In India, you can always distinguish a local from a traveler by a few obvious features: dress, speech, walking speed, confidence, public throat-clearing capacity, street-crossing audacity, spitting shamelessness. But there is also a more subtle way I noticed every time I was the local: eye movement. While local eyes tend to move from fixed point to fixed point, travelers move theirs in a motion, slowly, patiently, curiously, aroused by interest—mostly for the novelty of the strangeness of what surrounds them. I had arrived, after a gap of 10 years to Calcutta’s International Airport named after Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, ironically killed in a mysterious plane crash a few years prior to India’s independence. “I bet they don’t name airplanes after him,” I thought.
Anticipating immediate chaos, as most people do when they come or hear the name “Calcutta,” I was pleasantly surprised to meet a rather quiet and empty airport. At passport control, my curious officer spent more time looking at my expired China visa and my outdated German residency permit than at the actual stamps applicable to my visit to the country. He, then asked: “what happened to your name?” I just said: “that’s my name.”
“You don’t have Indian first name?” he asked.
“No” I said, trying to keep things simple and fast.
‘Ok, no problem”
He then brought my photo closer to his eyes, looked up at me, looked at the photo, at me again, back to the photo. “Ok. Welcome back, Mr. Mukherjee.”
So, I was back and even welcomed.
I lived for a short time in the city as a child and went back periodically for visits. Knowing Bengali has been a huge advantage as it gave me direct access to the private side of people, their inner – and occasionally ‘meaner’— thoughts best expressed in the language that they speak best.
You can never pass for a full Bengali when you are called “Sergio Mukherjee.” It’s like meeting someone called Luis O’Reilly in Dublin. So, I often used the simpler “S. Mukherjee” since many Indians cherish acronyms. (Just ask the famous writer N.K. Narayan, whose full name was… ready?: Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami).
I took the first days very seriously to get properly adjusted, trying to quickly transition from the foreign ‘I’ to the local. Few places I have seen have been able to inspire, stimulate and disturb me with equal intensity. There was definitely more movement on the streets than the last time I was here: more of everything – cars, motorbikes, auto-rikshaws, bicycles, buses (both state-owned and private), mini-buses, trucks, and people. As India’s second most densely populated state in India (after Bihar), the human density could be immediately felt.
As the world’s largest democracy, the Indian ‘street’ is for sure its most democratic space. There is room for everyone, no rules, and no rulers unlike Western equivalents that are monopolized by the bigger ‘movers.’ It is an ‘equal opportunity ‘space, teeming with life for purposes that go much beyond basic transportation. You not only see everything happening on the street, but even what you really would never desire to see.
The very longevity of buses in West Bengal could easily win any global competition for the ‘longest-serving’ bus in the world in a remarkable display of functional resilience. No matter how old, dented, beaten, punched, or noisy a bus is, it runs.
Maybe it is a living reminder of the West Bengal of the past, of the golden and glorious days that still color the imagination of people living here. When West Bengal was for some “Best” Bengal.
Some buses here almost literally never stop. At least not when I wanted to get on or off. So, you better develop a good technique to run next to it while in motion, while holding on to something available and moving your body onto the initial step to get yourself on board. West Bengal’s capital satisfies 13.10 million passengers (i.e. close to 60 percent of the total passenger population) per week through road based transportation. Based on number of 5 years ago, Calcutta State Transport Corporation (CSTC), Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC), and West Bengal Surface Transport Corporation (WBSTC) owned by the state government in Kolkata with a total number of 1723 buses and 319 trams.
Crossing the streets can also be tricky. Mindful that India has overtaken China to become the world’s top country in traffic accidents, I took my time and embraced conservatism as a pedestrian.
While these may seem too basic and commonsensical tips for researchers running outside in search of sources, I still find it important to convey the value of patience, alertness and prudence as one moves around. So, a basic strategy was to leave early and return to my accommodation before sun-set. I will spell out more practical tips in my next posting.
Until then, bhalo theko (“stay wel”l)