Father Boris D’Santos was 13 when the Great Calcutta Killings, the rioting between Muslims and Hindus that claimed nearly 5,000 lives, broke out on 16 August 1946—a year before India’s independence.
“So, the day India became independent was a happy day no doubt, but we also felt sad about the heavy price the country and the city had to pay for this,” says D’Santos, a Jesuit priest, referring to the religious riots that peppered the country before it split into Indian and Pakistan.
The Jesuit, who was the prefect at Kolkata’s iconic St Xavier’s Collegiate School, remembers how the streets had gas lamps, the arms of which would be used as swings by the boys of Ripon Street and Sheri Lane, a predominantly Anglo-Indian and Muslim neighbourhood.
“The major streets were washed with water from the Ganges, pushed up through a network of hydrants, but the city was not particularly clean even then,” he says.
“However, it was far less crowded and the trams went all the way to Howrah,” he says. “It cost all of two annas.”
Even though the next decade, a turbulent time for Kolkata, with Naxalism at its peak, he never felt Kolkata was “losing it”. “I used to tell the naysayers that the city would bounce back because Calcutta throbs with life,” says D’Santos. “This is because Calcutta had room for everyone—the Chinese, Jews, Armenians, Anglo-Indians.”
He remembers the time when Chowringhee and Park Street was the hub of the city’s night life with young people crowding at Capri’s, Neera’s and Scheherazade of Grand Hotel.
According to D’Santos, the changing face and increasing prosperity of the city can be seen in the rapid development of South Kolkata and on Park Street, where even on weekdays one has to queue up for a table in a restaurant. Traffic has increased, the pollution has got worse, but what D’Santos finds heartening is the improvement in much of the roads, especially in North Kolkata.
The initial years of independence saw most of the companies in Kolkata, still the commercial capital, embark on an Indianization drive, which spawned opportunities.
“Britishers sold many companies to the Marwaris, and they desperately needed English-speaking staff,” says Parameswaran Thankappan Nair from Kerala’s Ernakulam district, who arrived in Kolkata in 1955, ticketless, on the Madras Mail. “So, they had scouts posted at Howrah Station to pounce upon unsuspecting ‘Madrassis’ as they got to the train because they thought very highly of our English language skills,” chuckles the 74-year-old, perched on a ramshackle chair in one of the two musty rooms he shares with scores of books in an old house in the city’s Bhowanipore area.
Nair, who left Kolkata in 1957 for five years to work in Shillong, has stayed on in the city, chronicling its evolution.
“When I landed in Howrah, penniless, this city gave me shelter and a livelihood,” he says, adding, “I owe all I have to Calcutta, how could I go back?” The diminutive Malayali has written 48 books on the city. “When I came to Calcutta, partition was eight years behind us. Yet, one could see refuges still living in Howrah and Sealdah stations,” he says.
Kolkata, immortalized in the French writer reporter Dominique Lapierre’s best seller, the City of Joy, some say,has never really recovered from the onslaught of immigrants that hit it after partition.