Dada Thakur or the famous Sarat Chandra Chakravarty of Jangipur had once written a song based on the faults of Calcutta...The list ran long. Goldighi wasn’t round, the water of Laldighi wasn’t red, and no brides were available in Bou Bazaar. Had he been alive today, Dada Thakur, in his characteristic jest, would have added another entry to that list of flaws. That would be “No parking” in today’s Park Street, a place where the police doesn’t allow cars to stop. Two signs face each other -- Park Street and “No Parking.”
Americans call the centre of a city the downtown. In that sense, Calcutta’s downtown is in the south, beginning from Park Street and ending at BBD Bagh.
My personal connection with Park Street goes back to a long time. In 1951 -- another lifetime -- I had come to Calcutta to study after clearing my matriculation examination. I had put up at my aunt’s, in the government accommodation my uncle had in Esplanade. That’s where I spent a good six years, until 1957.
I enrolled in Central Calcutta College, located on Wellesley Street; the names of both the street and college have since been changed to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road and Maulana Azad College, respectively.
Park Street was close enough to my place of stay and Sealdah. Even after I left Esplanade, I stayed for more than a year in Gokhale Road, which, too, was close to Park Street.
Later in my mid-youth in the 1980s, I lived close to Park Street again.
I was in Little Russell Street -- an alley -- though quite wide -- of Park Street. Russell Street begins on the opposite side of Park Hotel, and Little Russell Street is its sub-branch. The names of both these streets have since changed. I think Little Russell Street has become Nandalal Basu Sarani.
The name change happened a while ago, while I was still there. But I never wrote Nandalal Basu Sarani; for me, it has always been Little Russell Street.
This name-changing business is loathsome -- a result of a lack of historical appreciation; an uneducated, cheap political ploy to change the names of roads and institutions. In Calcutta, almost all British street names have been changed, except, who knows why, that of Park Street. That name could have easily been changed to Pradeep Kundalia Street or Kanoria-Bajoria Sarani -- it wouldn’t be too hilarious. After all, Russell Street has now become Anondolal Poddar Sarani.
I do have a proposal for the practice of name change. So far, the issue of minorities has been more or less addressed (for instance, changing Wellesley into Rafi Ahmed Kidwai). However, no attention has been paid to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Now, we also have OBCs, then there’s the matter of one-third reservation for women. In the distant future, legislation might come through for that. If that happens, I propose changing the name of Park Street to Kananbala Sarani.
In today’s Park Street, amid the concrete jungle of high rises, my christening might appear absurd. But even until recently, there were quite a few gardens (kanan as in forest) in the Park Street area. Even in the beginning of the 1980s when we moved to Little Russell Street, neighbourhoods had quite a few two- and three-story houses surrounded by gardens spread across a bigha or two bighas of land. In the absence of any caretakers to tend to them, wild grass and creeping weeds ruled the gardens. Still, flowers would bloom through those vines to rise up to windows. With the first spell of rain, the scent of kamini flowers would envelop the entire neighbourhood. At the end of winter, blossoms would appear on mango trees, bringing a bunch of koyel and other birds. Spring fest would begin.
But for Park Street, the surrounding areas don’t have much traffic or crowd after sundown. By 10 p.m., the roads become deserted.
First, an AC market came up in Theatre Road and Camac Street had a multistoried building. Now AC markets and skyscrapers abound Park Street.
Interestingly, there’s no theatre or stage in Park Street, which is otherwise the entertainment district of Calcutta. There’s only one movie theatre, that too not on main Park Street, but on the tram line of Park Circus.
All of Park Street’s fame is because of its up-class and dazzling hotels and bars. Old fixtures like Olympia, Blue Fox, Mocambo, and Sky Room.
In our first rush of youth, we used to have our adda in Olympia whenever our pockets allowed. Plates full of sausages and omelettes alongside drinks whetted our appetite. The addas in Olympia were of a high standard. Stiff-nosed intellectuals visited the place. I have seen Samar Sen, Niranjan Majumdar, Amalendu Dasgupta and Hamdi Be there.
Sunil and I have been to Olympia quite a few times. Amitava Mukherjee, a refined and well-educated big-shot of the coal mines, used to welcome us with open arms. Long before the fictional world of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, Amitava Mukherjee’s pet name was Felu -- we called him Feluda.
On one occasion, Shakti created a ruckus in Olympia. Later, the bar’s authorities issued a notice prohibiting Shakti’s entry.
The ground floor of Olympia used to be, and probably still is, closed to women, although Niranjan Majumdar’s wife would sometimes appear late at night to take her husband home.
The upper floor had provisions for family dining. I have memories of many an enjoyable evening there, spent in the company of my wife, son and friends.
After returning from abroad, my good friend, the humourist Himanish Goswami, settled down in the suburbs of north Calcutta. I myself was in the south at the time. After visiting the city’s southern part, he remarked, “South is open.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Himanish said, “The south is more open, and thus its women don’t wrap themselves with too many clothes -- they are more open, too.”
In this context, it bears mentioning that at that time, sleeveless blouses and tucking the sari below the navel had just come into fashion.
Some twenty years after Himanish made that observation, I came across a girl in Park Street one evening, wearing, what can only be called inappropriately scanty clothing. She had just stepped into her youth.
I knew the girl well and her parents, even better. When we were close enough to each other, I said to her with parental authority, “What kind of clothes are you wearing? What would your mother say if she learned about it?”
The girl was mortified. Bending her head, she said, “Uncle, I have a small request. Please don’t tell Ma. This is actually her dress; she isn’t home so I stole it. She would be furious if she came to know about it.”
In Calcutta, such conversations are only possible in Park Street.