In no other street is the synchronicity of the various chapters of Calcutta’s brief but colourful history so evident as in Chitpur, renamed Rabindra Sarani. Perhaps no other street can be as clearly demarcated as this into three distinct sections that are coloured by the cultures and lifestyles of its inhabitants. If we begin from Baghbazar, deep north, the stretch up to Ganesh Talkies bears an unmistakable Bengali stamp. From then onwards up to Mahatma Gandhi Road, it could be in the heart of Rajasthan. And the smell (of biryani and attar) and look of the third and last section are redolent of Islamic culture.
The owner of a medicine shop at the Jorasanko end says although this is where Rabindranath was born, the area has never been developed. Except for the tram tracks it could not have looked much different in his time. Opposite Raja Rajballabh Street is a heap with a clock. Only its dial exists. In Chitpur, however, the hands of time have never been idle.
Artist Aditya Basak, whose family has lived in Brindaban Basak Street for generations, says: “It is not safe to play chess on porches any longer. It used to be the people’s favourite pastime. Marutis whizz past. Malai barf is no longer sold by men who carry it on their heads. They cart it around. Dark shops are gone. They dazzle with lights.”
After Kumartuli is Lakshmi Apartments, one of the several such concrete boxes that have appeared of late in Chitpur. Clearly visible on a signboard next to the entrance is the legend: Shree Lakshmi Flour Mills Limited, that, as local people confirm, was demolished to make way for the block of flats. The existing entrance itself is too ornate and old to be the contemporary of the dwelling house.
A narrow jerrybuilding opposite Lohia Matri Sewasadan has quite obviously supplanted a grand house. The remains of a towering wall tells it all.
Banamali Samanta, 52, stocks bellmetal and brass utensils like 14 other shopkeepers of Natun Bazaar next to Pathuriaghat Street. He produces a trade licence that says the date of commencement of business was 1871. His is the biggest such shop, and not surprisingly, he uses electronic scales. He can afford high tech.
Next to this is another stretch where they sell wooden utensils for pujas and moulds for sweets. Sunit Datta, 70, has been longest in this trade, while Narayan Chandra Das, 43, runs the oldest establishment. Besides the butterfly and lobster moulds for sandesh they also display what look like wooden bowls but are actually dies that give shape to the Bengali equivalent of Darby and Joan in khowa.
It is surprising that so much of quintessential Chitpur has survived despite the onslaught of thermocol and paper utensils.
Opposite these shops is a sooty signboard of the famous sweet shop K.C. Das that should date back to the time when they created the rosogolla by sheer chance.
Opposite Charles Allen Market is a busy offset printing press. The signboard, however, says photogravure is done here. Chitpur is where the Bengali publishing trade originated and it was once famous for its litho presses and Kansaripara prints. Bookshops like Kalikata Town Library and Diamond Library were synonymous with Bat-tala publications. Their repertoire ranged from religion to the risque. Now they subsist on transcribed jatras immensely popular in the rural belts. Gopal Chandra Datta, 91, used to be a master engraver. Now old and infirm, he is living history. The two quaint women, Rama Nath, a maiden lady, and sister Sandhya Ghoshal still ply their father’s trade, block-making and engraving, though there are no takers.
Interlinked with Rabindra Sarani are Kumartuli, where clay deities are born, and the infamous red-light district of Sonagachhi. Both spill into the street. During festivals the pavements turn into artisans’ studios. A few grimy brothels still exist in Sethbagan opposite Natun Bazaar and next to Charles Allen market. The former house of ill repute is a cage. The girls inside, incongruously dressed in Western clothes are visible through a grate in a grocery beneath their workplace.
But where does Rabindra Sarani begin' From Baghbazar, or further down at the Galiff Street intersection where the tram line terminates' Nobody seemed to know. Then Kanchan Kumar Das, 75, steps down the marble staircase of his dilapidated but picturesque house with a Mohit Maitra Sarani address and explains that Rabindra Sarani begins at the Baghbazar intersection. The entire street up to Chitpur Approach Bridge was known as Upper Chitpur. Much later, the tailend, Baghbazar onwards was renamed after comrade Mohit Maitra.
Das asked me if I had seen the temple of Chiteswari, the goddess after whom Chitpur was named, and to whom the dacoit Chite would pay obeisance before going about his business. Bibibazar, where the temple is situated, is separated from Baghbazar by half an hour (on foot) of Cossipore Road. The thana is Chitpur. Trucks and autorickshaws hurtle down the road like loose cannons. The four-armed, fire-red image of Durga riding a lion that resembles a unicorn is unmistakably Bengal but the noise that passes for bhajan is in Hindi. Like the neighbourhood, there is nothing Bengali about the shrine save the script on the marble plaque.
Chitpur is where the most spectacular stately homes are situated but survival strategies are at odds with gravity. Mullick Bhavan is better known as “ghariwalla Mullickbari” because of its highly-visible clock that doesn’t work.
A family member has opened a medicine shop under the thumping pediment. Fair-skinned, he sits inside, dhoti hitched up to the knee. Inside, the thakurdalan has been cut into as many slices as there are family members. Only one slender column belonging to another era has survived. The man-size vases and china elephants inside a tiny room, too, speak of past prosperity.
Shops selling bontis, the kitchen knives gradually making their exit from Bengali homes, and tin boxes encircle Jorasanko Rajbari. The faded images of gods and goddesses straight out of late 19th century oleographs are painted on the thakurdalan walls. The building, with a section meant for residence hidden from public gaze, is not in good shape. Pritindranarayan Roy, 63, himself a lawyer like most of the descendants of Raja Ramchandra Roy originally of Posta, admits they are “crippled”. They lost their zamindari in 1953 and in 1981, the state government took over the slums of the Rajabazar that they owned.
Lohia Matri Sewasadan may be a maternity home now. But once it belonged to Haren Sil of legendary profligacy. In keeping with his character the house resembles Raj Bhavan complete with the imperial lion.
Close to this end is the milk market. Vans and canisters occupy the road and pavement. A spindly Marwari girl in bottom-hugging jeans runs out of Halwasiya Road and jumps on her boyfriend’s motorbike. Just another facet of the prism that is Chitpur.