Flâneuring around Calcutta

On a recent visit to Calcutta, I learned a new word to describe what I sometimes engage in: flânerie.
     I heard it at the Oxford Bookstore where they launched Memory’s Gold, a new anthology on Calcutta. Amit Chaudhuri, the editor, highlighted a section of the book titled ‘Flânerie’. It includes pieces on adda and the cityscape of puja pandals. Looking up the word later, I discovered that it has no precise English equivalent but suggests aimless strolling through city streets. Balzac insisted, “To stroll is to vegetate, to flâneur is to live.”
     Just the day before the book launch, I had taken another long walk through Calcutta. I had no great purpose in mind as I tramped from Hastings to Howrah, then over to Sealdah. But once I approached Sealdah, my loitering took on a goal: the search for an address from the past.

I was spending a week in the city, staying with a friend in Hastings.
     It was already getting hot when I left the house in the morning. The city hadn’t been this hot in December since 1951. Leaving the whitewashed Navy buildings behind, I stepped onto the Strand, that magnificent boulevard that plies along the Hooghly. Near Princep Ghat, I tossed a glance at the Greek columned memorial, passed the railway station, and swerved onto the promenade by the river. Country boats were moored there; it would be hours before visitors would come to rent them for river cruises. The people who live by the ghats were still starting their day, some taking baths, others preparing meals.
     At the Babughat terminal, buses waited to go distances: to Bhubaneshwar, Puri, Cuttack. A man asked, where do you want to go? I must have looked like a traveller. Soon, to my right was a bus jam stretching all the way to Dalhousie. The yellow-and-blue buses spewed exhaust. In much of Calcutta, the air remains toxic. While Dhaka has found some relief with vehicles running on CNG, the taxi and bus fleets there still chuck out clouds of pollutants into the air. Yet, just like Dhaka, I was often forced off the footpath. Sometimes it would be blocked by a structure, elsewhere the stench and urine were too raw. I must admit, though, that I was impressed that you can find public toilets now in many parts of Calcutta.
     With the solid buildings of Dalhousie on my right, I walked by huge godowns that obscured the view of the river. The crowds grew thicker and I soon spied Howrah Bridge. When I snaked my way onto the bridge, it seemed as if a million people would run me over. The river breeze cooled the air, but just a bit. I looked upwards to see signs reminding citizens to take care of the structure. One said there is no other bridge like this in the whole world. I wondered when they put that one up. On the other side, I walked past sidewalk book vendors specializing in porn, both Hindi and Bangla. I faced an entrance that said, “Subway.” For a second I was puzzled; the Metro doesn’t extend to this side of the river. Then I realized it was an underground passageway. I entered and toured what seemed like the most crowded train station on Earth.
     Crossing the bridge again, now along the other edge, I found my way to Mahatma Gandhi Road. Within a few blocks, a dusty blocked doorway reminded of the old name for this road. A sign said “Harrison Road Railway Booking Office.” The footpaths were crowded, the street packed with taxis, buses and trams. I crossed a long stretch of clothing and fabric stores. My right shoe heel had split apart the previous day and when I spotted a cobbler, I darted towards him. He took care of me within five minutes.
     I dashed across College Street. I’d already spent two afternoons there looking for books. Overwhelmed with stalls offering textbooks, the area had felt like a larger version of Dhaka’s Nilkhet. Much of Mahatma Gandhi Road east of College caters to the wedding market. Shop after shop displayed invitation cards. Another stretch rented band parties. Men with trumpets and drumsticks in their hands crowded their entrances. I heard a fragment of talk in Bangla; for some reason that surprised me. On this trip, I heard more Hindi on the streets.
     When I noticed signs for lodging, I knew I was nearing Sealdah. I made my way to the north-south drag, confirming from a shop sign that I was now on Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road, APC Road for short. It used to be called Upper Circular Road.

