Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

College Street, Kolkata coffee break

The first time I visited Kolkata's book street, it was a voyage of discovery. The maze of bookstalls, iconic educational institutions and blasts from the city's colonial past threw up startling surprises and a few disappointments.

A busy road lined with miles of bookstalls

I revisited Boi Para recently, this time in the company of someone who grew up there, and is now guiding young minds. Dr. Sandipan Sen belongs to that uncommon breed of scholars, who revel in delving into interesting but little-known facts. If it weren't for individuals like them, so many facts and details would be glossed over by those out to simplify everything into easily digested bytes. such scholars enrich our collective knowledge and strive to keep public memory alive. Are people like him out to show off their learning and dazzle others? Not at all. Dr Sen is low-key and unassuming, and the twinkle in their eyes makes one suspect that they hide much more knowledge than they are ready to flash before others. In fact, such people merely point out omissions and errors which many others would have missed. The idea is to be true to facts and get the right perspective. This is necessary, or people would be making errors unwittingly, or even deliberately misrepresent facts to misguide others.
David Hare's tomb, relic from the Raj

"Bankim Chandra had once lamented that Bengalis do not care for history," he shares. "This is once again evident when we see that a film has been released, titled "Bombay Talkies", which is purported to be a tribute to the father of the Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Falke, on the centenary year of Indian cinema - because Indians have accepted the claim, made by the Mumbai lobby, that dadasaheb Falke had made the film in India. And, alas, no one remembers - not even any Bengali does - that the true father of Indian cinema was not Dadasaheb Falke, but Hiralal Sen, who made his first film, "A Dancing Scene", and made several more feature films between 1901 and 1913. Not only that, he produced India's first ad film - on Jabakusum Hair Oil, and he also made India's first political film - an anti-partition film which was shown in the Albert Hall in September 1905. He also founded the first film company in India - the Royal Bioscope Company. Everyone has managed to forget Hiralal Sen, and now we treat Dadasaheb Falke as the first Indian film-maker - though his first film, "Raja Harishchandra" was made only in 1913 - the year in which Hiralal Sen had made his last film!
Bankim was right. We don't care for history. Nirad C. was right too - we are a self-forgetting people."

Albert Hall coffee house with Dr Sandipan Sen
His advice was very helpful when I was writing my biography of Rabindranath Tagore for young people. I wanted to thank him in person when I visited Kolkata. There we are, in the iconic Albert Hall coffee house in College street. Dr Sen was once among the students here, who gather to discuss books and everything else under the sun. Our wizened waiter knew his patron from his college days, and the atmosphere buzzed with life.

Dr Sen enjoys sharing unusual nuggets of little-known information. Here's a sample from his stores:

 "He used to earn Rs 60,000 a year from his paternal property, which allowed him to save Rs 50,000 a year, because - in spite of his lavish lifestyle - his annual spending was not more than Rs 10,000. However, despite having such a huge income, he accepted the job of a petty Sereshtadar which carried a paltry pay of Rs 150 per month. Why did he do so? Simple, after six years of service, he could amass Rs 12 lakhs from this job, which was the initial capital of the Union Bank!! Rs 12 lakhs in only six years with an income of Rs 150 per month? Impossible, you would say? Yes, arithmetically so, but not practically, because there was no bar in those days for the government officials to pursue independent business ventures, and he did that - and did successfully by exploiting his official position (in those days people had scant regard for moral laws, his grandfather turned rich by becoming a Thikadar for the almost-never-ending project of building the new Fort William in Calcutta - a project from which everyone grew rich)!!

So, he had his own reason to look for a government job carrying a meagre salary compared to his huge income - because that allowed him to earn even more money by exploiting his official position. And he is called the first "Udyogpati" (entrepreneur) of Bengal!!

My idea about entrepreneurs and about how people grow rich became even stronger with these facts about Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, who turned so rich that he could spend Rs One Lakh in a month during his stay in London!!

