In the third and final part of the series on Chittaranjan Avenue, Soumitra Das is lured by the aroma of coffee to its Chowringhee Square end
A workstation three feet by four feet. Squeezed inside is Sushila Devi. She is a tiny woman from Biharsharif. Sushila couldn’t be more than 30 but worry lines are already etched on her face. She wears a shiny synthetic sari and dabbing the sindur on her forehead with it must be as much part of her daily chore as cooking for her family or making hundreds of little glasses of tea. She crouches under the perch from which either her husband or her 15-year-old elder son sells moori and badam to the army of officegoers who gravitate to the Chowringhee Square end of Chittaranjan Avenue to be front runners in the rat race of life.
Along with her family Sushila sleeps on the landing of a bank office behind the famous Ganguram sweetshop. But the nights the darwan locks them out, their little kiosk turns into their shelter. Her family has been doing this for at least three generations. Before her, her father-in-law had leased a neighbouring kiosk. He is dead and gone. Now with nobody back in the village, the entire family has chosen to strike their roots here, like hundreds of men and women who come to central Calcutta in search of a better life, working night and day to feed their frail families. For decades, life has not changed for the likes of Sushila Devi.
In spite of changing times, Chittaranjan Avenue looks the way it did before Independence. Almost. Statesman House is still there though its art deco splendour has diminished. The chromium plating gleams on the banisters and the lift and the lights are in a similar geometric design that had inspired countless homes in the early 50s — a style that was familiarly known as “Metro pattern” —- Metro, of course, being a reference to the cinema of the same name.
Victoria House, CESC headquarters, with its spectacular dome with the globe on top, would do any metropolis proud. Its architect was Sudlow Ballardi Thomson and it was constructed between 1931 and ’32 by Burn & Co. We see this style echoed in the cupolas of such buildings as the one opposite the Indian Airlines office. It belongs to the Kapali family after whom a lane is named. For some inexplicable reason, even on the hottest summer evenings, a gentle breeze wafts across the plaza in front of the CESC HQ, on Chowringhee Square. So hundreds of people come to take the air there.
There is photographic evidence of how little time has changed this avenue. The South Asia section of the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, has acquired a photo album comprising 60 photographs of Calcutta in 1947 taken presumably by a GI who remains unidentified.
One of them, used in the graphic, shows Central Avenue (earlier name of CR Avenue) at its crossing with Madan Street. In 1947, Hindusthan Building was one Calcutta’s most modern. Constructed for an insurance company it was occupied by American soldiers. The nerve centre of all military business, it contained a post office, a radio station, officers’ mess and living quarters and signal offices.
What changes do we discern' There are no trees, for one. No question of GIs rolling down in their trucks. The street lamps can’t flaunt ornamental brackets any longer. Besides these minor details little else has altered.
But people who have lived and worked here for ages have another story to tell. A Parsi gentleman who was born in 1929 in the house at the crossing of BB Ganguly Street and CR Avenue has witnessed how life gradually changed into fast gear after Independence.
His family used to own Byron & Co, and for the benefit of those to whom that brand name means nothing, it used to be the most popular fizzy drink about five or more decades ago. The marble-floored house that used to buzz with activity has fallen silent now. A star nestled between the horns of a cut-glass moon starts twinkling when the maid switches on the light. This and another chandelier are the only remnants of former opulence in his lonely room overlooking the street.
Time goes into reverse gear as the old man speaks of an age when Bowbazar was a truly cosmopolitan neighbourhood. “All the buildings had 20 ft-wide verandahs. For weddings, canopies used to be put up on the verandahs of our three neighbours. We played football on the footpath but we had to behave ourselves. The buildings had Punjabi, Jewish and Chinese tenants many of whom left after Partition. The owner of the celebrated Nanking restaurant lived here. Indira Debi of All India Radio (of Galpo Dadur Asar fame) lived here too. So did Goh Kim Peck, a Chinese known for photography and his aquarium.
“Both the plots on which the Indian Airlines office and Yogayog Bhavan came up used to be vacant. In childhood we went to see the Hindenburgh Circus here. The tickets, two annas or three annas. German blondes used to come with trays selling sweets and cigarettes.”
Traffic was no problem back then. This was the road down which all the VIPs used to drive down straight from the airport. My Parsi friend has seen Khruschev and Bulganin. Two hundred people had crowded on his verandah to wave to Queen Elizabeth. Everything changed when the Metro railway happened.
Jayant D. Tanna, 71, owner of Timely Books Centre has seen the plywood market burgeon on this street. His office is opposite the soiled red police quarters, and he has been coming to work here for the past 50 years. Keen observer that he is, he has noticed how the tailoring shops made a fortune by shifting to the lanes and how the computer peripheral shops are competing for space and attention with the sanitaryware outlets.
What Jayant Manaktala, area director of Allied Publishers, regrets most is that he cannot park his car near his office any longer. He also talks about the eateries that grew and grew. However, one such, that in its heyday attracted the cream of Calcutta’s intelligentsia, has turned into a dark cavern, as if it has literally sunk into oblivion, too ashamed to show its face. Yet, once in a while the aroma of coffee beans being ground still greets one’s nostrils.
The manager of India Coffee House, Gautam Kumar Roy, sits alone in what used to be called “House of Commons” that closed in 1990. Large sacks of coffee seeds are stacked in a corner. “House of Lords”, next to it is open, but only in name. The decoction they serve is pure dishwater, and Roy is the first one to admit that the Rs 5 they charge for it doesn’t cover costs. It all happened once the Coffee Board lost its monopoly.
He hopes it will turn around in a few months’ time. The landlord has seen reason. But will the House of Lords lure the likes of Satyajit Ray once again' The question is, will Calcutta produce another Ray'