Seven years ago on my first visit to Dhaka after my father died, my brother had handed me a notebook. My father had hired a young man to record pieces of his life story. In one place he had written: “After I passed my BA, I applied for the post of Sub-Inspector at the Calcutta Police. I took six months training at the Alipore police training school. Then I started my working life at the Amherst Street Thana. After this posting I was transferred to Entally Thana. At that time I used to reside at 85 Upper Circular Road.”
     He was speaking of 1928. Did this place still exist?
     Beyond Victoria Institution, I passed a grand-looking redbrick building partially obscured by billboards. The sign above the pharmacy next door said 85/1 APC Road. I backtracked and entered through the pedestrian cut-out in the iron gate of the brick house. A friendly-faced security guard greeted me.
     I asked, “Is this 85 Upper Circular Road?”
     The number was right but I had the old name, he said. The place was now a t-shirt factory. Could I walk around, take photos, I asked? He said I would need permission and he walked off to a small room in the front of the building. It made sense that this would be the place. My father had noted that the house had been a quality building belonging to the family of Keshob Chandra Sen of the Brahmo Samaj. “The house was quite large. Two quarters on the ground floor had been rented to the police. A sergeant lived in one flat, I in the other.”
     The guard motioned me into the manager’s room. Inside I found a young man busy with another visitor. A phone conversation interrupted. I looked through an inside doorway into a larger room. A young man was folding garments on a long table. The visitor left, replaced by another man who came to conduct some business. The phones went quiet and the manager said, “Now tell me, what is it you were saying?”
     I said that I had come from Bangladesh and recapped my father’s remembrances. He phoned for some tea. The other man interjected, “It seems the maximum number of people from Bangladesh are migrating to this side.”
     The manager admonished him. “How can you say such a thing? Is it possible for the maximum number of people to leave their country?” He went on to tell me about how he had lost touch with a friend from Bangladesh who had studied law in Calcutta. He could not tell me much about the building. The factory had been there for ten years. I inquired about the building layout. He said each floor had a large central room, with four rooms adjoining. He said I could take photos from outside.
     I thanked him for the tea and before I left the compound, I snapped some photos. My walking was done for the day.

The house is massive. I could see three floors, a low-ceilinged ground floor, the next one with very tall ceilings encircled with arched windows, the top floor with shorter ceilings and rectangular windows. The top windows were boarded up or missing frames and panes. The building had a symmetrical shape: two ends with semi-circular fronts, then L-shaped sections, finally a larger semi-circle in the centre.
     From my father’s notes, I gather that the house was occupied by Saral Sen, his wife Nirmala, their son Sujit, and two younger daughters Sadhana and Nilina. He didn’t say how long he lived here, but he came back once years later. When he married his first wife and brought her to Calcutta, he wrote that they ‘put up’ at 85 Upper Circular Road. He recalled that Sadhana Sen was married to Madhu Bose in that very house. Both entered the cinema and acted in many films. He also wrote that Nilina was married to the prince of Punjab’s Kapurthala state. My father and his wife were invited to their wedding held at a Calcutta hotel.
     I had not known before of my father’s early brush with celebrity. Sadhana Bose would become a legend in dance, theatre, and film. The couple’s big hit was Alibaba, released in 1937. Nilina would become known as Naina Devi, famous as a thumri singer. Another sister married into the Chakma royal family, becoming known as Rani Binita Roy. I came of age too late to know of Sadhana Bose. Of her, Debu Mazumdar wrote in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 3 May, 1981: “For men of my generation Sadhana Bose was as great a dancer as the woman she was — a living legend and the ‘toast of India’s gilded youth,’ so to say. She was a remarkably beautiful woman, a highly talented dancer and musician and a top-notch glamour girl of the screen. She was a trend-setter in the world of fashion, (the shimmering satin sari and glossy red lipstick, for example) in the same way as the legendary Harlow was in Hollywood those days.”
     She died in 1973, penniless and bereft of company or friendship.

