The image of it still floats in my dream-sleep world, it recurs now and again as I ruminate over my childhood and youth, when some old associate happens to meet me or just as I recollect that house and household of my birth (though I was born in a maternity home in another locality of the city and was brought back home a few days hence) and teens and youth. It was a house built sometime towards the second half of the nineteenth century and I was born in 1940s.
I was told that there were no houses before our house up to the big main road, Cornwallis Street (renamed later as Bidhan Sarani after independence) and that horse drawn trams were plying then on the road and horse drawn carriages were frequently seen, that we had our horse drawn carriages. Rickshaw pullers carrying human passengers were frequent scenes over the Calcutta roads and lanes then. No bus, no metro, no flyover, no circular trains, no electric trams were seen. But the passenger carrying and passenger movement systems were undergoing changes rapidly. We did not see the horse driven trams. All other vehicles were gradually being replaced by various categories of passenger buses and cars, share taxis, auto rickshaws, different types of short distance loco trains. Roads expanded, subways and flyovers made; various other changes were and are still being made to change the landscape of the city. Barring a few parks all the lands are covered by cement, concrete, stone and tar. With various changes in the life of the city the houses too were getting face-lifts, demolished, replaced by multi storied buildings. Few dwelling houses gave birth to innumerable residential flats. Old residents sold their properties at lucrative prices and settled in the outskirts of the city. New comers with huge money-power settled in the heart of it. Demographic sea-changes happened gradually pushing the colonial scenarios into fading memories.
In the background of that changing scenario our house like some others stood on its ground firmly. The house I remember was built (though I never saw its birth) with least consideration or concern for modern architecture or artistic value, modern need to utilize space or to economize wastage. It was a huge house with nearly twenty or more rooms and as much dark passages, unutilized corners without windows or ventilation and light. One crossed from one section of the house to another as if crossing some lanes and by-lanes in a town. The house was built straight with outer walls on all sides depriving any view from outside. Rooms were big and small; many might have been extra spaces left unused when it was built. Those were the days very conservative, Hindus and Muslims living in different localities with the other communities scattered and sometimes clumped in specific areas, have almost similar types of houses, closed with trellises somewhere to allow the inmates to have a view of the outside but never the outsiders could get a glimpse of it.
The owner of that property, my great grandfather, accumulated huge wealth in a growing Calcutta doing business with British people who were not only colonizers but superior in commerce, business and industry. He was busy with it, wrapped inside it, overwhelmed in its glare. He became a growing businessman and industrialist of the city.
He had built some other houses and rented them. He acquired the fame of a successful businessman. He had no time and energy to waste away, to enjoy life with pleasure and luxury. He was a builder. He died in his sixties.
After him my grandfather and his elder brother became the owners of the house. They partitioned the house. Each had some sixteen or more children in the course of time. Their sisters were married and settled elsewhere but those widowed came back and left as burdens in the family, serving their brothers’ families, bringing up their own children somehow.
When my grandfather and his elder brother took charge of the household it faced no alarming position as the inhabitants were not many. But my grandfather inheriting huge wealth led a hedonistic life with some acquired vices brought into the family by his friends and followers. He maintained the business house but gradually lost wealth for he was more interested to show his pride and enjoying life than thinking constructively for the welfare of the business created by his father, for the welfare of his children and others. Though with his intelligence and education he could manage the business well, he became a sleeping partner voluntarily, leaving the charge of the business in the hands of foreigners, to be duped sometimes, to incur debts unduly. And his elder brother was rather dull in brain and ideas. He lived by spending the wealth that he inherited. And to add fire to fuel, my grandfather died very early due to contacting a hideous disease mainly because of his unhealthy life style.
The household grew up with every member becoming selfish and aware of his competitive environment. One house had become two big houses with some fifty members with their children and some distant relatives joined them in the meantime and there were servants and dependents. Gradually we, our brothers and sisters, our cousins and some others living there grew up to age. Marriage and death in the house became regular affair. Once a joint family, under one Karta or head of the family, was divided into many parts with many kartas, many improvised kitchens, hardly leaving many spaces or passages unutilized. It grew into a clan where many did not know the other properly. Brothers and sisters lived in the same rooms with their parents. The situation took such a turn that if any young male member of the house thought of marrying he would have to rent a flat or room somewhere else to live a married life peacefully.
