in the Old Mint. When it was conceived and later constructed in 1826, the architect may have had the Parthenon in mind. But the powers that be aren’t impressed by the 40 massive columns. Once, some years ago, cracks that had developed were crudely cemented over. But now it is disintegrating, the process hastened by the trees that have grown on the pediment. Will it get engulfed in a jungle like what is known as Rajabagan thana now' Or will it sink into oblivion'
The staff quarters (there are two buildings, one built in 1907) in an enormous plot on the opposite side of Strand Road are in pretty bad shape. The cat’s cradle of Howrah Bridge looms above them. The flats are like playfields, and the breeze that wafts across the river whips up a gale inside. The stairs are well lit although the first-floor banister is missing in one of the buildings. Adjacent to one of these buildings is a series of single-storeyed flats in a similar state of disrepair. These quarters are somewhat better maintained than the Old Mint because they are partially occupied. But the banalities of domesticity don't go very well with them. This is painfully evident in the low rises. How can Doric columns -- and there are eight of them -- cohabit with formica tops and plastic flowers'
Although it bears no comparison, it would not be irrelevant to take a look at the carcass of a behemoth of a warehouse next to Dalpatti, formerly Patal Posta. Flocks of pigeons thrive on the grains that fall by the wayside. If Amar Mandal, 74, a prosperous fourth-generation merchant of pulses in that market, is to be believed, it used to be the godown of a leading commercial firm. But after it was abandoned, thieves came and stripped it bare of its tin roof, fragments of which still exist. The sky peers through the windows at least five storeys above the ground. There is nothing behind to block the view. But the godown is still in use.
The new buildings that have come up look so poorly that one wonders if the same people had constructed, say the Niyamatulla Mosque close on Nimtolla Ghat Street, close to its intersection with Strand Road. Whatever happened to our aesthetic sense after the Fifties' Vinayak Complex opposite the non-existent Mayo Hospital comprises two stunted towers. The glass windows make it airtight.
Posta Masjid looks like the builders were in a tearing hurry to slap it together. The over 75-year-old Nageshwar Baba temple opposite Strand warehouse close to the flyover, will soon emerge in a new avatar as the apotheosis of kitsch.
Thankfully, in the midst of such chaos gems still exist. The walls of the tiny Ganga shrine in Rajakatra gleam with hundreds of exotic blooms on the tiles. A elderly matron, who still bears the traces of beauty, climbs down the spiral staircase planted in its midst, tea tray in hand. She could have been the deus ex machina. Calcutta will be liveable so long as such vignettes exist.