Truly, even if a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, a rich man cannot go to the kingdom of God, as famously enshrined in the Bible. Because the way to money is not fair, as we understand from this example."

Photo: The first Indian to be seated along with the head of the state of a foreign country during the Army Review Ceremony (equivalent to March Past) of that country. "Prince" Dwarkanath Tagore. In Great Britain. It was on 23 June 1842.
Raja Ram Mohun Roy
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay
Here's some more: "The first Indian to be seated along with the head of the state of a foreign country during the Army Review Ceremony (equivalent to March Past) of that country. "Prince" Dwarkanath Tagore. In Great Britain. It was on 23 June 1842. "

From Albert Hall coffee house, Dr Sen led us through a maze of by-lanes into amazing world of subaltern intellectuals, who continue to flourish in the nooks of College Street. Not for them the mainstream business of textbooks, guide books and pulp bestsellers. Niche specialists here lovingly compile and propagate storehouses of information on less-known but interesting esoteric topics.
Winding our way through rows of homes, printing presses and even more bookstores, we arrived at a store with books lining the antique show window. Anil-da greeted us from his desk polished well with years of use. Prof Anil Acharya, the editor of Anustup, writes and publishes on esoteric aspects of Kolkata's rich and varied culture. What was the city like in the times of great intellectuals and reformers such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Bankim Chandra? Prof Acharya will pull out scholarly books to satisfy your curiosity.

Prof Acharya was Dr Sen's former teacher, and the two share great chemistry. Their eyes twinkled with flashes of subtle wit as they discussed the alternative literature produced by Kolkata's Bot tola indigenous presses of yore. Did you know that people from the Marwar region of Rajasthan spread to Bengal centuries ago as they expanded their business and trade networks. Over time, they blended with the local culture while maintaining a distinctive identity. They have thrived in Kolkata for centuries.  You'll learn all this and more from the books Prof Acharya champions.

These scholars who enjoy learning for its own sake, don't always have their heads lost in the clouds. A gentle nod from Prof Acharya signalled a wizened mashi to enter with steaming cups of tea. Endless freewheeling addas over coffee and tea is one of the many charms of College Street.


Bamboosong said...

Thanks for allowing us all to share this wonderful adda....fascinating!


monideepa sahu said...

Thanks for dropping by, Lina. This scholarly adda went off into the most unusual tangents. The alleys branching out from College Street are teeming with niche bookstores and publishers, who have boks and publications on the unlikeliest subjects under the sun.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience. I felt like I was with you in the College st. Being born to a Tamil Orthodox family and brought up in Kerala, it's surprising for my family, cousins and friends to see me getting excited and fascinated to read and know anything related to Bengal. they will call me 'Poorva janma Bengali' or Bengali of the previous birth. I always find lot of similarities between Kerala and Bengal, be it Communism, fish, simplicity,the intellectual capacity of the people and so on. By the way I've bought 'Awakening: The story of the Bengal Renaissance' by Subrata Dasgupta. yet to start it.
Keep posting such wonderful experiences.

monideepa sahu said...

Nice to see you here, Janani. Also interesting to learn about your multicultural background. College street is a fascinating place, especially the by-lanes with their niche presses and bookstores. You do need a guide though. I would have got lost in the maze of narrow lanes branching off from the main road, if Dr Sen had not been there to show us around. I also hope you enjoy Subrata Dasgupta's book.The Bengal renaissance had far-reaching influences, and ushered in momentous changes.

ZZahid Gogon said...

Hello Monideepa,
I am a film making student from Bangladesh.
Can I get your email address for some of my queries about HiraLal Sen? I don't want discuss the thing here.
Zahid Gogon

monideepa sahu said...

Hi Zahid. I don't know much about Hiralal Sen myself. If you read the post carefully, you will see that I have quoted Dr Sen on this. Anyway, you can mail me at if that is of any help.