Riding with Jack in a Calcutta tram.

TEARS - 1972 

        Tens of thousands of disease-stricken refugees cowered under a black sky, filling the foreground to the horizon with a sea of human souls, each desperate face brimming with suffering, each eye empty of hope.

         For the newly arrived British doctor struggling through the fetid mud with the party of aid workers, no training, nor even the furthest boundaries of his imagination, could have prepared him to witness this holocaust in Bangladesh.

        He shook his head in utter disbelief, and as the immensity of the suffering overwhelmed him, the lump in his throat grew until his professional composure gave way.

        He quickly turned his face up into the driving monsoon rain so that nobody could perceive his grief, nor know of the terrible challenge to his faith as he viewed the portals of hell, distorted by his own tears


        The string of battered tramcars sitting at Belgatchia terminus looked somehow reluctant to move, their tired metal and wood emanating an aura of fatigue. One tram had just left, and we were the first passengers to board the next one standing in line. Propped against an upright rail inside the car, the conductor smiled a welcome, and continued his task of smoothing out a collection of soiled rupee notes, which responded reluctantly, and the treated wad remained lumpily dog-eared.         

        I smiled, thinking to myself that some of the incredibly tattered banknotes in his hands looked as though they might date back to Calcutta’s first horse-drawn trams of the late 1800’s. At that time, the 186 trams were drawn by over 1000 horses, plus 7 steam locomotives on 19 miles of track. Electrification began in 1900, and was completed five years later. Today, the system today runs on about 40 miles of track, carries 58 million passengers annually, but is a creaking victim of inadequate maintenance and non-investment of capital.

        Notwithstanding, and as one keen tram aficionado insisted, the uneven track is “packed with personality” Hardly an exaggeration. With gaps and elevation changes at many of the 3000 street crossings, all of which engender a variety of impressive metallic glugs, thumps, and bangs as the venerable iron wheels tackle the junctions, a ride on a Calcutta tram is never boring.     

         The worn wooden seat welcomed my buttocks, and my aching legs rejoiced at the thought of not being walked on for a while. The tram driver appeared, and slipped behind the narrow-spaced controls with accustomed agility. He pumped the tram's bell twice (still affectionately known as a “foot gong”) an action which, instead of a melodious “bing” produced only a flat dull sound, as if the natural resonance of the metal had finally been beaten into submission over the decades. A fresh breeze reciprocated the tram's movement forward, and a long haunting wail arrested any conversation as the protesting wheel flanges rode the rail’s sharp return curve. Finally, our valiant conveyance settled back on to the main track, clanking and bumping its way over the gaps in the rails, and headed towards the city centre. It was really not the quietest place for a conversation.

        Jack leaned towards me, smiling mischievously.

“Great place to continue an interview lad. And you want me to compete with this racket?”

        The conductor arrived to collect the fares, and my humbled feeling intensified when I realised that I foolishly had prepared no small change. Having obliged Jack to take the tram ride, I did not now want to ask him to donate small coins, so I had to tender a large denomination rupee note. Jack knew this, and was already grinning broadly in anticipation of what was now clearly inevitable, as the conductor contentedly offloaded a large wad of his least desirable banknotes, which he considerately tried to smooth out once more, before delivering the soiled, sticky bundle into my hand.  

        “You’ll not be short of small change for a while” grinned Jack.

        The tram slowly filled at each successive stop, mainly with ladies clad in brightly coloured saris on their way to the city shops. Finally outnumbered, we had to relinquish our seats, and stood strap-hanging for the remainder of the journey. Overlooked by garish advertisements for detergents and deodorants, I mused on this incredible city’s history against the backdrop of clattering and grinding wheels.  

