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THE STATELY PLEASURE DOME

As you draw near, people boarding the number 12 bus ask to be taken to “Matia burj”. The sharper, anglicized ‘Metiabruz’ has fallen away and the name reverts to the original. Matia burj, the dome of earth, which existed before Wajid Ali Shah made his regal progress there, before a fine Lucknowi dust settled on it. This place was not going to oblige with melancholy relics of the nawabi era or strains of ghazals wafting in the air. Neither did it seem, at mid-day, like the hotbed of crime that the average Calcuttan likes to gasp at. Rain beat down on winding streets lined with open drains, piles of garbage, a crush of shops. Heaps of earth had been dug up and left by the roads in an eternal cycle of repairs. Maybe the place was still a mound of earth, raw and smarting in the rain, with a million different organisms making furrows in the mud, altering its shape every moment.

Each historic change has deposited new populations in Metiabruz and washed away others. Wajid Ali Shah, the exiled nawab of Awadh, left Fort William in 1859 complaining of mosquitoes, it is said. The British then pensioned him off to Metiabruz, a desolate tract of land near the ports at Garden Reach. The splendour of the king’s exile, his abundance of wives, the sudden efflorescence of paan and poetry have been well documented. A wave of settlers from Lucknow and other places in Uttar Pradesh arrived with Wajid Ali Shah. With his death in 1887, however, the British sold many of his properties and demolished others, and the opulence of the past three decades melted away. But by then a new group of inhabitants had arrived in Metiabruz.

Hurtling down the Garden Reach Road, the bus passes a stretch of high walls with iron shapes rearing up behind them. Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited, set up in 1884, had attracted a large number of workers in what was then a highly labour-intensive industry. Most came from Bihar. Many also came to work in the port. According to some estimates, there were at least 10,000 people employed by the ports in the 1920s. Over the next few decades, the nawab’s retreat would turn into an industrial hub. Alstom, K.C. Mills and Hindustan Lever set up factories there, drawing hordes of workers.

Then Calcutta’s fortunes turned; by the 1970s and 1980s, traffic at the port thinned to a trickle, many of the shipbuilding yards were shut down and factories closed. Unemployed workers now populated the pavements of Metiabruz. Many returned to the villages they had come from. According to local sources, the once thriving port now has barely three or four thousand employees. Relief came in the form of the ready-made garments industry, which started booming from 1992. While this provided employment for the local population, it also brought a number of Bangladeshi businessmen to the area, many of whom have made huge profits from the industry. Each era has left its human residue and Metiabruz today has a mixed population of Biharis, Marwaris, Bangladeshis, Bengalis as well as a few of the original settlers from Lucknow. The area remains predominantly Muslim, but even this community has evolved over the years. Traces of this change are most visible among the women of the community.

Sajida Bano, who has lived in Metiabruz all her life, was the first woman from her locality to go to university. She recalls that, till the mid-1960s, there was no high school for girls. When the Maulana Azad Memorial Girls High School opened, she became one of its earliest students. Teachers were hard to find and after the first batches graduated, many would come back to coach their juniors. Few of Bano’s schoolmates went to college; she was the only one to complete a masters and a PhD. She was encouraged by her mother, who had only finished primary school herself. Bano’s daughter, Nabi Shahkar, on the other hand, sailed through to college and even campaigned for the Trinamul Congress this year. But like others her age, Nabi wants to leave the locality.

Feeding pigeons on her terrace in true nawabi style, Nabi remarks that what she will miss most about Metiabruz is the sense of a close-knit community. This has disappeared from other parts of the city, she says. But the terrace only offers a view of brooding rooftops. The Hooghly gleams brown in the distance. The dome of earth keeps its secrets well. In spite of its transitions, the markers of a modern city have been slow to come to arrive. After years of neglect, the last government was galvanized into action by the Sachar Committee report. Anxious to retain its minority vote bank, it promised new schools and started repair work; the Calcutta Municipal Corporation was to fund the restoration of the Hooghly Imambara and other structures. But little changed.

This year, the construction of a railway link with the main city has been sanctioned. Flyovers have been promised in the area, which many local people still identify with a mud bridge (or bruz) that once stretched across the Hooghly. The Bengal Police is to withdraw from Metiabruz and it will be brought under the Calcutta Police. The ‘second Lucknow’ on the peripheries of the city, so long a site of fear and fantasy for most Calcuttans, may finally be integrated with the rest of Calcutta. No doubt, this will bring a new wash of people to Metiabruz and carry others away.

The nawab of Awadh’s dream of home has long faded, along with the courtly culture he brought with him. Or so one would think. A late-afternoon visit to the local councillor’s office finds him lodged behind a massive desk, eyes closed, face coated with foam and a serene joy as someone trims his moustache and smooths away the stubble. People line the walls, talking in muted voices. Someone walks in carrying a child. An eye opens, a smile spreads, the councillor inclines his head in recognition. It is a stately gesture, almost nawabi.

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