The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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City of Palaces in eclipse

It was a tough job not to end up wallowing in the ditch water. The slush had collected in the deep ruts created of late for the tram tracks cutting across Chowringhee to Dharamtala. At the same time, one had to react instantly to keep at arm’s length the vehicles that seem to bear a personal grudge against pedestrians. Trying to cross over to the Metro cinema pavement, I wondered if the finer sensibilities of the people who live in this city have not become warped and blunted after the heavy battering they take every day in all spheres of life.

And now to compound our woes Chowringhee is being disembowelled and disfigured once again so that a flyover can be foisted on it. Everybody knows it will not solve the city’s traffic problems, and that it will permanently blight a stretch of Calcutta that had once earned it the sobriquet of City of Palaces. Save the Peerless Inn, this stretch has remained almost unchanged for over 100 years. Chowringhee Mansion is an antique. The Geological Survey of India building was constructed in 1851. The Government College of Art & Craft in 1864. The Indian Museum in 1814. The YMCA building is just 100. Bible House was established between 1820-30. A decade after the turn of the last century, Metropolitan Building was completed. The shops, too, share the antiquity of the buildings. Tobacconists Auddy & Son opened in 1828. Paramananda Auddy still stocks tobacco and pipes but he sells clothes on the side as well. East India Arms Co has been around for 150 years. Grand Hotel may have been established as late as 1938, but for the common Calcuttan it is this establishment, and no other, that is synonymous with luxury and splendour beyond compare.

The zone is steeped in nostalgia. Shubho Tagore, who had shifted to Metropolitan Building from the “dovecotes” of Jorasanko, wrote in his effervescent Pansy O Piko how at Firpo’s he would order the “boy” to fetch him a “Gin and Sin.” Remember Tiger Rag that they played without fail at the cinema of that name even in the days when it had turned into a bug-ridden black hole' Or the cutlets at Café de Monico' Both the cinema and restaurant have been converted into garment “sale” shops. That art deco home of Hollywood stars, which a certain generation of Bengalis called “Madro”, had inspired a range of architectural and jewellery designs labelled “Metro pattern.” The very mention of Whiteway & Laidlaw sets in motion a train of memories — going for bargain sales at, as the cliché goes, the most glamorous department store this side of the Suez, heavenly teas, and the glowing stained-glass atrium which crashed to smithereens only the other day.

After years of procrastination, the Life Insurance Corporation, which owns the near-derelict Metropolitan Building that once housed this great store, has undertaken restoration of the façade. Calcuttans are intrepid, and risking the propped up balconies and the occasional chunk of masonry hurtling down, sculptor Shankar Ghosh, who is also a tenant, has opened his Metropolitan Art Salon here. But by the time the makeover is over, the flyover will have wiped out Metropolitan Building from view.

This has already happened on AJC Bose Road. Only the dazzling white domes of Nizam Palace peer above the brand new flyover there. A few vehicles may zip across but the traffic is still clogged underneath.

Historian Barun De comments: “Some flyovers are excellent but not all flyovers make sense. The city’s character should be understood before building a flyover. But if they cannot maintain pavements how can they be expected to maintain the city'”

Hawkers and urchins, shadows of once splendid buildings and unregulated traffic may have turned Chowringhee into an impossible place but it still retains traces of its former magic. I walked out of the poky reception area onto the roof of Chowringhee Hotel. There I was hemmed in by the classic Calcutta skyline. In front soared the spire of Sacred Heart Church on Dharamtala. Across the street were the minarets of Tipu Sultan Mosque. Rising beyond was the theatrical dome of Victoria House, and in startling contrast to it, the art deco Tower House. The spell cast by this fantasmic space survived the cacophony of traffic and humanity.

For me Chowringhee is a patchwork quilt of voices and vignettes. I met Mansura Bibi, who had arrived there 30 years ago and is everybody’s cleaning lady now, on the porch of what was once Bristol Hotel next to Moti Seal Street. Mansura of indeterminate age pointed out how the huge hoardings had damaged the stucco mouldings on the wall.

When the Josephs came to live in Chowringhee Mansion three decades ago, “Calcutta was like London.” Anthony Joseph knew all the trees in the Maidan. The ones at the head of Park Street were all felled recently. He is forced to keep his windows shut. Or else dust from the excavated road below piles up on the floor of his flat. But there is no preventive measure against the cracking of floors and walls. The “piling” of the flyover pillars has caused it, he says. Their dogs can feel the “vibrations” and run from room to room like mad.

I walked up the grand staircase of the Geological Survey building. There was a power cut but light streamed in through the atrium. The carved wooden staircase led to a room pitch dark. The presiding officer confides that the already damaged building is under repair. He wonders what the eclipsed Chowringhee will look like. The flyover is bound to obliterate this overlay of memories and visions.

Yet in this city, where we once used to go on a rampage because the tram fare had been hiked by a paisa, or because the Yankees were bombing Vietnam, nobody has made a murmur of protest.

In Mumbai, however, people still react. The city can boast 52 flyovers, but when a flyover was proposed in swank Pedder Road its residents, including Lata Mangeshkar, opposed it. Sharada Dwivedi, conservation activist, says though Pedder Road itself is not a heritage zone, Carmichael Road and Altamont Road above are, and they are all “interconnected.” And as she stresses, flyovers are only temporary measures. “At the end of each flyover there is a bottleneck,” she exclaims. She could not have been more true going by our experiences in Gariahat and Park Circus where the flyovers have created more snarl-ups instead of clearing them.

Instead of the Chowringhee flyover, perhaps the entry of public transport vehicles could have been restricted, as it was once proposed. Trams could have ferried commuters to the district. The underbelly of the Gariahat flyover could soon turn into another shantytown. And in Chowringhee, perhaps, hawkers and urchins will usurp the space underneath. And nobody would dare to alienate this vote bank.

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