The gods are in place in Writers’ Buildings, one Roman, the rest Greek.
Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, and of arts, trade and defence, stands atop the portico of the stately red-brick main block, looking on Laldighi. On the terrace, not very far from her, are her Greek predecessors, Zeus for justice, Hermes for commerce, Athena for science and Demeter for agriculture.
It would be interesting to know what the gods, upholders of the Hellenic order and installed by the British in the 19th century when Writers’ underwent one of its many expansions, would think of the lively post-colonial chaos inside now.
Especially when the Writers’ is headed for another makeover and chief minister Mamata Banerjee has said that 13 of the state government’s 30 departments housed here will have to be shifted by October 1 for renovation work to begin.
There is much that overflows at Writers’. The buildings overflow, not only with its “writers”. AC water dripping on passers-by is not news, not here, not anywhere in Calcutta. But a PWD official, whose office is located in Writers’, says that water from the toilets also drips from above, that passers-by may be mistaking for AC water.
But on a rainy day, a tour of the Writers’ may be dangerous for other reasons as well. As a visitor passes through the main block and lands inside, he confronts a giant maze of passages, corridors, spiralling stairways and bridges, replicated through four floors. Much of muchness, as Alice would have said, and she would not be out of place at all in this tortuous web of passageways, marrying architecture that look very odd indeed.
Before Independence, Writers’ consisted of seven blocks. Six were added later. All these are connected to each other. So the buildings overflow too. The solidly government-style featureless new buildings flow into the Graeco-Roman old ones and are linked through bridges, leading to corridors leading to more corridors.
The corridors overflow. Literally. The corridor that leads to the I&CA (information and cultural affairs) is waterlogged. The flight of stairs that leads to the corridor is awash with rainwater.
But this is not regarded as a major problem. “There are not too many wet patches. The problem is the wiring,” says an official.
Samir Kumar Giri, deputy secretary II, PWD, agrees. “The wiring is old and it is inadequate for the building now, which has undergone many structural changes,” he says.
His office in the main block is an example of the structural changes. It is at end of a narrow corridor at the end of a flight of stairs at the end of another corridor. To emerge from his room and get back to the starting point, one needs detailed directions.
His office, one of several small rooms made out of a large chamber, comes with a false ceiling and partitions.
In case of a fire, the old wiring can make Writers’ a death trap, pointed out the secretary of a department.
In case of a fire, what will happen to the files? The files that are countless, that are there from time immemorial, really, for no one knows the origin of many, that really give Writers’ its substance.
For the passageways and corridors and bridges all finally lead to files. Files that are shoved into little cubbyholes on the wall up to the ceiling, files that are stacked up against the wall up to the ceiling, files that rise from the floor to almost touch the rows of long-stemmed Polar fans that create a gentle breeze amidst the mustiness, files that just lie on the floor, files that are piled up on the tables.
Time has overflown into these files and has remained there.
A file is supposed to be disposed of if it has not been used in three years. But at Writers’, files just accumulate and no one knows what’s inside them.
It is this chaos now that Mamata Banerjee, who has presided over many a chaos before, seeks to control. To restore Writers’ to its original, presumably Hellenic, order.
“It is because of the chief minister’s style of functioning. The decision to shift was afloat since 2004. Writers’ has needed renovation for long. It required her to drop the bomb,” says a top government official.
The official adds that Banerjee has achieved a good deal of control already. It is seconded by many junior officials, some of whom do so grudgingly. “The corridors are cleared of tea stalls and filth,” says the head clerk of a department. “But there is another important thing happening. The bureaucracy does not feel so disempowered any more.”
But no one really knows what exactly is happening: will the Howrah address be ready within two months, when will each department shift, which parts of Writers’ will be renovated, will the new structures be demolished (that’s in the air), when will the departments be back. “Only the chief minister knows everything,” says an official who is playing a “key” role in the shift.
And no one wants to talk. “Because everyone is afraid of heads rolling,” says another head of a department, who does not know how his department is going to shift. “No one dares to ask much.”
Besides, will the movement of the files ensure they will be opened? Not at all. They will be possibly dusted, shifted, possibly dusted again and shifted back. Or sent to another new address, to clear the clutter. A lot of dust will fly.
“Writers’ has always remained the same, really, Mamata or no Mamata,” says an employee sitting in the canteen downstairs that used to be the auditorium once.