Kolkata receives few direct flights from Europe or North America, so when Surya and I travel each summer we first pass through New Delhi. Most passengers mill about the airport through the wee hours of the morning waiting for the next plane to Bengal. It’s a two-hour flight, and I usually nod off for most of it. But as the plane begins its descent I like to open my window shade and look out. To understand Bengalis, it helps to see the land from above. When the plane is at just the right altitude, I can watch a hundred rivers making their circuitous routes through the countryside. Dark shades of ink cut through one patch of fern-green farmland, curving, and then dividing another block of jungle green. Eventually each river flows south to the silt-rich Bengal Delta. The freshwater, carried all the way from ice peaks in the Himalayas, mingles with the briny water of the Bay of Bengal and joins the Indian Ocean.
Bengalis are a people molded by water. Over time the silt from the Himalayas built up the land they now live on. As early as 2000 B.C. the people who lived in Bengal were seafarers, building boats that could traverse as far as the Mediterranean. In the 14th century, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta called Bengal a “land blessed with abundance. . . I have seen no country in the world,” he confessed, “where provisions are cheaper than in this country.” That bounty allowed the early people here time to explore arts, music and literature. Abundance begets abundance.
When my plane descends a bit lower, I can begin to make out Kolkata’s most prominent feature — one, long, winding distributary of the Ganges that made the city what it is today. The Hooghly runs north to south, flanking Kolkata’s Western edge and mirroring the route of the historic Grand Trunk Road. Early invaders of the subcontinent came from the north, attacking Bengal through narrow passes over the Ganges. The Hooghly flowed without much care then, with space for catfish, ribbonfish, perch, prawn and Bengalis’ favorite freshwater fish, the Hilsa, to fill the river. Freshwater sharks and dolphins leaped from the surface too. The river greeted fisherman and the Bengali sailors who returned home from journeys to Egypt and Crete. The ghats provided steps to access the water, and villagers gathered to participate in religious rites of cremation or ritual bathing.
By the 16th century, the Bay of Bengal was a world trading port, long known by Arab and Chinese traders and increasingly familiar to the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch. The Europeans vied for control in hopes of cornering the market for precious spices, sugar, and jute. As the main trading port, Chittagong (now part of Bangladesh) witnessed the rivalry.
Initially, the Portuguese had dibs on Chittagong. Pope Alexander IV, presuming eternal authority over the planet, drew a line down the Atlantic Ocean, giving Spain the West and Portugal the East. That gave them religious sanction to seize any riches they wanted. Somehow the concept of Catholic guilt eluded them. Unfortunately, no one told the Asians about that decree.
Eventually, no thanks to Columbus, the Portuguese found India and henceforth Chittagong. But from time to time they sailed up the Hooghly and found a throng of individuals wanting to buy and sell. Betar, on the opposite side of the river from what is today Kolkata port, became an annual hub for trading with the interior. By 1632, the Portuguese built their first factory on the Hooghly. It soon became the main trading port along the bay.
But the Portuguese were not liked. Sure, they introduced Bengalis to cheese-making, without which we would not have Bengali sweets, but the local population had it up to here with their tails of divine rights. Divine? They couldn’t change forms; they couldn’t defeat local demons. Besides they also held a distasteful obsession with forcibly converting the locals to Christianity, not to mention a reputation for looting. And then there was the sport of rounding up men, women and children to sell them off as slaves.
Then Emperor Shah Jehan wasn’t too pleased either. Portuguese behavior not only was appalling, it also distracted him from his life’s true endeavor – building the Taj Mahal. So, when the Dutch sailed up the Hooghly and seized control, the emperor, envisioning a comeuppance, ordered his men to confiscate the Portuguese factory. Then he gave them the choice between conversion and slavery.
But the Dutch were not free-sailing (so to speak). They made the mistake of increasing the price of pepper from three shillings to eight. The British, disgusted by a situation that, ironically, presages their later tea debacle, moved in. Fighting in the bay and on the Hooghly went on for decades until the two players reached an agreement, with the English retreating from Indonesia and the Dutch letting go of its holdings in Bengal. By that time the Mughal power in India was waning. The British, as much opportunists as the Portuguese, dived into the local political skirmishes.
What landed them in now Kolkata was a retreat. The English declared war on the Mughal Empire, and headed to their ten ships to conduct the conflict on the water. A bit north of the Hooghly trading center sat Sutanuti. It was protected on the west by the river, and on the east and south by impassable marshes. There was also a great space for anchoring ships, to boot. When they attempted attack Chittagong failed miserably, the English licked their wounds back at Sutanuti. Eventually they purchased Sutanuti and a few other villages for their own.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Hooghly and its surroundings continued to be dangerous waters. Pirates marauded ships in the bay, and the river itself teemed with people. Fishermen navigated the waters alongside a sea of foreigners who fought to ship products from India to the West. Rudyard Kipling penned it all in his 1888 essay, “On the Banks of the Hugli.”
Today, although the Hooghly occupies a great space in Kolkatans’ memory, its significance to the city has diminished. Trains and planes now take Bengalis to other parts of the world. Dams, such as the Farrakka Barrage and deforestation in the Himalayas have reduced the water flow on the Hooghly, such that large sea vessels can no longer travel up to Kolkata. Kolkatans themselves failed to rescue the river from obscurity. In cities like Paris or London or Vienna, rivers have been transformed into attractions for visitors and residents. But in Kolkata no grand esplanade lines its banks. Artists do not paint near its age-old ghats. No tours float visitors along the water.
The Hooghly is now, along with the rest of the Ganges, considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Industries dump large quantities of untreated sewage, industrial chemicals (including DDT waste) into the river daily. Not only business but individuals pollute the river too. Trash collection in Kolkata is neither well organized nor culturally ingrained, so when individuals have no use for a banana peel, for instance, or the leftover end of a bidi, or a plastic cup, they toss. Along with these relatively minor items go animal and human carcasses. The Hooghly is a convenient secular and spiritual garbage can. A number of ghats are now all but abandoned, and what is left is grime and crumbling stairs. As of last year, fifteen sewage treatment plants sat unused. A few months ago Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey of the Times of India wrote an eloquent, albeit desolate, lament of this decay.
Luckily the river is known to have an almost magical self-purification effect. It has somehow curbed the spread of large-scale epidemics despite the significant human pollution. Scientists believe that Ganges water contains higher levels of oxygen than the average body of water, which neutralizes some of the toxins. Still, the amount of trash that accompanies modernity and population explosion has pushed the river to the brink.
Each year plenty of individuals and groups push for better environmental standards for both the Hooghly and the entire Ganges, but the effort is not yet a winning battle. In 1985 then Prime Minister Rajeev Ghandi launched the Ganga Action Plan to clean pollutants from the river. But the reality is that the river is even more polluted today, a result of mismanagement, corruption and incompetence. In 2007, the Kolkata high court passed an order that the thousands of Durga statues dumped in the water each year during the puja had to be cleaned from the river in order to avoid further pollution. And the Ganga River Monitoring Committee was established to aid in the prevention of further polluting. But in a busy city of ten million, the efforts of such organizations barely make a dent. Just last November, two oil tankers collided on the river, spilling both metal and oil into an already murky Hooghly Point.
I wish I could end this post with a “but” or a “however,” but the state of the Hooghly and the entire Ganges is still dire. One hopes that as investment continues to flow into India, as living standards improve, the cries for fixing the Hooghly will turn into effective action.