This is a story about my grandfather’s teeth, and about the house where he took them out after meals. He died nearly fifty years ago, when I was 15 months old, so I don’t remember much about him myself. What I do remember is what I’ve been told, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the truth from the tissue.
I’m sure you’ve all had people coming up to you over the years and saying “I knew you when you were knee-high to a grasshopper” (or its cultural equivalent).
Things were different for me. People used to come up to me and say “I used to live in your house, in Lower Circular Road”. Which was a mite disconcerting, considering that there were literally hundreds of them, all claiming to have lived in the house where I was born. I used to think of them as The Hundreds, my personal and private nickname for them.
I have no idea when the family moved in to the house where the Hundreds stayed. I have a faint suspicion that my father wasn’t born there, nor were his siblings, that they might have lived in Ballygunge Circular Road at the time. [I guess I could check by calling my aunt, but it’s the wrong time in Madras]. I know that they were living in Lower Circular Road by 1946, when Calcutta was ablaze with Partition riots.
I remember stories about the house being used to shield Muslims, of battering rams being used to try and break the great door down, of cars being set on fire in the small courtyard in front of the house. [I know this to be true. In the mid-Sixties, when I used to go there occasionally after school to wait for my father, one of the cars was still around, serenely fused to the courtyard.]
So this much is known: that the family lived there for maybe 20, 25 years, and a lot of people, the Hundreds, stayed with them. My grandfather’s “Hindu Undivided Family”, which meant his siblings, my grandmother’s siblings, and all their spouses and progeny. And the same again for the next generation. Which sort of explains the first couple of hundred people who claimed to have stayed at “Lower Circular Road”. But there were more, foreigners from many lands, people about whom I didn’t know much.
We moved out of there in 1962 or so. It might have been a little earlier, but since I have musty memories of actually moving to 70C Hindustan Park Road, I have assumed I must have been at least 4 when it happened.
But the property, 116A Lower Circular Road, stayed in the family for another couple of decades. It was a huge place, maybe 120 feet across and 250 feet deep, with three floors, a terrace and a basement. At least that’s what it felt like.
Initially there were still a bunch of relatives and friends who stayed in the upper floors, while the family business took up the ground floor and basement. To be more accurate, the magazine offices were on the ground floor, while the staff canteen and printing press were in the basement. There was a large central courtyard, open and rectangular. The upper floors were built like an array of minstrel’s galleries around that courtyard, with maybe 10, 15 rooms per floor.
Memories can be hazy, so there’s much I’m hesitant about, much that I’m unsure of. A lot of what I remember is influenced by stuff I heard while I was growing up, and you know what that means. We all remember things our own way, fashioning our own realities, air-brushing our own histories with aplomb. Twisting and turning the tales we hear.
And it is with all this in mind that I relished finding this:
The extract above is taken from a publication entitled “Glimpses into the Past: Memoir of an Irish Anglican” written by someone called Roddy Evans. It’s the first contemporaneous account I’ve read by one of the Hundreds, those people who claim to have stayed in the house I was born in.
And it’s just like I imagined it was. A meal that begins with dentures extracted from a plastic soapbox; a meal that ends with the teeth left for cleaning on a plate, like shoes outside the door of a hotel room. A meal simple yet ceremonial, with family and friends and even strangers.
Thank you Mr Evans, for helping me figure out what was true, and for giving me a taste of what it was like to be one of the Hundreds. [If anyone reading this has any more to add, feel free].