The H-pages on all my telephone diaries include people from many disciplines, starting from industrialists to upholsterers with artists and gallerists thrown in for good measure. The only exception is Haradhan Ghosh, but everyone called him – Ghosh Babu. He was the quintessential Bengali gentleman (bhadralok), a retired head clerk, who was very meticulous with paper work and wore simple but ironed clothes. He could be easily identified from a distance because of his shiny bald pate edged with a horse-shoe shaped band of white hair. Most of you who have lived in Calcutta or still live here must have come across at least one Ghosh Babu in your life. The name is almost generic, as it characterizes a kind.
I met ‘my’ Ghosh Babu under very extenuating circumstances. This was in the early 80’s and the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass was still in its planning stages. Therefore, land to the east of Calcutta was very cheap and many small time real estate brokers were dealing in large tracts of land and selling them as smaller plots, as it was evident that the city would have to expand eastward. At that time I was doing well as a designer and so had some expendable income. I did not understand money management or the share market. All I did was buy insurance policies and that is when someone suggested that I invest in land. I was still living in a rented house that also doubled up as my office-cum-studio. Therefore the idea of buying land appealed to me. I bought up little parcels of land with the intention of selling all but one when the time came. Smriti and I dreamt of a house with a garden, a separate studio and furnace room, may be a small pond – the whole works. But there were no roads leading up to these plots and it was difficult to visit our ‘properties” and we were told that the roads would happen in a few years time. So we waited patiently till the mid 90’s when the bypass had been completed and a road cut through paddy fields to a small village called Mukundapur. A short walk from there took us to Atghara, where our land was situated. By the time we made our first trip, we found that our lands had been taken over by squatters under the patronage of the CPI(M). So, Ghosh Babu - who was one of the plot owners swung into action and organised the Atghara Plot-Holders Association, convened meetings, kept the minutes, maintained the accounts and petitioned the local politicians for help. His efforts bore fruit and for a small amount of money the party would resettle the squatters elsewhere. Dates and times were fixed for the handing over of money in exchange for our land. All seemed well, but, on the appointed day, to our dismay we were told that the squatters could not be moved because they had switched allegiance to the Trinamool Congress!
Ghosh Babu was unflustered by all this. He immediately convened another meeting and decided to start talking to the local Trinamool Congress leaders. At every meeting these functionaries demanded more and more money. I did a quick calculation and realized that if we gave in to their demands, we would incur heavy losses and I had made up my mind to sell off the land anyway. Because by this time I had already moved into our new flat and I had shelved the dream of a home with a garden and studios et al for the time being. As luck would have it a broker approached me and offered me a price – it was not much. I was getting back a little more than my investments, but, holding on could mean a complete loss. When I conveyed my decision to Ghosh Babu, for a fraction of a second I saw accusation in his eyes - “Deserter!” it read. But, he smiled benignly and we parted ways. Today, that area is chock-a-block with non-descript houses resembling a shabby suburban town with unpaved streets and no drainage system.
I had yet to learn from this experience. Brushing aside the Atghara episode as a minor mistake, I took it upon myself to develop a property for my friends and family. I made a deal with a land broker and identified a large piece of land in Nayabad (just behind what is now the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute). I designed the place with a central park and a common studio and let it lie for a while. By the time I mustered up everyone’s support and garnered resources to build the boundary wall, I found that the land measured much less than what we had bought. The Jadavpur University Employees Cooperative had gobbled up a part of our land. No amount of talking and measuring with the Land Registry Office yielded any solution. Eventually, I set about selling the land and managed to pay back most of the plot holders - barring two. I am still somewhat embarrassed about it after so many years. The upshot was that I lost a part of my savings in the bargain.
However, our dream of owning a home with a garden remained strong. So, we bought a large plot of land in what was then the outskirts of Shantiniketan. A land dealer showed us the area and asked us to design the roads and select the plot ourselves. So, we designed the roads and chose the best plot of land in the vicinity. It was in different levels and had a forest behind it. We even decided to call the area “Shonajhurir Dhal”. I always liked the station names on the way to Bolpur, like - “Pichkurir Dhal” and “Noadar Dhal”. I even remember a little girl ask her father, “Baba what is the meaning of Noadar Dhal?” A very serious looking gentleman authoritatively answered, “It means there are no other dhals after this!” I had decided then, that there had to be more Dhals. A few of my close friends decided to buy land next to ours too. We put up fences, built a guard room, dug a well and brought in electricity. We planted hedges around the compound and many trees.
We never had an ancestral home. The one that could have been legitimately ours was called Madhabdi - a village near Dhaka, but my grandfather moved to Calcutta sometime in the 1890s. No one from our family ever went back. I always wondered what it would be like to be able to visit it annually like almost everyone does. Therefore Shonajhurir Dhal was to become our adopted homeland, a place that the next generation and after could call ‘ancestral home”. Thus we decided to call our future home here “Bhitey-Mati” (hearth land).
|Visiting "Bhitey-Mati" in Shonajurir Dhal in 1996.|
We set about planning the garden and on the west we planted Mangoes, Lichis and Kadambas. On the north-west corner we planted a Jacaranda. The house would be built on the highest level towards the north-west. The care taker’s house and garage would be in the tongue that jutted out in the south-east corner below the Gulmohar. We planted about fifty trees and donated as many to our neighbours and friends. Smriti and I spent a great deal of time designing and planning the house and garden. We would often argue about where we would position a favourite piece of art and if we did not agree, we started designing all over again. We finally decided to meet half way on the fourteenth design.
The place is now quite an eyesore with the ugliest of houses ever built, except the two that our young friend Bidyut designed and the local residents have named that place Shonajhuri Palli – how unimaginative! The trees are doing well, they have grown, but they are not ours anymore – we finally sold the land realizing that Shantiniketan would never become a substitute hearth land. We love the city despite its draw backs. So, instead of a view of the forest and a garden, we have settled on a view of a concrete jungle. Smriti however created this little haven – a roof top garden that she tends with loving care.
|View of our roof-top garden in Kolkata.|