Where The Streets Have New Names

Prasad Khatu is pointing indignantly out of his cab, bringing our attention to one of the new street signs typically found everywhere in the winding streets of Kolkata. The new signs are crafted from a modern polymer and glow brightly over the hectic bustle of the streets.  Keeping with tradition of the central Kolkata city, the signs are colored in an Indian green (representing the lower band of the independent nation’s flag) and written in English (representing an old habit from its colonial past): “শশী ভূষণ দা স্ট/Sashi Bhushan Dey Street”.  Prasad gestures our gaze to move beyond the bright new sign, and on to the cracked stucco of the building behind. Just visible there is an older street sign, in the same hue, with the white letters painted over in another lighter shade of green; making the letters faintly visible: “বঙ্করাই স্ট্রিট/Bankarai Street”. To illustrate his point further, Prasad turns a narrow dog-leg two blocks over from the newly christened Bankarai Street. The traffic is heaving with cars and mopeds. The people of the area slalom between the narrow spaces between them, habitually indifferent to the loud and anxious revs of the vehicles.  On this new street, Prasad is struggling to find the evidence he is so keen to show to us.  He abandons us briefly in the taxi, instigating an eruption of car horns behind us – Prasad breaks his conversation with one of the market traders to look back at the disgruntled drivers with a naive and deferential smile.  He is pointed in the direction he needs and returns to the wheel, laughing and waving to the blaring horns.  At the top of the street he pulls onto sidewalk and points to another gleaming polymer sign: “রূপচাঁদ রায় রাস্তায়/Rupchand Roy Street”.  Further below, but just raised over a line of posters advertising this week’s latest releases from Bollywood, is another older sign that has the lettering hastily painted over: “বঙ্করাই স্ট্রিট/Bankarai Street”.  Prasad looks back at us and winks slyly, displaying a red marker with a mischievous shake of his wrist.  Stepping out, beneath the two signs and starts to leave a mark over the face of Sanjay Dutt:  One long vertical strike with two perpendicular lines, one from the top of the first mark, the other coming from the centre, followed by what appeared to be a complete five in a tally.

Back at the taxi depot, the air is filled with lingering tobacco smoke and tinged with resignation.  Our tour with Prasad was his last fare as a taxi driver in the city; he tells us he has been in the job 12 years. He is only 24 years old and our calculations on how old he must have been when he started driving in the city are met with an indifferent shrug. Fahad sits with us, he is the owner of the taxi service.  In the last six months he has sold 20 of his fleet of 60 taxis; next week there will be 10 more taken for scrap; for the remaining 30, he is in negotiation.  “We won, but now we must surrender.  This was our mistake; to think that it was a conflict; to think the dispute was about a ‘rationality’; that any of this was related to the streets of Kolkata was our delusion.”

The demise of Kolkata’s taxi services began years before with the emergence of the on-demand taxi services, operated through customers’ smartphones via an app.  At the time the taxi unions in the city were strong, Kolkata is one of the world’s most congested cities, with numerous streets being labelled on the maps that are not passable by car for many hours of the day.  The knowledge held by the taxi drivers was unique, and hard-earned – many start young (though legally none can drive a taxi until they are 18) and little-by-little would navigate the best routes through the city.  At the emergence of the on-demand services there were protests from the drivers’ union, but what was most effective was the poor customer reactions.  The freelance on-demand drivers would often get lost.  Reliant on their smartphones for navigation around the city they would be directed into streets that the more wily taxi drivers would know were dead ends, or impassable at certain times of the day.  Customers were late, and drivers would feel shortchanged for the amount of time they had spent on one ride against the payment received (they cannot renegotiate the fare once accepted).  The apps were being deleted rapidly, the taxi unions breathed a sigh of relief. “We knew they would not go away,” Fahad explains over his black coffee, “They failed at every hurdle. Exploiting their employees, paying huge sums for interest groups, paying off drivers to leave the union and represent them.  They failed.  They failed because they could not understand Kolkata.  We had earned the right to exist without their interference, and what have they done?  They have abducted Kolkata from us, they have re-written the city to exclude us, and they succeeded by changing Kolkata for the general public.  They turned the people’s innocence, their compact with the drivers against us both.  The outside companies saw what it was that we had, which was the trust of the passenger and they decided to work on undermining that, rather than bring anything of benefit to the passenger himself.”

