(Until January 2010, my monthly series of Crossings on the River Thames will temporarily be on hold. There is a good reason for this…)
Kolkata, a name seeped with intrigue and fear. The big bad city of the Bengal, a seemingly overcrowded den of inequity with beggars on every corner and filth floating in the streets. Yes, while it is a dirty place and yes while there is plenty of poverty, do not underestimate the beauty of this city. It is a rough gem on the Ganges Delta and a thriving metropolis. With an enviable colonial heritage, its streets and passageways are filled with gems to the eye. And of all of these structures, what else is more impressive than the famed Howrah Bridge also known as the Rabindra Setu.
Famed throughout the world as a landmark of Kolkata, it is rightly so. While wandering through the maze of Kolkata’s backstreets, it is easy to spot this structure a fair way off, such is its size. Rising as it does above the Hugli river, the Howrah Bridge dominates the riverside skyline. Since India’s independence, more crossings have been built over the Hugli, but they still cannot match the style of the Howrah’s impressive profile.
Over the Holy Ganges I went, into Howrah. And wow, what a mass of humanity that was using the bridge! Cars and buses thundered over the structure and I was joined by thousands of people on foot, crossing the sacred waters below. This bridge was one of those reasons why I came to Kolkata. To see this famed place, and possibly India’s busiest crossing point. If you want to see a slice of a nation, this is it. Rich and poor alike, many stopped to take in the views of the river and the city on either side of the river. I was not just merely crossing a river, but I was crossing history. Below me, the waters have taken the souls of millions to their final resting place. And with each passing vehicle, the bridge shook a little. A little hair raising, but this bridge has been standing for more than sixty years. It can take the knocks.
I will cross many rivers in my lifetime, and I have already been on structures far bigger than the Howrah Bridge. But none of them have held the fascination quite as much as this lynchpin in Kolkata’s infrastructure. Maybe it is the seemingly chaotic way in which people mass onto the bridge. Maybe it is because I have crossed the Ganges on foot rather than in a vehicle. But I think it is just the fact that it is such a beautiful piece of engineering. It should not be standing considering the soft mud beneath it, but it does. And today, it takes on the modern world. It is almost a metaphor for the nation itself. Despite the knocks and the bruises it has taken, despite the chaos and the mayhem that is India, it still stands and thrives. If the world has not realised it yet, then maybe it is time to wake up. The future is already here. And it is not China…