Monday, 20 April 2015

Damzen Lane: A Street and its Story

Damzen Lane would be what in Calcutta is referred to as a “Muslim area”. What it means is that the people living in the area are primarily Muslim. The result is that such areas have an atmosphere of their own, very different from the other parts of the city. The people, understandably, look different. Women are seen clad in burqas or abayas, covered head to toe in black. The men are often seen in shalwar-kameez, with the lower garment, the shalwar, ending just a little bit above the ankle and often with a very thick hem. Beautiful handcrafted skull caps and fine flowing beards, often without the moustache also provide clues to the faith of the men sporting them. But this does not, by any means, describe all the people of the area. A large number of people of a single faith living in close proximity also give an area a certain look and feel. There is a certain rustic charm to Damzen Lane, but hiding within are stories and relics from a bygone era.

A goat pops out to say hi!

But how did Damzen Lane end up with its rather peculiar name? Trawling the internet led me to only two options. The first was a series of announcements in Calcutta Magazine and Monthly Register and The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India. First came the death of Mrs Joanah Damzen, aged 58, on August 1st, 1831. Then, the death of Cecelia, aged 10, daughter of Mr. S. Damzen of the “Political Department” on 24th March, 1838. This was followed by the marriage of Caroline, eldest daughter of Mr. S. Damzen, on September 9th, 1840 to Mr. W.T. Morgan. If I was to assume that all of these announcements were about the same family, then that paints a grim picture indeed. Poor Mr. S. Damzen! Wife dead, younger daughter dead, older daughter married and, presumably gone; alone and so far away from dear old England. But would the government name a road after someone who (it seems) was a minor official? Probably not. Even Maddox Square and Richie Road get their names from S.L. Maddox and John Gerald Richie, who were both Chairmen of the Calcutta Corporation. So that’s how high and mighty you needed to be for this particular honour.

Once the house of a High Court judge
So that left me with one other option, a gentleman known as Mr. Percival R. Damzen, FBAA, FFCS, who was a secretary, and later a director (or is it the other way round?), of an organisation with the rather ominous name of The Colonization Society of India Limited. The CSI Ltd. wanted to create a “des” or “mulook” (a native place or a place of origin) or even an independent nation state for Anglo-Indians. They examined many options and ultimately settled on a piece of land in erstwhile Bihar, now Jharkhand. The town got its name from its founder, Ernest Timothy McCluskie, McCluskieganj. Starting in 1932, some 300 Anglo-Indian families moved to McCluskieganj. Only around 20 of the original families remain there today. The town is still quite a pretty place, and a major tourist attraction. Many of the former Anglo-Indian Bungalows are now hotels and guest houses, serving visitors to the area. If Mr. Percival R Damzen was an influential member of the Anglo-Indian community of Calcutta, they could have prevailed upon the government to name a street in his honour. But why here? Were there many Anglo-Indians living in Damzen Lane? I have no evidence either way.

As I venture in, the first sight that greets me on the corner of Damzen Lane is Murshid Quraishi’s beef shop. This is one of the many things that can only be found in a “Muslim area”. Hindus do not eat beef (most, though not all), and cow slaughter is considered a sin by most Hindus. Beef can be a difficult item to find in most Indian states, but here in Calcutta, it is still freely available. An interesting aside; the name Quraishi comes from the Arabic name Quraysh, a powerful merchant tribe that once controlled Mecca and its Ka'aba. But why is it that in Calcutta I always find a Quraishi running a meat shop? No idea!

