I started on my education very young. It started much before my enrollment into the best schools that I studied in. It was unique and very different. I have to thank my dad and his brilliant tenure in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) for this. He indulged us to be a part of his whirlwind tours while he served various positions in the various government departments. Quite obviously both my brother and I learnt beyond what was being taught within the four walls of our classrooms. We travelled a lot with our dad and accompanied his official entourage like two small excess baggage! We did pay a bit of price for availing this kind of exclusive academic environment – we had to study harder to get clean chits at the end of term examinations from school in order to make up for the weekly class tests that we kept on missing on such a regular basis! The schools of today perhaps wouldn’t have encouraged this kind of ‘extra-tution’ from life, or may be I would have had to trudge along project sheets to incorporate all my observations.
Lots of volumes in my memory card store these adventures of my unusual childhood. If I have to pin-point the period from where I could effortlessly download these memories onto my laptop, it would be the time when I was in the sixth or the seventh standard. We had just moved into Kolkata for the first time after moving from one district to another. The ‘Magistrate’s House’ on No 1, Thackeray Road, Alipore became our home for the next four years. My dad was the last District Magistrate (DM) of the undivided 24-Parganas – and the first DM of South 24 Parganas, hence his tenure was quite a momentous one. Though we were staying in Kolkata, the urban flavors of which were absolutely new to me, effectively we were still leading a life that only living in a district can give.
That we were privileged to be staying in such a heritage house dawns upon me only now when I try to convince my two girls that we stayed in a heritage house with wooden staircases and wooden beams in the ceiling – like prince and princesses in our very own royal castle!
As soon as I began writing this article, I felt that I had to visit my childhood home. And I ended up visiting this historical house today morning, this time with my girls. I had lot of mixed feelings – was it right to disturb the present residents? Would I be able to cross the high-security of the present District Magistrate without any appropriate appointment? It is not in my character to wait for my thoughts to blur my impulses and soon I was inside the car with my girls, heading towards No 1 Thackeray Road, Alipore. Yes, I was stopped by the security. Yes, there were curious staff staring at me in disbelief as they tried to believe that the lady holding a huge camera with 2 girls (one aged 7 and the other aged 2) was a little girl scampering in the same compounds, many many years ago! The present District Magistrate was absolutely gracious. He not only gave me a cool chit to roam around the gardens but also the entire house, informing his wife to let us into their private residence upstairs. I am indebted to them for life. For letting me re-visit my childhood.
My camera started clicking. It clicked every little detail that had faded away. This was like a ‘deja-vu’ – I had seen everything before, yet wanted to see them once more just so as to tell my adult self that ‘Yes, this was all REAL, a long time back!’ We walked and walked – the three of us (my two little girls and I) in descending order of heights. We walked through the corridors that were once my secret hide-outs as we played ‘I Spy’; we ran around the garden – I knew everything about this garden and I was ready to face my little quiz-master. My elder daughter was incorrigible. ‘If you were staying in this awesome house, what happened later?’ ‘Was Dadu (Grand-pa) so rich?’, ‘Why did you require so many policemen guarding your house, did you have lots of treasure?’, ‘What was the need for so many cars?’, ‘Which was your favorite corner in the garden?’ And ultimately, ‘Oh I feel like a princess!’
The Magistrate’s House was not only a historical evidence of the bygone British period but is also enlisted as a heritage building by the Kolkata Muncipality. Built in 1763, the Magistrate’s House was initially known as The Lodge. This was perhaps the oldest and the earliest residential/office bungalow built in colonial Kolkata. Instead of a typical plaque bearing the residents’ surname, two unusual plaque greeted any visitor. The plaque to the left of the huge arch of the main doorway proclaimed ‘Sir Phillip Francis, member of Warren Hastings’ Council, resided in this house from 1774 to 1780′ while the other one to the right proclaimed ‘William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist, also lived during his infancy – from 1812 to 1815′. William Thackeray, is best known for his novel ‘Vanity Fair’. The halls of the Magistrate’s House, even to this day, resonates with traces of various mysterious and romantic historical gossips – the strongest one being the romance between Phillip Francis and the beautiful 16 year-old Madam Grand. The thick walls probably hold all the secrets to their romantic interludes. The spacious office chamber of the collector, once my Dad’s office, used to be the ball room of Phillip Francis. Gossip, mystery, stench of jealousy and betrayal -all emotional ingredients for a best-selling historical script could be dug out amidst the wide brick walls and columns of this heritage house. There were secret underground passages that acted as emergency exit and secret escape route, tunneling out to the National Library, another heritage building. It is rumoured that there were such escape routes tunelling out to Fort Williams. I have seen part of this secret corridor but haven’t ventured out till the end to check out the authenticity of this data.
