If you grew up in Kolkata – or if you ever visited – or if you ever only caught the Yuva version – you’d have failed to have missed a very integral part of the city’s heart.
I cannot remember the first time I saw a tram. I suspect it may have been at some point when I was ensconced in a more ‘conventional’ mode of transport – a car, an auto rickshaw (or a hand-pulled one) – and came across one of these unwieldy giants in the streets. I marvelled at what I thought was the city’s willingness to let a ‘train’ run amok among its citizens. I was eventually, gently persuaded by parents who’d grown up with trams – and by regular sightings on my way to school – that they were very much a part of Kolkata as I knew it.
Trams have been around for over a century (March 27, 1902, to be precise) and yet seem to have been around for a century longer.
You will find them in Bangla movies where heroes and heroines are eating jhaalmoori and playing truant from their homes (they’ve got time, trams are not known for their speed). You will also find them amongst fleeting kaleidoscopes of images in Bollywood cinema which pay homage to the city – Piku, Kahaani, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, Yuva – to name a few.
A Tram’s Beauty is in its ‘Slowness’
“The beauty is in its slowness,” at least half a dozen Kolkata residents concur. For a city that has been equal parts eulogised and equal parts lambasted for its sluggish pace of life, this is as honest a revelation as any.
It’s for those lyadh khawa (laidback) times when you don’t want the hustle-bustle of a bus, or the rush of an underground Metro.
For someone who’s grown up in the older parts of the city (north Kolkata), trams are a way of life.
“I take a tram whenever I have to visit the busier parts of the city. You sit back, watch the city go by – there are few places you can do that in,” my friend Aparna enthuses.
According to Aparna Basu, the most memorable tram route is the oldest – the Metro Maidan one: from Esplanade to Kidderpore.
The city appears trapped in a strange time capsule when it comes to the idea of trams on its streets. While 20-somethings today readily confess to riding the tram for a sort of ‘hark-back’ to simpler times, if you will – a ‘break’ from the frenzy – citizens over 50 are much more pragmatic.
“We rode trams all the time back in the sixties,” a friend of my father’s tells me. “There were no private buses at the time, and tram tickets came as cheap as 10 paise. They were all we knew.”
20-somethings of the roaring sixties and seventies, therefore, romanced on the tram, ‘rushed’ to and fro from government offices and colleges, revelling in the lack of dust and debris that were beginning to be a developing city’s bane.
The sexagenarian, however, offers a contrarian view:
“People today prefer quicker, speedier means to get to a place, and trams just don’t cut it. In fact, they add to the traffic.”
How the City Was Brought Alive by ‘Tram Tales’
Over the weekend, however, the city saw a resurgence of the tram culture with an event called ‘Tram Tales’. Ten trams, which had been lying unused for the past few months, were brought alive to host music, theatre and films. Bands jammed inside stationary trams, while performing artists took over several of the carriages – many of which had been painted by painters of the city. One streetcar even metamorphosed into a cafe, which hosted ‘adda’ sessions for its patrons!
The romance of the chug-chugging streetcar is undeniable – and the youth of today will be the first to affirm it.
“Prem korar bhalo jayga – they’re apt to romance in,” Shreya grins, as another young voice chimes in:
“Young people who’ve lived all their lives in the city honestly don’t think of riding a tram daily – unless they’re regulars. However, there will be a time when you see one and think to yourself – I’d like a nice, long conversation with a friend. The tram is just apt,” suggests ayan pal.
So, the next time, you roll your car windows down (or wish the uncle in the next seat didn’t droop all that much), perhaps you’ll consider a tram. They’re perfect for building a repertoire of stories and a lifetime of memories.
After all, history can’t be soaked in in a flash, can it?