Gate of Chonghee Dhong Thien Haue Church
I was in the area on a Sunday morning to do some street photography and explore the Chinese temples of Tiretta Bazaar. Tiretta Bazar, named after the Italian Eduardo Tiretta, was Calcutta’s first Chinatown. Although many Chinese have left India, especially after the Indo-China war of 1962, there is still a strong Cantonese presence in this part of town. The Hakka Chinese have mostly moved to the Tangra area, creating a second, newer Chinatown about 5km to the southeast. There were 6 major Chinese communities in Calcutta and each built its own temple, attached to which was a social club which controlled a graveyard for the associated community. Among these was the Hokkien (Fu kin) community. Hokkien is a dialect which originated in southern Fujian province. They built the Chonghee Dhong Thien Haue Church which remains standing to this day. The Hokkien packed up and left Calcutta in the early 20th century and there is only one family from their community remaining in the city now. Their temple remained abandoned for a long time, until the Hakka took it over. The word Hakka means “guest” and the Hakka were originally unskilled, poor nomadic people. In Calcutta, they quickly took to the leather trade, which was not considered respectable at the time, and it has been associated with them ever since. The Hakka Chinese are still the movers and shakers in the leather trade in Eastern India. Inside Chonghee Dhong, I am greeted by the old, and I suspect slightly senile caretaker, who shows me around. He points to idols of Chinese Gods and introduces them as Chinese Krishna and Chinese Lakshmi! Perhaps he meant Chinese Gods of love and prosperity. I do not ask him their actual Cantonese names. He says repeatedly that this is the oldest Chinese temple in the area. “160 years old”, he insists. I nod politely.

Inside Nam Soon Church
Further down the lane, almost invisible, is yet another Chinese place of worship, the Nam Soon Church. The door to Nam Soon is concealed in a way that one would only find it if one were looking for it. Once I go through that door however, I am shocked. It’s like someone picked up a little piece of China and planted it in the middle of Calcutta! All that is needed are a few cherry blossoms to complete the illusion. The well maintained interiors, with trees planted around the courtyard, and the spotlessly clean and vividly illuminated shrine make for a sharp contrast from the somewhat ragged nature of the structures immediately outside. There are ceremonial weapons all around the shrine, and in the centre are the deities Kwan Tai, Sea Phow and Choy Choy Soon. The expression “oasis of peace” is somewhat overused, but that is the only one that comes to mind when describing Nam Soon Church. I walk around, take a few photographs, and as I venture out I notice something that I missed on my way in. There seem to masses of what looks like hair, drying in the sun, on the road!

Khalid Ansari at work
It is at this point that I meet Muhammad Shamshad Alam. He is a local, an engineering student, enjoying his Sunday break. Shamshad explains that the hair I see comes from the tail of cattle. The cattle have been slaughtered for meat, thankfully behind closed doors. That hair will be washed, dried, bleached to get an even colour, and will then be turned into shaving brushes. All this activity in one little lane! Shamshad takes me to the modest workshop of Khalid Ansari. While an apprentice sits inside, tying the hair into uniform little bunches with wire; Khalid “Bhai” expertly inserts them into handles. A little bit of pressure from a pincer-like instrument and the brush is ready. These are sold in a market nearby.

Elephant Gate
Right next to the door of Nam Soon Church there is a large, very ornate, exposed brick and stucco building. Above the door are the dates 1902 and 1982. The former probably represents the date of construction, and the second the date of repair, but this is just a guess. I am told that this used to be the house of a Judge of the Calcutta High Court. The owner was probably a Muslim who migrated to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1947. His family still visits the house once a year. From the look of it, the house could do with another thorough overhaul, and then perhaps a third date can be put above the door. A few steps away is another house with an absolutely gigantic gate. The locals call this the “Elephant Gate”. There are some references to it in the Lonely Planet guide, which says that the owners of the house once kept elephants, but I find it hard to imagine an elephant lumbering down Damzen Lane. A small car would only be able to navigate through here with some difficulty. But maybe back then, there were wide open spaces even in this part of town.

Shamshad is curious about my camera. He wants to take up photography, but is put off by the high costs involved. I tell him to take photographs with whatever he can. “The more you click, the better you will get”, I tell him. He tells me he wants to document life on Damzen Lane, a world he is intimately familiar with, but one to which outsiders seem completely oblivious. A worthy pursuit I tell him, and we part, agreeing to keep in touch with our words and images. Does our city have a new chronicler? I certainly hope so.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

Edited by Brian Paul Bach


  • I am grateful to Brian Paul Bach for editing my text. Brian has written several books, including a scholarly volume on Calcutta entitled “Calcutta’s Edifice”. Check out his Goodreads page here, and his blog here.
  • Many thanks to Muhammad Shamshad Alam for showing me around Damzen Lane and inspiring me to write this story.


Domicile and Diaspora: Anglo-Indian Women and the Spatial Politics of Home – Blunt, Alison
New Faces in Old Calcutta                                                                            – Roy, Pijush Kanti

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