Hit by heritage

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  • Published 28.06.09

Is it not an irony of fate that the family that once owned hundreds of houses spread all over the city, besides huge tracts of land in the metropolis and in the districts as well, should be living in buildings that are in pretty bad shape?

The Bhagyakul Roy family is like a giant tree, a branch of which had struck root decades ago in Abhay Mitra Street in front of Kumartuli Park. Nos 9, 8B, 7, 6 and 2, Abhoy Mitra Street, were the addresses at which the Roys (actually Kundu Choudhurys) lived. This was where the East Bengal Club was born and it was also home to some of the first cricket stars of Bengal, including Pankaj Roy, who was the brightest of them all.

I spoke to his son, Pranab Roy, in his Salt Lake home, worlds and cultures apart from old Kumartuli. His living room — walls covered with wood veneer and giant sofas with antimacassars covering the head rest — displays all the signs of prosperity.

Roy looks younger than his 51 years, and says his family was originally from Bhagyakul, now in Bangladesh. Initially, they made their fortune in the salt business in the Company days. Then they moved on to banking, and thereafter, prospered prodigiously as real estate agents, and in their heyday owned countless houses and bastis as well. Another branch of the family still lives in Sovabazar.

The branch that settled down in Kumartuli produced advocates, barristers and judges but it was better known as a sporting family. Besides Pankaj and Pranab and Ambar, there is Nimai Roy, who continues to live in Kumartuli.

Roy says his great grandfather, Nani Lal Roy, was the man who had decided to shift to Kumartuli. Hence Nos 9 and 8B, which belonged to him, and are known as Nandalaya, used to attract many great footballers and sportsmen of those times.

Gradually, the family fell on hard times and had to go in for distress sales of its property. Pranab remembers how the large halls in the house were richly appointed with chandeliers, oil paintings, statuary and large vases.

“When I was young, neighbours used to feel for each other. Many people in the area used to help my father during practice. Seniors of the para used to reprove young people for wasting time. Nobody would dare to do that now. That began to happen in the early 1970s, thanks to the Naxalite movement.

“Now Kumartuli Park is not properly utilised. No tournaments or matches are held there. In my childhood I used to watch them from our verandah. Earlier, tournaments were held at Shyam Park and Company Bagan (Rabindra Kanan). Football was played on a mass scale, and boys would go to the field every evening wearing anklets or even barefoot.”

During the Naxalite movement, bombs were stored on the terrace of their house. It was never searched as one member of the family was a high court judge. Pursued by the police, the “guerrillas” often fled across their courtyards to Kumartuli. Pankaj Roy was on the hit list and so was the judge Kiran Lal Roy, who was shot dead with a pipegun in front of his house in 1971.

Nimai Roy and his brother are men embittered. They are unhappy that the Calcutta Municipal Corporation has slapped the label “heritage” on their houses which prevents them from “developing” these.

Already one Roy house has been turned into an apartment block. Squabbles among family members are pushing these buildings to the brink. Their floors are covered with marble, gritty with dirt, and the doors and windows are of wood, but the hall on the first floor is carpeted with dust.

Trees have grown in the courtyard which houses a plastic factory. There are huge gaps in the decorative zinc ceiling and the chandeliers and paintings have disappeared.

Century-old Nandalaya has a semicircular façade and arches spring across the floors. The older house, where East Bengal Club was born, belonged to Tarit Roy. This house has a semi-circular broken pediment on the terrace with an urn placed in between. All the wooden trimming of both houses and their crumbling façades are caked with dust. Both belong to joint families. But Pulin Bhaban, bequeathed to an only child, of 1931 vintage, is in good repair. All three buildings are now “heritage”.