The new is there in Shyampukur Street but it can’t displace the old. Not yet, says Soumitra Das
Grey is the predominant note of north Calcutta. Though promoters don’t spare the ancient heart of this city, and colourful matchboxes try to elbow out drab old buildings, this half of the city seems to be enveloped in the pall of three centuries of smoke and dust. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I saw this lovely old mansion bathed in electric moonlight. I was walking down Shyampukur Street, within a stone’s throw of both Shyambazar five-point crossing and Central Avenue.
Not a single blemish could be detected on its walls. Not even in that glare. It did not take me long to find out why the house was all dressed up. Its ground floor had been turned into a large airconditioned restaurant, a rarity in north Calcutta where décor in eateries is confined to chairs and tables. Nobody seems to mind that so long as the food is great.
A large blue sign shining on the terrace announced the restaurant’s name — Gazab. It is a cavern with mirrored walls and an overpowering smell of food.
To gain entry into the stately home of Digambar Mitra, to whom Michael Madhusudan had dedicated Meghnad Badh Kabya, one has to daintily jump across a flowing stream of urine. But before braving that stench one has to bypass a phalanx of rickshaws and Hemanta Basu’s bust. The Forward Bloc leader was murdered on that spot during the days of the Naxalite uprising.
This building of truly massive proportions begins near Town School and terminates close to where the street branches off into Ramdhar Mitra Lane. It overlooks a sprawling garden with the remains of a fountain and a wilderness of creepers, mango, coral and champak trees. A murder of crows has its debating society here.
The house is divided among the four descendants of Digambar, and the spending power of each member is evident from the state of repair or disrepair a particular section is in. I went into the section that belongs to Chandan Mitra, the most prosperous of them.
It is the section adjoining Gazab, of which Chandan is a shareholder. His house has a neatly painted porch with balconies fit for Juliet. As one’s eyes get used to the darkness inside, one notices the jungle of statuary, chinoiserie and porcelain on the staircase, in the hall and Chandan’s TV room. Chandan, plump, balding and of peaches and cream complexion, is recovering from a bad case of spondylosis and can barely move. The ceilings, too, are elaborately carved, he points out.
He says he is six generations removed from Digambar, who came from Konnagar to seek his fortune. He had also built Jhamapukur Rajbati, of which only the sections “owned” by the household deity, debuttar in short, remain. Digambar was a salt merchant. Chandan says it used to take him 40 minutes to drive around his estate in Orissa and he sold it in the recent past.
A long-time resident of Shyampukur Street asked me to find out the origin of the name of this once-kutcha road sanctified by the presence of Ramakrishna. As Sutanuti Junction, the other AC restaurant opposite Gazab constantly reminds passers-by, this is where the original inhabitants of the city had settled down, and Shyam Basak, after whom the street was apparently named, was one of them.
There is another explanation. To Sarat Chandra Mitra in the 1889 issue of National Magazine: “Shambazar and Shampooker are named after the temple of Shyama or Kali which existed there formerly. Shambazar existed in the last (18th) century for it was farmed out by the Government.”
In the past, Shyampukur Street belonged to what was the cultural hub of the north. Hatibagan, our very own Haymarket with its theatre halls, was within walking distance. The street was also home to many performers. The “voice” of Mahishasuramardini Birendra Krishna Bhadra lived there. So did singer Dwijen Mukherjee. He has moved away to Salt Lake.
It is also the office of Children’s Music Conference, the brainchild of Sunil Krishna Ghosh, 83. The house belongs to his ailing sister, married into the family of Rai Bahadur Kailash Bose. Ghosh hails from Pathuriaghat and his “conference” has produced musicians of the order of Ajay Chakraborty.
The popular bhajan singer of yesteryear Juthika Roy and her three maiden sisters can’t dream of moving out. Perhaps they don’t have the means.
The sisters had moved into this ramshackle turn-of-the-century house with their father in 1956. A faded plaque indicates that it used to belong to Rai S.C. Mitra Bahadur, late executive engineer, PWD Bengal and state engineer, Cooch Behar.
The street is so safe the Roys don’t bother to lock the front door till late evening when they retire. Juthika is in her later 80s. Her sisters, Mallika and Sabita, are younger. Their widowed sister-in-law, too, lives with them. Their section of this house let out to about 11 tenants is basically a steep and narrow staircase with rooms next to it. The ladies are cat lovers and one can smell them the moment one steps in. Their slinky bodies drape the banister. The staircase is used to dry clothes and the landing to store junk.
The groundfloor room boasts meat safes and the dining table. They sleep on camp cots in their bedroom three stories above. For entertainment they watch black-and-white TV. “We used to go to the theatre a lot when my brother was alive. But now we rarely step out,” says the youngest, Sabita. So life centres around their 14 cats and they admit they get into scrapes with neighbours over these thieving rascals.
Shyampukur Street seems to be a Kayasth stronghold. The landlords of the Roy sisters are the two brothers Somnath, 78, and Ashish Kumar Mitra, 73. The building that houses Sutanuti Junction, too, belongs to a Mitra — Umapatinath, frail and shadowlike.
If marketing people are of the idea that mostly residents of the south invest in labour-saving devices they would be in for a surprise in Ashish Mitra’s bedroom. The staircase may be dark and cobwebby but he has a brand new red fridge and a washing machine in that cubbyhole. Of course, the washing machine wears a decorous cover made from an old sari.
Though the Roy sisters found nothing wrong with the neighbourhood, like the Mitra brothers, most old men complained that this once “posh” area has been taken over by lumpens and promoters. Thankfully, old houses like Adinath Ashram are like deaf people. They inhabit a silent world of their own. That is their only defence against the world and its cares.