The Maimed Mansions Of Calcutta

BY VIBHA MITRA

I was married into a “Bonedi” Bengali family with regal antecedents. Though we lived in South Calcutta, having come away from the North during the Naxalite movement, most of our relatives still lived there in aristocratic large grandiose homes- the opulence, music, laughter and gaiety of yesterday echoed as the occupants spoke of “those days” with great nostalgia and wistfulness.

Unused to seeing life in these glorious mansions, I was enamoured with the shared history of famous lineage, contributing to social development, trade, professions and maybe fighting for the freedom struggle. These homes crumbled, under the weight of lost opportunities, depleted wealth due to ostentatious lifestyles. With the end of Zamindari, the rents too disappeared. The Italian marble floors which glistened once still have some sheen despite layers of grime and dust. An army of household help to clean is an impossible dream. The chandeliers of Venetian glass hang forlornly in large halls. The beautiful canvases are translucent with years of neglect. Marble statues lurk in corners. These vintage memorabilia have also been arbitrarily sold to meet rising expenses of basic needs.

The buildings, made with “Surki” and lime, have sturdy one-foot walls, never needing air-conditioning, but the walls are damp, attract termites, the archaic plumbing desperately needing an overhaul. The high ceilings need a bigger, more expensive air-conditioner. The beautiful teakwood furniture has no option for hanging suits and dresses. They store folded sarees, dhotis, kurtas with elan.

The sheer impracticality of a beautiful courtyard with running verandahs leading to rooms with shared bathrooms is not conducive to a modern lifestyle. These are owned by expanding families and a greater number of stakeholders who are obviously reluctant to concede their share to relatives as it may be the only valuable possession they own. Having lost most of their livelihood, they are obviously reluctant to let go. With no business instincts in their DNA, my husband’s relatives floundered and were prey to unscrupulous investors.

Conserve and reuse is a laudable initiative. However, the expense to rid of dampness, repair the plumbing, and a general overhaul of these beautiful structures needs large budgets. There is an increasing outcry to not destroy a rich past and legacy. I empathise with these owners as they are almost literally stuck in a cul-de-sac looking for some light to better their lives, give their children a better future. With rising expenses how can they conserve, reuse or even restore? A difficult choice indeed!

Vibha Mitra is a Heritage Enthusiast – actively involved with Calcutta Heritage Collective. With a passion to do things well, she expresses herself from an original point of view. Films, plays, crosswords, Scrabble, Sudoku, Netflix are all jostling for space in her world. Vibha has also authored the book “Odds and Bends”, a journal and her reflection.

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