Collin, Not man But Musk

The lane that will forever be a highway to some      

By Tauhid Khan
  • Published 9.09.18
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A file picture of Collin Lane 

Those who have made it their home have been referring to it as Kalangah or Kalinga for generations now, but the name is Collin Lane.

It is a thin lane, sandwiched between Marquis Street and Maulvi Lane in central Calcutta. Unlike a lot of streets in this part of the world, this is not named after some sahib, but a fruit. Kalinga or Collinga, it seems, is or was the local name for the musk melon. (I got this off a book titled A History of Calcutta's Streets.)

In the olden days, the fruit was cultivated in plenty in northwest and northern Bengal, and in summers the bazars of Calcutta used to be flooded with these. This area came to be named after the Kalinga Bazar it hosted, the shoppers' stop for musk melons. Kalinga eroded over the years and became Kalin, then Collin.

" Beta, puraane waqt mein toh kiraasin wali battiyaan lagti thi raste mein, jo municipality se koi ladka har shaam jala jaata tha... In the olden days some chap from the municipality would light the kerosene lamps dotting the street," says Naseem Akhtar, a 76-year-old shopkeeper in the neighbourhood. It is late evening and we are chatting inside his all-purpose store right at the edge of the lane. (I was passing through and on an impulse decided to stop for a closer look at the street that is witness to the beginning of my beginnings.)

Ever since Akhtar can remember, the neighbourhood has been inhabited by labourers from Bihar, Odisha and the northern parts of West Bengal. I finished the sweet cup of tea and took my leave that evening. But a day or two later I was back, for a better look by daylight.

This time I enter from the Free School Street side and cross a couple of small roll and biryani eateries and tailors' shops. There is an old Muslim eatery called Teghiya that had two or three customers hanging around. Shop assistants are rolling rotis frenetically, slapping and twirling them on an ancient-looking tawa atop a coal chulha. Beside it is simmering a kadhai full of qorma, another filled with a dish they call pagla bhuna in these parts. Their collective aroma makes an olfactory detour, heads straight for the stomach.

Right next to Teghiya stands Akhtar's dukaan. It was set up by his father, who had arrived in Calcutta from Bihar Sharif, more than 80 years ago. Those days, Akhtar tells us, Collin Lane was also known as chikan para after the number of chikan workshops in the lane.

The post-Independence era saw a spike in the Odiya population of this place. Cooks and waiters, working in all kinds of places - guest houses, small eateries, hotels and even upscale Park Street restaurants. " Un dino aadmi kam the, buildingein aur unchi makaanein nahi thi, sirf kholabari hua karte the... Those days there were not too many people, barely any residential places on this street, only houses with thatched roofs," says Akhtar with a thoughtful face.

Apart from a few guitar makers and bhistis, or water bearers, not many Bengalis lived here, it seems.

A stone's throw away from Teghiya is an old wheels-and-tyres repair shop owned by 48-year-old Naseem Mohammad. He says how until about 30-40 years ago, cycle and wheel repair shops were profit-making enterprises. His shop, apparently, was the most prominent one in the lane with his father at the helm.

"Those days, cycles were the preferred and popular means of transport, we had a lot of work. Then bikes came along and we were almost finished," says Naseem, tightening some bolts.

Collin Lane was not always so tame. In its time, it witnessed a fair share of action, gang wars and gunfights as well, though no one wants to elaborate on those. Instead, Akhtar tells me how things have been "peaceful" the last decade and little more, after the arrest and death of the noted criminals and dadas of the area. "Kabhi kabhi firing ke wajah se dukaan band kar dena padta tha poore din ke liye... Sometimes, because of the firing, we would have to shut shop for the whole day," a memory slips out of him, almost unwittingly.

Quintessentially Calcuttan, the old street also houses a sports club, which calls itself a KKR Fan Club, but that particular day has Fifa World Cup fixtures all over it.

I say my adaabs and walk away from it all, Collin Lane's past and present, the memory of its harsh servings. I keep walking till I find myself in another lane, this one known as Misri Gali.

Sometimes one doesn't have to manufacture a sweet ending, one can just saunter into it.