Of Letters, Life Insurance and a Secretariat…

“…কলিকাতা শোনে নাকো চলার খেয়ালে; নৃত্যের নেশা তার স্তম্ভে দেয়ালে।
আমি মনে মনে ভাবি চিন্তা তো নাই, কলিকাতা যাক নাকো সোজা বোম্বাই।
দিল্লি লাহোরে যাক, যাক না আগরা – মাথায় পাগ‍্‌ড়ি দেব পায়েতে নাগ্‌রা।
কিম্বা সে যদি আজ বিলাতেই ছোটে ইংরেজ হবে সবে বুট-হ্যাট্‌-কোটে।
কিসের শব্দে ঘুম ভেঙে গেল যেই- দেখি, কলিকাতা আছে কলিকাতাতেই॥”
– রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর

“…Kolikata keeps walking as if in a trance, every move like a dance etched on its timeless pillars and walls!
And I keep thinking – So what if Kolikata lands up straight at Bombay?
Or at Delhi, Lahore or Agra? We will then quickly don a turban and Nagra shoes!
Even if it chooses to run abroad… we will then all become English in boots, hats and coats!
And then, a sudden sound wakes me up!
Oh! But Kolikata, it seems, remains stoically in Kolikata!

(thought translation of the excerpt of the above poem by Shri Rabindranath Tagore)

Even today as we joke about how Madam Chief Minister had promised to convert Kolkata into London, imagine yourself back in time. Kolkata was once, if not London, but the very heart of the British Empire in India. As early as in the late 1800s the British rulers decided to make Kolkata its administrative capital and created the most fascinating structures to support their stay, sustenance and governance. The magnificent buildings, roads, parks, hotels, and facilities the British made to make the city liveable by their standards, stand as a testimony of the glorious days. Perhaps the only thing they could do nothing about was the stark difference in weather conditions and associated health issues. And so, the English, struggling with malaria, cholera, dysentery and such ailments that always kept them company, struggled to adjust to weather completely different from theirs, just to keep a rich country colonized for two hundred years!

Let me tell you a story…

So, young Billy (William) Brown, energetic, fresh out of college takes up a job in Calcutta as a young cleric with the East India Company. He boards the ship Bounty from Southampton and covers half the globe, utterly nauseated and throwing up from the deck for the first 2 weeks of his four-month-long journey and thereafter spending endless sleepless nights amidst the limited passengers that the cargo ship could accommodate.

As a young clerk, he was accommodated in one of the quarters of the huge squarish building on the northern shores of the huge tank in the heart of the business district. Billy, as he was commonly known sent a letter to his lover, Rose, back home about his journey and how he was faring in the ‘hot and humid’ but very London-ish city and how he has settling down and planning to get Rose over with him when he went back home, albeit once he shifts to a better accommodation. The letter reaches an eager Rose after seven months and happy to know her ‘darling Billy’ is waiting to take her back with him, writes back to him about how eagerly she is looking forward to their time together in the new city.

Unfortunately, her letter did not reach her ‘precious Billy’ who had on one of his salary days had a bit too much to drink and ate more than he could digest. Things went from bad to worse and his stomach, unable to stand the overdose of wine and local food, gave him a terrible bout of dysentery that he succumbed to in a few days. All the letters written and undelivered to “poor Billy”s and more whose changed addresses without being able to inform folks back home or whose letters came with erroneous addresses have been getting a place at the Dead Letter Post Office.

IMG_20180218_083908
View of the North East corner of the Dead Letter Post Office with the placeholder clock tower at the crossing off Old Court House Street and BBD Bagh South

There are interesting stories that testify how the Europeans struggled to accommodate the trying weather conditions and the extremely tedious long sea journeys to and from England. With ships as the only mode of travel, generally, a trip from India to England via the Cape of Good Hope would take six months at least, followed by another more months of traveling depending on the intended destinations. Replies to letters, therefore, could well take between a year and one and a half to receive. It was hardly a wonder then that a lot of letters ended up here for the recipient often either changed their earthly addresses or gave up on it altogether, thanks to one of the weather-induced ailments or simply because the address might have been lost en route thanks to the 6 months or more long journey by sea.

Built and made functional in 1876, this massive Italianate building with a 120 feet campanile clock tower meant for an Italian clock, which for some unknown reason never got installed, this building served as the central sorting office for incoming mails to Calcutta and as ‘morgue of mails’ undelivered from 1876 till date.

