Monday, 24 December 2018

The Ghosts of Garstin Place

One of the first references I read about there being a ghost in Garstin Place near Dalhousie Square in Calcutta (Kolkata) was in an article that appeared in The Telegraph. My friend and college classmate IftekharAhsan, who pioneered walking tours in the city was doing a haunted night tour. 1 Garstin Place was the location of the former studios of All India Radio and supposedly, a musician committed suicide in the studio and sometimes a piano can still be heard playing late in the night. “Buildings have many lives”, photographer Luc Peeters told me long ago, when I was just starting my journey as a photographer. The statement is also true of neighbourhoods, and especially true for Garstin Place which has seen some incredible changes and dramatic events over the last few centuries.

Garstin Building no.4 (left) and 5 (centre) - the only surviving buildings


The first British hospital to be built in India was in Madras (now Chennai) in 1664. 35 years later Charnock landed in Calcutta and the British settlement in the area was established, but Calcutta was a terrible place to live in. Cotton writes, “The settlement literally reeked with malaria. Mortality was so extraordinarily high, that death literally overshadowed every soul”. On the 16th of October, 1707, the Bengal Supreme Council passed a resolution stating, “Having abundance of our soldiers and seamen yearly sick…it is therefore agreed that a convenient spot of ground near the Fort be pitched upon to build a hospital”. This was the old Fort William, standing in the space between the GPO and the Fairley Place railway headquarters. However, in spite of the fact that the hospital would serve its own men, the East India Company paid only 2000 rupees for its construction, the rest being raised through public subscription. St. John’s Church had not been built at that time. In its place was a burial ground, a gunpowder magazine and on the western side of the hospital, extending to Hare Street was a large tank or pond. This pond was filled in to build the hospital. The single storeyed hospital building was some 175 feet long by 60 feet wide.

Surviving tombstones from the old cemetery, now arranged around Job Charnock's Tomb
Not only did the EIC not pay much for the construction of the hospital, but its own men who got treated there, were expected to pay for their treatment. Soldiers were expected to pay 4 annas for every day they spent in the hospital, Corporals were expected to pay 6 and Sergeants, half a rupee. While this might seem unfair, it is important to remember that in spite of the fact that they had ranks that made them sound like military men, the East India Company’s “army” was in fact, a private military force, similar to “private contractors” employed today, who get pay, but little or no benefits. The hospital had a particularly bad reputation as being unsanitary, and medical practices back in the day were extremely primitive. To treat cholera, for example, the practice of blood-letting was used, says Archaeologist Tathagata Neogi of Heritage Walk Calcutta. The most vivid reports of these early days come from sailor Captain Alexander Hamilton, who writes that the hospital was a place “where many go in to undergo the grievance of physic, but few come out to give account of its operation”. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because they did not want to pay the bills, patients from the hospital kept escaping. There were also concerns about those who were sick but insisted on living at home, and therefore risked spreading disease among the general population. To put an end to these practices, on February 13th, 1710 the Bengal Supreme Council decided to raise a wall around the hospital and erect barracks inside for patients to stay in. On August 20th, 1713 a further decision was made to compel single patients to stay within the hospital until certified healthy. Sentries were posted to prevent escapes.

The hospital was renovated in 1730 and in 1736 an upper floor consisting of a few rooms was added as a residence for the doctors. When the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah attacked Calcutta in 1756, the hospital was at the southern edge of the East India Company’s defensive perimeter. In the siege, it was mostly destroyed, although some reports say that at least parts of the hospital remained standing until 1763. Most sources suggest that near the end, the hospital had become terribly unsanitary, and therefore a new hospital was needed. This was the Presidency General Hospital, established in 1770 and still functioning. Whatever remained of the old hospital was demolished and the plot remained empty for the next few decades. Whoever cooked up the ghost story should have done better research. Soldiers howling in agony, or groaning as their lives slowly left them makes for a far more horrifying scene than a frustrated piano player. Who is more likely to make an appearance as a ghost, one of the hundreds of soldiers who died here, or the pianist?


