Dec 10, 2023
Dec 10, 2023
That House That Age – Chapter 13
The image of it still floats in Rano’s dream-sleep world, it recurs now and again as he ruminates over his childhood and youthful days when some old associates happened to meet him or just as he recollects that house and household of his birth (though he was born in a maternity home in another locality of the Kolkata city and was brought back home a few days hence). It was a house built sometime towards the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century or somehow earlier. Plinth and a portion of it might have been constructed by others but remained incomplete. After some years of its remaining as such, his great grandfather purchased it. “It maybe 200 years’ old now!” Rano mentally calculated.
There were no houses before that house up to the big main road, Cornwallis Street, he was told. There were rows of houses up to the main road when Rano was accustomed to see his world. Before his birth horse drawn trams were moving on the roads and horse drawn carriages were frequently seen. Though not seen by him they too had their horse drawn carriages and one of the first cars as it was introduced in the city. Rickshaw pullers carrying human passengers were frequent scenes over the Calcutta roads and lanes then; it is still there in some parts of the city, regularly used by men and women drawn by expert rickshaw pullers doing the job as easily as any other manual job. In everything there is a technique. No one has imposed it on them. They do it on their own as a vocation. It must be better than porters carrying loads of different magnitude on their heads. Most of such Rickshaw pullers and labourers came and settled there from the neighbouring provinces. No bus, no metro, no flyover, no circular trains, no electric trams were seen then.
But the passenger traffic systems were undergoing changes rapidly. They did not see the horse driven trams or palanquins. They just vanished from the roads in the rapidly growing city. Even the horse driven coaches were getting a signal to withdraw. They remain as a show as Tomtoms remain somewhere else. All other vehicles were gradually being replaced by various categories of passenger buses and cars, share taxis, different types of short distance loco trains, cabs for hire and the ubiquitous three wheelers, auto- rickshaws or autos in short. They were getting their due places in the city from a little earlier and some were introduced just before the eyes of Rano. Ola and Ubers are the latest avatars. Above all, the existence of Metro Rails has surpassed the story of all other vehicles plying through the city; it has various programs for expansion in the city. Some Metro has accomplished many feats like running through the Ganges and connecting different corners of the expanded Kolkata. More it has to cover. Roads expanded, subways and flyovers made; various other changes were and are still being made which change the landscape of the city. Barring a few parks all the roads and lanes are covered by cement concrete, stone or tar. With various changes in the life of the city the houses too got facelifts; the city is always in progress; getting demolished and replaced by multi storied buildings, it continues. Few dwelling houses gave birth to innumerable residential flats. Old residents sold their properties at lucrative prices and settled in the outskirts of the city. Newcomers with huge money-power settled in the heart of it. Demographic sea changes happened gradually pushing the colonial scenarios into oblivion or at the most into fading memories. Many old areas have changed their cultural outfit.
Kolkata looks different in new expanded areas so much so that it looks as different towns in some old areas with numbers of old houses still remaining. There has been a clear divide between the once core city, now referred as the old Kolkata and the expanded portions which were villages or countryside once or simply vast marsh or water land like Salt Lake.
In the background of that changing scenario that old house like some others of its ilk still stands on its ground firmly. The house was built with least consideration or concern for modern architecture or artistic designs; considerations for need to utilize spaces or to economize wastage. It is a huge house with nearly twenty-five or more rooms in their divided part but if both the parts are taken together the house had some 50, 60 or more rooms and as much dark passages, unutilized corners without windows or ventilation and light and even some unknown niche. Its doors are on both the lanes. During the rainy floods some of our neighbors used to go through our house to avoid waterlogged road, from one lane to the other. One crossed from one section of the house to another as if crossing some lanes and by-lanes in a locality of a town. The house was built straight with high outer walls on all sides depriving any view of it from outside. Rooms were big and small; spaces left unused. The higher up people were very conservative in those days. Hindus and Muslims live in different localities, and other communities are scattered and sometimes clumped together in specific areas. Different communities have different but almost similar types of houses. Some are closed with trellises somewhere to allow the inmates to have a view of the outside world but never the outsiders could get a glimpse of their inside.
