A Riverfront Trip to Watch the Natives – Outram Ghat, Calcutta

When in Calcutta, do as Calcuttans do. And what do Calcuttans do on a summer evening? The ones who aren’t trapped in their cool air-conditioned offices or homes head towards Outram ghat. But of course. Outram ghat is the most popular river front destination for Calcutta folks.

Named after Sir James Outram, an English general in India during Sepoy Revolution (1857), Outram ghat was a key port during the reign of British empire. Now, Sir Outram rests in the annals of Britannica and while the port is still operational, the ghat is a place for myriads of daily activities – boating, hawkers selling fast food, commuting, couples murmuring sweet nothings, immersion of idols after the puja ceremonies, and of course – adda, chatting, the activity Kolkata natives are most famous for. If you are a tourist, this riverfront location is indeed a perfect spot to watch the natives.

My last trip to Outram ghat was after an unexpected rainstorm. It had cooled down somewhat but it was muggy. The evening breeze was barely cool. After braving the evening traffic, and a haphazard parking, I had headed straight for the sight of the river. A distributary of Ganges, Hooghly, moves slowly in these parts. After traveling more than a thousand miles it is not too far from its final destination, the Bay of Bengal delta. Gold and orange hue of setting sun shimmers in the river waters. Floating barges go between the ghat and the ferries – maneuvered by ropes . Some large shipping vessels can be seen. Here the view of the river is flanked by the two Howrah bridges, one of them was conceived in the same year as I was. Hooghly’s clam water looks clear even though it has washed the garbage of hundreds of millions of people living on the Gangatic plane.

The cacophony of noise in most places in India is mind boggling. But it feels overbearing at the riverfront. Groups of young and old people sit together doing what they do best – adda , some on mobile phones even. Bengalis are loud – we argue loudly, we laugh loudly and pontificate loudly. Hawkers hawk their wares loudly. The shipping vessels let out loud booming sounds. There is a madness in honking coming from the congested traffic only a few hundred yards away. The local train, whose tracks are adjacent to the ghat, lets out loud whistles to warn people crossing the tracks to and fro from the ghat.

No one should come here for peace and quiet. Maybe the small boats can be rowed far out enough where the noisy madness can be replaced by gentler river sounds. These country boats look postcard pretty. The boatmen don’t sing folk songs in their melancholy voices, like they do in Satyajit Ray’s movies. Here they sit together on their haunches, swigging at their bidis, waiting for the accidental tourist.

Along with other obsessions like adda and traveling, Bengalis are food obsessed. They are either eating or planning a future meal. A trip to the ghat is never without the joys of mouthwatering roadside food. All along the ghat, hawkers sell delicious fast food – fuchka, small puffed crisp fried breads filled with tangy water; jhal-muri, spicy and savory puffed rice and steaming sweet tea in earthen cups. Outram ghat is particularly famous for its jhal-muri. For my father, a medical man, and normally a very careful eater, sometimes the urge for jhal-muri is so strong that he drives a good hour through the crazy Calcutta traffic just for this. I think it has something to do with his young adult memories when this ghat was the most popular rendezvous point. Natives claim jhal-muri to be the perfect meal in between the lunch and dinner – the spicy puffed rice wakes up the taste buds, and the sweet tea subsequently soothes them down. But if you are a tourist, curb the temptation, the natives are far better adapted to roadside indiscretions.

The ghat is littered with tiny idols of various Gods and Goddesses, presumably to aid the numerous birth and death ceremonies that take place on the banks of this holy river. But on that particular trip, a curious ritual, bisarjan , immersion of clay idols of goddess in the holy river Ganges, typically associated with Durga puja, met my eyes. Idols were being carried to the river front but instead of immersing the idol in the river water, they were left dotting the walkway. Curious indeed. The idol’s face looked like that of Durga, probably made using the same mold, but thats where the similarity ended. Instead of the fearsome lion that Durga uses as her carriage, this idol sat on donkey whose teeth were bared in an idiotic grin. A funny sight but I dared not laugh. My father later informed me that she was indeed an incarnation of Durga called Sitala and is celebrated among the lower castes and villagers in Bengal. Legends have it that she can’t swim and therefore she cannot be immersed in water. Her idol is left to disintegrate on the river banks – biblical dust to dust and all that – and in Bengal’s sultry summers, this process is indubitably short.

The Bristish era statues and masonry at the ghat suffer a similar fate. Overgrowth of trees or barricades make it hard to see some of these relics, let alone read the inscriptions on them. In a country where nooks and crevices ooze history, there is little indulgence for the past, at least not yet. With approaching darkness, the lights on the floating restaurant look brighter. Lovers snuggle closer together taking the advantage of the darkness, a little privacy in a packed sardine can of a city. Mosquitoes vs privacy, the battle would go on for a while longer. I head home contemplating dinner – Ilish macher jhal, steamed hilsa fish coated with spicy mustard paste; and dhokar dalna, fried lentil cakes in gravy.

Parking is a nightmare, so a cab ride or personal driver is preferable. If you are visiting, reserve at least an hour for the ghat, preferably two. The floating restaurant takes off for a river trip on Sundays – a river trip and Bengali food on the cheap. Please be advised to check with the restaurant for latest itinerary. The restaurant is also a great spot to watch the Durga puja immersions, an occasion that can otherwise be very crowded. For more photos from this trip, click here.

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