Calcutta Chronicles – Voices from the Past
Calcutta or Kolkata as the city is now called was a “happening place” in the 1940s. It is hard to describe the energy, the feeling of anticipation, the exhilaration, and the suspense that permeated the city atmosphere. That decade came to define the city, and much of the events, both good and bad, that occurred during that period, shaped its future and also put an indelible stamp on the Bengali character. Those were the tumultuous “war years” that saw the Japanese air-raids, the black-outs, the arrival of the American soldiers, the underground political activities, the Bengal famine, the Hindu-Muslim riots and finally the dawn of independence.
I was a young man in my twenties then. My father had decided to build a three-storied home on Southern Avenue. He was an engineer with the railways and perpetually away, surveying in the jungles of Assam. The task of overseeing the construction of our house, making on the spot decisions, handling and helping the laborers, fell to me, the eldest son. I enjoyed the responsibility and undertook the project with gusto.
The Japanese advanced to the Eastern borders through Burma in their attempt to achieve supremacy over South East Asia. Many relatives, fleeing the invasion of Burma, trekked through the wilderness on foot and showed up at our doorsteps almost unrecognizable. When Calcutta became the object of proposed air raids, there was a mass exodus from the city and my mother with my six other brothers and sisters fled to the villages, leaving me in charge of our house. Left behind with me was my elderly grandmother who was too sick to travel.
I could not leave the house unoccupied as vacated properties were being appropriated to be converted to army barracks to provide lodging for the ever increasing number of volunteer soldiers. With nightfall came the curfew and black-out and sound of military patrolling the streets and occasionally knocking on the doors to check on the inhabitants. With the drone of the airplanes came the sound of the air-raid siren, and when this happened, I had to physically carry my grandmother down three flights of stairs to the ground floor. At times we heard the distant thunder of bomb blasts, as we crouched in terror and, when the all-clear siren sounded, I had to carry my grandmother up the same flight of stairs to her bed. The following morning we would hear where the bombs had dropped, and learn of the damages and the casualties
I vividly remember the bombing of Kidderpore docks. The Japanese were targeting the dock areas and strategic military outposts and though many of the bombs that were dropped at night missed their target, there were several that hit home. One morning, after the air raid, I went to the Kidderpore docks. There were signs of much damage and I remember the ghastly site of a mangled butcher’s body in his shop. His arm was blown off and lay about 10 feet away from his burnt corpse.
The American troops were also deployed about the same time. They were an outgoing, gregarious bunch, very different from the British soldiers. They were interested in our food and customs and extremely friendly and curious.
I got a job as a civilian in the US Army and met many American soldiers who regaled us with stories and descriptions of life in the United States of America. I worked in the Writer’s Building keeping track of payroll and supplies and earned a tidy some money. This allowed me to buy a second hand jeep and I would race down the streets of Ballygunge to the envious stares of my friends and neighbors.
One of the American soldiers became a close friend. His name was Captain William Zalakar. He brought me many goodies from the army stores, and he loved to share Moghlai parothas and Rossogolla.
Knowing of my fondness of music and desire to play the violin he promised to get me one from the US when he returned from his furlough. I gave him the princely sum of fifty dollars to buy me one.
It so happened that life changed courses. Bill never returned to India and shortly after independence I got married and moved to Bombay. I bought a violin locally and practiced on it and the memories of my brief friendship with Bill Zalakar faded into the hoary past. More than 25 years later I was to receive a letter from him from the US. He had been able to trace my whereabouts and wanted to return my fifty dollars with interest which he had kept aside in a bank. He had steadfastly tried to contact me over the years and had finally succeeded. I was delighted and flabbergasted. You, my daughter, were now in the US and I told him to contact you. You, however, did not want the money, so he eventually mailed me the check. I corresponded with him regularly and when I came to the US talked to him on the phone, both of us incredulous that destiny had brought us together again.
Such are the vagaries of existence, its ups and downs, its challenges and rewards; but ultimately it is the silken thread of human bond that makes life a glorious adventure.
…………………………..as narrated by Nakulesh Mukhuty to his daughter Udita Jahagirdar.
Blast walls show as well as the hand-spattered paint on building walls, an attempt to tone down their brightness during black-out periods. Calcutta 1940s Business District.