The owner of that property, Rano’s great grandfather, accumulated huge wealth in a growing Kolkata doing business with British people who were not only colonizers but superior in commerce, business and industry. He was busy with it, wrapped inside it, overwhelmed in its glare. He became a growing businessman and industrialist of the city. He had built some other houses and rented them. He acquired the fame of a successful businessman. He had no time and energy to waste away, to enjoy life with pleasure and luxury. He was a builder. He died in his sixties or a few years later.
After him Rano’s grandfather and his elder brother became the owners of the house. They partitioned the house. Each had some sixteen or more children in the course of time. Their sisters were married and settled elsewhere but those widowed came back and stayed as burdens to the family, serving their brothers’ families, bringing up their own children somehow with the others.
When his grandfather and his elder brother took charge of the household it faced no alarming space constraint as the inhabitants were not disproportionately huge. But his grandfather inheriting huge wealth led a hedonistic life with some acquired vices which were injected into the family without anyone’s notice but some of the progeny could know of it in due course as they silently suffered from some ailments or symptoms not congenial to good health. He
maintained the business houses but gradually lost wealth for he was more interested to show his pride and enjoying life than thinking constructively for the welfare of the business created by his father, for the welfare of his children and others. Though with his intelligence and education he could manage the business well, he became a sleeping partner voluntarily, himself floating in the waters of luxury, leaving the charge of the business in the hands of foreigners, to be duped sometimes, to incur debts unduly. And his elder brother was rather dull, devoid of many ideas, an idler; as his father’s Will had mentioned. He lived by spending the wealth that he inherited. To add fire to the fuel, Rano’s grandfather died at a very early age due to contact of one or more hideous diseases mainly because of his unhealthy lifestyle.
After his grandfather, the household grew up with every member becoming selfish and aware of his competitive environment. One house had become two big houses with larger inhabitants with their children and some distant relatives joining them in the meantime. There were servants and dependents. Gradually the young members of the house grew old. Marriage and death in the house became regular affairs. Once a joint family, under one Karta or head of the family became divided into many families with many Kartas, many improvised kitchens hardly leaving spaces or passages. It grew into a clan where many did not know the others properly. Brothers and sisters lived in the same rooms with their parents. The situation took such a turn that if any young male member of the house thought of marrying, he would have to rent a flat or room somewhere else to live a married life properly and peacefully.
The country and the city too grew up to a competitive position after independence; with newer opportunities outside and lesser income to most of the old dwellers with lesser idle monies or sympathies remaining for each other. Inside the house relations were often strained. One day there was scarcity of water in the city and supply of electricity was erratic as it was in the middle of the summer; one did not have opportunity to get bath more than once. Rano, for the first time in his life, joined service in a merchant firm and coming back home in the late evening found that the water reservoir was empty. It was informed by his sister that his uncle had taken out the entire water from it and stored it in his room in buckets. Asking him it was confirmed that he would do it so again when water was so scarce for himself and his children, that he would not spare it for anyone else. Rano surmised a clash soon on these issues.
It was the twentieth century; gradually everything in the house became scarce and living became very uncomfortable. Those who occupied good rooms somehow remained jostling for space. Grownup and young members of the household felt very odd situation in maintaining their secrecy or living as per their choice. The brothers and cousins often clashed and sometimes quarreled by circumstances imposed on them. Rano remembers that his last two uncles were often in garrulous condition threatening each other with dire consequences. While each gathered some clubs and other heavy objects and threatened to throw them on the other or beat each other, they were deficient in real courage. It dissuaded them from real actions. The atmosphere of the household was lowered to a good extent, each shouting at the other at the highest pitch of his voice. The elder brother of Rano’s grandfather too died at old age leaving no new ideas or inspirations. Once, he remembers that there was a fierce battle; hand to hand between fickle minded Ashok and very gentle Sreekumar-da. The wide space of the battle ground became strewn with torn hairs, mostly from the aged, half- bald head of Sreekumar-da.
Suddenly it dawned on him that the body of the clan had badly cracked, that they could no longer live there peacefully and make progress without harming each other. Most of the members were not well off. Most of them were not in a position to live independently renting separate houses or flats. It was a sprawling city, daily expanding. Only to distant places they could move or to their ancestral village, if desired, but there too none was welcome as the people living there were busy with themselves, and none was ready to part with portions of joint family property they were enjoying. One house had then many houses within it as it was somehow partitioned and further divided. Time passed as in a slum. Time was consumed to settle various problematic matters between them; time fragmented made them less productive, less efficient.
