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John Lundberg

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Kolkata Broadcasts Poetry in the Streets

Posted: 09/04/11 03:01 PM ET

The Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) has hatched an odd, but perhaps ingenious, new plan to curb traffic, one that has the added benefit of incorporating poetry into the daily lives of the city's commuters.

Kolkata is a city that knows a thing or two about traffic management. It's the 13th most populous urban area in the world, and it suffers from an abnormally high density of vehicles. Its streets are filled with taxis, buses, pedestrians, and even hand-pulled rickshaws, all of them -- it seems in this video -- honking their horns constantly.

Just how bad is traffic in Kolkata? A 2004 police bulletin beamed that the city had been successful "in attaining a travel speed of almost 19 km per hour, which is," they made sure to point out, "amazing under the circumstances." That works out to about 12 miles per hour. That's what passed for "amazing" in Kolkata seven years ago, and surely seven years of a booming population hasn't been kind. So what's a city to do?

Kolkata decided to try bringing a little poetry to the streets. They affixed loudspeakers to traffic lights to broadcast great Bengali poems during rush hour in the hopes that it would calm the nerves of anxious drivers. So far the project has taken root in dozens of intersections around the city, and plans are in place to get the speakers up everywhere.

You'll probably be surprised to hear (as I certainly was) that so far, it seems to be working. Kolkata's Mayor announced, "The initiative is proving popular as it provides relief from the stressful driving." The city's police approve of the project, and even the commuters, it seems, are on board. One local businessman told Deutsche Presse-Agentur, "It is a pleasant change ... motorists usually impatient earlier, are now relaxed and wait at ease." Another told the Press Trust of India that the poetry has quieted the honking: "Previously we used to blow horns often enough to draw attention of policemen at the signal console. Not now." Many pedestrians are reportedly now taking their time walking to work, enjoying the poetry, and their most common complaint seems to be about the subpar sound quality of the speakers.

But not everyone is thrilled with the program. Khiti Goswami of the Revolutionary Socialist Party doesn't think poetry should be tied to a post and broadcast over traffic noise: "One needs to be meditative to relish the beauty of such compositions," he said.

It does seem an odd marriage of poetry, frayed nerves, and general cacophony. One that I feel confident asserting wouldn't work here in the States. If Walt Whitman's greatest hits were blaring through the Holland Tunnel -- well, I have a hard time imagining that going over well. We'd be better served aiming to bring poetry back to the nation's mass transit systems. But, more quiet-like. In print.