Lot of my creative spirit and quench for adventure bloomed here and were nurtured by this house. The DM’s office chambers were on the ground floor and housed a full-fledged Magistrate’s office. The first floor was the DM’s private residence. There were huge bedrooms with full-length french windows overlooking well-kept lush green gardens and the bank of the Adi-Ganga, the poor off-shoot of the main Ganga river. Open outdoor spaces beckoned us, even though the sprawling grounds were gradually being encroached by various walls – the jails, the courts and even other government offices. The adjoining bathrooms were as big as the bedrooms. There were huge terraces running all around the 2 sides of the bungalow with very big private terraces attached to two of the several bedrooms on the remaining 2 sides. I had obviously opted for the bedroom, farthest to my parents’ bedroom. I was in my tweens (not teens!) – a rebel, wanting to do and learn everything my own way. I had to be fearless, and stubborn, as if by choice – being the designer of my own destiny. A huge wooden staircase ran upto the roof above and would transport me to the open skies. Similar staircase crept down to the ground floor and even beneath that to the underground onto the secret escape tunnel. I would sleep with the huge french windows dangling open that made creaking sounds as the panes dangled to and fro to the first onset of the monsoon winds. I wasn’t scared. I mean these are the background music that I was meant to defy! Today, almost 2 decades later, I am scared to sleep alone in my own room, leave alone in such a room of such an old house. I would study in my room and then in the middle of the night walk upto the roof above to revise what I had learnt – all alone in the mighty 20,000 square feet expanse! I would be all alone, looking up to the sky with my hands pretending to touch the sky. The clouds, flirting with the moon would cast a dreamy spell on the huge terrace at times. Other times it seemed like a stark dark space with various shades and depths – and I would strain myself to see everything – even the shadows of the swaying trees! I would put myself to challenge the absolute black colour test where each object would seem ‘more black’ or ‘less black’ in comparison to the other object.
I had painted the walls of my room. I exactly do not recall whether we were permitted to do so by our parents or we defied them! Whatever it is, my creativity surged. Deep forest and woods were recreated on the huge walls of my room. It was a ‘live’ painting – evolving daily and organically. I would sit on the ledge of my window and come back inspired and make some hurried additions to the painting on my wall – wild flowers in the grass or some dried up leaves swaying to the ground. When the rains would hit the pebbles on my private terrace, I would soak up Mother Earth’s fresh energy by standing in the rain – be it the middle of the night! I do not even recall whether my mum was aware of my impulses or she let me be – just myself!
As far as I remember, the creativity of both my brother and mine crossed the boundaries of our own respective rooms to the main verandah of the house which adjoined the living room. My dad even turned one of those wall scribblings to form the backdrop to his impromptu bar cabinet as he placed a marble shelf on the painted wall to keep his drinks. And then our scribblings would turn into the focal discussion point among the many dignitaries who visited our home from time to time. At various gatherings – formal or informal, I would pry all our guests from the various nooks and corners and the huge pillars that dotted the verandah – no, I wasn’t shy at all – I would jabber non-stop to every one who had graced our home. I would peep from hidden location to get my imaginary perspectives.
From the many guests we have had in our home, a very frequent but a very renowned guest was perhaps the late Kanika Bandopadhyay, or Mohormashi as we would call her. She was a legendary exponent of RabindraSangeet or Tagore songs and had been named ‘Kanika’ by Rabindranath Tagore himself. She would stay with us whenever she was in Kolkata for her radio recordings. Mum has been trained by Mohormashi herself and she would tell me to learn a few songs from her. Mohormashi would cite examples of so many of her students who were coming from far and wide, just to have a glimpse of her or learn a few lines from her. I was busy running around, collecting pebbles for my own creative project. It was impossible for me to sit down and learn a song. Eventually, Mohormashi taught me a tiny Tagore song which had only four lines. Today, I do regret that I had been fortunate to have seen her from so close, yet I realise that each person has their own calling. Painting, designing, seeing the world through my lenses and writing about them is my calling. I love humming to myself, but not to the world.
Apart from Mohormashi, another exponent of Tagore songs – the legendary Nilima Sen had also graced our home. There were countless eminent personalities. Alas, I remember only a few of them. Mr Sunil Dutt, the photographer, once took a black and white picture of my grandmother, my beloved thakuma in the veranda of this house – a photograph which is the only evidence of a person who gave us only love. Today, she is no more and though it’s been a long time but everytime I see this beautiful photograph, it engulfs me with emotions and memories that only ‘thakumas’ can bring in – the bedtime stories, the hand-made coconut ‘laddoos’, the coins that she gifted us and the magical days and nights that she brought in with her.
I do not whether it was the enigma of the Magistrate’s House or of the nature of a happy childhood, everything that I have experienced in this house seemed more than real. The Holi get-togethers, our birthday parties, the various musical soirees etc. The guest lists were really remarkable and long – I remember Mr Nurul Hassan, the then Governor of West Bengal having graced our home. He was among many politicians whom I wasn’t aware of at that time, being so young. Many actors and actresses have frequented the Magistrate’s House, some from Tollywood and also from Bollywood. I remember Mr Shatrughan Sinha, Moonmoon Sen, Mr Dipankar Dey, the late comedian Mr Robi Ghosh. Once a brigade of actors from Bollywood arrived when Mr Gautam Ghosh, the well known director and who had become a very good friend of my parents, had invited them over. He was making his Bengali film ‘Antarjali Jatra’ in the Sagar Islands which happen to fall under the territory of 24-Parganas.
