In the fifties and Sixties, when I was in school, a particular teacher, exasperated with a student, would scream in despair that the errant kid should be banished to Chhattawala Gali. For this Anglo-Indian teacher this alley was perhaps like the lowest pit of hell to which the wicked, irrespective of caste, were relegated. And a fate worse than this was unimaginable for a man so obsessed with colour and class. That, for me, was the first intimation of the Gali’s existence.
Years later I discovered that Chhattawala Gali was opposite the Lalbazar police headquarters right next to the famous musical instruments shops of Lower Chitupur as Rabindra Sarani was called. I expected to see the Chinese there, but they were all over central Calcutta and in this neighbourhood in particular.
After the Chinese aggression in 1962, and subsequent humiliation and harassment of the Chinese population in Calcutta, many had chosen to leave this country. Chinatown was virtually wiped out after the Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT), Haussmann-like, mowed down the shantytown in Sun Yatsen Street, Blackburn Lane and Phear’s Lane in the 1963-64. A large synagogue, we are told, had fallen victim to the CIT’s reformatory zeal. After India Exchange Place Extension, as New CIT Road has been rechristened, was laid out, and Sun Yatsen Street was extended the lanes were dissected. Hence the Chhattawala Gali addresses have clung on to both Kamar Hotel and Tota Shah Imambara, though they both face the new road. The large playground near Nanking (22 Blackburn Lane) restaurant has vanished, and Blackburn Lane has been dismembered. The Zonal Training Institute (East Zone) is saddled with three street names –7 Lu Hsun Sarani, New CIT Road, Tiretti Bazar Street.
Not being able to put up with arm-twisting by unionised labour most Chinese owners have abandoned the famous shoe shops of Bentinck Street. They are Chinese only in name. Literally. Now the only visible relics of that once self-contained and self-supporting Chinatown veiled in the mystery of gambling and opium dens are the Sea Ip Church next to the CIT building, and even more prominent – once grand, now disreputable Nanking restaurant, nestled between the two wings of the Telephone Kendra building.
So when the sweepers employed at Lalbazar, who live, cook, wash, chat and play games of carrom and thrive in Chattawala Gali, said a “Yahudi” family lived inside what seemed little better than a dump of polythene sacks filled with bottles, I couldn’t believe my ears. Of course, years ago the Jewish people prospered in the neighbourhoods of central Calcutta and street names and synagogues vouch for it. But hadn’t they started leaving for Israel or for greener pastures in the Forties'
Then a large boy appeared at the point where the lane narrows into a pathway barely wide enough to allow a single person to walk through without soiling his trousers in the permanent trickle of urine at one edge. The young man nodded as a gesture of confirmation when I asked him if a Jewish family lived inside the dark passage. The sweepers live in tiny rooms on the groundfloor. A man, seemingly without a care in the world, watches news on a colour TV set. A woman cooks dinner on a chula. The entrance is darker and leads into a courtyard surrounded by arches and columns. But every inch of all that space has been turned into a dump.
Large industries may have said goodbye to Bengal but junk-based ones such as the kabadiwala’s grow and grow. The ground floors of most double-storey houses in this alley are factories for washing and recycling used bottles, and signboards pitch for the ghee and condiment containers on sale here in bulk. Hence the sacksful of bottles. Hence the dumps.
The terrace is hemmed in by neighbouring houses. Out of the blue, a few notes are played on a harmonium. Later, I found a musical instruments shop downstairs run by an enterprising Bengali named Rabin Das. The modi (grocery) shop closer to B.B. Ganguly Street belongs to a Bengali. Near 50 now, Samar Chandra De comes all the way from Sodepur everyday. He has been commuting since the 70s when his father was in charge.
The large boy introduces me to his mother Emma Malhotra, in salwar kameez and sporting a nose pin. The large room is bare save a big coach. Malhotra is her married name. Her grandfather Jeremiah, a Baghdadi Jew, had come to Calcutta and they have lived here for three generations. Two or three Jewish families used to be her neighbours. They got the house on lifelong lease from a Bengali landlord (the Ghoshals). “It is only of late that the scheduled castes have blocked the passage”, says Mrs Malhotra, a teacher by profession. Her two sons Jeetu and Amit are waiting to finish their education. Then they will leave for Israel, like the rest of her family.
There are other Bengali landlords here. The Seal family has ruled the roost in this Sino bastion for three generations. Some family members are in the transport business and huge lumbering trucks parked in the gali hardly leave any elbow room for passersby. The owner of Tung Nam eatery was nice enough to introduce me to Janaki Seal, 63, of that family. He says the opium dens have disappeared. Opium has been replaced by hooch right under the nose of the police. One finds drunkards spreadeagled in the alleyways at all hours of the day. Chinese labourers of shoe shops were their tenants. Life was tough for the Chinese. “When I was a little boy my father would send me everyday to collect rent from them. Or else they would blow it up on opiates,” says Seal.
A venerable Chinese gentleman with a walking stick sits in a chair in front of his house next to Fook Chong eatery. “Before Sun Yatsen Street was extended the lane was very very narrow. There was no tall house. There used to be hundreds of tiled (khola chaal) huts,” he says in pidgin Hindi, indicating with his hand a huge swathe of land.
From outside, his house is a block of cement with holes for windows. The first and only floor is crowded with airless cubby holes where the upcountry Hindu and the Chinese are neighbours. The wooden beams are ancient. The courtyard is cluttered with washing on a large water reservoir. A fierce black dog stands guard. This house had seen better days but there is no lack of creature comforts. Some rooms are air-conditioned. The new landlord’s young granddaughters surf the Net. The cupboards in their room are plastered with the posters and pictures of pop stars. The family owns a large Chinese provisions store.
This used to be the property of the De family of Bowbazar. It came to the family through a “court sale” in 1929. Only recently, the Des sold it to the Chinese family.
(To be concluded)