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 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 at such a regular basis! Perhaps today’s schools wouldn’t have encouraged this kind of ‘extra-tution’ from life, or may be a progressive school would require me to submit project sheets incorporating all my observations.
Lots of volumes in my memory card, both in my brain and digital device, 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 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, and 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 a district life 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 my childhood. Our two-thousand square feet sea facing luxurious apartment couldn’t even dare to compensate the twenty thousand square feet heritage house of my childhood, complete with wooden staircases and wooden beams in the ceiling. Both my little brother and myself led a life of a 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 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 our 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 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 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 my two 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 – 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 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 today 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 two sides of the bungalow with very big private terraces attached to two of the several bedrooms on the remaining 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 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 two 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.
My life in this heritage house
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 affectionately call her. She was a legendary exponent of RabindraSangeet 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 had been Mohormashi’s disciple and she urged me to learn a few songs from her. Mohormashi would cite examples of so many 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 from so close. Today I also realise that each person has their own calling. Painting, designing, seeing the world through my lenses and writing about them is my calling. And cooking. I love humming to myself, but not to the world.
Apart from Mohormashi, another exponent of Tagore songs had also graced our home – the legendary Nilima Sen. 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 everytime 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 that she gifted us and the magical days and nights that pervaded our house when she stayed with us.
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. 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 for a party thrown in honour of Gautam Ghosh, the National Award winning director, and a very close friend of my parents. He was then 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 beginning 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 or droughts or elections etc. 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 would spent nights sailing the rivers in the Sundarbans in our small catamaran – MV Matla, the DM’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 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 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 I believe 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 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 rendezvous 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 echoed in the my dad, 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 don’t give her the creative freedom to do a ‘live’ painting in their walls. Neither do I let them run into the rains. I do try to compensate 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 Samsung tab smartphone as I didn’t allow her to touch my Nikon Huawei P8 Samsung Galaxy IPhone 7. While she has the creative freedom to do things virtually, she also doesn’t get embarrassed when I am perpetually clicking pictures with my lens peeping out of the car 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. She doesn’t care when I stop our car to click photographs or we drive through the narrow lanes of Howrah or when we are stuck in the traffic on the Howrah bridge when I aspire to click some different shots of the Howrah station and the Bridge…
… 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 my very own Magistrate’s House on No 1, Thackeray Road, Alipore.
Unblogging it all… Ishita
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[Edited on 4 September 2017]
The following photo gallery 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!