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A Streetcar Named Memory

Calcutta was my favorite big city when I was growing up. Our yearly visits to my mother's sister, Mam, were blissful. Zero studies. One hundred percent fun. The city has been renamed to Kolkata in recent years, but my memories of "Cal", as we called it, are plentiful. The iconic downtown with Chowringhee Road anchoring the famous Grand Hotel, Esplanade and Park Street and the massive "Cadbury" sign visible from miles away brought me immeasurable joy.

The excitement began when we arrived at the gloriously red Howrah station. The train lines we traveled on stopped at Howrah, which convinced 5-year old Tarun that a great fire lay beyond Calcutta, signaling the end of the world.

I think of New Market, a shopaholic's paradise, where the shopkeepers beckoned you like long lost friends. I remember watching my parents bargain with them in an intricate dance of engagement and refusal until the right price was struck. And I think of watching the cadence of the life from the window of Mam's house on Kabir Road.

The memory that surpasses all others is that of riding the Calcutta trams.

The trams of my childhood had no doors. People jumped in and out as the cars slowed down. My brother used to grab me by my hand and help me in and out. I marveled at how the beige cars turned at intersections on perfectly laid tracks. I remember watching the trams come down the middle of Gariahat Road with a slight rumble and the sound of rope-pulled bells. I shied from the irate passengers demanding change and the khaki-clad conductor never seeming to have any. As we hit our teen years, we waited till the last minute to cross in front of a tram. Sometimes Tarun snuck into the "first-class" car. A little bit of living on the edge. And a lot of adventure.

Here's a picture from google of a tram from the 80s.

Tarun's fondness for trams extended to collecting tram tickets because they were on heavier stock unlike bus tickets. His favorite ride was around the central grounds of downtown, called the Maidan, where the trams ran unimpeded by cars. With greenery on both sides, the cars went at maximum speed offering perfect views of the storied Mohun Bagan and East Bengal soccer fields and of Eden Gardens, the famous cricket stadium.

We have to thank the British for the introduction of the tram system in Calcutta. The first tram was horse-drawn and it ran in 1873 from Sealdah to Armenian Ghat. After a brief period, the service stopped and was restarted in 1880. Since then it has been in continuous operation. After horses came steam engines and finally electric trams. The oldest of Greater London's trams originated in 1860 and San Francisco's first trolley operated in 1873. Calcutta was a certainly a city that kept pace with the world on this front.

By 1900, Cal owned 166 tram cars, 1,000 horses, 7 steam locomotives and 19 miles of track. Today there are 257 of them, all electric and eco-friendly. The city has the distinction of having Indian's only tram system and Asia's oldest.

With swanky cars and a modern subway system, ridership is falling. I've read that the city has upgraded some of the cars with air-conditioning. I have no doubt that the ride is better in cooler temperature but I wonder what it is like without the wind rushing through your hair, hearing the incessant thudding of the cars going over the joints in the tracks, and the sight of people jumping in and out adventurously?

I am afraid there is every economic reason for this amazing heritage to become obsolete in the coming years. I wish the city will be able to keep chugging along with trams for as long as it can, at least until we have a chance to ride one last time. Anticipating this loss, whenever I see a tram anywhere in the world, I obsessively take pictures.

Here's one from our visit to Nice, France...

...and one from Istanbul.

These pictures flood me with happy memories of the sights and sounds of a childhood long gone but etched in the crevices of my mind.

Next time you see a tram, trolley, or streetcar, hop on without hesitation. And if you can make your way to Cal while the old cars are still around, go for it. It will be a thrill of a lifetime. Guaranteed.

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