Burrabazar has changed Camac Street beyond recognition. Airy bungalows and shaded sidewalks, once the hallmarks of one of Calcutta’s best addresses, have given way to multi-storeyed office complexes and shopping malls of amazing ugliness. Caught between the fervid flyover-building activity at its AJC Bose Road end, and the feeding frenzy of thousands of office-goers, who are compelled to buy the hearty yet cheap meals that only kerbside vendors can serve up, sleepy Camac Street has become Calcutta's upcoming commercial hub.
Of late, British Council has moved into this street from its Shakespeare Sarani landmark, and it shares the squat L&T Chambers with Microsoft. Council director Sujata Sen says of course she misses the garden on the former premises, but she does appreciate the “integrated premises” on this street. But like everybody else here, what she minds most is the flooding of Camac Street for three to four hours at a stretch after a heavy shower. Once in use, the newest state secretariat built recently here, will only compound the street's problems.
The bungalows of Camac Street used to be few and far between. Three-fourths of each plot used to be leafy and green. The bungalow occupied the rest. Industry House, the first highrise that raised its head way above the two-storyed norm of this neighbourhood in the late Sixties, is the only new building with adequate frontage. But further down the street, the more-recently-built highrises leave less and even less open space in front. The newest ones have forgotten to leave any at all.
The space separating one highrise from another is so limited, one wonders if this was done to promote neighbourly feeling -- allowing the occupant of one building to shake hands with his friend in the building in the adjoining plot. This feeling of camaraderie between two next-door buildings is taken to its logical conclusion in the two leaning towers of Urbashi and Usha Kiran that tilt their heads to such an extent that they actually hug and kiss in mid-air.
From isolated bungalows to cramped highrises -- the density of population has shot up by leaps and bounds here. Which is natural -- 10-12 times the earlier floor area has been developed. But the corporation failed to make corresponding investment in civic amenities. To be fair, there has been no proportional rise in civic revenue either.
But what do occupants of highrises do in the event of a fire' With little elbow space, fire engines will never be able to squeeze in-between the towering infernos. But nobody seems to be bothered – least of all the occupants or landlords of these structures.
And what if there is an earthquake' Then these towers are bound to shake, rattle and roll.
The wide pavements of Camac Street, the widest anywhere in the city, onceboasted coppiced borders. Now the barren pavements are used for parking, lots for that purpose being absent here.
Reliance of death trap fame shares Azimganj House with a giant toyshop.
The culture of greed that has beset this street is seen at its worst in this toyshop. Of course, one can call it a mere shop only at the risk of disregarding its enormous proportions and the mind-boggling variety of its stock-in-trade. It is actually a glitzy mall with a mezzanine floor. With its profusion of toys of every description, size, shape and colour stuffed in all imaginable nooks and crannies, it is every child's fantasy come true. But it is not for every child. Without money to burn you feel like a beggar here. Hordes of brats holding talkathons on their mobile phones descend on this mall with their doting parents in tow. Picking and choosing being inconceivable to them, they grab whatever comes their way. They know for sure that mama or papa will pay up without demur. This is the nursery school of conspicuous consumption.
But Calcutta is a city of paradoxes. White-capped Nizam Palace soars proudly above the flyover. From the terrace of any highrise clumps of trees are still visible. Industry House is flanked by two bungalows cocooned by foliage. No 9 looks unchanged from without. But it was partly reconstructed in 1974. A shrine has come up behind the main building. The marble was torn off the floor of a large hall and replaced with mosaic tiles. The hall is an office now, its walls lined with legal tomes. Rajendra Kumar Jain, 50, estate manager of sorts, is busy working at his computer. He says the house originally belonged to the Lahas. In 1961, businessmen who owned collieries in Raniganj, purchased the house.
Both the buildings at Number 10 have steadfastly resisted change, though the one in the rear looks sad and shabby. The only resident of the latter is Leela Dasgupta in her 70s. She lives alone with her maids in one of the impossibly large flats, eroded by age.
This invaluable property used to belong till the Eighties to Gerald Neil Craig, a man who led a charmed life. Besides being one of the richest landlords of Calcutta, he was a walking dictionary on Western classical music, besides being the music critic of an English daily in the early Eighties.
Craig inhabited the recherché world associated with pink gin and Proust. A pianist himself, he kept open house on Thursdays, when drinks were served by liveried bearers.
Craig died at 72 in October, 1985. Of late, the executor of his will, Sammy Sadka, has been living in Craig’s flat. Jewish like his friend Craig, Sadka lies alone in bed after his recent illness, immersed in an ocean of ancient documents that smother the floor and the furniture, and like parasites, seem to have a life of their own.
He is a deep-sea diver coming up with precious nuggets of memory. At 83, he speaks with relish about tennis ace Gussy Moran of black lace panties fame when she was invited to South Club, and the British Jewish bomb Suzy Sofa, whose horse Winged Tiger had won the Viceroy’s Cup. She lived in that flat before Craig. Sagda casts a searching sidelong glance, and with his aquiline nose tilted in the right angle, he looks disconcertingly like John Gielgud.