“Don’t even dare step into Loha Ghat or Ram Chandra Goenka bathing ghat. Drunks, ruffians, eunuchs, dead animals and mounds of filth greet you on the half broken staircases. At Loha Ghat, pavement dwellers drink in the open and prostitutes solicit clients. “At night it turns into a drug den and sleaze shop,” says a priest who lives in the temple just outside the Mullick Ghat Pumping station.” – Times Of India (2010)
For centuries, the ghats of Ganga have been a crucial part of Kolkata and the growth of civilisation around it. Ironically, the ghats became a sight of decay and despair due to low maintainence by the riverine authorities, dilapidated and on the verge of extinction. In the recent past, the ghats have earned notoriety given the presence of anti-social elements as well.
Kolkata has multiple such ghats namely the Princep Ghat, the Outram Ghat, the Armenian Ghat etc. All are relics of the British Raj named after scholars and Generals from that era. I have been a frequent visitor to Kolkata, thanks to my Bengali roots. The ghost of such narratives have haunted my visits as well.
I remember visiting the Outram ghat once as a child, that too in the morning. I have faded memories about how it looked but the serene feeling that the sight of the river gave me, is still pristine in my memory.
Every time I visit Kolkata during my summer holidays, my requests to visit Ghats were met with the ‘unsafe’ narrative. Interestingly, even a google search cannot pinpoint any major incident there but the elders said prevention is better than cure. So I was taken to some market instead.
In 2012, to my amazement my family said yes to me visiting the Ghats, mentioning how beautiful the place has become. I immediately got my camera and was all ready. We reached Princep Ghat and I had the “my entire life was a lie” feeling. The lively atmosphere, the street lights, the people, the asthetics of the place made me question the ‘unsafe’ narrative that I had grown up listening to.
Post 2012, every time I have visited Kolkata I have made it a point to visit the Princep Ghat. It is a sheer pleasure to the eyes. You can walk around, have an ice-cream sitting at Scoop with the enchanting view of the Ganges and the Hugli Bridge or enjoy the tangy phuchkas (water-cups), the spicy pav-bhaji and the zesty bhel-puris from the stalls nearby. Or even go on a ferry ride.
With an online search, I found out that the present TMC Government has taken up the Riverfront Beautification Project to bring these ghats back to its former glory.
“Several beautification drives have been undertaken in collaboration with Urban Development Department and Municipal Engineering Directorate which includes installation of artistic street lights, beautification of waterfront along the Hooghly from Princep Ghat to Millennium Park, renovation of 16 ghats along the banks of Hooghly, beautification of medians along the 16 major roads in the city etc.” as per TMC’s official website. (2015)
As a visitor who has been part of the memory of the dominant anti-social narrative of the place, the way this beautification project has changed the dynamics of it, is really fascinating. The presence of lights have brought people out in the evenings. It is not only giving the city a new safer narrative of the Ghats, but is also making the place more inclusive.
Why is dark unsafe?
I couldn’t help but smile at the transformation that putting up of street lights has brought to the place. The connection between lights and safety intrigues me. Why is dark unsafe and anti-social? What is this mystery in the darkness that asks us to avoid the night? What happens in villages where there’s little or no light. People are okay with it, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel it is a modern way to look at ‘safety’. Our fears and biases latched on to the lights to avoid the dark, the evil, the bad, the unknown, maybe. I always keep thinking.
Sipping through my bhaa(n)d of cha (kullhad of chai), as we say in Bangla, I let the thought subside and immersed myself in the moment amongst the sea of people.
Photo Credit:Pallavi (Instagram: @aabra_ka_daabra)