Kolkata, or the erstwhile Calcutta and the capital during the British Raj, is a metropolitan city situated on the banks of the murky Hooghly River. From the narrowest of by lanes to the busiest streets – Kolkata is indeed an ever moving and ever growing forest.
Meandering through the morning or evening bazaars or just idling on the sunny Maidan, Kolkata highlights each aspect of a forest. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” It is indeed true for Kolkata. The quintessential houses down long damp dark lanes to the sky rises casting shadows like the pines; the long winding trails or the empty patches of grasslands – Kolkata has it all.
The dark alleys of North Kolkata passing through the old houses remind one of the older forest trees. Whether it is the old mansions of Burra Bazaar or the old haunts in Chitpur and Sutanuti, the damp atmosphere with the cool air – heavy witnessing the years of happiness, sorrow and frustration as the city transformed and changed. The bustling and bumbling Burra Bazaar, the old trading hub of the East is now a clutter of shops in old dilapidated houses and dinghy lanes. The old haunts forgotten, children laughing as they played in the dalan (courtyard), the elders of the house gossiping the latest news of independence struggle or gurgling on the Hookah are all lost among the crumbling ruins as the overgrown weeds reclaim the house to history.
South Kolkata presents an altogether different picture with its immense patches of green, huge high rises and modern history. This is the newer part of the forest – prime land that hardly faced the turbulent past. The flashy outlook with the newer generations, the bright colours and the enthusiasm for live abounds in these parts. The active climate of the south puts the dormant north to shame. The smell of the sweat from the line of sellers and buyers who actively engage in egoistic verbal jousts while seeing the bumbling activity all around reminds one of an ants nest – always busy doing something or another. These newer generations have a different mindset having lived in safe and comfortable times – they take their growth for granted. They have little value to the principles that were sacrosanct for the elder generations. This new portion of the forest will continue to grow ignorant of the storm faced by the predecessors – it remains to be seen whether it can withstand the storms in coming years and survive not just to grow old but also to inspire more new forests to grow.
Far from the bustling activity of the city is the East Kolkata Wetlands – an area of peace and quiet. The wetland is mostly a lake area of the forest. The huge tracts of wastewater and garbage dumps house the newest expansion area of the forest. Whether it is the pentagonal maze of Salt Lake or the speeding roads of New Town – this area is like a pasture full of saplings, all ready and eager to grow. The apartment blocks dotting the landscape or the cattle roaming the streets all represent the fair mixture of the old and the new. This is the true new forest, all primed and ready for the future. This promises the survival of Kolkata’s mortar jungle in the years to come. The ever-increasing onslaught of concretization and expansion will face its greatest challenge in the upcoming years. It is to be seen whether the forest can survive or it dies and is wiped from existence by more vegetation that is natural. The race is on between the quintessential rock-e cha adda (tea and intellectual chat sessions on the porch) or the newer haunts at the nearest Cafe Coffee Day or Barista sipping exotic tea or coffee in porcelain cutlery while watching the towers of concrete grow around us.