|Tangerine restaurant and a designer flagship store rub shoulders in this building opposite Nature Study Park. Picture by Pabitra Das
Outram Street used to be an upper class enclave. Now traffic and business threaten to shatter the peace of this once-isolated pocket, says Soumitra Das
the scent of mango blossoms refuses to mingle with the stench of urine. The CESC noticeboard sends out a strong warning against power theft but it cannot stop men from relieving themselves right under it. “Committing nuisance” in public could be even more offensive when it is done right opposite the Carmelite Monastery of Christ the King on Outram Street.
It was visiting hour for the sisters, and ignorance about them had tickled my reflexive curiosity about this order. Do the nuns actually meet people' Or are they disembodied voices' Guided by a cleaning lady, I rang the bell next to a niche in the wall of this huge building. A voice answered and asked me to wait in the parlour.
That was a sparsely furnished room with a black screen and grille guarding the secret of the women who live behind it. Then the screen parted. Sitting opposite me was a woman with a cheerful face. She was mother superior, Sister Anne Marie from Bombay, who had joined the order 40 years ago.
Her neighbour, Suresh Gupta, said later: “Earlier, the sisters would go in alive and come out dead.” They even treated themselves when ill. For their eyes, doctors left behind spare lenses, and there was the peddling driller for their teeth. Now they have a PC but they can’t log in yet.
She explained that people mistake them for “loveless women.” But after Vatican Council II of 1964, many of rigid rules of abstinence and fasting have been relaxed.
In spite of having led a cloistered life, Sister Anne Marie has a good sense of history. She says the building, 150 years old, to which the chapel was appended later, belonged to a Muslim prince. It was up for sale about 68 years ago. It had a harem and a nursery and also a small throne which the nuns used as a pulpit. It was demolished later for space. At one point of time, there were as many as 20 nuns inside. Eventually, sickness and death took their toll and now there are 10 of them.
Sister Anne Marie speaks with nostalgia about a time when Outram Street was a patrician enclave with only about three residences. Some new houses have come up but like the old ones, they are all low-rises. Mercifully, the trees have survived. After chaotic Shakespeare Sarani, Nature Study Park comes as the perfect antidote to exhaust fumes.
It is this abundance of green and the peace that has attracted new business to Outram Street, never mind the resentment of old residents. Tangerine, the restaurant that is a rage among foodies, has opened here. Dress designer Anamika Khanna is launching her “flagship store” here. And all in a building that one could easily dismiss as derelict. For those looking for an “end use” for an “unlisted” but gracious old house, these two enterprises provide the perfect solution. Both the restaurateur and the designer have adapted their business to the structure of this building without making drastic changes. Tangerine, for example, makes innovative use of the verandah overlooking the park.
The Tangerine building tells yet again the story of how large tracts of land in Calcutta were once in the possession of Bengalis and how these ultimately slipped out of their hands. The three-storeyed house once belonged to the Lahiris who live right behind it. A kutcha drive leads to their residence. The family occupies two floors of this mouldering house – ground and top. Dipak Chandra Lahiri, a consultant engineer, 68, says he was born in their former residence on Shakespeare Sarani that was Theatre Road then. They were zamindars, and the opulence of that house can be gauged from the fact that it boasted a cut glass sofa set. Now they have plastic flowers on the centre table. In spite of all those years in “Sahebpara” the Lahiris have retained their Bengali ways.
Even more surprising was 1 Outram Street. The first Indians to start living in this neighbourhood were the Basu family of Dhakeswari Cotton Mills fame, who bought this house from a memsahib. While I was having a word with Miss Keya Basu, the daughter of the family, in their huge living room, a tiny girl in jeans emerged from a room, conchshell in hand. And before I could realise what she was up to, she blew it loud and clear. Miss Basu, who by all appearance was a “convent-educated lady”, explained with a smile that her niece performed that ritual every evening.
Miss Basu remembered the gaslights on the street of her childhood. “There was free mixing. They would come to our garden,” she says, till they owned it. Frail though Miss Basu is herself, she is tough enough to keep promoters and other pests at bay, and keep her chunam-and-surki house beautifully maintained.
The Roys of Colootolla had bought the graceful house with terraces, arches and louvres in all probability from Lady Rachel Ezra, relict of David Ezra. The portal is ornamental. The windows have shades. Part of the ground had been let out to Outram Club. The club, once the exclusive preserve of whites, has turned into a seedy watering hole. It was only after the riots in 1947 that the Roys sought refuge here. The Club vacated a section of the house for them.
Now Subrata Roy, a stockbroker, lives here alone with his three dogs. His living room was dark and mouldy. The sofas were dusty. A computer occupied a large table. Roy spoke of brawls breaking out outside the club, illegal parking and the Corporation dump in front of the park. A pesky chaiwallah has so much clout with the police he returns with renewed zeal each time he is evicted.
Outram Street is also happy hunting ground for promoters. Martyrose Martin, an Armenian who owned a piggery and racehorses and canned food, had once built a mansion here. It is called Rosie Manzil now. For after Martin, his niece Rosie Lewis, lived there. She had married an Australian jockey. Before her death she had leased the house to Abdul Gaffar, whose son was her tenant. The first floor shows traces of the splendour the Martins lived in. Rosie Manzil should consider itself lucky for having evaded the clutches of land sharks.
About 30 years ago, the Bhuras had built their house in the plot where the Martin stable stood. But they were not the first Marwaris to move in here. That credit goes to Guptas, who though Haryanvis, consider themselves part of the Marwari clan as they too are baniyas by caste, says Suresh Gupta. “After us many of our friends were encouraged to buy land here.
He says when his grandfather came to Calcutta before World War II, he was a pauper. Then he made his lakhs in the jute goods trade. They bought the land in 1953, when a skating rink for Americans stood there. The house was complete by 1960 when the Guptas migrated from Zakaria Street. His wife Kusum takes me to the terrace. The staircase is lined with pickle jars.
The stolid concrete house is citadel with its fleet of cars and army of servants. The families of the four Gupta brothers live under the same roof, share the same meals and hold shares in the jute goods business they inherited from their grandfather. The new order prevails.