The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To be Tagore’s neighbour

Clanging in vain, a tram tries to plough through a solid mass of cars, trucks, hand-pulled rickshaws and cycle vans that stand in its way. Vehicles parked double file block the right side of Chitpur (Rabindra Sarani), too, while piles of trash have accumulated along the sidewalks. Peddlers and food vendors have very thoughtfully left some space for pedestrians to squeeze though on the pavements.

The strong smell of chickpea flour spiced with asafoetida and red hot chillies being stir-fried on a coal-fired oven (these are supposedly banned) overpowers the olfactory sense, as does the stench of leaking sewage lines that trickle down pavements.

Chitpur is the last bastion of the tram and of ye olde Calcutta. The track began in Galiff Street and continued straight up to Tollygunge. Now the tracks terminate at Lalbazar and take a sharp turn to Dalhousie Square. The destination of these vehicles that have fallen out of favour could be made out by the colour of their lights. They used to be punctual and the conductors were uniformed in spotless khaki.

Those who built these once-noble houses must have been blessed with a tremendous sense of space. The courtyards are large and so are the rooms. The ornaments are showy — heavy stucco, Rajasthan cement jali and wooden screens with filigree work. The architectural style is flamboyantly eclectic — Indo-Saracenic with touches of art deco in the most unlikely places.

Lalkothi has a dramatic array of balconies. A plastic roof covers the urns on the terrace. The courtyard is rotting. Dinabandhu Datta in his late 40s, who owns a 100-year-old ornament shop in this building, says they pay their rent to Raibahadur Bangshilal Abirchand Kasturchand Pvt Ltd based in Mumbai, but there is nobody there to look after the house. There is no water supply and the loos are in an unspeakable state. So they are on a collision course over the enhanced rents demanded of late.

Ganesh Garh (called thanabari once because of a police station inside) at the Ganesh Talkies-end of Chitpur looks like Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal recreated. Once part of the Cossimbazar Raj Wards Estate, it has changed hands and now the tenants are pitted in a legal battle with the present lessee.

Many of the absentee landlords are still Bengali while the tenants are mostly Marwaris, Gujaratis, Uttar Pradeshis and Biharis. Business is their lifeline. As Partha Pratim Deb, dean of visual arts faculty, Rabindra Bharati University, who has lived in the staff quarters for 23 years, comments: “They call it dhanda and they begin from an early age. They are very orthodox and don’t believe in higher education for girls. Nowadays when the women go out with their husbands they wear modern dress.”

The houses in which they live look as if their nose has been dragged through dirt. This is the saddest stretch of Chitpur. Huge rooms have been turned into cubby holes inhabited by joint families. Glass panes or plastic sheets have turned airy verandahs into airtight boxes. Large plants force their way out of nooks. As if a disintegrating heap has been patched up and held together, or else it would explode unable to bear the burden of years.

Here, condemned buildings are the only refuge of daily wage-earners, sleeping without a care in the world, a few feet away from heaps of rubble.

Yet surprisingly well turned-out people step out of buildings with forbiddingly dark entrances. Do they want to make a virtue of parsimony'

Bangur Building, at the crossing of MG Road (Harrison Road) is Burrabazar in miniature. Like a fortress, it has everything under one roof from textile and sweet shops to tailoring establishments and a “basa”, where for a fixed rate one can eat to one’s heart’s content. There are gaddis besides. It is a male bastion, where transactions worth several crores take place daily.

Over a century old, it belongs to the Malliks but it was leased out for 99 years to the eponymous mercantile family. The lease was renewed recently. Humming with activity, it has about 360 tenants, says Sri Narayan Garodia, in his 70s. He owns a textile shop there, the oldest, he claims, in that neighbourhood.

The building has 100 rooms, divided and subdivided by tenants. In the huge gaddis, the floors are lined with large mattresses covered with white sheets.

The Jain temple in bright sea green and red dazzles in this grey scenario.

Chitpur known as Tablapatti was synonymous with musical instruments. Now it can be called Makrana. About 50 years ago, numerous marble engraving shops opened near Marwari Relief Society. These traders have turned Jaipur Marble Emporium at 55/1 Upper Chitpur Road into a marble chip godown. It used to be the Adi Brahmo Samaj building.

In keeping with the tastes of the people who live here, this Chitpur is shakahari. Fresh veggies are sold all along pavements. The great fruit wholesale market Machhua is behind it, and this is perhaps the only bazaar in Calcutta where fish is not sold. Instead, doodhwallas ladle out milk in yard-long ribbons straight from huge kadahis into bhands for hundreds of consumers at every streetcorner shop. Dingy eateries sell dal, bhat, sabzi and bhujiya. To be radically different one can opt for “vegetable chowmin”.

Yet one can’t miss the kiosks selling boiled and fried eggs. Have they turned eggatarians on the sly'

However, the smalltime shopkeepers who sell spices and puja provisions are still Bengali. The flower shops of Phool Katra are also owned by members of the latter community. Murari Pramanik, 48, says his establishment dates back to pre-Partition days. The tiles with daffodils and peacocks belong to those times.

Then I met the amazing Madhusudan Roy, 74, in Jorasanko Roy House. The Tagores used to be his neighbour, and memories of his friendship with Abanindranth’s grandson Badsha (Sumitendra Tagore) are still fresh in his mind. “The house that the Tagores used as their kitchen was next to ours. We used to call it Pirilibari. I was only 12 then but I remember the hall in which plays were staged with its amazing flight of staircases.”

Roy acquired the 51 ft by 22 ft pile carpet laid out in that hall and it is still in his possession. Did he ever see Rabindranath' “Oh yes,” he answers readily. “He used to be in his robes.” After a pause, he gradually recalls how the Tagore bastion used to extend right up to the middle of Madan Chatterjee Lane, where their shrine was situated. “Their household deity was Lakshmi Janardan and all their marriages were held before the image. The shrine still exists in the middle of Madan Chatterjee Lane opposite Panchi Dhobani Gulee.” Hanuman is the presiding deity now.

Concluding next week

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