Siddiqi, the lift operator at Brabourne House on Chowringhee Lane, is hopping mad. First I think it’s because he believes to have caught me relieving myself in the flower pots outside a flat on the fifth floor. It becomes clear soon that this thin man with a silver stubble is angry as I had temporarily and quietly usurped his job.
The elevator in the building is one of the few remaining manually-operated lifts in Kolkata. I had walked in and pressed a green button — the only other one being a red button. It started. And almost immediately stopped. The trick, I realised after a few rounds of start-stopping, is to keep the green button pressed until you reach your destination. On the fifth floor, I am taking a look from the neat balcony at the nearby backpackers’ haven of Sudder Street below when Siddiqi launches forth. “I’m an old man,” he says, his body shaking as he shuts the lift gate. “I had asked you where you wanted to go. You just got in and left!” With his finger pressed on the green button, I saw his body disappear below. I had forgotten that there had to be someone inside the box to take it downstairs.
Oh, the guilt.
Taking the stairs down, I control the damage by profusely apologising to Siddiqi. “This is a British building. The lift is from London,” says Siddiqi, who came to Calcutta in 1960 from Muzzafarpur in Bihar. “If it was one of those new-fangled lifts, it would have stopped working long ago. But this, British zamana key time sey,” he says.
Ah yes, Kolkata and its ‘British zamana’ present. Unlike Brabourne Place, Park Mansion at the crossing of Free School Street and Park Street is vast, grand — and in various stages of disrepair. As I stood very precariously at the top of a steep, wobbly flight of stairs not more than four feet wide, I could very well imagine being in this building that was built exactly 100 years ago by the Armenian T.M. Thaddeus. Little did the new European residents of the then swanky, modern apartment blocks here have known then that only a year later in 1911, King George V would announce the shifting of India’s capital to Delhi.
Across the road from Stephen Court, portions of which were gutted in the fire on March 23, Park Mansion has already seen decay and neglect that seems almost biological. The snazzy Burlington’s
outlet on the ground floor does its bit to hide the wear and tear, hastened by a fire that broke out in a wing in 1997.
As I go down the creaking, narrow staircase and reach a landing, I smell tea. No 11 Park Mansion is the office of Paramount Tea Marketing (P) Ltd. The sound of a dot-matrix printer draws me inside an office floor that’s dark at 3.15 in the afternoon. Unhindered, I walk into an empty ‘guest room’. I can see in the portico outside packets of tea lined up. For a few seconds, I could have been in a cocaine-manufacturing unit in Bogota.
Earlier from the rooftop, I had looked down to find workers prying and prodding out bricks around an old winding iron staircase that stopped mid-air like a wrought-iron Shiv lingam. I ask Yusuf, who is, with others, busy plastering the base of the elevator shaft that is awaiting a new elevator, how long work has been going on for. “Two-three years,” he says, pointing out that the wood and electrical work are doled out to different people by the contractors.
But if the residents of any central Kolkata building have been left shaken by the Stephen Court fire, it’s the residents of Queen’s Mansion next door. Built in 1920 by another Armenian, G.C. Galstaun, this prime property on 12 Park Street is owned by the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC). According to a letter written by the Calcutta LIC Tenants’ Welfare Association and sent to Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, the LIC has “intentionally neglected” the buildings. “Even if the residents want to change the wiring or repair a leakage or carry out simple restoration work, they are bodily prevented by the custodians of such buildings who will not do the repair themselves nor let the residents do it!" According to the aggrieved letter, the explanation given by the LIC is that Queens Mansion is a heritage building and that the rents are too low for the LIC to afford ‘rewiring’ the building. “There is only one agenda. To harass the tenants and make it impossible for them to live. The fact is the LIC does not want to raise rents to a reasonable level. They want astronomical rents beyond market prices or not at all!” I meet a tenant who pays Rs 435 per month as rent. Wishing anonymity, his ‘explanation’: “We’ve been paying this amount for decades. Why should we pay more now?”
A stone’s throw away is the younger Karnani Mansion. Coated in a fresh layer of salmon pink, I enter this more ‘modern’ building that houses offices and homes. As I enter the ‘normal’ lift, so does a man transporting five spanking new fire extinguishers. Built in the late-30s by Marwari Sukh Lal Karnani, this stale cake-looking structure houses, among other Kolkata establishments, the Mocambo restaurant and a McDonald’s outlet. Reports of some flats providing services of a more erotic kind have not been dispelled. But I meet the 70-plus and t-shirted Mrs Medhora who moved into Karnani in 1961. “Over the last ten years, things have improved. The compound could be cleaner...”
Soon enough, I find myself in front of New Market, that iconic Calcutta-Kolkata structure across Chowringhee Road whose red brick edifice and recent ‘courtyard’, complete with a wall-fountain and underground parking, hides the thickets of ivy-like wirings inside. Completed on January 1, 1874, New Market saw one of its wings burn down in December 1985. Today, though, the market, complete with the glass enclosure in front of the main entrance, is the perfect symbol of the new Kolkata: a cheesy operation plonked on top of a decaying, once grand city.
I light up before going into Jimmy’s Kitchen next door. Careful to stub out my smoke properly, I can’t help but think of this precarious, crumbly city I left 12 years ago: ‘What could she have done being what she is? Was there another Troy for her to burn?’
|Karnani Mansion circa 1945: Karnani Mansion was less than a decade-old building when when this photograph (left) was taken sometime in 1945-46 by American military photographer Clyde Waddell. During World War II, the building housed many American soldiers. |
Photo courtesy: South asia collection, libraries of the university of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA,USA
|Karnani Mansion 2010: The present Karnani Mansion showing a wing that was added later|
New Market circa 1945: Hogg Market, named after Calcutta Corporation Chairman and Police Commissioner Stuart Hogg, was built as New Market over the site once occupied by Fenwick’s Bazaar. Waddell’s photo shows the wing in the background that was burnt down in a 1985 fire and reconstructed.
Old photo courtesy: South asia collection, libraries of the university of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA,USA.
|New Market 2010: The present New Market with the earlier parking slot now a pedestrian court. |
|Masons at an elevator shaft in Park Mansion, built in 1910. Repair work has been going on for the last 2-3 years.|