The Howrah Bridge is Kolkata. The Howrah Bridge is Kolkata and beyond. Every fabled place you go to from Kolkata.
The Howrah Bridge, if it is a bridge, is a bridge to my past, my life as it has emerged. It is my bridge to memories, to childhood dreams, to imagination itself.
It was a great adventure for us, the kids, to hop into a tram, pay five paise, equivalent then to the US nickel, to roll over the great Howrah Bridge to arrive at the bustling Howrah Station. To do what? Just walk around, look at the notice boards, trains, porters, liveried staff and a fascinating crowd of men and women hurrying to the platforms. The variety of the people intrigued us, the bustle gave us a sense of unspoken drama.
Later, I went to work for years by crossing the bridge to Howrah Station to go, past Chuchura, to Bandel. Electric trains were new then, the seats clean and comfortable, and I enjoyed the variety of vendors who offered their ware, peanuts, booklets and homemade medicines guaranteed to cure corns to cancer. The motley crowd who traveled daily on the trains, students, workers, clerks, salesmen and domestic employees, would sometimes glimpse my magazines and newspapers and strike up a conversation. I remember a young passenger from Serampore who held two jobs in the city and dreamed of being a business tycoon and an older woman who recommended the very responsive deity in a Sahaganj temple who could restore my normal eyesight and save me the bother of glasses.
The Howrah Bridge was also my pathway to the Howrah Station which remained, for a long time before I ever took to an aircraft, the starting point of my travels, for work or vacation. I loved visiting my aunts, who, for their work, periodically moved among towns in central India. For years I visited Nagpur, my city of birth, and smaller towns such as Narsingpur, Seoni and Jabalpur. It was great fun to explore new towns in the indulgent company of my doting aunts, the local markets and museums, or simply wander around with no parent to check on me. Since my grandmother lived with them and somehow considered me malnourished, I would instantly get whatever special thing I wanted to eat.
Then came the express trains to New Delhi and Mumbai and I would buy an inexpensive window seat to cities that seemed then the ultimate in elegance and sophistication. How I loved those excursions! Some of the enjoyment came from the long anticipation during the journey and dreams of what I might do. Later on, when I would receive invitations to lecture at conferences, even though the sponsors were willing to pay for an air ticket, I would take a train and think of it as a romantic exploration of life in India. It was a delightful experience, for I would meet unusual people and have unconventional talks. One time, when I arrived late at the platform, thanks to traffic snafu on the Howrah Bridge, the porter simply threw my suitcase in the compartment and then ran with me until I could run and mount the moving train. He looked ecstatic when a large bill flew down to him from a window as his reward.
I was just out of school when one of my father’s many friends, manager of the local cinema, invited my brother and me to see Shakti Samant’s movie Howrah Bridge. I loved OP Nayar’s paean to Kolkata, sung with verve on the Bridge itself. I adored the reigning heartthrob, Madhubala, looking her best and singing – it seemed directly to me – “Welcome, my gracious guest (Aiye Meherban).”
I have walked across or driven over dozens of bridges in scores of countries. What is so special about Howrah Bridge, just another structure of steel across an expanse of water?
For me, it is more than an engineering feat. Wherever I am, I can look at a photo of the Howrah Bridge and know it for what it is. It is a bridge to my heart, a quintessential symbol of my aspiration and imagination, for unknown places and little-known people, unattended events and unencountered experiences. It spells life’s bounty and sings heart’s aria.
In the end, its best badge is Madhubala, a paragon of beauty and a joy for ever, an emblem of my childhood fantasy, adolescent dream, youthful eros -- and my lifelong yearning for loveliness beyond reach, companionship beyond compare, fulfillment beyond the wildest, craziest expectation.