Major General John Garstin, oil on canvas by John Opie. Image courtesy
Garstin Place gets its name from Major General John Garstin, a man who had an extremely interesting career in India and who built several monumental buildings across India that survive to this day. Garstin was born in 1756 in Westminster, was educated for the army and received his commission from King George III, joining the Bengal Engineers as an ensign in 1778 – the first member of his family to go out to India. From there, he would rise to the post of Chief Engineer of the Bengal military board. In this capacity, he was responsible for constructing a number of buildings, but the 2 he is most remembered for are the Town Hall of Calcutta (built 1813) and the Golghar of Patna (built 1786). Both buildings, however, had some serious problems. Golghar was meant to be a very large granary, which would help fight famine, but it ended up never being used. The Calcutta Town Hall had serious subsidence problems – the first floor sagged and a portion of the portico collapsed soon after it was completed. The whole structure had to be overhauled by 1818-19 and according to the terms of his contract, Garstin had to bear the expenses. At the time he had said that the subsidence was caused by the moist soil in the area, thanks to it being adjacent to the river. But many, including prolific diarist Richard Blechynden were sceptical, since none of the other buildings in the area had faced the same problems.

It was very surprising that Garstin would make such a mistake, or even design a completely French Palladian building with no Indian accents, since he had a deep knowledge of India that he had acquired through his long years of service. In Calcutta he was especially close to the family of Indologist Henry Thomas Colebrooke. Colebrooke was his half-brother and it was upon his recommendation that Garstin was made Surveyor General of Bengal in 1808, a post that he held for the next 5 years. Under his charge, surveys were made of the ancient canals along the Yamuna river. His deep interest in rivers led him to translate the book “A Treatise on Rivers and Torrents; with the Method of Regulating Their Course and Channels” by the Italian Mathematician Paolo Frisi. The translation was widely read and continues to be quoted in scholarly works to this day. The Colebrooke family tomb in South Park Street Cemetery (no. 98) was probably designed by Garstin himself. Close by stands no. 1501, where Garstin lies buried along with his beloved wife Mary, with whom he fathered 7 children. Also buried in the same enclosure is his sister-in-law, Charlotte Loftie, who died at the age of 18, shortly before her marriage. One of the descendants of this Loftie family was the British mathematician Alan Turing, who helped crack the code of the Nazi Enigma machine during WWII.

Garstin family tomb in South Park Street Cemetery
Immediately to the east of Writers Building in Calcutta, today one sees the St. Andrew’s Church. This was once the site of Calcutta’s first court, which is why the street to its south is still known as Old Court House Street. It was in this building the infamous trial of Raja Nandakumar happened, where he was sentenced to death by hanging. In 1792 this court house was demolished under the supervision of Garstin, who used the bricks and fittings from the building to raise the “Garstin Buildings” on the vacant plot where the hospital once stood. While digging the foundations for the building, 3 large cannons, 2 smaller field pieces and a number of cannon balls were unearthed. In all likelihood, these were the remains of the southern battery from the siege of 1756. Like many other properties in Calcutta, the Garstin Buildings, numbered 1 through 5, had been meant to serve as offices to be rented out. Their location in the middle of Calcutta’s business and government quarter would have made them an excellent location. Garstin died on the 16th of February, 1820 at the ripe old age of 64.


Birendra Krishna Bhadra, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Radio made its appearance in Calcutta through the Marconi Company which conducted some test broadcasts from its Hastings offices around 1918, shifting to Temple Chambers adjacent to the High Court soon after. Here John Rouse Stapleton and J Briggs started the Calcutta Radio Club in 1923 and installed a transmitter. Stapleton lived with his family on the 2nd floor and the top floor became the studio, with his wife, Myrtle Natal Borland becoming one of the singers on the radio station. The privately owned Indian Broadcasting Company took over in 1927 and the studios shifted to 1, Garstin Place. The radio station initially operated from the 1st and 2nd floors, with a wine merchant taking up the ground floor. Eventually the wine merchant went out of business and IBC took over the entire building. The inaugural programme of the Calcutta station in 1927 was heard as far away as Rangoon.