Around 18 months ago, drivers stationed at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport began facing difficulties with their passengers.  New hotels have emerged from time to time, but abruptly the drivers were being confronted with names they were completely unfamiliar with, and on streets, that they were sure had no such hotel.  They began to get lost, arriving at hotels that they have known for years that were, in spite of the name of their passenger’s phone, was still called the same name it had always been. These occurrences became increasingly common.  Unfamiliar hotel names and guest houses, positioned on unfamiliar streets, revealing themselves to be very familiar hotels on very familiar streets.  When drivers engaged with hotel staff, they were finding confusion – no one had re-named the hotel to them.  It was true, the problem was beyond the hotel itself.  Nothing in the hotel’s physical reality had changed, only its online presence was the hotel under a new guise.  For the driver’s, whose business relies upon the confidence of their ability to navigate the city, this was a devastating, not to mention disturbing turn of events.

On the wall of Fahad’s office is an ageing map of the city.  Of course, they had stopped using it when digital maps provided more precision.  But the map on the wall does give Fahad an opportunity to show how the streets have all been changed.  He runs his fingers against the paper, in conjunction with the touchscreen of his tablet, not a single street has the same name “We no longer know where we live.  Yet, we don’t care.  It is the perversity of colonialism, that we resent a poor man taking a few extra sheckles for his work, and yet we allow the powerful to completely re-define the ground we walk upon.”

There is no known reason for the renaming of the streets.  Google as an American company cannot be held legally responsible for the changes, and the government has remained silent on the matter.  Ultimately, the taxi drivers have been hurt and the pain is isolated to them.  Most citizens use the digital map service to navigate around the city, and for those who live in a local area, the new names are not registered, since they are already orientated to the area; or they soon adopt the alteration. When the taxi drivers took to the streets to protest this faceless re-design of their city, they were met with an unsympathetic response from government. “A fringe group complaining that they no longer have dominion over our pockets.” claimed Ras Mukherjee, transport minister for West Bengal.  The public opinion was more tepid; the taxi had primarily been a mode of transportation reserved for tourists and the wealthy. The general feeling from the streets were that their battle was with their customers, and not a fight that needed national attention.

Prasad is packing his things and relocating his family out to the steel mills in Durgapur, he has a job lined up from another former driver who abandoned the taxi-life 6 months prior to our visit.  Fahad laments that the people of Kolkata could not see that their dispute was wider than the drivers’ protecting their profits.  He sees the re-designs as more than an attempt to undermine a powerful working class community, “I don’t believe they care for us (taxi drivers) this much – whoever they are!”, he mutters with some irony, “It is about undermining any form of civil action.  India freed itself with the gathering of people and marching against exploitation and tyranny.  Now, if the world puts us in a position where we must gather again, how are we to find the location?”

On our way back to the hotel, we pass through what we believe to be the new Rupchand Roy Street, or the former Bankarai Street.  Though we are chilled with uncertainty. Hanging above, in a haze of rust, is the old Bankarai Street, but the bright light indicates that we are now standing on Jaharlal Dutta Lane.  On the walls, Sanjay Dutt heroically looks back at us and is no longer stained by Prasad’s marking. The face of Dutt, however, is soft and wet to the touch, as if he has been pasted on only in the last hour.

We hail a cab via an app and its clear how little we need to question these things.  My phone has the location of the hotel, whatever it puts on the screen is immaterial.  The same goes for the driver, the location is given to him and the screen guides him through the city.  When life has been boiled down to getting from A to B, what does calling anything other than A and B matter?  But then I’m reminded by Fahad that the East India Company, in its privatised efficiency never made allowances for the potentialities of crop failure.  “Non-interference kills more than war.  10 million died of hunger in the 19th century believing that the market must come first.  In a society that now gives nothing to those that cannot occupy a space, it is worrying that ‘space’ is now in a constant flux, no?”

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