The Kolkata of the mid and late 1970s after the murder and mayhem of the Naxalite years, which anyway I was too young to know and understand much about, was indeed for me a city of joy. When I reached Class 12, then along with another enterprising friend, we would bunk from school, which was at the junction of Loudon Street and Lower Circular Road (the names have changed now but I prefer to refer to the old names) at 11.15 am, which was the recess time and make our way to the Cinema area between Park Street and Esplanade and take in a noon show of some Hollywood film or other. We would have muftis in our bags and wear those after taking off our school uniforms to look very adult. After that we would make a beeline for Nizam's and gorge a few beef rolls. Finally, we would make our way to Shaw's Wine Bar, a pub for the plebians in the lane behind the famous Metro Cinema, to take in a peg or two of rum or whisky and then head back home taking care to eat pan on the way to hide the smell of drink and changing back into our school uniforms. Those were the times when we were preparing for our board exams and various entrance exams and so we would spin a tale at home that there were extra classes in school. Apart from this often in the afterschool hours I would go walking and by bus to visit many of the heritage areas of Kolkata, especially the north of the city from Chitpur onwards which was the original area colonised by the British and the residence of the Zamindars and traders who collaborated with them in the initial years to build their own fortunes.
This time I began my revisit of those halcyon days of my youth in Kolkata by taking a heritage walk in Chitpur. This happened because an NGO had organised an event to focus on the heritage of North Kolkata. So I got to see many of the heritage buildings of the erstwhile Zamindars and traders which are still extant mainly because the roads and lanes on which they have been built are too narrow for them to be pulled down and converted into malls and multistoried buildings. The event organisers had organised a game which took the participants through one such heritage building which is now the office of the traffic police. It had some lovely inlay work on the floors with stones from Arabia.
The city is choking with traffic even where the roads are wider and many roads have been made one way with traffic going in one direction during the morning rush hours and in the opposite direction in the evening rush hours. However, what galls most is the hideous flyover that has been built on the Lower Circular road from the Maidan to Park Circus completely destroying the beautiful view of heritage buildings along this stretch that I used to have as a teen. Cities in the west have completely banned cars from heritage zones and downtown areas, with only public transport and cycles allowed there. The inner city areas are thus beautiful to view without the modern monstrosities of skyscrapers and flyovers which have desecrated Kolkata and many of our other cities. In Kolkata the latest trend is to maintain the facade of the heritage buildings while building skyscrapers and malls behind them with the Metro cinema already having gone that way and the venerable Statesman building slated to be the next !! A more idiotic exercise in urban design will be difficult to imagine.
As I write this I myself am sitting in a multistoried residential gated building that has come up in an area of Kolkata which was once an industrial and working class locality with its own distinct street level architecture. This locality is close to the famous Rabindra Sarobar lake. I had heard that this lake at least has been well preserved and prevented from going to seed like most other ponds of the city which have become cesspools having lost their earlier charm. So I went to see if this was really the case. I found that the lake and its surrounding park had indeed been fenced in and protected and nice walkways built around it. There was 24x7 protection and cleaning of the area and the many trees were all conserved and labelled. However, the water in the lake itself was eutrophied and of a dirty green colour with vegetation growing in it indicating that sewage water was seeping into the lake in large quantities from somewhere even though I could not find from where this was happening. Though there are three posh clubs on the banks of the lake to which access is restricted and so I could not investigate what they are doing with their waste water. Padmapukur which used to be my swimming haunt as a kid and teen has become a cesspool more or less. Many national swimming champions have been produced there by the Bhabanipur Swimming Association but now the club is there only in name as there is very little water in the pond and what is there is highly contaminated.
The Kolkata I grew up in is sadly no more. Just a few days back the city also lost one of its doughty crusaders for a saner urban development in the ecologist Dhrubojyoti Ghosh who waged a long battle to save some of its eastern wetlands which are now protected due to his efforts as a United Nations recognised Ramsar site. So in the end there is very little left for me to do but drown my sorrow of having lost my beloved Kolkata of the 1970s in the liquor which is mercifully still flowing unabated at Shaw's Wine Bar catering briskly to the plebian's Dionysian needs.