Down memory lane on Kolkata’s park street
Every now and again they talk about renaming Park Street, in what is now called Kolkata. On hearing such rumours, old Calcutta hands—from Melbourne to Montreal, from Sheffield to San Diego—suffer a twinge of regret, rather like what one feels on hearing that a childhood sweetheart has got married.
For, to many who lived in Calcutta, “the Street” was more than just the cosmopolitan heart of the city; it was a colourful strand in the jumbled, vivid design of growing up. It was cakes and buttered toast in Flurys; dog-eared Enid Blytons borrowed from the Oxford Library; jiving to Calcutta’s first juke box in Magnolia’s Soda Fountain; dozing in the back row of a St. Xavier’s College classroom while the lecturer and the summer afternoon droned interminably on.
Like many others, I was a “Street” kid. Aged seven, I remember shaking hands with a Japanese robot being exhibited in India’s Hobby Centre, just around the corner on Russell Street. A year or so later I wandered through the clearance sale of the last of the old department stores, Hall and Anderson’s, the smell of rolled-up carpets making me want to sneeze, and a man with tired blue eyes came up to me and asked, “And what do you want to take away from here, sonny?”
At about that time the talk of the town was the Sky Room restaurant with its deep blue ceiling studded with small lights just like a scattering of stars. A little later it was upstaged by the red windmill that formed the façade of Moulin Rouge and the illuminated sails of which actually revolved.
But the Street was more than just the restaurants and shops and their upper-crust patrons. Park Street was the people. It was old Father Jorres ferreting St. Xavier’s College boys out of coffee sessions and dragging them back to class. Legend has it that he once hauled away a Presidency College type, over whom he had no jurisdiction whatsoever. On realising his mistake, Father J was not in the least abashed and sent the hookey player packing back to Presidency with a flea in his ear and a taxi fare to foot.
Park Street was the old waiter in Mags who bore an uncanny resemblance to Lal Bahadur Shastri and ran a bucket shop on the side. It was the paanwallah who on being offered a lakh by a property tycoon to vacate his hole-in-the-wall premises made the magnate a counter offer of the same amount if the latter would allow the paanwallah to expand his shop. It was the “blind” beggar who was known to snap out an aggrieved “Dhut, sallah!”at any cheap wiseacre who dropped a spurious coin into his open palm. It was the elderly engineer who would enliven his retirement by crouching in his balcony with buckets of water to upend on the heads of any who dared commit nuisance in the gutter below his flat. They were all equally and essentially Park Street people.
Named after Chief Justice Sir Elijah Impey’s deer park which once abutted it, the dog-leg street traces its history from the old cemetery (where among other crumbling mementos mori the visitor can find the grave of
Rose Aylmer whom Walter Savage Landor immortalised in verse) to the great wedding-cake slice of Queen’s Mansions built by the Armenian magnate JC Galstaun, the “grand old man” of the turf who lost a fortune on the race track.
Like Galstaun’s, Park Street’s career has been a chequered one. From the heydays when men like Sir David Ezra, the Jewish entrepreneur, built their imposing mansions along its length in a belle epoque of flower beds and long white gloves, the street had declined to a kind of seedy raffishness when I first got to know it.
Since then there has been a lot more change. The quondam sahib, white or brown, has given ground to the burrababu in a sharkskin safari suit. A Punjabi tycoon, who already owns a hotel and several restaurants there, is said to have the avowed ambition of buying up the entire thoroughfare and local wits once suggested that the street be renamed after him.
Strewn with the rubble of development projects, spattered with paan juice, hemmed in by laundry-draped multistorieds that have elbowed aside more gracious residences, the street is barely recognisable to the old habitue who comes back to visit it again. If and when it takes place, the change of name will be a formal acknowledgement of the very real transformation that has already occurred.
Regret, however, would be out of place. By any other name, and in any other guise, “the Street” will retain its essential character: tantalising, seductive, forever on sale—yet never available on a permanent basis. And 20 years from now another generation might well recall with a pang the days when “the Street”, like a fickle mistress, promised to be theirs forever.
Writer, columnist and author of several books