That’s what my friend Preeti calls it. Indeed, Howrah Bridge is the Bridge Across Forever. It’s certainly big enough. And whenever we’re on it, everything else, including the Hooghly below, seems somehow irrelevant.
When referring to well-known entities, people tend to talk in ‘icon’ terms today. Well, Calcutta has its fair share. To my mind, the River Hooghly is the one overriding icon – of the geographical kind – that no one can deny. So, getting across it is the one essential mission of anyone who ventures west from the fastness of the city’s core, or vice-versa.
We all harbour seminal thoughts about this taken-for-granted apparatus that conveys us east or west so grandly, don’t we? How could we not? It is so inescapable from our sensitivities, and we are so compelled by its power, why would we ever want to escape from it?
Everybody knows it. Everybody has been over it. Some people never notice it. Other people never think about it. Some lives have been changed by it. Some lives depend on it. Not sure about any lives ended by it, but that hardly matters here. What is worth pondering though, is how can such a vast and seemingly dangerous fixture be so caring, helpful, comforting, and indeed, lovable?
I’ve always maintained that because it is officially named Rabindra Setu – after Rabindranath Tagore – the poet’s legacy is greater than that of the bridge. True, but fellow poet Allen Ginsberg’s branding, ‘an eternity-style bridge with all Calcutta passing over it…’ constitutes a pretty big deal, too. (The construction was taking shape when Tagore, renaissance man supreme, expired in 1941; surely he had seen it, and one can only wonder what he might have thought of it.)
Quite frankly, Howrah Bridge is also the omnipresent fixture in Calcutta, and everyone acknowledges that fact. But it can never be regarded as anything resembling a cliché. It’s far too mind-boggling, too memorable, too commanding. And come to think of it, each crossing is unique.Everything about it is superlative. Thus, the terminology hereabouts.
Too kinetic for solemnity, more majestic than threatening, the great mass promises protection, and on an all-encompassing scale. But only if we comply with its rules, which are actually perfectly sensible, and allow us, amidst the tedium of traffic, a chance at experiencing a sense of thrill – even joy. (Easy for me to say, because I’m not driving!)
The initial words I encountered concerning the bridge were not exactly encouraging. Lonely Planet’s first India guide pronounced it ‘even uglier’ than Sydney Harbour Bridge. Geoffrey Moorhouse expertly noted its characteristics, mostly in extremes: ‘ungainly’, ‘graceless’, ‘clamped down over the city’ (or river, perhaps?). Plus, he felt it was ‘trying to crush the life out of everything beneath’. Jan Morris was more respectful, but properly impacted by cinematic scenes of ‘a great escape route, jammed with refugees… from some uncertain but imminent catastrophe’.
Vivid descriptions, and a trifle jaundiced, but we know better. Especially right now, when comparative aesthetics demonstrate that, contrasted with more modern links, Howrah Bridge is an enduring classic. From afar, the effect is heroic, legendary. Closer up, there are unexpected design details, in what I call Industrial Art Deco Style. The plentiful rivet patterns are as pleasingly intense as a Bengali temple’s terracotta ornamentation. And of course, the bridge’s populace, in all its comings, goings, and staying put, is always stunningly dramatic.
Rabindra Setu is also consummately Calcuttan. No offense to the eminently practical Vidyasagar Setu, non-competitively placed, well downstream. It has its own charms (mainly from a distance, in mists, or at sunset), but visually, it’s just another cable-stayed crossing that could just as well be in Venezuela or Malaysia. Howrah Bridge? Only in Cal! Custom-made for its holy task of leaping the Gangetic Hooghly in one cable-free thrust. Elegantly arched, too. Seen from underneath, the sweeping power is breathtaking.
Since the tram lines were removed (once a romantic route, but best for the bridge), the seemingly Vedic vibrations of the superstructure, easily felt so as to compel the pedestrian to develop ‘bridge legs’ in order to be in concert with its living rhythms, have now markedly decreased. But a stack-up of buses or a single mega-lorry overloaded with bricks can still make the primal joins at the bridge’s very centre shift tectonically, just like in the old days.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I must pause for a moment – to get my breath back.