Grown up, and that is a terribly hard thing to do. It is much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
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 different positions in 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 such an exclusive academic environment – we had to study harder to get clean chits at the end of term examinations in order to make up for all the weekly class tests that we kept on missing on a regular basis! Perhaps, today’s schools wouldn’t have encouraged this kind of ‘extra-tuition’ from real school that is life. A modern progressive school, on the other hand, would have required me to submit project sheets incorporating all my observations.
Volumes and volumes of memory cards, both in my brain and digital device, store these adventures of my unusual childhood. If I were to pin-point the exact timeline from where I could effortlessly download my memories onto my laptop, it would the year 1985 when I was in my sixth standard. We had just moved to Kolkata for the first time after leading a life in packing boxes, moving from one district to another. The ‘Magistrate’s House’ in 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. His tenure was quite obviously momentous. Though we were staying in Kolkata, the flavors of which were absolutely new to me, effectively we were still leading a life that only a district living can give.
That we were privileged to be staying in such a heritage house dawned upon me much later when our corporate lives with high salaries couldn’t buy our two girls the perks of the childhood that I had experienced. Our two and a half thousand square-feet sea facing luxurious apartment didn’t dare to compare to the twenty thousand square feet heritage house where I spent childhood, which was complete with wooden staircases and wooden beams in the ceiling. Both my little brother and I led a life of a prince and princess in our very own royal castle!
Later on in life, I felt like visiting my childhood home many times. More so when I began writing this article. Today morning, I ended up visiting the historical house, this time with our girls. I had a 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 a car with the 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 I tried to convince them that the lady holding a huge camera with two girls (one aged 7 and the other aged 2 at that time) grew up here scampering in the same compounds, many many years ago! The present District Magistrate was very 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 our girls re-visit my childhood.
My camera started clicking. It clicked every little detail that had faded away in my memory. It was 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 once REAL, a long time back!’ We walked and walked – the three of us. 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 favourite corner in the garden?’ And ultimately, ‘Oh I feel like a princess!’
The Magistrate’s House
The Magistrate’s House is not only a historical evidence of the bygone British period but is also enlisted today, as a heritage building by the Kolkata Municipality. Built in 1763, the Magistrate’s House was initially known as The Lodge. This was perhaps the oldest and the earliest residential cum 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 sixteen 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, tunnelling out to the National Library, another heritage building in the city. It is rumoured that there were such escape routes tunnelling all the way out to Fort Williams. I had seen part of this secret corridor but had never ventured out beyond a few steps to check the authenticity of this data.
A lot of my creative spirit and quench for adventure bloomed in Thackeray Road and was 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 mighty Ganga or the Ganges. Open outdoor spaces beckoned us, even though the sprawling grounds were gradually being by walls of encroaching neighbours – the jails, the courts and even other government offices. The adjoining bathrooms were as big as the bedrooms. There were huge terraces running all along two sides of the bungalow with very big private terraces attached to two of the several bedrooms on the other two 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 up to 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 that I had mentioned earlier. I would sleep with the French windows dangling open. They made creaking sounds as the panes dangled to and fro keeping in rhythm with the first onset of the monsoon winds. I wasn’t scared. As if these were the background music that I was meant to defy! Today, almost two decades later, I am scared to sleep alone in my own room, leave alone a room of a mighty heritage house. In Thackeray Road, after my studies, I would walk up to the roof above in the middle of the night to revise what I had learnt – all alone in the mighty twenty thousand square feet expanse. There, l would look up to the sky with my hands outstretched, pretending to touch the sky. The clouds flirting with the moon, would cast a dreamy spell on the huge terrace At times it seemed like a stark dark black space in various shades and depths. As I strained myself to see everything – even the shadows of the swaying trees, I would put myself to challenge the ‘absolute black’ colour test, where I would be the judge of which object seemed ‘more black’ in comparison to the other object.
My life in this heritage house
I had painted the walls of my room. I do not recall exactly whether our parents permitted us to do or we just 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 wall painting. One day, it would be the wild flowers in the grass, the next day it would be dried up leaves swaying to the ground. When the rains 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 beautiful mum was aware of my impulses or she let me be… just myself.
My brother’s drawing on the wall. Mr Sunil Dutt, the renowned photographer and photojournalist captured this precious moment.
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. Our scribblings would then 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 on all our guests from the various nooks and corners and the huge pillars that dotted the verandah. No, I wasn’t shy at all. In fact, I could jabber non-stop to any one who had ever graced our home. Peeping from hidden locations only gave me my imaginary perspective on every individual, with which I would try match once I got acquainted to them at a later stage.
Amongst the many guests we have had in our home, the most renowned guest was perhaps the late Kanika Bandopadhyay – Mohormashi as we affectionately called her. She was the legendary exponent of Rabindra Sangeet or Tagore songs and had been named ‘Kanika’ by Rabindranath Tagore himself. She stayed with us whenever she was in Kolkata for her radio recordings. My mum was her disciple for years and Mohormashi urged me to learn a few songs from her. Can you magine that? Mohormashi would cite examples of so many of her students who came from far and wide, just to have a glimpse of her or learn a few lines from her. I wasn’t bothered at that time and was busy running around the huge gardens of Magistrate’s House, 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 regret not having learnt more than just that tiny song from her although I had been fortunate to have seen her up close and personal and to hear her singing and humming in her personal space. I have also realised today that each person has their own calling. It can’t be forced upon someone.
