Stephen Court on Calcutta’s famed Park Street that turned into a towering inferno last Tuesday has been a historic symbol, and the tea-room, Flury’s, that adorned the 99-year-old heritage building, was even more iconic. Stephen Court, built by penniless Armenian refugee-turned-millionaire Stephen Arathoon, was among the innumerable stately mansions that along with magnificent churches and expansive garden houses made up the Calcutta (as it was then called) of the 1960s and 1970s.
On the one hand, the city was a picture of languidness. Tramcars rambled along what seemed like cobbled streets, the driver shooing away men and animals from the tracks with his foot-bell. Weather-worn buildings stared down at hand-pulled rickshaws as they struggled to move through smoke-belching motorised traffic. Calcutta’s football fanatics gorged on spongy “rosogulla” and triangular “singada” after they had argued silly over their Mohan Bagan and East Bengal heroes, while the babus of the Writers’ Building, the State Secretariat, debated American atrocities in Vietnam over small mud cups of syrupy tea.
Away from this cacophony of babus culture and streetcars lay another Calcutta, the swinging city, whose focal point was the posh Park Street. Its ritzy night spots like Moulin Rouge, Macomb, Blue Fox and Trances offered live music and sizzling cabaret. Pam Crain crooned, and so did a 20-something silk sari-clad Tam Bram, Usha Uthup, who became a rage at Trincas with her sexy voice and sensational songs.
A few yards from Trincas across Park Street lay Flury’s, Calcutta’s only tea-room. Founded by J. Flurys and his wife in 1927, it served traditional European confection. It soon became the rendezvous of the young and the old, who savoured its exotic cakes, creamy pastries, rich puddings and the world’s finest chocolates. Its tastefully enriched interior recalled the romance of the Raj, and this sense of timelessness lingered when I began frequenting Flury’s in the early 1970s.
The tea-house was also the den for Calcutta’s artistic brigade. Satyajit Ray made a rare appearance for his piece of pastry there, when he chose to miss his regular “adda” at The Coffee House in Central Calcutta. Professors from Xavier’s, like Lal and Vishwanathan, discussed the finer nuances of the English language in the decorous ambiance of Flury’s, and, perhaps, looked the other way when they saw courtship between the two rigidly missionary institutions. There was then Mrinal Sen, the media-made rival of Ray. Sen’s garrulousness rattled the tea-cups all right.
Stephen Arathoon’s daughter herself must have stepped into Flury’s for her cup of coffee. She lived in one of the flats in Stephen Court till her ripe old age as a witness to the bond her father first established with a street that got its name from a deer park which was once stood there.
The fire perhaps burnt down the lingering traces of that link.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran grew up in Calcutta’s halcyon days)