Image Source: My own. Please don’t use them without permission.
The years spent in Thackeray Road were the golden years of my childhood. I was beginning to know myself, realised that I day-dreamt a lot! I met a variety of people as we travelled to the interiors. I began to understand that people were plagued with various kind of problems – some basic, some major but for each individual his/her problem surmounted to the adjective ‘massive’. My dad had to create possibilities for them or re-orient the possibilities inorder to solve their problems. I grew up studying for my geography and mathematics tests while sipping tea in a ‘ control room’. These control rooms made me realise that there were different types of problems which were present in people’s lives and needed to be ‘controlled’, be it floods or draughts or elections etc. An each moment in a ‘control room’ was an emergency situation.
We would visit various places in Sundarbans – some of them were absolutely interiors where there were no jetties for the District Magistrate’s launch to anchor. We would spent nights on the rivers in the Sundarbans in the District Magistrate’s official launch. Of all the places that we had visited, my personal favourite was the Sagar Islands. Sagar Island is quite a large island on the Bay of Bengal, about 150 km south of Kolkata. Rich in mangrove swamps, waterways and small rivers, this island was our almost like our own personal island. Excepting on the day of Makar Sankranti (a day in the Hindu calendar which falls on the mid of January) when thousands of Hindus pounded on the island to take a holy dip in the confluence where river Ganges or the Ganga immersed herself into the Bay of Bengal. Thousands gathered at this confluence and offered puja in the Kapil Muni Temple. The GangaSagar Mela (fair) is the second largest congregation of mankind after the holy Kumbha Mela. It is held annually on the Sagar Island’s southern tip. The Hindus believe that a single dip during this Mela would bring them salvation. I have taken more than a 50 dips in this spot in my lifetime – so I take Nirvana for granted!
My education was as varied as the people I met or the places that we visited. It was also as profound as the emotions that we felt when we would accompany our dad on the Republic Day parades or the Indian flag hoisting for the Indian Independence day or hearing stories of him welcoming the Indian Prime Minister. Or when he handed over prizes to little children when he attended a school function as the Chief Guest. The various cultural evenings at very exclusive locales like the Victoria Memorial or the Governor’s House, or having sailed along the Ganges upstream from the Bay of Bengal to Naihati – a town situated on the river Ganga from where my dad actually hailed – the journeys were long and my experiences were priceless.
Though we were used to living in a different set of environment and exclusivity at the Magistrate’s House it didn’t make us snooty or pompous. We were not only enriched by our rendez-vous with the various personalities and special people that we hob-nobbed with under the roof of our heritage home but we also grew up amidst the chaos of the control rooms and visiting places which dared us to re-think or re-evaluate our own lives. We absorbed everything from every unspoken word and learnt from every unseen things. We grew up amidst conviction that was echoed in the District Magistrate’s voice ‘No Problem’!
Today when I re-visted my childhood home, I feel thankful that I could give my girls a glimpse of my childhood. Their childhood is not like ours. I donot give her the creative freedom to do a ‘live’ painting in their walls. Neither do I let them run into the rains. But I do compensate these by traveling with them, taking them everywhere, meeting people and answering to all their crazy queries. I have gifted my elder one a small digi-cam as I wouldn’t allow her to touch my Nikon. She has the freedom to click whatever she wants. But, most importantly she has doesn’t get embarrassed when I am perpetually clicking pictures with my lense peeping out of the car like a periscope! I click hoardings, billboards, traffic jams, people’s faces, roads, auto-rickshaws, the taxi-driver or even the ceilings of the car we are sitting inside! She doesn’t get embarrassed when I stop the car to click photographs. I am so glad that my girls don’t cry as we drive through the narrow lanes of Howrah or when we are stuck in the traffic on the Howrah bridge as I aspire to click some different shots of the Howrah station and the Bridge. While I can do these only when I am on a holiday, I will be lying if I said that I don’t do all these when I am in Dubai. So what, if I have taken 100 snaps of individual footstep on the sand near Starbucks at the JBR Walk? So what If I have climbed up the footbridges over Sheikh Zayed Road, with my camera and my girls in tow to click pictures of motion trails of cars? I have also made them pose in the burning sun for hours to take some shot of a shadow on their cheeks? But I have ‘mostly’ done these for some design project , not ‘just like that’!
And all these creative impulses were born at that magical moment when I started collecting pebbles and dried leaves from my private terrace as I grew up in the shadow of history, and touched the magical brick walls of the Magistrate’s House on No 1, Thackeray Road, Alipore.
Unblogging it all… Ishita