Meanwhile, in Calcutta… (Finding my Roots – Part Deux)

At the moment that my mother was being born in Shimla in North-West India, my father was a 4-year-old boy on the other side of the country in Calcutta, Bengal.

Three brief paragraphs of background will help.

Background

My paternal grandfather had left the UK in 1920 (at the age of 21) on a steamer to work for one of the Managing Agencies in Tea and Jute. My grandmother (who he had met at University) then came out to marry him in 1927; my father was born in 1931. My father left India with his mother in 1936 bound for school in Edinburgh, but my grandfather stayed on till 1948, before retiring to St Andrews. He died in 1988.

As a child I was fascinated by some type-written stories that he had left about his life in Calcutta and his travels through North India. He also left behind a beautiful leather-bound album of photographs that he put together during his (lengthy) retirement. Before I left the UK, I photocopied some of the photographs, in the hope that I might be able to trace some of this history.

Calcutta is situated at the mouth of the river Hooghly, where the waters of the great Ganges eventually spew into the Bay of Bengal after meandering across the North India plain from West to East. The city was a very valuable trading post for all the adventuring Imperial powers, and although it had lost the title of capital of the British Raj (to Delhi) in 1911, it continued as an essential city of the Empire, particularly for Jute.

Did Lyons Range really exist?

I arrived in Calcutta on Sunday, taking a ferry across the great Rover Hooghly to find my cheap hotel for the next week.

Having already located the church where my grandparents were married, I ventured into the heart of commercial Calcutta on Monday, equipped with a walking guidebook, the photographs, and a stubborn resolve.

The few type-written sheets told me that my grandfather’s office had been at “5 Lyons Range” and “2 Fairlie Place”. The final words in the type-written sheets, however, (written in 1979 at a time when the UK was suffering woes at least as bad as today) were ominous:

“In a short time, all Lyons Range was pulled down and forgotten. […] I said Good-bye to Calcutta in 1949. But as I write this some thirty years later, when business circles in the UK have little to be thankful for with inflation and shortage of jobs, I sometimes wake in the middle of the night and say to myself, ‘Did Lyons Range really exist?’”

But even though the buildings on Lyons Range have indeed disappeared, the street remains, as do the street nameplates. I spent an enjoyable few hours using my imagination to bring it all back to life, dodging the taxis, connecting all the various streets, and sneaking into some of the buildings. (I lasted longest in the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, where I managed a good 20 minutes before being unceremoniously booted out onto the street by security). Some original buildings remain; many have changed substantially. But it was wonderful to see the nameplates of the Scottish firms that ruled the roost here – McLeod & Co., Balmer Lawrie, Jardine Henderson, as well as MacNeill and Barry my grandfathers’ firm.

The Chummery

The following morning, I decided to see if I could find the two residential addresses that I had.

Arriving in Calcutta in 1921 as a single man, my grandfather chose to share rooms with three others in a house, 14 Dover Park. The house became known as “The Chummery”. (One of the other young men in the Chummery was a “Commander Maurice Bond RN” – I had high hopes that he might have had some influence on Ian Fleming’s Bond, but alas I think that is stretching things too far).

The problem was that no-one I asked could locate the address 14 Dover Park. Neither was it to be found on any maps. A street called “Dover Lane” existed in the South of the city though – and this was as good a starting point as any.

An early start, a short metro-ride, a shared rickshaw ride, and a few vague directional waves (“Go straight”) and I found Dover Lane. But even with the staff in the tiny post office, Dover Park drew blanks. A man in the queue however thought (“I cannot be certain sir”) that he might know of the place – a couple of kilometres away.

One of the nice things about this trip is that I have very little to lose, so I eagerly took up his invitation to walk with him for a while in the posited general direction. We approached a dosing rickshaw-man. “Dover Park?”

“Huh? Heh? Hah! Dover Park! Huh! Heh?” It was a strangely unconvincing reply, and followed by one of those typically drawn-out circular conversations based around street names (“Dover Park, nai?” Yes, Dover Park…” “Yes Dover park? Ha! Heh. Huh?”) Still, it was my best bet. I negotiated the princely fee of 20 rupees, and jumped in.

And then I found it. Dover Park was/is a leafy cul-de-sac in Ballygunge. Some of the buildings remain, although not Number 14. But it did not require much imagination to bring this one back to life and to see my grandfather and his chums setting out together for their mundane first jobs shuffling the Empire’s paperwork.

As always, my random hanging around looking at buildings raised the curiosity of a few others and I had new-found friends in no time. Amazingly, one man with betelnut-stained teeth was even able to fill in some of the gaps about my grandfathers’ business. In this strangest of journeys, it seemed only right to hop into a cab with him; and given the bizarre contrasts on offer in this country, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that within 30 minutes I was watching a goat having its head chopped off in a live sacrifice in the Kali Temple in Kalighat. But that’s another story.

The goat was Kali’s. It was still only midday. I had one more address to find. Lyons Range and the Chummery were long-gone. But would No. 2 Lee Road, where my grandparents had lived after my father returned to Edinburgh, still exist?

To be continued…

Click here for the next post…

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, North India

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