The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 17, 2001
Speaking Generally

Why meddle around with history so ham-handedly?
Chanchal Sarkar

HAVE you heard of Martin Luther King Sarani (Road) or Picasso Bithi (Avenue) in Kolkata? Don’t be alarmed because nobody else has, not even the post office peons and employees. Martin Luther King Sarani was, for a long, long time, Wood Street and a friend of mine, living there for more than 50 years, is having letters addressed to him returned to the senders because the post office does not know the name has been changed. One punctilious postman refused to hand over to my friend a registered letter, even though he knew my friend, since the address, Martin Luther King Sarani he said, was wrong!

Picasso Bithi, which I discovered this time, was Hungerford Street where I used once to live. Of course all the streets are unrecognisable from my younger days because they have been got hold of by ‘developers’ and infested with blocks of hi-rise flats. The quiet leafy streets around St. Xavier’s school have gone and so have the ambience of Laudon Street, Short Street, Rawdon Street and so on. Some still carry their old names, waiting for the time when the Corporation wants to honour someone cheaply. And so it is with Lansdowne Road, Elgin Road, Harrington Street, Beadon Street, Harrison Road etc. Most hire-car and taxi drivers do not know the new names and even distort them. Someone driving me along Lansdowne Road confided to me that it was "Saroj Bose Road" while it is, in fact, Sarat Bose Road, named after an elder brother of Subhas Babu.


Why meddle around with history, and in such ham-handed fashion? When one changed Clive Street, the rampart of British mercantile commerce, to Netaji Subhas Road that had symbolism and meaning; when you name something new, like the second Howeah Bridge, Vidyasagar Setu, that has great meaning too, but to go about changing names is cheap and vulgar.

I had once gone to Connaught Circus (name now changed, of course, but unused) in a three-wheeler. I said I’d be a few minutes and would he please wait and then I’d go to Kasturba Gandhi Marg. He replied Woh sab chhota mota rasta hum nahin jante hein, I told him it was a broad road formerly Curzon Road and named after Gandhiji’s wife. His reply, Achcha, Gandhiji ne sadi bhi kiya tha?"

Calcutta Club

I had joined the Calcutta Club some 44 or 45 years ago, when the Club itself was about 50 years old. The main club in those early days in the then capital city of India, the Bengal Club, was for Whites only, and a few people like Rajen Mookerjee and some Englishmen thought there should be a high-level non-racial club. So, in 1907, came the Calcutta Club.

Sir Rajen had already felt the whip-lash of discrimination. In those days at Christmas time the Viceroy used to have dinner in the Bengal Club one night. The Viceroy told the Club authorities that among his guests he would like to have Sir Rajen Mookerjee. The Club was thunderstruck, no Indian had been asked before; at the same time it could not disregard the Viceroy’s command. So its top brass hit upon a brilliant suggestion. A separate shamiana was put up for Sir Rajen Mookerjee and he dined there!

From shortly after 1947, of course, the Bengal Club opened its doors to Indians, the building was renovated and changed and still has a marble plaque saying that Sir Thomas Babington Macaulay lived near the site. The Club itself is kept in good trim. There are portraits (some of very indifferent quality and obviously modern) on the walls and some good ones. There are old prints of Kolkata with perhaps many others stored away, and there are good Committee, Conference and reception rooms, one (room 300) named for the 300 years of Kolkata’s foundation and another (room 150) for 150 years of the Bengal Club.

But compared to the three times I was entertained there, this visit the Club was like visiting a Wasteland — at least as far as its social and eating rooms go. About the bar I don’t know. How, then, does the Club run and maintain its glitz? By parties, apparently, that people throw and that are booked in the name of a member but often paid for by a corporation or a rich individual. What an unfortunate situation for a club to be in because a club is not just a party-giving machine but an extension of one’s home.

The Calcutta Club, I found, has come down in the world. Not by any lack of resources, I think, but in service, in its staff hankering after tips (Which are overtly forbidden), and because of admitting too many members and so having no place for quiet conversation. Its food, pastry shop, aerated water etc are not bad but the Club’s character has, undoubtedly, been affected and it is no longer the Club I used to see on my earlier visits. What a pity for the first club that boldly broke the race barrier.

A friend took me to the Saturday Club this time, my first visit ever. This club too, is in a prized part of South Calcutta. Now open to all races, its history is even more gruesome. It excluded, by its constitution, "Orientals of Asiatic Origin!" During World War II a number of Jewish doctors had fled from the Nazi scourge and a few had settled down to practice in Calcutta and had done very well. One of them, unsuspecting, applied for membership of the Saturday Club.

One day my friend whose father was a doctor and a friend of the German doctor, found him sobbing uncontrollably in his father’s consulting room. Apparently the German had been called for an interview to the Club and then told he did not qualify because of his Asiatic origin! I guess Jesus Christ would have been barred, too, for the same reason!

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