When I needed transport, because either the place was remote or the time was short, the first thing that came to mind was the tram – what Americans call a streetcar. The trams were clean, comfortable and quite plentiful. They moved slower than cars, which in reality lent them a stately elegance. Unlike cars that weaved left and right through traffic, they moved majestically along straight tracks. Because the tram was a metal vehicle that moved on metal tracks, it made an awful racket as it moved, but it was hardly bothersome in a perennially raucous city. I rather liked the tinkling of its bells as it stopped and started.
Like the society it served, the tram had a class system. You paid less than a cent for the privilege of first-class comfort; the second class, which did not have cushioned seats, was even cheaper. When I moved to a school further from home, I was given money to travel by the premier class, because Mother had a mortal fear of my rickety frame in a crowded conveyance. I often used the inferior class and saved the fare differential to buy candy.
The buses were a more proletarian affair, a ramshackle tribute to India’s rugged entrepreneurial spirit. The vehicles were of ancient vintage, invariably smelly and indifferently maintained. Their driving quality was highly variable, as too was the speed, from the excessive to the breakneck. Though there were assigned stops, they stopped wherever they liked, to pick up passengers to fill the buses to their rafters. Buses went anywhere and everywhere, and for many passengers they were a lifesaver.
My effervescent memory is of the passengers who traveled with me, their ebullient mood and witty asides on street events or the day’s headlines. Every venerable politician who had the misfortune to be in the news was given a sarcastic name and every screen star who had featured in a recent release became the center of a salacious story, the more far-fetched the better received. Every time I traveled with a female classmate from college and sidled closer to share a whisper, there would be jocular references to Romeo-Juliet or some such romantic pair. When I became friendly with an American girl, a neighbor’s daughter, our trips invariably drew notice and good-natured remarks. She sat usually in a seat marked, gallantly if unfashionably, ‘for ladies,’ and I hung on to a bar to be near her, only to hear tongue-in-cheek remarks about my ‘fidelity’ and ‘protectiveness.’ I resented those, but now I recall them with greater charity.
Just as vibrant a memory is those of the interesting people who worked on the buses and trams. I remember a tall, well-built Sikh conductor who always stopped the bus a little longer if he saw me coming and, as I came closer to the entrance, put out a hand to grab my wrist and help me in. There was an elderly tram conductor, bearded and elegant, reverentially called Hassan Sahib by all, who greeted passengers like a maître d’hôtel and patted me on the shoulder as he checked my ticket. On the route to Chowringhee, I made friends with a young conductor, Saha, who said he was saving money to go to college, so that he could become an engineer and educate his two younger sisters in the village. I hope he realized his dream.
Last year I was sharing these recollections with a journalist friend, Alpana, who suggested that we take an early morning tram and make a long trip to the northern part of the city where I lived for many years. We arrived in the tram depot at dawn, to be told by two conductors that the first tram would still take fifteen minutes to roll out. They graciously suggested a bench where we could wait. In five minutes, like a miracle on that cool winter morning, emerged another conductor with two steaming cups of tea. “Please drink our tea while you wait for the first tram,” he said.
Tea never tasted better. When I went to thank the host conductors and pay for the tea, they politely refused to take the money. They said, with a simple earnestness that will stay forever among my best souvenirs of Kolkata, “You are our guests.”