By the Versailles Palace, a flat

Where Michael Madhusudan Dutt once lived

By Joyjit Ghosh
  • Published 21.01.18
The house at 12 Rue des Chantiers, Versailles, where Michael Madhusudan Dutta stayed from 1863-1865.
Picture by Joyjit Ghosh
The entrance to 12 Rue des Chantiers, Versailles. The number 12 stands out above the door.
Picture by Joyjit Ghosh
The almost illegible and difficult-to-notice plaque placed between the windows of the two rooms on the first floor of the building where the poet used to stay.
Picture by Joyjit Ghosh
The small plaque in French that identifies the building as the Versailles residence of the poet was put up by the Embassy of India in Paris. 
Picture by Joyjit Ghosh

At Gare De Versailles-Chantiers railway station, the chatter around will tell you that all roads lead to Chateau de Versailles. But for our group, the palace is not the only destination.

To put it in Luigi Pirandello style, we are characters in search of a destination closer to our hearts. A destination where once resided a poet, a dramatist and a rebel named Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873).

We have the address, a few landmarks, and a call away is the celebrated mime artiste, Partha Pratim Majumder, a disciple of legendary French actor Marcel Marceau.

We step out of the station with five pairs of eyes trying to match the description of the house where the poet of the epic Meghnad Badh Kavya stayed with his wife Emilia Henrietta Sophie White and their children from 1863 to 1865.

At the first right turn on the road outside the station, we spot an Indian eatery and immediately approach a man standing at its entrance. The man conveys our query to a local in French, who points to the building bang opposite where we stand.

" Dyakho!" my teenaged daughter bursts out in Bengali, almost a self-pat to say that the GPS has guided us right. What ticked her off was my attempt to reconfirm the address even though the GPS had told us in heavily accented English: "You have reached your destination".

I look up to match the description of the building Partha da had given us. Excited that we have actually found it, I scan the building thoroughly to spot the markers to be sure that this was where Madhusudan had stayed in his very trying times. A time when he had to shift to Versailles as he could not afford to stay in England.

Yes, the huge Venetian windows do match his description, the house number is perfect too, but some pieces that would complete the puzzle are missing.

This is not the house, I am somehow sceptical. But my daughter's faith in the GPS is stronger.

"It can't be so off the mark. The GPS location pointer and the house number match," she tells me.

Soon, we realise that near similar markers have got us to the wrong place. So the search must resume, but only after a coffee break.

We move on, but the mathematician in our group, Sourav, keeps walking ahead of us. Minutes later we see him almost running back. " Mama," he tells me, "there is an address similar to the one we had checked out a while ago."

We hurry past an Indo-Bangladeshi restaurant, and there we are outside a bright red door leading to a three-storey building just next to a gas station.

Once bitten twice shy, I scan the building for details. The markers I couldn't spot at the earlier building are there. A Chinese eatery on the ground floor, a bookstore and an antique shop at the building's garage space, Venetian windows - they all match and almost to the perfection of Partha da's description. Parthada can't be wrong being in Paris for nearly 40 years. But before I could yell - "Yes, this is where Madhusudan and Henrietta stayed for two years," I halt.

One crucial identifier is not there. I ask my wife to help spot the plaque identifying the place. We cross over to the other side when a man opens the bright red door and gets in. A chance to confirm the address gone, I think aloud.

Left with the only lifeline, I call up Partha da to tell him that everything conforms to his description but not the plaque.

In total disbelief, he asks me about the place and I read out the names of all I can survey. He says, "You are right there."

He then plays the guide. "Look up to the first floor, the spot between the fourth and fifth windows from the left. Do you see the plaque put up by the Indian Embassy?"

"Oh, yes!" The plaque, in French, is so small that I had to zoom in with my camera to read it. But it is 12 Rue des Chantiers, Versailles. It was Madhusudan's home during his troubled times. A time he survived largely due to the benevolence of Bengal's Renaissance man, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. After a two-year stay, Madhusudan shifted home and moved closer to the Versailles Palace in downtown 6 Rue Maurepas, an address where on August 26, 1867, Henrietta gave birth to their third son, Albert George Napoleon.

A journey of the heart accomplished, we move on to witness the embodiment of opulence, a palace that was once the seat of power in France.