Howrah Bridge is blending India's modern present with its spiritual past

Illuminated Howrah Bridge at night in Kolkata. Photo: Subrata Majumdar
In a letter to his friend and fellow poet, Gary Snyder, American beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote: “Under the great Howrah bridge, an eternity style bridge with all Calcutta passing over it in bullock cart auto tram bus bicycle or dragging leprous foot— A sustained wild roar that rises and falls like music… Om—”

There is no date on the letter, included in Ginsberg’s Indian Journals (1971), but one can guess it must be October 1962, when he was in Calcutta (Kolkata), along with his companion Peter Orlovsky. To him, the cantilever structure, spanning across the yawning, brown muddy Hooghly, like a conjunction between the sprawling metropolis of Calcutta and Howrah, seemed just like “home… Brooklyn [bridge].”

To the denizens of the city, compelled to cross it every time they have to catch a train, this infrastructural behemoth might scarcely inspire such wonder. Though there is a considerable amount of poetry and writing on the bridge in Bengali and Hindi, we have learnt to take it in our stride. For those visiting the city — Günter Grass, Dominique Lapierre, James Baxter and Ginsberg — it is not only a bridge across space but also through time, connecting India’s modern present with its spiritual past.

An enigmatic character Ginsberg met in Kolkata was Asoke Fakir, who shared his birth date, and would later become the spiritual guru of Harvard psychologist-turned-psychedelic celebrity Timothy Leary. Deborah Baker in her book The Blue Hand writes about how Fakir took Ginsberg to a temple at the foot of the bridge: “As a tram thundered across the bridge above them, Asoke translated the sadhu’s reflections. Indicating the steel roar of the bridge above him, but in a motion that seemed to Allen to suggest the entire universe, the sadhu shouted, “It’s a great machinery’.”

Later, in his poem on the bridge, Ginsberg would write: “Black steel roof one mile long/...Roar of tidal bore — wall of grey water/rushing past the burning ghat.”

But it’s not only a spectacle of spirituality beneath the shadows of the iron ribs of the bridge. As Lapierre described in The City of Joy, it’s also the site of destitution and apathy, a gaping class struggle that Sankha Ghosh described in his poem: “Get on top of Howrah Bridge / Look up, look down / There are only two classes / the smart and the stupid.”

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