Knowing full well the precarious position it would give rise to, Rano thought it best to hammer and forge ahead with his project of selling the house, kept without any repair or renovation for decades. The house was in fact in almost dilapidated condition. Many were not ready for that like one of his uncles and their children, but Rano explained to them the situation, mentioning that it was not practical to live together any more without allowing themselves to be akin to slum dwellers for slums are nothing but conglomeration of different heterogeneous people living in extreme depravity in close proximity due to extreme paucity of space and their incapacity to acquire more space, that still there was chance that the house might fetch a good price and that each would have opportunity to resettle anywhere in the outskirts of the city though not in the heart of it, to live a better life. Rano’s uncles and father, in spite of their close fraternal bond, gradually discerned the practical situation that the days ahead would not be palatable, as he explained. They finally agreed to the dismay of many who had acquired good rooms or who did not inherit it but were living with some distant relationship or were just dependents. Even some of Rano’s uncles and their families who had real scarcity of resources feared the consequences of selling their ancestral shelter.
But Rano went ahead with majority agreement. That was the first occasion to deal with a complicated property matter as there were many inheritors and many were the changed rules and Acts in property matters. It created a real estate imbroglio. He regularly visited one of their old family friends, a very old and veteran attorney. He knew then that lawyers seek for their interest first beyond the law, that however much they were known, he would seek his profit first. He agreed for it was a complicated matter to get everything done with so many inheritors, getting the buyers bound by law to leave them unhurt once the property was sold, for there came some other claimants.
The property was sold but not at a high price, rather it was a throw away price as the condition of the house was precarious. He still insisted and everyone agreed lastly to get the money as a last resort. Old shelter gone; the existing inhabitants were under pressure to settle somewhere. Necessity knows no law. Eventually each one got his shelter, somehow. They immediately hired some shelter on rent but eventually most of them got their own home, at distant places from the centre. Rano was transferred from place to place in his service situation but after a long time he too got his nice home constructed and thereafter had more of them though at a distant place, some two thousand kilometers away, according to his choice.
Besides his settlement away from his native place Rano purchased a suitable shelter in South Kolkata but that is in a locality which was little known or known as countryside when Babu Ram Nath came and settled in the traditional North Kolkata, which was the only real Kolkata for the natives, the North Calcutta. Rano remains a Kolkatan as well as resident of the Union Territory in south India. Kolkata remains with him as before. He feels a part and parcel of Kolkata.
One of Rano’s granddaughters has flown through many parts of the globe in her early childhood with her parents and still continues to do so though in reduced scale; she’s just stepping into her teens. With foreign citizenship she has already become a wizard in some areas dealing in software; smart phone, android, computer and more; in handling electronic goods and travelling. She studies in International Institutions of repute. She is in the sixth generation from Babu Ram Nath Roy Chowdhury. There are her parallels in split families belonging to the same root but not similar in quality though more such examples may come out in time. They are the high expressions of the modern society though their real qualities are yet to bloom.
Kolkata city is having one of the largest populations in the world. The world population is above 7.7 billion and Kolkata Metropolitan area is teeming with more than 14 million out of it.
The core area of Kolkata has a population of 4.6 million. The only China town of India is in East Kolkata It is in fact more cosmopolitan than cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Large numbers of foreigners and Indians from other provinces have settled in Kolkata. It has some of the oldest and the only-one type of institutions established by the British like the Botanical Garden, Calcutta Museum, National Library, Asiatic Society, Horticultural Society of India, Victoria Memorial and the like. The city maintains its zeal for art and culture; international film festival and drama festivals are the regular features besides painting and other exhibitions and fairs like Book Fair. Food Fair and Musical soirees in halls scattered throughout the city are its regular features. But in business, industry and commerce its stature has been reduced compared to the past, compared to quite some promising cities of India.
