Back in my days as a ‘driveway mechanic’, without benefit of a nice warm shop, equipped with lifts, plenty of space, and more than just a battered tool box to work from, I spent countless hours in automotive holding yards. That is, where vehicles and their associated components go to be judged: whether to be shorn of their still-usable parts so that others might live, or be crushed, melted down, and recycled.The ‘respectable’ name for these places is Wrecking Yard, though the more colloquial moniker of Junkyard more than suffices. Due, of course, to the rather shambling, inelegant, and often unpleasant characteristics of such a business. Not to mention hazardous.
At any rate, out in Dum Dum, where its lanes gently segue into the locality of Sinthi, is a minor byway I affectionately label ‘Junkyard Alley’. It’s gritty, small-scale industrial, a bit forbidding, and shunned by most – unless one has business there. It’s also less classically Calcuttan than the rest of the city, mainly because its activities are basically international in nature. After all, a rust-coated engine block is the same the world over. A worn tyre lying in the dust is universal. The bouquet of conspicuously-aged grease, metal filings, battery acid, and welding rods constitutes its own united nation. All are the results of combustion, friction, lubrication, and the pollution they produce, all for the sake of power production, to get us where we want to go.
Similarly, this particular Junkyard Alley could be in any number of locales in Bengal – and beyond. But this one happens to be in front of me now.
It’s not that I feel at home in this environment because of any past exposure elsewhere so much as I directly relate to it, for a kinship is instantly felt. Just here, two guys are wrestling with a hefty leaf spring, just as I faced the same task with my 1957 Dodge station wagon (I used heavy gloves though – highly recommended). Over there, a fellow on his back beneath an Ambassador, battling a fuel supply problem, reminds me of being in a similar position, while bypassing a clogged petrol line under my 1948 DeSoto – in the rain.
Undeniably, behind ramshackle gates, in walled enclaves, the tone is existential, the rising fumes toxic, the automotive ruins minimal, the material degradation complete. Yet, the residents hereabouts, unreservedly welcoming and acceptant of my perambulation, present their workaday surroundings to me with confident decorum. Kindly ladies offer chai as readily as any of their counterparts might in distant Ballygunge – if not more so.
Junkyard Alley is a one-theme village with no pretensions. Yes, it’s pretty disheveled, but also easygoing, intelligent, practical. A work zone of necessity, all-business, and no one acts like they disdain of getting their hands dirty. I know all too well, that when you ‘drop the pan’ in order to get to the oil pump or the main bearings, you’re going to get spattered and splattered with industrial substances, no matter how much you try to be dainty and avoidant. Any more, I get exceedingly grumpy with such tasks. Yet, most everyone here seems of good cheer, and that amazes me. Inspiring, too. That being the case, humour is easily accessed. One guy is especially amused when I ask him to pose dramatically with his brass-headed bludgeon primed, before we explode in laughter.
As in any junkyard world, much of the work is grim, grungy, and grimy. In this one, could we have more eye and ear protection, please? Still, bits of progressiveness are discernable. Unlike the old days, welders are using face-masks. Sets of earbuds are starting to appear. Mobiles are as common as in Park Street. Things are plainly running smoothly. We are all equals here.
Further on, shops are clogged with ‘long block’ engines, ready to be bolted directly in. Others in need of an overhaul sit like patients awaiting their turn at restorative surgery.Multitudes of camshafts protrude from cubby holes. Plenty of water pumps to go around. Indeed, there are more harvested parts here in Junkyard Alley, ready for reuse, than just about any wrecking yard I’ve been in. After all, this is the Big City. Big needs, big demands – and you gotta be fast and ready for anything.
Speaking of which, a situation has developed down the Alley a piece. One of those grand old elephantine Tata trucks, optimistically branded Break Down Van, ostensibly on the scene to tow a wrecked Shyambazar-BBD Bag minibus to its final disassembly, has itself gotten miserably stuck in an unexpected sinkhole as a result of a recent excavation. The mighty rig, so used to saving the day for decades, has sunk ingloriously up to its chassis in the rear. There it sits, listing horribly, and my first thought is, it’s going to be a major campaign to free it from its own premature grave – if such a thing is even possible.
I join the onlookers, mostly older guys, none of whom are particularly anxious or bothered. If anything, most are bemused and keen to see just what it will take to do the needful. For me, based on my lurid memories of many breakdowns and getting stuck in mud or snow, this would be a huge deal! However, the professionals hereabouts are wholly steady and ready, while others, with their own tasks to perform, pass by with nary a glance.
Enter a compact but stout Tata 407, a Goods Carriage converted to towing duty, ready to save the ancient one’s face in short order. And very short it is. An enthusiastic crew of three handle everything. Wrecked bus unhooked. Tata to Tata linked. Then, all set.
The rescue rig revs and pulls. Its front wheels buck up off the ground a bit, but the crewmate in the Break Down Van is just as adept in making the most of the opportunity. The whole thing is over in about twelve seconds. Nothing short of victory was ever a possibility. The heroes of the affair are models of modesty. And they’re smiling. Ah yes, I so remember what it’s like: the hassle of the task, the tension in pulling it off (literally), and then, the joy of an adventure successfully resolved.
As I bend my steps toward Barrackpore Trunk Road, another wreck is arriving. The Alley’s excavated strip, with its recently-vacated sinkhole clearly on display, is prudently avoided.
Just another day in Junkyard Alley.
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!