It was the summer of 1942 — a small printing press at Chandni Chowk was busy publishing pamphlets at a feverish pitch while the city slept. The pamphlets were for Gandhiji’s Quit India Movement and they were being printed at IMH Press, the official printer of the British Raj.
“We used to print British government material by the day and anti-British documents by the night,” says 70-year-old Nishith Ray, the third generation owner of IMH (Imperial Medical Hall) press. The press, which was started from a small place in Chandni Chowk (near the fountain) by his grandfather Ashutosh Ray in 1883, still exists but has now been shifted to Faridabad.
The Rays were one of the earliest Bengali families who made Delhi their home. “The Bengalis who came in the late 19th century were professionals like doctors, lawyers or businessmen,” he says.
“These men had a spirit of adventure and made it here on their own,” he adds. The first Bengalis came after the Railway link between Delhi and Calcutta was opened in 1864. Delhi was to become the Capital more than 30 years later.
“Dr Hem Chandra Sen, one of the first to come here and perhaps the first allopathic doctor in Delhi, was my grandfather’s maternal uncle,” he recalls. The Dr H.C. Sen Marg near Old Delhi Railway Station is named after him, though the Sen Nursing Home no longer exists. HC Sen is believed to have commissioned two tongas at the Railway station to bring any Bengali coming from Calcutta to his house.
“It was a different Delhi and a different culture that exists no more,” Ray says. “No one locked their doors. The changes first came only after the Partition in 1947,” he remembers. “We had theatres and Mushairas and for food lovers, it was a paradise. My favourite was Ghantewala for sweets, though Annapurna Bhandar started offering Bengali sweets in the late 1920’s,” he said.
The Bengali community was small and everyone knew one another. “Changes happened after 1911 when government shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, bringing an influx of Bengalis. Ray says the bureaucrats, who had moved up in New Delhi, looked down upon the ‘city Bengalis’.
“The British created the concept of class by building Sewa Nagar for Group D staff and Vinay Nagar (now Sarojini Nagar) for the slightly senior officials,” he says. The names symbolised the qualities expected of different class of staff — sewa (service) and vinay (humility).
The shahar, which we now call the Walled City, ended at Delhi Gate, inform Ray’s elder brother Ashok Ray. “Whenever someone visited from Calcutta, we would go on an excursion to Qutab Minar,” he says.
The trip wasn’t easy. “A tongawallah had to be informed a day earlier so he could dispatch a horse and a rider to Sheik Sarai first. We used to leave home at 8.30 am and at Sheikh Sarai, the horse would be changed,” he recalls. “There were only vast farmlands on the road to Qutab. Hard to believe it is part of the city now.”
The tongawallah would start panicking by 3.30 pm and in a rush to start back. “The area was infested with dacoits though we never encountered any,” says his 71-year-old sister Manika Dasgupta.
Unlike the men, women didn’t have much of a social life. “Lifestyles were different and we didn’t go out alone much,” she says. “The IP College van had iron nets on its windows so no one could see inside. It came up to Chandni Chowk to pick and drop girls,” Ray recounts.
“The Bengalis in Delhi were respected for their intellect and considered somewhat superior,” he adds. “We mingled with the locals and over the years, created a separate identity from the Bengalis in West Bengal. Delhi hamara dil hai, but we are Bengalis at heart,” he says.