The most enjoyable in Kolkata are the sweetmeats which Rano always enjoys. A lover of sweets, a typical Bengali, he has some restrictions now due to age and other health problems. Nevertheless, he enjoys gulping the famous Rasogolla of which the discoverers are Bengalis, court has held. Notun Guder Sandesh (a sweetmeat prepared with fresh jaggery of date palm juices which is a gift of the winter season) and ladycany (got its name from the wife of Lord Canning, the then Governor General of India, who heartily enjoyed it) are typical sweets born in Bengal like many other varieties of sweets. Sweet shops abound in the Kolkata streets, throughout Bengal and even in other provinces of India. Though it has spread to some Western countries Bengalis are perhaps averse to doing business; at least average persons among them prefer services than business contrary to some other Indians like those from some parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. But older Kolkata carried some other culture.
Any guest is first treated in a Bengali home with sweets made with Chhana or Paneer, made of milk separated from whey. It is solid when all the water content is taken out by heavy pressure. Sort of cheese but not exactly the same. Full of protein and at the same time sweet. Spread of sweetmeat shops proves its popularity over the time. Besides sweets Bengalis are fond of fishes of various kinds caught from sea and sweet water rivers, canals and ponds spread in every village and countryside. Bengalis are the largest consumer of fish in India. Some greedy oldies fulfill their eating luxury as of old, satisfying their taste buds to the full but for Rano the quantity of his food has been reduced much and he has to select foods to take according to the need leaving aside those which are harmful to his health. Foods are now attuned to health according to age.
Rano was dismayed to find after a good gap of some years that large numbers of youth, even aged, may be part time employees or unemployed, were playing cards or carom engaging the footpaths, finding roadside tea stalls always full with gossiping people. True that Bengalis are fond of adda, type of chatting; debate on any subject which may be literary or political, of games like football or cricket; serious or light but often they drift to agitated disputes without ends. Talks maybe simply gossips to be forgotten the next day. Their habits are compared to the French people, overcrowding the roadside restaurants; this too was observed by Rano when he visited France and some other Europeans countries. But he did not like this overflowing adda everywhere. He enjoys Kolkata more with the older people than with the ultra-moderns. He finds the youths are vivacious but not creative or productive except few; many of the underemployed or unemployed are attached to a political party, always ready to serve their political Dadas, Didis or bosses against some sort of remunerations. They crowd the roads leaving their houses empty except at the time of sleep. True that Kolkata lost good numbers of industries and fabulous indigenous business houses because of some weaknesses of the owners, difficult labour problem with reluctant labour forces and circumstantial political changes. They have more iconoclastic ideas than constructive growth potential extending towards communism but that has become far from practical, leaving them at the threshold of adventurism. Extending their habit of defying the system they attend offices late and have become less sincere and honest; they are averse to hard work. While some great heroes among them are puffed up with self-esteem average people are often drowned in the vortex of politics.
While so debating in his mind suddenly the Tagore Naipaul affair came to his mind, the like of which is rare entangling Kolkata in its sphere. The controversy began with experiences gained coloured by his ideas when Naipaul travelled across India including Kolkata in the eighties of the last century, but Tagore had gone long before.
In his famous speech at Shantiniketan, later published titled “Crisis in Civilization” (delivered in his presence by the one deputed by him when he was an octogenarian poet in 1941, a few months before his departure from the world) the poet Rabindranath Tagore gave an account in detail as to how his ardent love for English literature remained but of lesser interest to him then because of the change of his heart for the English people in degrees which transformed gradually all his good feelings and ideas about them into grievance and grief.
In his, India: A Million Mutinies Now, published in 1992, V S Naipaul wrote about the above speech,
“It was an old man’s melancholy farewell to the world. Five years later the war was over. Europe began to heal; in the second half of the century Europe and the West were to be stronger and more creative and more influential than they had ever been. The calamity Tagore hadn’t foreseen was the calamity that was to come to Calcutta.
“In 1946 there were the Hindu-Muslim massacres. They marked the beginning of the end for the city. The next year India was independent, but partitioned. Bengal was divided. A large Hindu refugee population came and camped in Calcutta; and Calcutta, without a hundredth part of the resilience of Europe, never really recovered.” (India 349-50)
Memories of the 1946 communal riots after the declaration of ‘Direct Action Day’, virtually by the then violent Government, was still assailing Rano though he was too young in those days. He remembered how impoverished stairs with ladders was arranged and his uncles climbed the topmost portion of the roof with bricks, pots of plants and other objects as preparation for defence in case the marauding people with slogans of ‘Allah ho Akbar’ advanced and shouting of ‘Bande Mataram’ at a distance by the opposing mob was heard . If the attackers came and tried to break open their doors bolted from inside! Fear raged. Ladies hid in underground shelters as they used to do when Japanese Bomber planes approached, and siren rent the airs. Children, bewildered and confused, cried to the top of their voices and homebound women folk shuddered.