IBC was a British-run affair, with only a handful of Bengalis handling the vernacular language programmes. Among the Bengalis was a young Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Bhadra is most remembered for being the voice behind “Mahishasuramardini”, the radio programme broadcast at 4am, every year since 1932, on the day of “Mahalaya” to mark the beginning of the Hindu-Bengali festival of Durga Puja. Until 1965, the programme was performed live from the Garstin Place studios at 4am. From 1966, a recording is played. The programme combines music with storytelling and scripture-reading, to present the story of how Durga was brought to life by the Gods to fight against the evil demon Mahishasura. In the last 86 years, the broadcast of “Mahishasuramardini” has been interrupted only once, in 1946, thanks to the Great Calcutta Killings. Even today, before Durga Puja, CDs of “Mahishasuramardini” manage to outsell the latest pop music. For generations of Bengalis, it is the voice of Bhadra that marks the beginning of their biggest festival. The programme made legends out of its team - Birendra Krishna Bhadra, Bani Kumar, Pankaj Mallick, Jogesh Basu, Raichand Boral, grandfather of BJP minister and singer Babul Supriyo.

The Vicarage of St. John's Church, where the gunpowder magazine once stood
In his memoirs, Bhadra describes Garstin Place as being a quiet neighbourhood, especially after sunset, since all the neighbouring buildings were offices, which shut at 5pm. On Sundays, Bhadra and his colleagues would hang out on the 2nd floor balcony of the building and listen to the sounds of the St. John’s Church organ as service was conducted. One day, while the Bengali presenters were discussing plans, one of the sweepers who lived in the building mentioned that a “sahib” had walked into the building at 2am, waking him up and walking up the wooden stairs to the 2nd floor. An hour later when the sweeper climbed up the stairs to find out what was going on, he found no one inside! When told about the incident, Stapleton brushed it off, saying the sweeper must have been intoxicated. A few days later, Bhadra was leaving the studios when he suddenly remembered leaving an important file behind. He sent up the Muslim bearer Meherbaan to fetch the file. Meherbaan went up and rushed down the stairs only 3 minutes later, saying that there was a “sahib” wearing a top hat, sitting at Bhadra’s desk! Meherbaan was convinced that this mysterious sahib was a “djinn”.

It was not only poor Meherbaan who got spooked at Garstin Place. Veteran actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay remembers having an eerie experience there as well. “On that day I was on announcer’s duty. Those days we had to lower the microphone fader after an announcement and then play the tracks. Just after I lowered the fader, I saw a man pushing the door, trying to enter the studio. I looked up and found a sahib standing in front of me. Realizing I was not happy with him suddenly barging into the studio, he did not speak a word. But his body language was apologetic and he disappeared, closing the door. It was not even a minute that I called up the reception desk to ask who the man was, and they said no one had walked up the stairs. Are you sure, I asked. Yes, the man said. A chill ran down my spine”. The Indian Broadcasting Company eventually went bankrupt and the service shut down by the winter of 1931. But bowing to popular demand, the government took over the broadcasting service the following year. Eventually the studios shifted to the purpose-built, Indo-Saracenic “Akashvani Bhavan”, adjacent to the Eden Gardens. From here, All India Radio, India’s public service broadcaster, operates today. 1 Garstin Place, rich with history, was demolished in 2005.


