“That building over there? That used to be the Metropolitan Nursing Home”, said my colleague Robin in answer to my question. He has been working at our office on Camac Street for much longer than I have, and our 13th-floor veranda gives us a bird’s eye view of the building on 18 Theatre Road (now Shakespeare Sarani). By the time I started working, the building was far past its prime, the nursing home was shut, and the entire plot was overgrown. It was only recently, over a cup of tea at my uncle’s house on Amherst Street that it emerged that my uncle, Dr. Dipak Ranjan Sarbadhikari was connected to this building.
THE METROPOLITAN LABORATORY & NURSING HOME LIMITED – COLONIAL BEGINNINGS
Calcutta’s (Kolkata) streets have been renamed and plots renumbered several times over, which makes it quite a task to dig up the history of buildings since one must start by finding out what the address of the building was when it was built. From the Thacker’s street directory from 1929 (which my friend Brian Paul Bach dug up for me), it seems that the building on the corner of Shakespeare Sarani and Pretoria Street, which is now 18 Shakespeare Sarani, was once 9 Theatre Road. The building contained 2 flats and the residents are listed as – “Upper Flat: J Henry and HL Hutchinson/Lower Flat: Dr. R A Turnbull, MRCVL”. How did the building come to be owned by a group of Bengalis? My uncle’s ancestors have been doctors for as long Western medicine has existed in India, and his father was the famous Dr. Kanak Chandra Sarbadhikari, principal of the Calcutta Medical College. So perhaps Dr. Sarbadhikari and Dr. Turnbull had some arrangement? Or were these just rented flats, and did they buy the house from the actual owner? Very difficult to find out any of this right now. The people who started the place are almost all gone. Those who are alive are quite old, and their memories are failing. The only thing I do know is that the building was acquired by a group of Bengali doctors and their relatives around 1938 and they decided to start up The Metropolitan Laboratory & Nursing Home.
THE METROPOLITAN NURSING HOME – BY INDIANS, FOR INDIANS
My uncle provided me with a list of people who started The Metropolitan
- Dr. Kanak Chandra Sarbadhikari, Orthopaedic Surgeon
- Dr. Biren Banerjee, Dermatologist
- Dr. Anil Chaudhuri, Pathologist
- Dr. Prabhat Sinha, General Physician
- Mr. Biswanath Mitra, Solicitor
- The Mitra Family of 34/1, Elgin Road
Back in the day, Indians were at something of a disadvantage when it came to getting treated in a hospital. Government hospitals often had race restrictions and tended to be overcrowded. The Metropolitan aimed to serve middle-class and upper-middle-class Bengalis, who could afford to pay a little more for better facilities.
When my uncle returned after completing his medical studies in England, in June of 1977, he joined The Metropolitan as a director. He had been visiting the place ever since he was a child, and his memories are still quite vivid. “I was in St. Xavier’s and my younger sister Ketaki was in Loreto then. Our car would pick us up and bring us to the nursing home. There was a large wrought iron gate, which was perfect for me to swing on. Through it was pebbled driveway which made a distinctive sound as you walked on it. We would wait in the director’s room, eat biscuits and play in the garden while my father finished his work. The lawn was well manicured and had many fine plants”. The ground floor, he says, had an air conditioned laboratory and a polyclinic was built for visiting doctors many years later. My uncle had his tonsillectomy done at The Metropolitan.
ENTER THE VILLAIN
All good stories need a villain, and when it comes to a heritage property, the villain is usually a property developer. The developer, in this case, happened to be a certain Mr. Karanjia, who owned (and probably still owns) the ramshackle building known as B.K. Market, on the other side of Pretoria Street. Around 1980 Karanjia, my uncle says, started tempting the directors of The Metropolitan with large amounts of cash for their shares. “He told them that he would improve and expand the nursing home. I refused to sell out, but as more and more directors gave in to temptation, he had control of the board, and I found it useless to resist. After a shouting match, I left in disgust”. He still has share certificates of The Metropolitan, now completely useless. The Park Clinic at Victoria Terrace was started around 1937 and has operated uninterrupted ever since, under three generations of Dr. Chatterjees. Pity the Metropolitan could not continue too.
THE METROPOLITAN – PRESENT CONDITION
There is some bizarre law now, which says that if any structure is declared a heritage building, only a part of it, a small portion of the façade needs to be preserved. The rest can be demolished and modernised. That is what has been happening with the metropolitan for several years now. It was during this demolition that I had managed to walk in and photograph the place, with a mobile phone. The property developer has put up a board which says that this will be a premium commercial property. In another year, the building should be ready, and clients should start taking possession. Businesses will operate out of the building without ever knowing its story. But perhaps someday, when my uncle’s son, my cousin, is going past the building with his (now less than a year old) daughter, he will point out the building to her, and say, “You see that? That used to be your grandfather’s nursing home”.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
- Many thanks to my uncle, Dr. Dipak Ranjan Sarbadhikari for sharing his story with me. Find out more about the Sarbadhikari family from their website, here.
- Thanks also to my friend Brian Paul Bach who dug up the maps and other documents this story uses. Find Brian’s Goodreads page here. Have a look at his book, Calcutta’s Edifice, about the city’s architecture.
Thacker’s Calcutta Directory, 1929
Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti – European Calcutta
Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti – European Calcutta