When was the last time you were caught in a swirl of nostalgia? In the middle of nowhere…perhaps thrown off-guard / blown away?
It happened to me recently while queuing up to order my food at Leon’s in Brentcross.
There I was, standing behind three others in the queue and patiently waiting my turn when my eyes wandered, as they often do, and I happened to look down.
In a flash, I went back four decades. BOOM !!!
A mosaic of patterns under my feet, specially the two in the picture below, were the EXACT SAME patterns ( in the same colour palette too ) from my grandparents’ home in Calcutta, about 5000 miles from where I stood that moment.
This was my childhood staring back at me. At the most unexpected place imaginable in London.
I was born in Calcutta but never lived there since I was raised in various other cities ( wherever my father was stationed as a Civil Servant to the Government Of India ) – mostly, in Delhi.
To me, Calcutta = Holidays, spent at my grandparents’ sprawling house EVERY summer with a brood of uncles, aunts and cousins gathered from the far corners for a month of revelry.
The house, ‘Notun Bari’ ( literally, New House ) was built in the span of a year in 1934-35 ( in pre-independent India ) by my Great Grandfather ( father’s mother’s father ) Subodh Chandra Bose, a distinguished Attorney-At-Law practising at the High Court in the glory days of Calcutta.
A man of refined taste, he may have had a grander vision for the house to begin with, but hastily ordered its completion for the sake of his ailing parents who sadly passed away shortly after moving in.
Looking at Notun Bari, you could sense that my great grandfather had clearly commissioned someone with a penchant for English / European design. Sure enough, the architect Dwijendra Nath Ganguly, was not just his close friend but also the Chief Engineer of Calcutta Corporation who learned and honed his craft in London.
Spread out over two floors with a mezzanine , a small out-house ( rather room ) in the far end of the courtyard as well as a Prayer Room on the terrace, this house was unmistakably grand.
I’m certainly not comparing it to Lord Grantham’s ancestral abode in Downton Abbey but it was definitely very ‘Downton’ in its sensibility if not size! No question.
With high ceilings, huge windows to allow an abundance of light and air ( some windows adorned with patterns on stained-glass, some frosted ) it had wooden shutters on the outside to keep away the sweltering heat ( seen often in homes of rural France ) and boasted many features alien to a typical Indian home at the time.
Right at the entrance was a small cloak room, almost an antechamber for my Great Grandfather’s clients who were known to pop in every now and then to discuss ‘cases’ or for friends and neighbours stopping by for a quick chat, in no need of lavish entertaining in the main living room.
Bathrooms, and there were many, were a novelty in Indian houses at the time ( the 30s ) One would usually have to relieve oneself in an “Indian-style toilet” ( basically a hole in the ground with a bucket of water+mug at an arms’ length ) which was always built some distance from the main house, maybe ’round the back of a courtyard or right at the bottom a sprawling garden, depending on where and how you lived at the time.
Many shared a common “toilet”…somewhere in a field or by the river ( even to this day in rural India, alas! )
Notun Bari had toilets on every floor, in fact the one on the ground floor, decidedly Western. With a sink, a urinal, a commode, a huge and I mean HUGE bath tub as well a shower – it was big enough for a game of football, or so it seemed to me as a child. I feared drowning in the tub which seemed endlessly deep, always brimming over with cold water, stored for purposes of washing yourself by scooping out water using a mug as no one was expected to relax and recline in it “as the English would” – it was far too wide and deep for it anyway !
Subodh Bose lived in exalted company – surrounded by academics, intellectuals, bureaucrats and ( future ) revolutionaries of the time, many with similar lifestyles.
In fact, the house of the Chief Justice of the High Court, a few doors down on the same street, even had its own lift. And a remote controlled lock to the main entrance. Imagine that, James Bond!
But back in Notun Bari, ‘grandeur’ also took the shape of two kitchens ( specifically for vegetarian and non-vegetarian purposes ) a pantry for storing food and utensils, hallways dotted with armchairs and tables for resting as lazy summer afternoons passed you by…. discreet staircases and doors for the army of servants – chefs, drivers, cleaners, maids, the general handyman, the rubbish collector etc to let themselves in and out of the house with minimum fuss.
The furniture, oh the furniture…intricately carved, as you would expect, and stunningly beautiful.
Mostly in dark Burma teak, a lot of it was custom made for each room. Huge four-poster beds which we often had difficulty climbing as little kids because they were so high and stacked with thick mattresses, bolsters and pillows…simple hat racks / umbrella stands tucked away in corners with amazing detailing on them, ornate dressing tables with marble tops, beveled, rotating mirrors and drawers down the side which could all be individually locked.
Dining tables of grand proportions and sofas that you could lose yourself in – one made of woven wicker and wood.
Arms chairs that reclined, arm chairs that swirled, arm chairs big enough to sleep in, regular straight-back chairs, corner tables of different shapes and sizes and heights, study tables, “office” tables with glass tops, heaving bookshelves ( and NO Bengali home is complete without them! ) – expertly made to fit into specific nooks and crannies.
Narrow tall triangular tables to sit snugly in corners, propping up a visitor’s jute bag, for that glass of water and platter of sweets or for placing the telephone ( another novelty ! ) The telephone number was Burra Bazar ( Exchange ) 1419, the same as the number plate on the Baby Austin in the garage – WBA 1419.
