I was born nearly 50 years ago in a building on Lower Circular Road in Calcutta, not far from Sealdah station. I have very limited memories of living there, so limited that I question whether they are real. But I’ve visited that building many times, my family technically owned it till 1980.
It seemed huge. Because it was huge. Floor upon floor of rooms laid out enclosing a massive inner quadrangle, vaguely turret-like towers at the four corners with gigantic reception rooms and hallways fronting all this. And a basement where the printing press used to be. A basement where I had the best of both worlds during a rebellious adolescence, a place I could vicariously call home every now and then despite enjoying all the comforts of home with the family elsewhere.
I wasn’t one of those people who discovered their love for their home town years after they left it, I started missing Calcutta while still on the train to Delhi en route London. It wasn’t one of these “absence makes the heart grows fonder” deals, I have always treasured the place and will continue to do so. Particularly the memories of the times I had there, family and friends and school and university and everything.
But you know something, I never knew it was called the City Of Palaces until a few years after I left; it was when I was reading an article about the works of the Daniell brothers that I first came across the term.
Since then I’ve been searching for, digging up and collecting a whole variety of artefacts that relate to the City of Palaces, somehow revelling in the fading grandeur and nobility that Calcutta represented. Can’t quite explain it. It was more than just arguing about India Coffee House or Eden Gardens or the Maidan or Tagore or Ray or Sen or what could become a very long list. It wasn’t about the capital city or the Black Hole or St Xavier’s or the movie halls or Clive Street or Mother Teresa or Joi Bangla or Amahdayr Dabi Mahntay Hobay or a democratically elected communist government. It wasn’t about the RCGC or the Tolly or the Swimming Club or Belvedere or Park Circus or the trams or minibuses or Nizam’s or Bihar’s or the bookshops on College St, on Free School St or in Gariahat. It wasn’t about the jhal mudi or puchkas or the Strand or Victoria Memorial or lounging at the British Council or quizzes and the DI and Neil O’Brien and Sadhan Banerjee and Francis Groser. It wasn’t about watching Sugarfoot form and play and grow. It wasn’t about Moira St and all that it represented.
It was about all of it. And I’ve been privileged to be able to afford and find and collect said artefacts, from Magnolia and Firpo’s menus to photographs of the City in the latter half of the 19th century to diaries and journals and family albums depicting life in the first half of the 20th century.
With all this in mind, I enjoyed looking through a collection of photographs provided in a comment by Stuart Isett. Go take a look, it brings to life the glory and the mundaneness that makes Calcutta Calcutta.