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Calcutta: Final bloom and timely end

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  • Calcutta: Final bloom and timely end

    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

    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

    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

    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)