Balanand Singh serving breakfast
Dalhousie Square and its surroundings form what Bengalis in Calcutta call “office-para”. There are almost no residential buildings in the area, and as such on weekends and in the evenings, the place has a deserted look. But, there is a motley collection of people who do live in the area. Among them are the support staff of various offices – peons and the like who mostly live in the offices that they work for. And then there are the people running the street food stalls that dot the pavement. These are guys who mostly live and sleep inside the shops they run, or in shacks built on the pavement. The majority of the people, especially the support staff, are migrants from the neighbouring state of Bihar. This migration is not new. In fact, men from Bihar have been moving out in search of work for so long, there is a term to describe them – “Bidesiya”. Songs have been written about them by Bhikhari Thakur, the “Shakespeare of Bhojpuri”. Like in other states, Bihari migrant labourers in Kolkata face some racism and xenophobia, though it is perhaps not as bad as Maharashtra. In the city that Bengalis loves to call their own, they form a small pocket, with their own language, food and Bhojpuri music.

Among them is Balanand Singh. He moved to Calcutta from Bihar in 1958 and has been staying in Garstin Place ever since. He runs a small shack selling puri-sabzi and jalebis, and lives with a bunch of other men from Bihar in the cul-de-sac. A humble, self-effacing man, who is probably in his 70’s now, Singh is unwilling, or perhaps embarrassed to talk about himself. He does make terrific puri-sabzi though, with his signature touch being the chutney he pours on top. Unlike the dark brown, thick, sweet chutney that most shops use, Singh’s chutney is green, light and spicy. Also unusual are the jalebis that he makes. While jalebi in Hindi and jilipi in Bengali, are names for the same thing, they look and taste every different. From a Non-Bengali sweetshop, a jalebi would be bright orange and with a more granular consistency. Singh’s jalebis are dull yellow, and smooth, like one would find in a Bengali sweetshop. Does he have some special tricks? He laughs. Jalebis are simple and straightforward, he says, tricks are not necessary. Does he remember All India Radio operating from here? Yes, he says. Has he ever seen ghosts? Singh chuckles and says no.

The rear of the surviving Garstin Buildings as seen from St. John's Church. Charnock's tomb to the left
I finish my breakfast of hot crisp puris and spicy sabzi and chomp on some sweet, sticky jalebis, all the while trying to imagine what this place must have once looked like. I try to imagine Birendra Krishna Bhadra walking into the studio an hour before sunrise, clothes and hair still wet from his dip in the Ganges before he began reading scripture. I try to imagine Major General John Garstin, asleep forever in South Park Street, so far away from his native Ireland. As I am leaving I run into young Abhishek. He lives in one of the new buildings in the cul-de-sac. Has he ever seen a ghost, I ask. Abhishek cannot be sure. He saw a mysterious figure draped in white inside the St. John’s churchyard at night once. But he never caught a glimpse of the face. Of the 5 original Garstin Buildings, 3 have been demolished. Only numbers 4 and 5 survive. Both are in a precarious state, with most of number 4 having collapsed already. My father remembers working in number 3, which had also collapsed a few years back. Very soon, the last 2 surviving buildings will be gone as well, and all that will remain are memories. What is a ghost really? A trace of someone who was here before? In that case, there should be many, many ghosts in Garstin Place.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


  • For their support and advice with research for this article, I am grateful to Dr. Tathagata Neogi of Heritage Walk Calcutta and Vishal Raut of the Indian Army.


  • Skempton, A.W. - A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland Volume 1 (Thomas Telford, 2002)
  • Buckland, C.E. - Dictionary of Indian Biography (Haskell House, 1968)
  • Robb, Peter - Sentiment and Self: Richard Blechynden’s Calcutta Diaries – 1791-1822 (Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Baruah, U.L. – This is All India Radio (GOI, 1983)
  • Mukherjee, Shikha - Birendra Krishna Bhadra's 86-year-old 'Mahalaya' still rules hearts (Business Standard October 13 2018)
  • When a `saheb' vanished from the AIR studio (Times of India, 20th December, 2015)
  • Cotton, Henry Evan August – Calcutta Old and New (W. Newman & Co., 1907)
  • Wilson, Charles Robert - Early Annals of the English in Bengal Vol. I & II (W. Thacker & Co., 1900)
  • Stapleton, John Rouse - Short History of Garstin Place (Amrita Bazar Patrika, 4th December, 1940)

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