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Modest virtues
The house at 1 Sambhunath Pandit Street; (below) the dome with a trident. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

Sambhunath Pandit Street terminates at one end of Chowringhee, and Elgin Road begins from the other. Sambhunath Pandit Street has nothing to do with the hospital of that name although the two are close to each other.

The street once used to be a stronghold of Bengalis but over the years Gujaratis, Marwaris and Punjabis have taken over and Bengalis are in a minority now.

The old houses here, like the one at the Chowringhee crossing, can be excessively ornamental and sport some stained glass too. But they are no match for either the sprawling palaces of north Calcutta, the colonial structures of Dalhousie Square or even the beautiful but shabby apartment blocks and private houses along Elgin Road and Lee Road.

The house on Sambhunath Pandit Street that I am going to write about this time has the distinction — if it can be described as a distinction at all — of being jointly owned by three members of a Bengali family, and although built on a modest scale, it stands out because its exposed brick walls are painted a bright red with green windows and doors, and it has a large dome of shining silver. It has two verandahs facing the street, the larger one on the first floor. However, the building tends to look top heavy because of the narrow plot on which it was constructed. A tree within the compound is drastically pruned.

The house at 1 Sambhunath Pandit Street was constructed in 1934 by Janaki Nath Mukerji (1879-1943), an engineer who joined the department of posts and telegraphs and received the Order of the British Empire for his pioneering work in telephony.

He had a collection of 10,000 books, including rare editions on science, which the family has donated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Library of Singapore. The rest was acquired by the department of post and telegraphs here.

Janaki Nath’s grandson, Soumen, pointed out the monogram of the family on the glass door at the entrance, along with the motto of the family in Latin borrowed from the Francisians — Labore Et Orare — meaning, labour is worship. A sloka from Upanishad is emblazoned on top of the same glass panel. The Latin motto is repeated on several other doors.

The courtyard is small, the staircase is marble and leads to the terrace over which looms the dome. Pigeons sitting on the dome have soiled it. Beneath the dome is the family shrine. On the walls are tiles with calendar images of Hindu deities painted on them.

Janaki Nath’s only surviving son, Subhendra, has quarters in a section of the building. He is newly 80, and he came to live in this house when he was six. Like some characters in Bengali films of the 1950s, he wears a dressing gown. He has nothing new to add about the changes that area has undergone — the switchover from gaslights to electric and currently to halogen.

Before the Metro rail, trams tracks linked Chitpur with Tollygunge, but the volume of traffic was a fraction of what we see today. Many senior railway officers had built houses here and artist .C. Gangoly’s house was across the street. A large apartment block has come up there.

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