It was a relentlessly hot, humid Monday afternoon in Kolkata with the temperature coming in at respectable 35 degrees Celsius. But it was not the humidity that caused the thinning out of the usually massive crowds around Kolkata’s historic Burrabazar area. It was a more primeval human emotion: fear.
On the first day of the week after that terrible tragedy where the under-construction Vivekananda flyover collapsed on Thursday, killing 27 people at Ganesh Talkies, people walked on the stretch with an uneasy eye cast upwards. Despite the specific section in which the collapse occurred being closed off, people in the congested area still had no option but to walk for large stretches underneath the remaining portions of the flyover and the anxiety was palpable.
This is one of North Kolkata’s most important arterial roads, connecting the old city to the Hooghly river and then to the railway station in Howrah. Though lots of autorickshaws usually run on this stretch, several passengers got out of their vehicles just before they reached the flyover and began to walk.
Despite this, the autos continued to line up at the stand, 100 metres away from the site of the tragedy.
‘I am scared, but what do I do?’
“Aatonko toh achei, dada,” said Rajkumar Prajapati, sitting inside an auto and waiting for passengers. Obviously, I am scared. “But what do I do?" he asked. "This is my profession. I have to come here. Because of this fear around us, we are getting fewer passengers now.”
It seemed a common sentiment around the area. Shops opened up for the first time after the tragedy on Thursday, but the number of customers had diminished.
“Pet toh chalanai padhta hai (I have to conduct my livelihood),” explained Rajneet Singh, a sugar-cane juice seller who was only a few metres away from the spot and was one of the first few to rush to the site when the disaster occurred. “Obviously I am scared to be sitting under that very same bridge. Sometimes, I imagine that the pillars are shaking. But what do I do? Where else do I go?”
The stretch has some of Kolkata’s oldest and storied sweet shops, but even they wore a deserted look. “Everyone is scared and few people are coming here,” said Sahadeb Dey, sitting at the counter of Nepal Chandra Sweets and gesturing at his empty shop. “Because of the tragedy, we have already lost Rs. 12,000-Rs 15,000 per day and losing more by the hour. I don’t know when things will return to normalcy but it will take a long, long time to get over the events of that terrible day.”
There were mixed responses to queries about the eventual fate of the still unfinished flyover. Some residents refused to get into the debate. Among them was Navratan Sharma, who lives in one of the houses adjoining the collapse spot. “The first priority has to be clearing up that debris" he said. "Let those who are working there finish the entire exercise of clearing the debris. Then those in charge, should take a call. But most importantly, they should ensure that nothing of this sort happens anywhere in Kolkata or in India ever again”
Others like Dey want the flyover to be demolished. “Look at how they built it,” he pointed to one of the pillars, positioned dangerously close to the second floor of a house. “How can you make a flyover like this? This happened without the flyover being opened to traffic. Can you imagine what would have happened if they had opened it to traffic?”
Anger over fear
Another dominant emotion was anger. Ganesh Mukhiya, a rickshaw-puller, lost two fellow rickshaw-pullers in Thursday’s tragedy.
“Bhaiya, main ek anpad gawar rickshaw puller hoon. (I am an uneducated simpleton rickshaw-puller, brother),” began Mukhiya. “But even I know the load I am carrying and when it becomes too much. For all these years, we saw that single stretch, both the up and down sections, being supported by a single pillar. We used to feel uneasy about it and then this terrible thing happened.”
On any other day, he would be busy ferrying passengers and would hardly have time to talk. But now, sitting underneath the bridge, the loss of business was hardly on top of his mind. “Fine, fewer people are here but I will make do with what I have, if required I will have one roti less," he said. "But at least, I am alive. What about those who were murdered here?"
Then with a mutinous expression on his face, he went on, "I have kept the edition of the March 31 newspaper with me. I will never ever forget this. I will keep it so I can show it to people even ten years later. No one should forget the extent of what happened here, ever.”