For me, learning about food and travel, cooking for my family and friends, inspiring many to cook and explore their culinary heritages though my writing… is my calling.
Apart from Mohormashi, the legendary Nilima Sen, another exponent of Tagore songs had also graced our home many times. There were countless eminent personalities. Alas, I remember only a few of them today. 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 not only love but the power of storytelling. Today, she is no more and every time I see this beautiful photograph, it engulfs me with emotions and memories that only thakumas can bring. Her bedtime stories, her hand-made coconut narus, the coins she gifted us and the magical days and nights that pervaded our house when she stayed with us… I remember every little detail.
I do not know whether it was the enigma of the Magistrate’s House or my happy childhood, everything that I had experienced in this house seemed more than real. The Holi get-togethers, our birthday parties, the various musical soirees and so many celebrations. The guest lists were always remarkable and long – I remember Mr Nurul Hassan, the then Governor of West Bengal having graced our home. Many actors and actresses have frequented the Magistrate’s House, both from the Bengali and Bollywood film fraternity. I distinctly remember Shatrughan Sinha, Moonmoon Sen, Dipankar Dey and the late comedian Robi Ghosh. Once a brigade of actors from Opar Bangla – Bangladesh descended upon our house. Gautam Ghosh, the National Award winning director was a very close friend of my parents. At that time, he was making his Bengali film Antarjali Jatra in the Sagar Islands, which happened to fall under the territory of 24-Parganas and hence our fond association with the film.
My life beyond the four walls
The years spent in Thackeray Road were the golden years of my childhood. I was getting to know myself and realised that I day-dreamt a lot! I met a variety of people as we travelled to the interiors of the state. 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 in order 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, droughts, elections or other situations. Each moment in such a control room was an emergency situation.
We visited various places in Sundarbans – some of them were situated in absolutely interiors with no jetties for the District Magistrate’s launch to anchor. We spent nights sailing along the rivers in the Sundarbans in our small catamaran – MV Matla, the DM’s official launch. Of all the places that we 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 almost like our own personal island, excepting on the day of Makar Sankranti . This is 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 Ganga immersed herself into the Bay of Bengal. Thousands gathered at this confluence and offered puja in the Kapil Muni Temple. The Ganga Sagar Mela (fair) is the second largest congregation of mankind after the holy Kumbha Mela and 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 had the fortune of dipping more than fifty times in this blessed spot in my lifetime – so it is safe to add here, I have achieved Nirvana and salvation fairly early in my childhood!
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 say, when he handed over prizes to little children while attending 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 living a very privileged life at the Magistrate’s House, it didn’t make us snooty or pompous. We were not only enriched by our rendezvous with the various personalities and special people that we hobnobbed with under the roof of our heritage home, we also grew up amidst the profoundness and awareness of ‘control room’ situations. Visiting remote places and meeting people who were living their lives precariously on the edge, dared us to re-think or re-evaluate our own lives and the choices we made daily to make some difference in others’ lives. We absorbed everything from every unspoken word and learnt from every unseen things. We grew up amidst conviction that echoed from my dad, the District Magistrate’s voice – ‘No Problem’!
Today, when I revisited my childhood home, I feel thankful that I could give the Z-Sisters a glimpse of my childhood. Their childhood is not like ours. We don’t give them the creative freedom to do a ‘live’ painting in their walls. Neither do we let them run into sporadic rain showers. What we do however, is try to give them an experience when we travel where they can engage with the local communities. With this in mind, we gifted
Big Z a small digicam, Samsung tab the Z-Sisters with smartphones and encourage them to document our travels. While they have the creative freedom to do many things when we travel, they also give me a lot of freedom to be how I want to be. They also don’t get embarrassed at all when I take pictures perpetually, peeping out of cars like a periscope. I click hoardings, billboards, traffic jams, people’s faces, roads, auto-rickshaws, taxi-drivers or even the ceilings of the car we are sitting inside. They don’t care when I stop our car randomly to click photographs or I make plans to venture the narrowest lanes of Howrah to explore … they mostly (specially Big Z) accompany me to all of my creative explorations…
… and I know with utmost certainly that all these creative impulses of mine were born at that magical moment when I started collecting pebbles and dried leaves on my private terrace, where I grew up in the shadow of history and as I touched the magical brick walls of my very own Magistrate’s House on No 1, Thackeray Road, Alipore.
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links for any of the brands that may have been mentioned in this blogpost. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and all images are from my personal album. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts.
[Edited on 4 September 2017] The photo gallery below is updated from our visit to the Magistrate's House this summer (August 2017). Big Z is now 13 years old and Lil Z is 8. The latter had just one comment to make... "Mummy, you were so spoilt!" I took permission to show the house on my visit this time and there seemed to have been a few more changes - repair works are over and the house looks gorgeous. Many thanks to the present DM, Mr Y. Ratnakar Rao, for being so generous and welcoming us into his residence!