Royal Assurance Building 1
North-west corner view of the Standard Life Assurance building

Further down BBD Bag South stands one of the oldest and most gorgeous looking structures that the area can boast – the Standard Life Assurance building – perhaps the only building in Calcutta designed by Frederick William Stevens, the man who designed the majestic Victoria Terminus in Bombay. And indeed, this beauty with its trademark Edwardian design, marked by a cupola and a weather-vane on top has exquisite detailing from the multi-domed corner tower to the figures on the triangular pediment and the balustrade parapet. Interestingly, the triangular pediment on the top of the gate still proudly presents beautiful carvings along with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins from the Bible.

Assurance Building top
Top pediment on the north face of the building with carvings from Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
RAB Gate
The main entrance to the building with the company logo with the two suggestive figures on both sides

The once majestic, now run-down entrance bears the name of the company with the logo alongside. True to its industry, the logo has on the left a young lady carrying a lamp and, on the right, a Grim Reaper carrying a skull, the two figures representing Life and Death respectively. Twin cherubs on each of the windows on the upper levels can be found playing instruments, and if you look closely, these interestingly resemble Indian instruments like kartals and tablas, perhaps built to resonate with the host country.

Life Assurance Statues
The upper windows with cherubs playing Indian instruments

A walk back up the Old Court House Street takes us to the northern end of the Lal Dighi to one of the oldest and the first three-storeyed building in the Dalhousie Square – the seat of power in Bengal, even though officially the seat now resides in an ugly looking box-ish building across the river. How unbelievable it is to consider that this massive stately structure covering the entire northern stretch of Lal Dighi that has been considered a hallowed seat of political power for over a century was originally built to house junior clerks or ‘writers’, as they were called, of the British East India Company, conceived when their designated mud shanties within the old Fort William campus were razed to the ground by a disastrous storm that hit the city on June 25, 1695.

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The south face of the north east wing of Writer’s Building

Commissioned by the then Governor of Bengal, Lord Warren Hastings, and designed by Thomas Lyon, this intended residence was opened in 1780 on the site of a certain St Anne’s church demolished by Nawab Sirajuddaula during his siege of Calcutta in 1756. It was further expanded in 1800 to accommodate the Fort William College of Oriental studies for training writers in Hindi, Bengali and Persian. It also housed the Government Engineering College within its premises and a 128ft long veranda was added around the same time. This was supported on majestic columns that were constructed and added to the first and second floors of the building. A hostel to accommodate 32 students and an exam hall was built, which still exist. A lecture hall and four libraries were also constructed.

It took half a century, multiple purposes of use and French Renaissance-style makeover by the British Raj for the ‘shabby hospital, or poor-house’, as it was then described by many, to come to its magnificent form built in a Greco-Roman style with the Roman Goddess Minerva, along with other Greek Gods, standing proudly on top of the middle flank of this seat of power. Placed at equal distances adorning the terrace of the front façade are, among other statues, four clusters of Greek Gods for Commerce (Hermes), Science (Athena), Agriculture (Demeter) and Justice (Astraea). What is interesting is that on both sides of the Gods, in each cluster, is a practitioner each from Europe and India.

Writers
L to R: Statue of Minerva atop the central facade and the four clusters – Agriculture and Commerce (Top) and Justice and Science (Bottom)

And then, on a winter night in 1930, how three fearless young men in crisp European attire had breached this bastion teeming with police officers, walked straight up to the office of Inspector General of Calcutta Police [Prisons], Colonel N.S. Simpson, and shot him dead in his own office is the stuff of legends. With the independence movement running in their veins in place of blood, Benoy Bose, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta embraced death in connection with this incident and will remain intrinsically linked to the building as long as it stands in a part of a city named after them – Benoy, Badol, Dinesh Bagh.

kolkata-benoy-badal-dinesh
Photo courtesy: www.indiTales.com

With the enormous Tank Square behind us, looking at this ‘half-a-red fort’ sends a shiver down the spine to think how it survived more than two and a half centuries of being a silent witness to history. From being an accommodation to a trading post to a secretariat to the seat of power – the Writer’s Building is one of a kind being intrinsically linked to a city that is one of a kind!

And so, I stop here today, only to come back with some more stories from the Dalhousie Square. This is your virtual storyteller, signing off for today… Do come back for more on European Calcutta.

Reference:

  1. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/india/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-writers-building-kolkata/
  2. http://kolkatacitytours.com/writers-building-kolkata/
  3. https://puronokolkata.com/2016/01/03/writers-buildings-tank-square-calcutta-1780/
  4. http://noisebreak.com/heritage-buildings-colonial-calcutta-writers-building
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writers%27_Building
  6. https://www.wmf.org/project/dalhousie-square
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/10/writers-building-kolkata-history-cities-50-buildings

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