An architect friend tells me that the house dates from the 1870-1890 period. The low ceilings on the ground floor suggest the rooms there were intended as servants quarters. I wonder why the Sens rented them to the police. I try to imagine what it might have been like for my father to move into the bottom floor, the main house occupied by a family with lovely talented daughters. He would have been 24 years old, the Sen sisters in their teens.
     Having been in Calcutta for a couple of years, my father may have acquired a few citified ways, but he would still be marked by his upbringing in rural east Bengal. He came from a Muslim family, his father a minor court clerk. A huge gulf in class, religion, and status would have separated him from the family upstairs. And yet he was young and probably cut a handsome figure. Did he have any more than passing contact with them? Would he have been invited upstairs? Or would he simply, lying on his bed below, imagine the life up there, from the sounds of their parties, the daughters’ music and dancing?
     It’s impossible to tell, but he must have developed some connection with the family since he could ‘put up’ there after he brought his new wife along to Calcutta.
     As Sadhana’s career took off, did my father feel a certain pride, a sense of connection, recalling the time they had shared a common address? Would he have made sure to see her films as they came out? And once he left the city in 1942 for a new life in Dhaka, did he regale people with any stories about her? He must have been tempted. I recall that in the mid-90s I stayed for a few months with a friend near Boston. His stepdaughter, then fourteen, was beginning a career in Hollywood movies. Though she and I have not run into each other since, I do keep an eye out for her on TV and film, and when conversation with friends brings up her name, I share a story or two from the time I lived in their house.
     While I can’t tell what impression the Sens left on my father, I think the house left a mark. Looking at its contours, I realize that the shape of the pukka house my father built in Pak Motors (now Bangla Motors) bears a resemblance to the house in Calcutta. This was shaped with a semicircle at one end, a quarter circle at the other. He built the house on limited resources, one room at a time. If he had the money, had he considered recreating a version of the other house?
     A stroll through Calcutta, a string of words from my father in my head, results in a visual — the remains of a house, now with gouged-out eyes — then, through conversations and references, it leads to a stroll through history with one or two remarkable discoveries.
     In 19th century Paris, flânerie was made famous by the poet Baudelaire. Walter Benjamin theorized it as an element in his study of modernity. It’s been explored by others since. I haven’t absorbed much of that, but from my own experience I suspect that many a flâneur — despite carrying an air of detachment — secretly seeks adventure. If not real, then at least through the eyes of the mind.

(This was published in The Daily Star Literature page, Saturday, January 3, 2009)


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  1. Mousumi

    That’s very moving, Mahmud. Thank you for sharing your trip through memory lane.

  2. Susanne Aziz

    Wonderful story or rather beautiful detective work in which you catch up with another, distant time and connect it to the present! I know what you call ‘flanerie’ as ‘flanieren’ in German. Actually, in my mind, ‘flaneuring’ used to be all about seeing the ‘appropriate’ people, the latest action in the city or at a certain square, and it is also about being seen by certain eligible persons. Families would parade their young, unmarried daughters and eligible sons in public on Sundays to show them off to society. It was an elegant pastime at a time when life was moving much slower. It used to be the high fashion in all the big metropoles of the world, whether in Paris at the Champs Elysees, London, or in Berlin, Unter den Linden. At the end of the movie ‘Gigi’ for instance, which Vincente Minelli directed, and which won 9 Oscars in 1959, you see Leslie Caron flaneur through a city park with her new found husband, and Maurice Chevalier singing in the background. That’s flanieren or flaneuring….. I love the fact that you dug up that posh, old word again!

  3. Masood Ahmed

    Weaving a walk into a story of a bygone era,with a bit of personal content.Just lovely.

  4. Maniza (Shelly) Aziz Johnson

    What a beautiful story! You actually stepped into the historical house where your father lived as a young man. He sometimes would talk about his childhood. Now I wish we talked about his life more. His life was quite intriguing. He was a brilliant man. He was so creative! I remember him always reading. If he could not find a book, he used to borrow my math book or any text book. I would be interested in reading his life sketches. Your writing is brilliant- One of these days I would like to go there. I feel I have been there already! Thanks for teaching the new word, “flaneuring”–

  5. Mahmud, a truly beautiful piece that really captured my imagination. When you ruminated about what your father’s interactions, thoughts, and feelings might have been for/with the family upstairs, I read spell-bound. For some reason, I remembered that scene in Wuthering Heights when Catherine and Heathcliff are looking through the window into the Linton’s stately living room? Per our recent emails, could this be your novel?

  6. Akku Chowdhury

    Great that surely took me down the memory lane….I love Calcutta…such a great city….

  7. Kolkata has always been a place of fashion and joy. The people who have visited Kolkata once, they always kept that in their heart. Unlike tradition of Kolkata, fashion and lifestyle of kolkata is famous too. Kolkata fashion and lifestyle week is one of the greatest fashion event in India

  8. Hasina Iqbal

    Mahmud beautifully stirs up nostalgic memories of those who spent their younger days in Kolkata, including me, reminding me of my childhood days in Park Circus.This city has different charm ,flavor,than any other city of the world..Mahmud’s writing makes one just yearn to go back to that magnificent city once again..

  9. Biswa Prasun Chatterji

    Beautiful….the only word to describe your article…beautiful…

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