Almost half of Naipaul’s book covers the story of Calcutta which the writer often mentioned as “Beginning to die” or “A dead city”. Calcutta was victim of political plays; though its average people cannot be said to be very ideal, and the health of Calcutta is environmentally strained, Rano strongly believed that it would very well survive and prosper undergoing further changes. It might have to be changed but it would surely remain with verve till history wished it to remain and for that matter time and perspective should have to be considered in respect of Kolkata (British Calcutta). Taking into consideration all other cities and civilizations of the world. Kolkata alone cannot go down while its neighbors would remain. Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul could not realise the reasons for the devastating situation in Calcutta as he had seen and commented upon at that time as Tagore had understood long ago before they happened.
Europe surely was resilient as seen by Sir Naipaul who had been staying there from the beginning of the second half of the last century and was inspired by what he received in life based on his stay and activities there. But apparently, he was not aware of nor could guess the forthcoming plight and predicament that were and are over Europe in recent past; economic fundamentals are horrible, stock prices have fallen so the value of Euro. Unemployment is at its highest in Greece and Spain. Prices of real estate are falling in France. Corruption is eating into its civilized fabric as it does in India. In recent past, people from Greece were fleeing to safer areas. And the latest controversy of Brexit initiated by British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is raging in Europe. European leaders have expressed doubt about its success, some have warned that there would be heavy fall of Britain’s financial progress. Besides them, Catalans are in deadly fight against the establishment for freedom from Spain. The crisis in civilization continues with continuous interference by the mightier nations, including the European ones, in the affairs of weaker nations, wreaking havoc in the life of the other people.
When Sir Vidia honestly felt pride at the capacity and resilience of Europe, he should have realised that Calcutta, flooded by people from the neighboring countries and other provinces for hundreds of years for business and various occupations, accepting all the refugees from time to time for the deliberate partition of the country by the leaders whom it did not affect directly but were profited indirectly as the quick solution of truncated Freedom at Midnight which gave them the throne of India uncontested as the greatest contestant, Subhas Chandra Bose, was engaged in life and death struggle for his motherland; his activities with his Azad Hind Fauz were the main actions forcing the British to relinquish their Kingdom for centuries. India became free but the fruits of divided freedom satisfied those who enjoyed it without much sacrifice.
Tortured for becoming the first city of revolutionaries against the colonial rulers and suffering from many day-to- day calamities including the death-romance of communist adventurism, Kolkata has still been living with ever more population, crossing 14 million with improved metro rail system, with its hinterland expanded to accommodate additional people in different areas adjacent, including the Salt Lake and the New Town, as they were growing when the writer was making his diary notes.
The writer had some tilt towards India but nothing of it remained when India was compared to Britain or Europe. He was obliged to see the world through their spectacles, hence his success. His ideas and favour for Britain and Europe was generated by his position and interest in life. He was benefited for what he wrote for Britain and Europe. He forgot that Kolkata was no less creative as a whole than he as a writer was. Most of Indian Nobel Laureates are from Kolkata including the latest ones. Judged neutrally, it was a biased view; Rano came to the conclusion for the second time.
No situation continues for ever. Quite some of the residents of Kolkata have prospered not only in the field of education and culture, art and literature but in business though most such successful Kolkatans are now settled out of Bengal. With various mixtures and muddy politics Kolkata has been reeling unproductive in pain but that does not prohibit its growth. Kolkata moves with ups and downs but shall again grow a leader in many remarkable aspects of life in India, It is still considered as the Cultural Capital of India, Rano thought as optimism was always the leading trend of his life. The past was still living in his mind as Rano grew up and married in it and though he left. He was still with it in heart and soul. He was often in his loved city, Kolkata. He never left it forever even when living elsewhere.
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More by : Aju Mukhopadhyay