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The house that time forgot

The house that time forgot

Gurvinder Singh |

History has a habit of bestowing upon its some of its monuments all the attention they need while leaving several of its equally important memorials to lead an impoverished and forgotten life. The injustices of history couldn’t be starker in Kolkata where a historical structure has been shrouded in a pall of darkness even though it rests in the vicinity of three other buildings enjoying immense respect and attention from people across the globe.

The Dalhousie area takes pride in having the Governor&’s House, Calcutta High Court and St John&’s Church as its famous landmarks but just a few metres away stands a building that has witnessed quite a few important moments of Indian history. Situated at 7A, Kiran Shankar Roy Road, Jitendro Chambers — as the three-storey building is now known — was once the town residence of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of Bengal. He also owned Belvedere House in Alipore that lies in the National Library compound these days.

Hastings reached Calcutta in August 1750 and joined the British East India Company as a clerk.  He was appointed governor general in 1774.The English statesman occupies a special place in the history of Bengal — he founded Madrasa Aliya in 1781, which was transformed into Aliah University by the Central government in 2007. In 1784, Hastings also supported scholar William Jones’ when he established the Bengal Asiatic Society (now the Asiatic Society of Bengal).

The 7A building was also said to be the town residence of Marian Imhoff, the second wife of Hastings whom he married in 1777. It is because of his connection to the building that the road outside the house was named Hastings Street but that was changed to its present name after Independence. It is believed that Hastings conducted his official assignments from the building. 

Despite its historical importance there is nothing left to link its connection with Hastings except a small marble plaque on the outer wall that reads, “This building was the town residence of Warren Hastings, the governor general of Fort William in Bengal, 1774-85”.  Even the plaque that could have played an important role in making people aware about its historical importance remains covered by the polythene sheet of street vendors. 

The building has been under the possession of the famous Mullick family since 1896. Suvendro Mullick, scion of the family says that the property was purchased by Coomar Monindro Mullick and Coomar Nagendro Mullick, the son and grandson of Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur from an Englishman on 1 June, 1896.  “My ancestors bought one bigha and twelve cottahs of land including the town residence of Hastings from Edmund Broome at a price of 12,550 pounds, which was quite a hefty amount those days. The building was owned by John Grey and Broome was its sole surviving trustee on the basis of the will made by Grey on 29 September 1839. Though Broome was not the owner, he had the selling rights,” says Mullick while sitting at his iconic home, Marble Palace. 

He believes that the excellent location could have driven his forefathers to purchase the town residence of Hastings. Mullick says, “It had then Supreme Court of Bengal (Calcutta High Court now), Government House (now Raj Bhawan) and St John&’s Church in the vicinity and good connectivity with the river. That might have prompted them to buy it. I don’t know whether Hastings was a factor before purchasing the building. After scouring the records, I also came to know that Burn and Company had their office on the first floor since the early 19th century. They vacated the premises in 1972.

“Though we have very little information about the building prior to our family purchasing it, Hastings certainly was not its owner and it was allotted to him by the imperial government after he became the governor general.” 

Subir Burman, owner of the New Law Book Stall that is located on the ground floor of the building, shares an interesting anecdote. He claims that Hastings used a portion of the premises to hang his enemies and several of his rivals were silently put to death there. He pointed to a round tower at the back that was purportedly used for executions. “Those he wanted to punish were hanged from the top floor of this structure. The body fell on a well on the ground floor, which was connected to the river. The body was then swept away by the tide,” he says.

To corroborate his claim, Burman also shows an iron gate on the first floor of the building. He says, “The gate was occasionally opened to remove the dead body that got stuck inside the chamber. But now everything has changed as the tower has been modified into cubicles and toilets.” He also pointed out a godown that, according to him, was used as stable during the days of Hastings.  

Mullick, however, refuses to authenticate such claims though he too confesses hearing about the executions. “I cannot confirm this because there is no mention in our records. That said it could be one of the reasons for his impeachment apart from corruption charges.”

The building that only had one floor during the time of Hastings has since been modernised and two new floors have been added. But old timers say that there are quite a few relics from the past in the form of ancient punkah frames painted in crimson and gold, which the later occupants of the building, Burn and Company, donated to the Victoria Memorial hall along with a few pieces of furniture. 

Surajit Burman, a thirty-seven-year-old who runs a mobile phone shop on the ground floor says that visitors from abroad often enquire about the town residence of Warren Hastings. He says, “I have been running the shop for the last eight years. Several foreign tourists come looking for the house of the first governor general of Bengal. The irony is that even people who conduct businesses here aren’t aware about its historical importance. They also reply in the negative when asked about the address of the town residence of Hastings. I simple show the plaque and ask them politely to leave as the building as it is private property. The government should take some serious steps in making people aware about the structure that was once the address of the most powerful man in the country.” 

At present there are 12 tenants and 50 sub-tenants there. A Mukherjee, secretary of the 7A Kiran Shankar Roy tenant association, says that the building is in good health as maintenance work is carried out on regular basis. “We take a special care as we are fully aware about its historical importance. Even during the repair work, we have used wood along with brick and mortar as was the practice those days. We want that people should know about a historical place in the heart of the city but many aren’t aware of it. They simply take it as any other official building. The government should come forward and declare it as a heritage site. That would give it more exposure and bring the almost 200-year-old building into the limelight but sadly none of the government agencies has ever approached us.”

Arvind Agarwal, a member of the tenant association says that they have recently updated the electrical equipment and fire fighting systems after receiving a directive from the cops. “The building is in a better condition compared to others from that era. The problem, however, is of wild shrubs that grow from the walls and have to be chopped off.”

As dusk begins to envelope the sky a thought crosses the mind — there are several buildings in the city as important or iconic but their significance has been lost due to the vagaries of time.