Even my grandmother’s Organ, smaller than a Grand Piano but just as impressive, added to its ‘period’ charm.
A tastefully furnished, artistic house and how we took this for granted…
On a mantlepiece downstairs stood a marble bust of a little boy, Sukumar Bose – the rightful heir, had he successfully battled Nephritis and not died at the tender age of 11. He was my grandmother’s only sibling, an older brother she lost in 1929 when she was herself barely 10.
Heart-wrenching tragedy amidst all the beauty!
Framed photographs, often studio-portraits of various members of the family, calendars with gods and goddesses on them, decorative antlers and huge clocks clung to the walls at regular intervals. I remember a framed print of The Laughing Cavalier somewhere upstairs and a Grandfather’s Clock too with an hourly ‘Westminster Chime’ on it ( perhaps echoing the Big Ben ?! )
And then there was a “Showstopper” of a wardrobe in one of the main bedrooms on the first floor. An en-suite with three huge windows and five doors along the sides, this room clearly took pride of place. Alongside the four poster bed which took up the sprawl of the room, it had two things which captured my imagination as a child because I’d never seen them in any other house.
A huge square safe ( locker ) in wrought iron in which I’d seen my grandmother store the family jewels and important papers and money for as long as I can remember. Forget prospective thieves ever removing it ( or its contents ) whoever brought it up to the first floor and installed it there needs to be given a badge of Bravery in my book!
My grandmother, Thakuma, who came to own the house after her parents ( and she convinced my grandfather to move in there when her mother became too poorly in the 70s ) – walked around with a big bunch of keys tied to the drape of her saree slung across the shoulder – the jingle-jangle of the metal keys alerting everyone to her presence much before they could see her.
The key to the safe was in that bunch, as was the key to the most spectacular wardrobe ( or cupboard, as we say in India ) I’ve ever set eyes on ( and I have been looking at the furniture in Downton v e r y carefully! )
I’m not sure how practical it was in terms of storage for all I ever got was a glimpse of the dark, forbidding insides but the exterior had full-length mirrors on each door, mounted on a solid frame of dark wood, patterns of leaves, flowers and birds all intertwined, along the side.
A shimmering blob of cut-glass served as the door-handle next to a tiny key hole. And on top, the wooden head of a deer with its antlers fanned out, guarded this masterpiece – adding to its height and making it impossible to be moved elsewhere as the doors to the room weren’t tall or wide enough for it to pass.
Probably my Great Grandfather’s way of saying – he, who inherits the house, shall inherit the wardrobe too!
And proof, if proof was needed, that it was assembled, if not crafted by carpenters and masons in that very room. Talk about bespoke design…
And last but not least – the FLOOR of Notun Bari, the WHOLE REASON for this story – unforgettable, when you’ve spent 20 summers on the trot sprawled out, playing, resting, reading, laughing and crying on that floor.
Each room had a distinct design, in a variety of colours, textures and material. Much the same way as many homes here in England have distinct wallpaper. Over a long period of time, it is etched in your brain, never to be erased. And you can identify it anytime, anywhere…
There was patterned stone work at the entrance, chequered black and white marble flooring in the hallway upstairs which ran along the entire length of the house ( the same design as St Paul’s Cathedral – immortalised first, by Princess Diana then, Kate Middleton ; the train of their wedding gown sweeping along this chequered pattern as the world watched and collectively sighed…And I sat staring at the telly, thinking…OMG…Notun Bari !!!! ) – red and yellow sandstone, either on its own or set in a mosaic.
All this could have been slightly bizarre to an outsider, aesthetically, though we never questioned it nor thought of it as odd – having crawled, then walked on those patterns the same way my father had.
This was a house to remember. And remember with a lot of love and affection.
ALL OF THIS came flooding back to me within seconds in Brentcross….
The pattern on the left ( the picture above from Leon ) – could well be a room in Notun Bari which must have served many purposes over the years but during my youth, was the dining room upstairs. And the pattern on the right, the main entrance to No1, Old Mayor’s Court – its official address.
The events in Brentcross also took me back to a trip to Chichester some years ago . We were passing a village outside Guildford, driving past a row of quaint cottages when the balcony design on one cottage ( pic below ) took my breath away! It was our balcony from Calcutta again…the same arched terracota which projected out over the pavement, just above the garage in Notun Bari.
Suddenly, gazing at the balcony in this very English village, the landscape didn’t seem so distant or unfamiliar anymore.
Bits of my past were embedded here, across the fields of England, albeit in the guise of balcony and flooring. How wonderful !
There is a piece of that glorious heritage however, which I’ve been immensely lucky to bring over and cherish, even in my tiny London flat. A circular corner table with a top that comes off. Its three legs are the shape of three elephant-trunks that are screwed into the top.
My kids know they’re not allowed to mess about on “Mum’s antique table” coz I never fail to remind them just how lucky they are to be able to unpack and assemble bits of LEGO on it today – FIVE GENERATIONS down the line from its original home in Notun Bari.
If this wooden corner table could talk, HOW MANY wonderful stories it would tell….