Life on Kolkata’s Park Street will not be the same after the devastating fire in Stephen Court. The hub of social life and entertainment almost since the city was founded, the street has recently been trying to recover from its decline during Marxist rule. Now, its regeneration could falter. Kolkata is an old-style city with a sense of public decency. The tragedy will be mourned for years to come and going out for a bit of fun on the street where so many people died needlessly could feel unnatural.
People are also mourning the destruction of a landmark of the colonial skyline. Interestingly, though Stephen Court was a Raj period building, it was not built by a colonial. In fact, much of the remarkable heritage architecture of the Presidency towns is of Asian provenance. The English mainly built government institutions to rule from, educational institutions to generate manpower and barracks for the military which kept them in power. They built an astonishing number of barracks. In fact, one of Kolkata’s satellite towns is called Barrackpore. Ironically, that’s where the 1857 rising started, precipitated by the court martial of the turbulent sepoy Mangal Pandey.
Stephen Court was built by the Isfahani Armenian Arathoon Stephen (1861-1927), who arrived in Kolkata dirt-poor and became a real estate baron. His impoverished refugee origin may be an exaggeration, since his family was perhaps already in India when Pandey was turning up the heat. But he was certainly a merchant prince committed to institution-building. His most remarkable property was a Chowringhee boarding house he took over from a Mrs Monk and turned into the iconic Grand Hotel. When business declined in 1938 following Kolkata’s great cholera epidemic, it was bought on the cheap by a certain Mohinder Singh Oberoi. The Oberoi Grand was a lucky buy, minting money during the war years when thousands of Allied soldiers were billeted there and partied with single-minded determination as they waited to be shipped out to fight the Japanese. It became the seed of the transnational Oberoi chain of hotels.
The British did not exclusively build the colonial skyline, as we imagine. Mercantile Asians, notably the Armenians, also invested in building modern India. Armenians were trading with the Malabar coast from the 8th century and the seed of the British Empire, the Mughal firman allowing the East India Company to set up shop in Bengal, was brokered by an Armenian named Khoja Sarhad. By the time of Stephen, about 30,000 Armenians were settled in India. And when Armenia was under Soviet rule, this nation persecuted throughout history valued India as a safe haven for its church.
In 2003, the Calcutta High Court ruled that the Company functionary Job Charnock could not be identified as the founder of Kolkata. The evidence against him included mention of the town in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari and the popular medieval text Manasa Mangal. But the court neglected the most damning evidence: the oldest Christian gravestone in India, in Kolkata’s Armenian Church. It is that of an Armenian woman named “Rezabibi, wife of the late charitable Sookias, who departed from this world to life eternal” in 1630. At the time, Charnock was a suckling babe in London. So much for the British creating modern India!
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.
The views expressed by the author are personal.