        At just over three centuries old, Calcutta is a relative newbie in a country with origins going back thousands of years. Despite that, there is no single agreement on the origins of its appellation. Some pundits say the association is with its location on a khal, (canal) others claim an association with the local product kali kata (shell-lime) or from a connection in old literature as a kilkila (flat area) The majority however give it a religious connotation with the Bengali word Kalikshetra (Ground of Kali, the Hindu Goddess)

As the oft-asserted story goes (but one disputed by contemporary Indian historians, who claim the city grew gradually, and was not ‘founded’ by anybody, far less the British) it was an English agent of the East India Company called Job Charnok who selected the site to be a trading post in 1690, giving birth to what is India’s third largest city today. He died three years later, and so did not witness the rapid growth - the population had grown to over 100,000 by 1735, and in 1772, this once-muddy settlement became the capital of British India, a lofty status which lasted 140 years until 1912, when the colonisers moved the capital to Delhi. 

        By this time, major infrastructure changes had taken place, engendering much migration, development and expansion. A telegraph line was introduced in 1851, a railway service in 1854, Calcutta University opened in 1857, telephones rang in 1882, and electricity flowed in 1899. Pedal bikes made their debut in 1889, automobiles in 1896, cinemas in 1898 and electrically-powered predecessors of this noisy tram in which we were travelling, were introduced in 1902.

        This far, the British had more or less successfully suppressed, calmed, bribed, manipulated or eliminated the leaders of the indigenous people whose land they had taken over. Their biggest humiliation however happened in 1756, when Fort William was seized by the then Nawab (governor) of Bengal, who, as the story goes, ordered 146 hapless British prisoners to be locked up in a guard room measuring only 24 square metres - the size of a small hotel room. 123 of them died of slow suffocation during the long night, and although this number is said to be exaggerated, the “Black Hole of Calcutta” epithet retains its frightening image until today.

         A history-shaping event took place in 1905 when Lord Curzon, the British Governor General, split the state of Bengal into two. The reason for this was mainly because of its size, because it had grown into a huge unmanageable territory with a population of over 80 million. The division was made between Hindu-dominated West Bengal and Muslim-dominated East Bengal. The city of Dacca was subsequently named the capital of the new Muslim majority province comprising Eastern Bengal and Assam. Hindu West Bengal was administered from Calcutta. 

        During WW2, an estimated 3-4 million people starved to death during the 1943 Bengal famine, when huge quantities of rice and other food supplies were removed, and stockpiled for Allied troops. In 1946, long-smouldering hostilities between Muslims and Hindus ignited, leading to communal violence, and over 2000 deaths. This was already an indication of the Hindu-Muslim potential for violence which surfaced at the end of the British Raj in August 1947.

        Independence from Britain resulted in “Partition” creating a new country called “Pakistan” a name coined by a Muslim nationalist, the letters standing for the areas of perceived “home” for South Asian Muslims, namely P for Punjab, A for Afghanistan, K for Kashmir, S for Sindh and “Tan” for Baluchistan. This fledgling Muslim nation was further split into East and West, the former bordering Afghanistan, the latter with Burma, with Hindu India in between. The two religious denominations migrating to their respective lands resulted in horrific slaughter, estimated by some to have reached a million dead.

        In Calcutta and in Bengal, the 60’s were marked by decline and decay, with a communist state government contributing to economic stagnation, but one which still shakily stands today as the world's longest-running democratically-elected one of its kind.

        East and West Pakistan went to war with each other in 1970, the latter invading the former, a bloody conflict finally stopped by India, who expelled the invading West-Pakistani army from East Pakistan in 1971. The end result of this was a Bengali death toll said to be up to 3 million, and the birth of a new independent nation called Bangladesh.

         Apart from the huge loss of life, the fighting had also spawned a colossal number of desperate, starving refugees, who were packed into primitive camps. It was at this time that a 41-year old newly-graduated doctor in Ireland called Jack Preger heard a radio appeal for medical staff willing to help. His journey there was to be a one-way ticket into the vast world of human suffering, disease, government corruption, and daily horror. It was also going to be the catalyst for his lifelong devotion to the poor.

