I knew Bengalis moved to all the places in India the British developed- becoming lawyers, doctors and teachers. My own paternal great grandfather studied medicine and moved to Allahabad to join government service as a surgeon. As I looked around Calcutta I got an overwhelming feeling that these were the very streets their (and my) ancestors had walked upon–similar houses that they had lived in…Their many homes in Allahabad, my hometown, which up to now I had considered huge, were modest(with some exceptions like the Indian Press home–see here) compared to some of the enormous mansions in Calcutta. They all had polished red cement floors, polished kansha(bell metal)and brass everywhere and at least one cupboard full of broken and unbroken porcelain figurines.
I was about to go inside an old Calcutta house and see for myself where these trends came from. I was wondering if it would have the same red cement floors, the same polished brass and a similar curio cupboard. After all, Calcutta and Bengal were usually regarded by the pravasis(those who had moved out of Bengal)as their original homeland and that they looked towards for inspiration !
It happened to be a Sunday morning. An otherwise very busy road in central Calcutta, Rashbehari Avenue was fairly calm. The footpath we were walking along was even calmer. Shops on ground floors of low apartment blocks-typical of Calcutta (and old parts of cities in India)- shut. Just some people out-walking not too hurriedly or sort of loitering.
We walked past gracious old houses and flats and I could not help but feel a sense of history. Here is something–I don’t think you can get this concentrated feeling of history on streets anywhere else in India. You feel this way in Calcutta because huge numbers of old homes remain–if this is ‘no economic development during the communist government’s time’-then it is a tremendous thing as far as heritage is concerned !
The houses were in view but when looking up at the flats (on top of shops)all that was visible was their beautiful shuttered windows-a feature of British era homes-
We were looking for a green gate with the number 87.
This was the residence of the Gooptu family. ‘Gooptu’ or an anglicisation of ‘Gupto’. I saw such anglicisations on nameplates everywhere- Banerji, Chatterji being a few we were accustomed to–and then the more unusual ones-Bonerjea for Banerji, Chukkerverty for Chakravarti and, of course,the name in question-Gooptu. Here we were at the green gate, numbered 87 . The home built by Amarendra Chandra Gooptu-
Dwarka Nath Gooptu, great grand father of Amarendra, qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1838. He became prominent and was appointed, among other places, doctor to the East India Company. He invented a mixture which countered malaria and, because of his proximity to the British, successfully marketed this in Africa, building a large fortune. It was this fortune with which he himself and subsequent generations acquired vast amounts of property- on Grey Street, Rashbehari Avenue, Strand Road and almost the entire Middleton Street.
As I said in my previous article on Calcutta, I am in a state of continual amazement at the enterprise and acquisitiveness Bengalis showed in that era. Bongo santaans of today are happy simply pushing files, becoming scribes and talking about Tagore ! The pain(alright,they mean pen), they say, is mightier than the sword !
Amarendra Chandra used to live in a house on Grey Street, North Calcutta, built by his grandfather. It had a mere 100 rooms ! And a comparable number of extended family members inhabiting them. Seeking to venture into central Calcutta, he bought this property on 87 Rashbehari and built himself a house as a temporary one until he could find a larger property and build a grander house. That did not happen and he stayed on in this one. He is supposed to have said later that if he knew he would have stayed on in this house he would have made it much grander !
It is now lived in by his two daughters-in-law and Sati Gupta(pronounced Gupto), his daughter and the lady I was going to meet.
Here is the house–the paint now weathered, wearing the kind of grace that only something old can-
Shutters on the small front verandah and balconies coming half way down-to protect, I was told, against the rain which comes down heavily from June until September, to let air in and the sun out- a feature, I found, typical of Calcutta houses..
The yard not large but green with tropical trees and shrubs like the frangipani,now without leaves,and palm–another appearance common to many houses–
On entering the lobby I saw something I was subconsciously hoping to see- a red cement floor ! Polished to perfection both with excellent craftsmanship as well as age–the colour intense and so rich ! The beautifully carved teak furniture, stained dark as was the style at the time, blending perfectly with the red floor. And, here it was- again something I was looking for- highly polished brass planters-
An exquisite marble topped round table in the lobby-on the wall in front a beautiful old clock-
On a wall above a table was the photograph of Amarendra Chandra Gooptu surrounded by framed certificates. Looking closely, I could see they were licences and certificates for ham radio operators.He was one-
In fact, I was told later, ‘the Ham Radio bhoot had possessed’ Amarendra Chandra. He would be up till 3 and 4 am–making contact with ham radio operators from Russia, Australia, America and other parts of the world.