The country and the city too grew up to a competitive position with independence; with newer opportunities and at the same time with lesser idle monies or sympathies remaining for each other. One day there was scarcity of water in the city and electricity supply was erratic as it was in the middle of the summer. Not all had opportunity to get more than one bath. I joined service in a merchant firm and coming back home in the late evening found that the water reservoir was empty. I was informed by my sister that my uncle had taken out the entire water from it and stored it in his room in buckets. Asking him it was confirmed that he would do it so again when water was so scarce for himself and his children, that he would not spare it for anyone else. It was the second half of the twentieth century, 1965 to be precise. Gradually everything in the house became scarce and living very uncomfortable. The brothers and cousins often quarreled.
The elder brother of my grandfather too died very old giving no new ideas or inspirations. Suddenly it dawned on me that the clan had badly cracked, that we could no longer live there peacefully for any progress without harming the others. Most of the members were not well off. Most of them were not in a position to live independently renting separate houses or flats. It was a sprawling city, daily expanding. Only to distant places they could move or to our ancestral village, if desired, but there too none was welcome as the people living there were busy with themselves and none were ready to part with portions of joint family property they were enjoying.
Knowing full well the precarious position it would give rise to, I thought it best to hammer, to forge ahead with my project to sell the house kept without any repair or renovation for decades. The house was in fact in almost dilapidated condition. Many were not ready for that, my uncles and their children, but I explained to them the situation that it was not practical to live together any more without allowing ourselves to be slum dwellers and that still there was chance for the house might fetch a good price and that each will have opportunity to resettle anywhere in the outskirts of the city though not in the heart of the it, to live a better life. As my uncles and my father, in spite of their close fraternal bond, gradually discerned the practical condition that the days ahead were not palatable as I said, they finally agreed to the dismay of many who did not inherit it but were living with some distant relationship or were just dependants. Even some of my uncles and their families who had real scarcity of resources feared the consequences of selling their ancestral shelter.
But I went ahead with majority agreement. That was the first occasion at my prime youth to deal with a complicated property matter as there were some other inheritors, as there were changes of laws of the country. I regularly visited one of our old family friends, an attorney. I knew then that lawyers seek for their interest first beyond the law, that however much we were known, he would seek his profit first. I agreed for it was a complicated matter to get everything done with so many inheritors, getting the buyers bound by law to leave us unhurt once the property was sold, for there came some other claimants. The property was sold but not at a high price, rather it was a throw away price as the condition of the house was precarious. I still insisted and everyone agreed lastly to get the money as a last resort.
Eventually we moved to a distant place but gradually we came to a position to rent a house nearby. My own brothers too got services and with the help of their employers and cooperative bodies got their own flats purchased in due course. We too have our children. I got transferred to different corners of India and lived for many years in quarters provided by my employer, the Government. My two children got settled in foreign countries. They come once or twice a year. I have got my own house here in Pondicherry, the land of my settlement. After some 46 years of selling that Calcutta house, though I live far away from that city, I have booked a very spacious and comfortable flat in the heart of the that Calcutta city, very near to where our old house which has since been converted to a multistoried house through promoters.
Though many of my cousins and relatives got aggrieved and angry with me for my initiative and success in selling the house, I may say that by this time, though some have died, most of our clan have their own houses or flats in the periphery of the city which too are now grown as posh and respectable areas; considered to be Calcutta itself, more coveted sometimes than Calcutta proper which is old with an age nearing 325 years.
Those of my clan who live now do not curse me any longer. Rather they sometimes think of that occasion of selling the house as opportunities in their lives. Because of the challenge, they feel, they could rise to the occasion and suddenly with a spurt began to face the challenge. It took their lives to heights. Many of them are now well settled in life occupying very good positions in service or business, thus remaining respectable in society. And all of us, though we meet only occasionally, have a feeling of goodwill and we never forget how we came up from that fallen condition, stagnating situation of life created by our ancestors as they could not guess the time ahead, as the time was such that they thought of themselves only and less of their posterities. That my grandfather’s life was snatched early by fate was good in the practical sense that he was oblivious of us and was immersed in his life and surroundings with all arrogance of the age. It was good that he could not leave the properties more mortgaged and could not leave with more indebtedness to outsiders when his children were too immature to face life and financial burdens.
On the whole I never regret for the drive, for the timely decision I took to sell the house and move ahead. It became a boon to us. Certainly it changed the course of my life to a great extent. Instead of being confined in stagnated water we moved through flowing rivers of life. I confirm today that it was a progressive decision for a big change in life.
© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2011