        We were now drawing noisily close to the former Dalhousie Square, the quadrangular heart of the city, renamed BBD Bagh to “rid the Square of the Raj” as one proud Bengali put it. The word ‘bagh’ means ‘garden’ in Hindi, and the BBD initials stand for the first names of three young Bengali revolutionaries: Benoy, Badal and Dinesh. These brave young men decided to teach the occupying British a lesson by martyring themselves in an attack on one of the most hated officials – a man called Colonel Simpson, the ruthless Inspector General of Prisons, who had his office in Writer’s Building.  

        Unafraid and committed to their deadly task, the armed trio entered this daunting administrative heart of British Calcutta, on 8th December 1930, shot Simpson dead, and as there was no escape, attempted to kill themselves, as captured alive, they would certainly end up on the the gallows. Badal and Benoy succeeded, but 19-year old Dinesh survived shooting himself, and was tried, convicted and hanged a few months later.

(In an ironic twist of subsequent history, Dinesh's great-niece, playwright Tanika Gupta, was awarded an MBE in the UK, in 2008. You can read the story here)

        Kipling describes Writer's Building thus:

The place enjoys a chastened gloom, and its very atmosphere fills one with awe.

        I knew that Jack had some singularly unpleasant associations with Writer’s Building during his prolonged battle with the authorities over the legality of his presence, and his work for the street dwellers. 

My thoughts were interrupted by a glimpse of a hand-drawn rickshaw, competing for road space with the tram outside. The driver’s deeply lined face was aged to a walnut texture by his harsh life on the streets, and his dull eyes set in hollow sockets broadcast a grim resignation. Seated above him, the two passengers probably together weighed six times that of the straw-thin human being who was now transporting them for a few coins.

        Such sights contribute to Calcutta’s extraordinary ability to combine charm and chagrin, and guarantee that no visitor leaves untouched by emotion, which is very often a mixture of delight and dismay. Although an estimated one-third of the population live in sickening slum conditions, with street hydrants functioning as open air bathrooms for thousands of impoverished inhabitants, many uphold the assertion that Calcutta is the “intellectual and cultural centre” of India. Artists and thespians might agree. Visiting theatre companies usually play to full houses and highly appreciative audiences. As one British actor commented after performing here: “Educated people in this city know more about Shakespeare than their counterparts in the whole of Great Britain. If only 10 per cent of them moved to London, the theatres would be filled with locals, with no seats left for the tourists.”

  In Calcutta’s centre, sombre silent architecture stands as fading testimony to the legacy that it was one of the finest and grandest colonial cities to be built. As Mark Twain remarked: “It is a huge city and fine, and is called the City of Palaces”

Only a few of the magnificent British-inspired structures have escaped the ravages of time and tropical rain. Foremost of these, and pristine in its almost perfect preservation, the white marble and domed beauty of the Victoria Memorial stands in the verdant tranquillity of its manicured lawns, guarded by a statue of the grumpy-looking British Queen. 

        Elsewhere, Calcutta’s famous Museum on Chowringhee Street is hailed as one of the oldest of its kind in the world, and many other edifices serve as a kind of combined open-air museum. Over a hundred are said to be listed as heritage buildings, but decades of neglect in many parts of the city have created an outdoor exhibition of sun-baked rain-soaked crow-frequented facades, often with plants and saplings growing from cracked masonry, a fascinating ensemble which mixes the melancholy with the magical.             

        We spilled out of the tram into BBD Bagh, in a breaking wave of thankful fellow passengers, eager to leave the crush. Jack gave me one of his comical looks.

         “Well, that was a lovely ride eh?” he said mockingly, examining his shoulder bag and patting his trouser pocket to ensure his valuables were still there. The gallery of colonial buildings watched us make our way towards the central pond of this famous square, where we could hopefully find a seat. I reached into my own bag to ensure my small tape recorder was still there.

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