A room on the first floor in an annexe was assigned for his equipment–and from here he pursued his hobby-
An interesting, fine detail — a door stop behind a door-
A view of the drawing room with European style oil portraits of family members-(my camera could not handle the dark portraits without overexposing the window)
A view of the bedroom downstairs with a dressing table and a cupboard with an oval mirror–the furniture all teak wood-
Outside the bedroom door and in the hall, an interesting chest of drawers meant to house gramophone records. In fact, they are all still there. The drawers stay locked by a single secret latch-
A Sunday phenomenon–all clocks of the house being wound by a gentleman who comes in from North Calcutta-
The staircase with polished teak banisters and red cement floors-
On one side, a view from the staircase- that of the verandah with kitchens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking. The verandah opens into a courtyard.Food being cooked,traditional style–life going on at an unhurried pace—
The staircase leads to the top and ends in a lobby with a beautiful ceiling with painted teak girders. This floor is now used by Sati Gupta-
Sati Gupta herself, 90 years, gracious hostess and active manager of the Gooptu properties company-
Sati Gupta was 5 years old when she moved into this house with her parents, a sister and two brothers. The girls were sent to Gokhale Girls School, taught to play the violin and sing Rabindra sangeet . She married Ajit Kumar Gupta -and went to live with him in Chapra, Bihar. Ajit Gupta passed away suddenly when Sati was 25 years old and she returned with her little daughter to live in 87 Rashehari Av, helping her father manage their properties.
When her father became sick and bed ridden, it was Sati who was handed the keys to the safe to bring out money or keep papers, Sati who saw to repairs and generally look after the properties from the periphery.It was at the age of 70–yes, that is possible– that she assumed full responsibility of the company that had been formed and carried on looking after their properties with renewed vigor.
Sati as a young woman– a picture from the family album my sister chose-
The centre of Sati Gupta’s world–her sitting room and bedroom. Gracing the beautiful, large room with a finely polished, patterned black and white cement floor was a carved teak bed–also a feature of Bengali homes. Also in the image- Sati, her niece, Jane and my sister Uttora- (sorry- for my camera, too much light coming in from the window behind the bed)
On one side beautifully crafted and polished teak cupboards-
A view from her bedroom window–that of the beautiful adjoining house-also of the extended Gooptu family-
Looking at the impeccably maintained house you can see that Sati Gupta takes active interest in it. Till sometime ago she would go down to the office to sit with her employees as they collected rent or brought papers in or out and visit her properties. Now, she says, her legs refuse to carry her down. So she does it all from her rooms upstairs.In today’s world a lot of fuss would have been made about a woman keeping an office and being a property manager- but here Sati was- looking not like a property manager but a gracious hostess. With her soft voice and happy demeanor, she asks servants to fetch jalebi and singhara (samosas- Bengali style)for us, or prepare neem-begun for her lunch, all the while chatting with us. I can see how she must be doing all her managing !
Sati in her personal kitchen- with her niece Jane– another lovely, gracious person–these qualities seem to run in the family ! Taking this picture was irresistible- it was so Bengali! Her kitchen was dotted with gleaming kansha utensils, she was sitting there supervising the cooking of neem-begun- the bitter-sweet Bengali lunch time favorite, and Jane had just finished giving her a hug !
The marble topped table, beautifully upholstered, carved teak chairs and the remnants of our jalebi and singhara-
Seeing the enthusiasm with which Sati Gupta lived, I asked her what made her go on like this at 90. She did not think for long. She said she grew into this kind of life and did not know how to be any other way ! A matter of simply to be !
This visit could happen only because of suggestions from my friends Jhuma Roy and Reshmi Dasgupta, relatives of Sati Gooptu. Thank you so much Jhuma, Reshmi- your inputs are invaluable ! Thank you,Jane for so graciously giving us the ‘tour’ and of course, Sati Mashi for opening her home and heart for me to share with all of you !
Hope you enjoyed ‘visiting’this house as much as my sister and I did. If you have your own house or your own idea to share–please do let me know.I will be only too happy to post it here .