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AN INSTRUCTIVE WALK-AROUND
- Changes in old residential areas reflect the changing ethos of a city

Last Sunday Amit Chaudhuri said in these columns that “a walk in Mandeville Gardens or a drive through Bhowanipore or Alipore is much more instructive and charged with excitement for the visitor than a pilgrimage to the Victoria Memorial”. I don’t know about the excitement but could not agree more that residential areas speak of a city’s ethos which dead monuments do not. In that respect, Mandeville Gardens — tellingly converted to “Mandabhilla” in local parlance — must claim primacy as relic of the Calcutta that was and flagbearer of the Calcutta that is and will be.

Alipore is where the rich still live, and Bhowanipore remains epicentre of middle-class Bengali respectability. But Mandeville Gardens has broken completely with its past. Returning recently after an absence of 12 months, I was struck again by how the neighbourhood where I have slipped from boyhood to old age has merged into the featureless landscape of shabby condominiums that is Calcutta’s destiny. Our only claim to being different from other agglomerations of factory-like blocks of flats is also our greatest shame and the biggest disgrace for civic zoning, traffic control and dignified living. I am told that South Point School holds the Guinness record for the world’s highest student enrolment.

Where once only 18 families lived there must now be 5,000, plus thousands of schoolchildren with their parents, attendants and cars, rickshaws, cages on wheels and school buses. The noise and congestion are maddening. Imagine the added pressure on power and water, living and parking space, and on facilities like conservancy, sanitation and flood diversion. Nor have municipal services improved to meet demand. Once, malis trimmed the roadside grass, shaving the stone edging while jemadars removed the cut grass. We now have to pay the jemadar to clear household garbage while the malis — no doubt still on the payroll — are nowhere to be seen.

One householder has stuck tiles of Hindu deities along his boundary wall to discourage children and servants from urinating, but divinity doesn’t deter them. I said 18 because the first six bungalows faced the tramlines, and Numbers 7 and 8 commanded the bend. Only 9 to 25 were in the short narrow road where I have lived for 57 years. The name intrigued me even in 1946, my schoolboy imagination fired by the wondrous tales of that inspired liar, Sir John de Mandeville, who boasted of distant parts where people used their legs as umbrellas, of dragons, loadstone mountains, the fountain of youth, and Prester John lording it over 70 Indian kings.

Reality was almost as exotic. A family of civets thundered above the rafters. Parrots fluttered in the guava tree that twisted outside the dressing room. Crows cawed piteously if Mithuda so much as showed his face in the garden because he had climbed the mango tree once and raided their nest. Imperial Tobacco’s Wills in Number 16 shot his horse before packing his bags. The new Marwari occupants had two servants run up and down the lawn to dry washed saris while the lady of the house stood on the verandah urging them to run faster and jump higher.

One morning a hunchbacked guinea fowl, speckled grey, white and black, was peacefully pecking the grass with my hens. My mother telephoned Sverre Gylseth, the Norwegian consul in Number 18, Dr Boege, a Central European of imprecise nationality in 19, and Gestetner’s Penburthy (Pan Bonti to his Oriya servants) who built ships in bottles in 15. They kept poultry but disclaimed the guinea fowl which became mine.

Legend had it that a Japanese company had built the 25 identical tile-roofed bungalows, each squatting on more than a bigha of manicured garden. Legend also had it that they were sold during World War II for a thousand rupees a cottah, the house thrown in for free. I suspect that the abundance of Burma teak — floor, doors and windows, wainscoting, beams, rafters and picture rails — hastened their destruction once the building boom heralded the age of easy killings.

Apart from the Europeans, the Malhotras made razor blades, the Bedis claimed descent from a Sikh guru, and had a stake in the ruined palace by the Dhakuria lakes, the Mehtas were august officials. The Puris of Number 17, where they remain entrenched, were established Calcutta people. I wondered about the nostalgic Englishman who had inflicted the name Milhaven on the Marwaris who had acquired Number 22.

The few Bengalis whispered that a policeman was stationed outside Justice Jyoti P. Mitter’s house because of his involvement in the Indian National Army trials. His is probably the only bungalow left intact — the Puri home has been renovated extensively — with notices on both gates firmly warning off promoters. H.P. Bhaumik, a retired postmaster-general with OBE after his name, was invariably decked out in dhoti and panjabi, chador twisted round his neck like an English undergraduate’s college scarf. Ripples of excitement when Colonel Mitter of Lakshmibilas Cottage died in a fracas with tenants in another area.

The Santosh Banerjee family, rich stevedores, didn’t belong. Not because they long ago replaced their bungalow (Number 24) with a solid double-storied house but because it — and they and their lifestyle — identified with Ekdalia Road, a no-go area on the other side of the track. That was where Sunanda Banerjee of cinematic fame lived. Nearby, Professor Subodh Sengupta held court every Sunday morning. With youth’s insouciance, Ekdalia Evergreen Club ignored the social divide, collecting puja chanda from Boege, Gylseth and Penburthy, and kicking a ball around on the empty plot opposite our house. Rebel members once renamed Naba Yug Sangha, the club’s junior branch, DITS, the acronym apparently exalting four neighbourhood girls. Politics flourished in Ekdalia long before Subrata Mukherjee muscled in.

There was no politics in Mandeville Gardens however. But, like Peyton Place, it may have had its secrets and scandals. Colonel MacGilchrist of the Indian Medical Service was reputed to have Khasi blood. His wife allegedly boasted of her connection with W.C. Bonnerjee. Was tubby little Mrs Bhaduri with the blonde hair pulled tightly back in a bun and speaking colloquial Bengali German or Russian' And who was the old European who would park his convertible by the roadside and stare vacantly into space, clambering out only to pee on the grass verge'

Differences and disparities did not prevent the community from uniting to defend its rights. It had signs put up at either end of the road forbidding heavy vehicles, an order that was obeyed. Its power was demonstrated again when an enterprising developer was not allowed to rename Cornfield Road, definitely far beyond the tracks, Mandeville Gardens Extension, or the ultimate sacrilege of driving a road to link the two then incompatible areas. The developer has gone but the link road now bustles with traffic to Ballygunge station, even sometimes with honking minibuses.

This environmental degradation is the result of burgeoning population, uncontrolled building, careless or corrupt officialdom and the lack of any sense of standard. Many of today’s dwellers have moved in from outlying suburbs or even more insalubrious quarters. Mandabhilla is a major social, economic and psychological achievement for them.

Upward mobility must be saluted. But its damaging effects, including displacement of those who were already there, should be noted. Social mobility leads to anarchy when it is not guided. Instead of graduating to a smart ambience, the new occupants have dragged Mandeville Gardens down to nearly the level they thought they had escaped. Similarly, education is perverted to only conveyor belt cramming when it descends to rank commercialism with six sections to a class and lessons in shifts with not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere.

Yes, a walk in Mandabhilla could be instructive. But only with an awareness of what it was to compare with what it has become, and see the latter as portent of Calcutta’s future.

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