Saturday, November 9, 2013

Oh Kolkata! - Episode No.1

Right from my younger days, I had a fascination for the cities of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. I always had a keen interest in history and all the three cities had a great history as they were connected with the British rule in India. As far as Kolkata was concerned, the name was associated with Fort William, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Siraj-ud-Daula, William Bentinck, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Lord Macaulay, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray, Bankim Chandra, Sharat Chandra, Subhash Chandra Bose and many others.
It appears to me that my bank had some clue about my fascination. May be that is why I was posted to Mumbai on my first promotion. Indeed I was very happy when I was informed about the posting. But I should admit here that I was not at all prepared for my Kolkata posting when it came to me eventually on my second promotion. The reasons were many. But the main reason was that the working conditions in banks were supposed to be very tough in Kolkata at that particular time. The reports we were getting at Mumbai about the different aspects of working in Kolkata were not at all encouraging, to say the least. In fact when I visited the Staff Section in Mumbai to meet my earlier Manager, M S Kamath, the officers there started expressing sympathy for me. They sincerely hoped that I would come back in a ‘single piece’ by God’s grace!
There was another problem for me. I could not get any firsthand information from any Manager who had earlier worked in Kolkata. It was simply because there was no policy to post officers from Mumbai to Kolkata, as they were mostly absorbed in Mumbai only or alternatively posted to Delhi (My posting was made from the Head Office). Hence the veracity of the stories we were receiving on Kolkata could not be counterchecked.
My posting to Kolkata as Manager at the Canning Street branch was indeed a big challenge for me. While I was privileged to work as an inspecting officer during my entire scale-I career in Mumbai, I lacked the experience of working as an officer at a branch. No doubt, I always made it a point to closely observe the working of officers and managers at different branches to keep me prepared for my future postings. But the absence of practical experience could always make a difference.
While the working conditions in Kolkata were supposed to be very bad, things were said to be worse as far as family life was concerned. Managers in Mumbai were privileged to enjoy decent quarters facility, as the bank had invested in a number of apartments in the prestigious suburbs of Bandra, Andheri, Santacruz, Malad, Versova, Mulund, Kurla, Vikhroli and others. But there was no such investment in Kolkata. The managers and officers were expected to make their own arrangements by fixing the houses on rent by availing the services of real estate agents. This created lot of problems for the Managers as they were total strangers to the city. The rental limits fixed by the bank were also not attractive to the landlords. Security was another major issue. There was no apartment culture in Kolkata unlike in Mumbai. The independent houses lacked safety. There were frequent reports of burglaries.
Another major issue was the harassment in the form of collection of ‘Chhonda’ (subscription) by unscrupulous elements during the annual Pooja festival. Kolkata was also (in) famous for its frequent load-shedding in those days. We in Mumbai had been enjoying the uninterrupted power supply situation all these days - thanks to the capacity and the efficiency of the Tata power companies, BSES and BEST. So much so that I had to refer to a dictionary to find out the meaning of load-shedding! As regards the public transportation, I was told that there was no suburban rail service comparable to Mumbai. The bus services were also said to be very bad, in any case, nowhere near the BEST services. The traffic jams in Kolkata roads were said to be complementing the load-shedding in the offices! A part of the blame went to the tunnel work going on endlessly for the Metro Rail services.
It was in this background that I left Mumbai on one fine day in the month of June 1984. I was going alone to Kolkata as I could shift my family only after fixing my quarters in the city. I had made it a point to ensure that my arrival time in the city was in the early part of the day. The Howrah Express in which I undertook the journey was to reach Kolkata in the early morning. I was a total stranger to the city and I could not expect anybody to receive me at the station.
During the course of my train journey I developed a close friendship with an elderly Bengali gentleman. Mr. Mukherjee was returning to Kolkata after visiting his daughter in Mumbai. I tried to collect maximum information from him about the city. As the train entered the state of West Bengal, we started hearing the news that there were heavy rains in Kolkata. It was also reported that the train services were totally disrupted and the outstation trains were being terminated before they arrived in Howrah station. By now we had realised that our train was being held up frequently and the journey had become painfully slow.
We reached the town of Kharagpur (known for its IIT) by the evening. We were stranded in the station for a painfully long time. Ultimately we heard an announcement on the loud speaker. We thought the train would start at last. But to our utter dismay we learnt that the Howrah Express had been terminated at Kharagpur itself! So that was it. My first journey into the great city of Kolkata had come to an abrupt end!
------- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy
6th June 2010

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