Once almanacs served the purpose of friend philosopher and guide in Bengali families. These were usually huge tomes that one referred to not only for information on the salutary or harmful effects of the conjunction of certain planets, and moments of the day that were considered auspicious, but also for tips on a host of other things. From recipes of preparing perfumes and exotic dishes to advice on legal issues and nostrums — they included everything.
One of the most popular Bengali almanacs was the voluminous P.M. Bagchi Directory Panjika, which carried a street directory that detailed the identity of the people who lived on a certain thoroughfare along with their house address. Jayanta Bagchi, who is a director of this ancient publishing house, has been working tirelessly for the past few years to reprint this directory along with footnotes of his own, mainly on the changes that these neighbourhoods have undergone.
Bagchi in his Masjid Bari Street office says the almanac first appeared in 1896 and the directory was added in 1898. Its publication was possibly discontinued in 1923.
| A view of Chowringhee(top) and an illustration of the PM Bagchi almanac and directory
The better-known Thacker’s directory was, of course, there, but it had a markedly white bias. The Thacker’s India Directory came out in 1861, followed by the Thacker’s Directory of Chief Industries in India in 1887. The first issue of Thacker’s Calcutta Directory was published in 1905.
It was a two-volume affair, with the first volume devoted to dates along with Hindu rituals, plus a portion of the directory.
“In those days few other media could reach the remotest corners of undivided Bengal and Assam and other Bengali-speaking areas like the Panjika did. The circulation was around 400,000,” says Bagchi, whose residence is attached to his office-cum-printing press.
Advertisements occupied a good part of the almanac. The railways directory followed, which listed fares and corresponding distance. Besides there were the rates of municipal licence tax, legal expenses, a list of post offices in India and a how-to on writing one’s will and letters as well. Games were not ignored, and everything from lessons on indigenous sport to cricket and football were there.
More importantly, there were listings of what to shop for where in Calcutta. Such information was invaluable to people who lived in the districts and outside the state.
The Calcutta street directory was highly detailed. It began with a description of the wards and their geographical location. Listings of the city’s most important monuments and statues, commercial houses, professionals according to their calling, indigo sales marts and swadeshi garment stores were all there.
Another section dwelt on the newspapers brought out from India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and included a directory of government offices.
The second volume started with a directory of the whole of India. The entry on Chittagong, for example, mentioned its population, history, government offices, police, municipality, and the names of zamindars and businessmen.
Bagchi is printing the 1915 edition of the directory as all the pages are intact. “Some eminent historians such as Pratul Gupta and Niharranjan Ray had requested me to reprint the directory, which was updated annually, as it is an important historical record,” says Bagchi.
Diamond Harbour Road, Baranagar, and Maniktala were the outer reaches of the city then.
The entries are in alphabetical order and begin with “Auckland Place.” Since they mention the profession of the resident a clear sociological picture of those times emerges. Prostitutes, wooden toymakers, perfumers, kirtan singers, and grocers lived in Upper Chitpur Road or Machhooa Bazar-ke-rusta — Rabindra Sarani of today. Debendra Nath Tagore’s Sadharan Brahmo Samaj also finds mention here. The communities — Marwaris, Oriyas, Nepalis — are all mentioned by name.
Jews and Parsis crowded around Lower Chitpur Road, where the famous singer and courtesan Gauhar Jan lived. In Park Street, the house of the Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad is falling to pieces today, while the houses of the Maharaja of Sonpur, Orissa, and the Raja of Bamra have been deleted forever.