Calcutta Telegraph, India
July 30 2004

Final bloom and timely end
Park Street represented a way of life and culture that died out soon
after the Europeans bid adieu to the country, says Soumitra Das


The brown sahib in me winced. The hunks, who paraded in and out of
the gym in Queens Mansion to growl into their cell phones, wore their
Tommy Hilfigers all right, and uniformly resembled Dirk in the
popular comic strip Luann, but they spoke Hindi. Two, or maybe three
generations ago, when Blyton and Biggles were the only pabulum that
was thought fit for babas who went to English-medium schools, Hindi
was considered declasse in Park Street, that occupied a mental space
well beyond the actual thoroughfare.

It represented a leisurely, gracious and unhurried - and in
retrospect, an artificial and ephemeral - way of life nurtured by the
presence of the Europeans. That died a timely death soon after they
said goodbye.

The Park Street that my generation had seen in the Fifties up to the
early Seventies, was that culture in its final bloom before it wilted
as the city gradually plunged into chaos. Aided by the hallucinogen
of nostalgia, we still look back in wonder. Park Street resembled a
boulevard in the best of European traditions, when, as a one-time
flaneur sums up: `Beautiful Anglo-Indian women on one side. Beautiful
Armenian women on the other.'

Now some points in the street have become haunts of derelict
Anglo-Indians, who, frail of body and in tattered frocks or pants,
look more pitiable than the others who seem to be quite content to
live off the street. Armenians there are few, mostly an elderly lot,
rarely seen in public.

Designer and couturier Maggie Myers, who lives in Stephen Court, is
the last of her kind in Park Street. Close to 90, she belonged to an
upper class Jewish family, who owned landed property upcountry. One
of her four sisters had married Murshidabad, a few blocks away. She
had been trained in Paris, some say under the great Coco Chanel.
Severely coiffed and perfectly turned out even today, `she was the
NIFT of Calcutta at a time when there was no NIFT,' says one of her
very successful former students.

Miss Myers was also a psychic. She would look into a small crystal
ball and tell people what the future held for them, helping them when
she foresaw trouble. Of late, she has lost the crystal ball. Or did
she forget where she kept it?

The wimpled Irish nuns of Loreto House in Middleton Row and the
Belgian and French Jesuits of St Xavier's College opposite the thana
have become names to be conjured with in these two educational
institutions their orders set up over a century ago. These fathers in
their fluttering white cassocks were often seen sailing down the
street on their bicycles. Known for the personal interest they took
in every student, some of them, however, were martinets recalled with
terror.

A former professor of the B.Com department of St Xavier's, who was
also a student of the same institution, remembers how they would go
to Loreto to court their respective girlfriends during the break.
Mother Superior had, perhaps, got wind. On one such occasion, a
friend said to him Father Joris, who would haul truant students out
of restaurants every morning, was standing next to him. Initially,
our teacher refused to take this seriously. `Then I suddenly saw a
white cassock flapping next to me. The speed at which I sprinted back
to my bench could have set a world record,' he says.

The adjective `huge' takes physical form in the flats of Queens
Mansion. A gray-haired, paunchy man in his fifties, who has lived
here nearly all his life, settles down into a chair as he mentally
travels back to times when heavy engineering factories and shipyards
boomed, and hordes of young men started their mercantile experience
in Calcutta. `Sixty-four to sixty-nine were the heydays of Park
Street. If you were part of the crowd and not at Trinca's between
3.30 and 7.30 during the evening jam session, your only excuse was
that you were either in hospital with a broken leg or you were dead.
Come December, and youngsters from all over Bangalore to Bombay
congregated here. Even expats' children would visit parents here.
When we were kids, ayahs would be seen with their babas. Now you
don't see them here. A whole generation is missing. They have moved
out.'

Most of the old bungalows have become highrises or offices of various
degrees of ugliness. Yet Park Street can still boast five splendid
and sprawling apartment blocks. The grandest of them is Queens
Mansion, being given a facelift of late, whose wings embrace both
Park Street and Russell Street. Stephen Court looks like a
continuation of the Queens Mansion. No 20 is at the head of Middleton
Row, and Karnani Mansion progresses into Free School Street, its Park
Street wing housing two restaurants - Blue Fox and Mocambo - whose
once famous live bands and crooners turned the road into the place
for an evening out. Facing it is Park Mansion, a bastion of French
culture till the night when a fire broke out, gutting the Alliance
Francaise office and library, destroying the teak staircase of gate
no 4, still locked up.

During the monsoon, when an opalescent light appears fleetingly, one
does not need poetic licence to say that Park Street looks uncannily
like Gustave Caillebotte's painting Paris, a Rainy Day.

Queens Mansion was originally called Galstaun Mansion, after the
Armenian landholder, merchant and sportsman J.C. Galstaun. Its
foundation was laid in 1920, and it was built in three years at a
cost of Rs 65 lakh. It was renamed in 1952 at the coronation of the
British sovereign. Today it is part of the estate of the LIC. After
years of procrastination, when it was practically falling to pieces,
LIC is getting it renovated, thereby giving the street itself a new
face.

Karnani Mansion is a classic example of how disputes between
landlords and tenants can condemn a mansion as large as this to
perdition. Constructed in 1929-30, it was one of the classiest
apartment blocks in the city, till it began to be associated with
sleaze. Tenants turned flats into brothels and factories. Squatters'
hovels occupy the terrace and the stairs are never cleaned. Of late,
the flesh trade has stopped but the factories are still very
functional. No 20 Park Street always looks spick and span. Cricketer
Sourav Ganguly is building a hotel where the servants' quarters used
to be.

John Barry in his Calcutta Illustrated wrote that Armenian
philanthropist T.M. Thaddeus had built Park Mansion in 1910 on the
site of the former Doveton College. One of the first art galleries in
the city opened on the first floor of this building in 1955 with
exhibitions of Paritosh Sen, Gopal Ghosh and Prakash Karmakar. It is
said that when Jeet Paul seemed to be buying up the street to set up
The Park hotel on October 31, 1967, the industrialist asked a
paanwalla, who owned a kiosk on the same spot how much he wanted for
his shop. The paanwalla shot back: `What do you want for your hotel?'
The Pauls acquired Park Mansion, which housed the fabled restaurant
Skyroom, in the Eighties. Skyroom closed down in 1993 following
labour problems.

(To be concluded)