The Bridge Across Forever – Part II

Every day, it’s a relief to know that Howrah Bridge is always there to take us to and fro across Forever, any time we want. Thus, we have an excuse to take it for granted. But we always keep in mind what a singular gift it is.

So, enough of the well-known superlatives. We’ve marveled at it and praised it. Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts level.

I’ve found documentation of the bridge’s rise to be pretty sparse, perhaps because of the tumultuous times in which it came to be.

In 1922, serious plans were considered for replacing Sir Bradford Leslie’s phenomenally successful pontoon bridge, built in 1874, which was intended to last only twenty-five years. Suspension, arched, and cantilever designs were reviewed. The latter was decided upon because it was self-supporting, and avoided any contact with the Hooghly’s mighty but capricious flow.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1937 – the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened – with war looming, and the Independence movement gaining traction, that work began in earnest.  In short order, the brilliant 36-year old engineer Hubert Shirley-Smith and his team came up with the cantilevered titan we know today. As I wrote in my book, Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City, ‘One of the bridge’s most famous ‘amazing facts’ is that, depending on the heat of the day, the superstructure expands over a metre in length, then contracts at night. Rigid yet expandable: tensile steel made these feats possible. It is obviously over-built – and what a relief that amazing fact is.’ The cost was estimated at `214 lakhs, but was probably much more. It was completed in 1943 – just in time for the Japanese bombing of the Kidderpore Docks, a mere 7km away.

Happily, the bridge has survived every threat unscathed, but a protective paranoia persists to this day, with plenty of plainclothes watchdogs to frowningly tut-tut we photographers from capturing the bridge’s glories in detail. (As if Google Earth, countless mobile snaps, and digital zooms didn’t exist!) I once bemoaned this fact to a proud Calcuttan, who told me the bridge was fully armed with anti-aircraft guns. ‘Really!’ I exclaimed, ‘Where, exactly?’ ‘Oh, they’re up there,’ he assured me, then changed the subject. But you know, I’ve adapted a sort of protective attitude about the bridge, too.

Howrah Bridge has certainly changed my life. How so? Well, aside from its sheer physicality, it was my very first avenue into a city I was encountering after going all around India – not exactly saving it for last, but entering its totality – at last.

My own premiere crossing was, perhaps fittingly, on a moonless night. Less than fresh after a long train trip from Kanpur, awkwardly ensconced in a black-and-yellow Ambassador taxi dependent on ambient light for navigation, I had trouble detecting the dimensions of the bridge itself. Everything above the roadway was virtually invisible. There was no festive LED lighting to showcase the immensity of any support matrix. No street lighting. Just the invasive and phantom strobing of vehicle headlamps, while the vast attic of girders remained in theatrical shadow. Way up there, impossibly high, a red light or two, glowing dully. Many vehicles, like us, crossed without any lights at all, relying on the etiquette of others to get across, all in one piece.Nevertheless, I was tremendously excited…Elated… Euphoric.

Later crossings, particularly on the now-departed trams, were infinitely luxurious. All around swarmed the growling traffic, while we privileged ones watched the show. Never mind that once, halfway across, the tram backup was so unmoving, we all vacated the tram, dashed through the dodgy traffic, and strolled on over to Howrah, with complete satisfaction. Despite the hubbub, one fellow was left behind, snoring soundly.

These days, the crossings, however crowded and noisy, don’t seem quite so raw or asominous as when I sallied across in my expeditions over thirty years ago. And I appreciate the change. A perambulation along the generous footpaths can be like a walk in the park. The pedestrians are business like and occupied with their devices. There are fewer unsanctioned small-scale merchants along the way. Once I bought a copper ring from one of them for a few annas – I mean, paise. Pedestrian traffic on the northern footpath is always much less than on the southern side. For the time we are on it, we feel a part of it, as the living megastructure vibrates benevolently. The serenity of the tubby river below is infectious. The illuminations above have softened the steel into an almost cathedral-like tracery. Poetic license, certainly. After all, this Setu honours Bengal’s greatest poet.

The poetry of the bridge is unimpeachably epic. We know full well that it is an entity of greatness. That’s why we love its gentle-giant service and protean reliability.

At one time there were signs surrounding the massive abutments of the towers, which read:

RABINDRA SETU IS GATEWAY TO CALCUTTA… THIS NATIONAL PROPERTY IS YOURS. IS IT NOT YOUR DUTY TO SAFEGUARD IT?…THIS IS A UNIQUE ART FORM OF TECHNOLOGY… THE VERY SIGHT OF IT DETERMINES CALCUTTA’S IDENTITY.

Indeed, the very sight of it…

It’s a somewhat fanciful notion to (still) regard Howrah Bridge as Calcutta’s official access to and from the rest of India. I’ve always relished this edgy concept, which so effectively awards the metropolis with such an inarguable sense of uniqueness.

Thus, only one of the reasons why my friend Preeti adores, admires, and is inspired by this particular Bridge Across Forever. Me too.

Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!

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