Setting: pre-Independence Calcutta of the Forties. As a teenage bride, Parulrani Hazra would peep from behind the sliced bamboo curtains on the first floor of the 41-cottah Janbazar mansion she was married into and watch life flow by in White Town. She says, “The streets were peopled mostly with gora sahibs, in trousers and coats, and memsahibs in gowns. And some Punjabis. Bengalis were rare. The few who could be seen, worked in the Food Corporation of India office nearby.”
Parulrani was 14 when she stepped into central Calcutta’s 71 Free School Street as a bride in Rani Rashmoni’s family. Rani Rashmoni was married into a wealthy zamindar family of Janbazar. She was known for her philanthropic activities during her husband Babu Rajchandra Das’s lifetime; upon his death she nurtured the family business with intelligence and great success. She is also the founder of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. “My grandmother-in-law, Sindhubala — the granddaughter-in-law of Rani Rashmoni’s youngest daughter, Jagadamba, and son-in-law, Mathur Biswas — was still alive. She was as fair as memsahibs and lived like a queen, always in full-sleeved silk blouses and fine white thaans. And when she went out, she wore socks.”
Seated on her four-poster bed, Parulrani, six months shy of 90 and Boroma to the extended family, is a relic of the era gone by. But her memory is sharp as she rolls back the decades to talk about her childhood.
She was brought up in Jamshedpur. Her father, Surya Sarkar, was a contractor working with the Tatas, after whom Sarkarbazar in today’s Sakchi area is named. “I was the fourth after two sisters and a brother.” Things were turned topsy-turvy by apprehensions of Japanese bombings in the early 1940s. “Our house was close to the Tata factory. Low brick enclosures were filled with tar and set to fire. The thick smoke camouflaged the factory.”
The fumes were toxic and it was decided that women, children and cattle would be removed from harm’s way. “Three bogeys were booked and we were despatched by train to Pabna (now in Bangladesh) where we had property. The dozen cattle were mostly gifted away on reaching Pabna but did not survive long.” The Buick the family rode was sent separately, while the Austin stayed back.
Life in Jamshedpur had been leisurely for little Parul. She would accompany her father when he visited the sahibs. “Gifts would be sent to their houses before Christmas. I remember their children’s toy rooms,” the matriarch recalls. Pabna was all about restrictions; after all, she was a teenager now. Nevertheless, she was admitted to the local school.
Her second sister, who was home-schooled, was married into the Rajshahi zamindar family. Says Parulrani, “But I was confident I would complete school and go on to become a doctor.” But fortune had other plans. She was spotted on her way to school by a neighbour’s relative who had come bride-hunting for his son. Says the old woman, “In 20 days, I was married off. It still brings tears to my eyes.”
The kitchen, as expected in a big family, was a cauldron of activities. There were two Brahmin cooks and three helpers who boiled milk, made tea, served morning tea to the babus in each room and so on. Ten kilos of flour were kneaded every day. People barely had rice. The meals comprised almost exclusively of roti, luchi and paratha. “My sasuri (mother-in-law) would chop vegetables on the verandah and we helped her. We would be at it from 6am to 10-10.30am.” There was a huge refrigerator but it was used only to store water. Refrigerated food was unheard of. Twice a week, the babus went by car to Koley Market in Sealdah and bought five kilos each of every possible vegetable.
There were so many mouths to feed — close to a 100 daily, by Parulrani’s estimate. There were 15 to 20 servants and guards and drivers. The estate needed resident managers. They brought their own utensils at mealtimes. Some needy students from the districts stayed with the family. The kitchen remained a common one till 1970.
Shopping too was a family affair. Shoes came by the dozen in wicker baskets from the Bata shop. As for clothes, the women of the house would stitch a lot. She says, “Sometimes I went to New Market by the back gate to buy laces.” The main gate at the time was for subjects only.
In fact, getting out and about was a big deal. But it helped that her mother-in-law, Labanyalata, was a cinema and theatre lover. “Driven around in our LaSalle [an American brand of luxury automobiles], sometimes we even saw two films on the same day. By the way, Rama (Suchitra Sen) was two classes junior to me in our Pabna school.”
The men, she points out, never accompanied them. “They had their own outings like hunting, which they went for twice a year,” she says. They had illustrious friends. Her father-in-law, Bijaykrishna Hazra, a Forward Bloc councillor and eventually the Howrah municipal commissioner, had spent a prison term with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during his freedom-fighting days. “He was brought up in Lahore. Netaji taught him Bengali in prison. Netaji came to this house too before I got married.” Before joining Forward Bloc, Hazra was with the Congress and the likes of Atulya Ghosh, Prafulla Sen held meetings in his house. “Bidhan Roy was our family physician.”
The family was also closely linked to Mohun Bagan. If Bijaykrishna was the first cricket captain of the club and its honorary accountant till his last day, Parulrani’s husband, Amiyagopal, was the ground secretary. For a month, when the tent in the Maidan would be dismantled, the players’ kits were kept in this Free School Street house. They set out for tournaments like Rovers Cup and Durand Cup from here. Some of the outstation players put up here as well. Cricketer Vinoo Mankad stayed here with his wife, sons and mother-in-law. She says, “Every evening, the Mankad boys would be bathed in the courtyard, much to our surprise.”
She recalls the 1946 Great Calcutta Killings. “My mother was supposed to go on a pilgrimage with my mother-in-law. Dry snacks like goja and suji were being prepared for them. Beddings were being wrapped. My sister-in-law and I had come down to have khichuri. Suddenly there was a chorus of Allahu Akbar. We ran back upstairs in fear,” recalls Parulrani.
Ten thousand people soon took shelter in the mansion. Rioters would throw brickbats at the two bolted wooden gates but dozens of men inside formed barricades and supported the gates with sal logs. Parulrani is confident that the Muslim subjects who kept shops in the market owned by the family had no hand in the attack. “It was the work of strangers,” she says.
It was a grim phase. She talks about the time she saw from her window three bodies on Corporation Street (now S.N. Banerjee Road) and later the march of the military. A brother-in-law of hers had gone to see a Mohun Bagan match the day the riots broke; he never came home. “Later my husband and his friends conducted a planchette and learnt that he had been killed near Elite cinema and his body dumped inside a manhole,” she says.
But no tragedy came in the way of the family Durga Puja. Parulrani branches into more stories. Only as we advance in time, the pauses increase, the telling is less impassioned, personas fall away, the stories lose scale and lustre. Now, talk shifts to being widowed at 32, the bad knee, a life restricted to one room. This May, when vibrations triggered by work on the East-West Metro line caused cracks in the two-century old mansion, a late night evacuation was ordered. Parulrani had to be carried down in a chair by Metro workers.
Shampa, Parulrani’s daughter-in-law, makes a valiant attempt to rescue the ageing narrative. Even at 90 and room-bound, her mother-in-law manages the household staff, she points out. She continues, “To this day, she handles the income from the estate — that falls in our share. She decides what is to be cooked for the eight of us — in consultation with me…” What does the grand dame have to say of her life as it is now? She replies after a pause: “I never thought I’d live so long.”