remembering history

The Lost City: These monuments are a reminder that Kolkata has abandoned many of its heroes

The past is losing its grip on the city.

While Kolkata’s best known monuments are the Victoria Memorial and the Shaheed Minar (formerly known as the Ochterlony Monument), scattered around the city are a number of lesser known, smaller monuments that reveal some surprising facets about it. Uncared for and shorn of context, often missing so much as an identifying plaque, these monuments also tell the story of a different Kolkata.

Daulat Hossain Memorial, Shamsul Huda Road

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

On October 7, 1931, armed dacoits struck a shop in the neighbourhood of Park Circus. As they were retreating after “committing depradations”, Shaikh Daulat Hossain, a young man of 18, jumped on the footboard of their running car, grabbed hold of its steering wheel and attempted to steer it into an open drain by the side of the road and was shot dead by the dacoits.

Plaques on the monument say that the incident happened 20 yards to the northeast of the monument. The Calcutta Municipal Gazette records the foundation stone for the monument being laid on May 29, 1932, by Justice T Ameer Ali, son of Syed Amir Ali, the well-known jurist and one of the founders of the All India Muslim League. The ceremony was attended by nearly 500 people and the colonial government arranged for a gratuity of Rs 1,500 for the boy’s mother.

But today no further information can be found about this brave young man, or his family. Locals seem unaware of the incident or where the family lived. The fact that his name is spelt “Hossain” instead of “Hussain” would suggest that he belonged to the “Kalkattiya” Muslim community. The monument itself is hidden behind makeshift stalls which occupy the pavement around it.

McDonell Drinking Fountain, Esplanade Row West

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

Short of demolishing the McDonell Drinking Fountain, the government has done everything possible to ensure that it is forgotten. Facing the historic Temple Chambers, hemmed in by a fence, usually covered by drying laundry, this Neo-Gothic monument commemorates Sir William Fraser McDonell – a member of the Indian Civil Service and one of only five recipients of the Victoria Cross for “great coolness and bravery”.

The details of the derring-do are recorded in the London Gazette of February 17, 1860. “During the retreat of the British Troops from Arrah”, when McDonell’s boat came under “incessant fire”, he climbed up to the rudder and “with considerable difficulty cut through the lashing which secured it to the side of the boat”.

The incessant fire in this case must have come from rebel sepoys. The monument dedicated to McDonell took the form of a drinking fountain with a lion’s head as a spout and a brass trough at the base, to collect the water for horses. Still visible on the monument are the dates 1850 and 1886, the beginning and end of McDonell’s service in India along with his initials. The brass trough and the marble plaque are long gone – had it not been for the venerable Evan Cotton, identifying the monument would have been impossible. McDonell’s Victoria Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Nafar Kundu Memorial, Chakraberia Road (South)

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

The Nafar Kundu Memorial is an example of a monument that honours the heroism of an ordinary citizen. The 26-year-old Nafar Chandra Kundu was passing by Chakraberia on the morning of May 12, 1907, when he heard the desperate cries of two Muslim sewage workers trapped in a manhole. With nary a thought for his own safety, Kundu descended into the manhole and lost his life in the attempt to save the two. The memorial, a simple masonry pillar with an inscription detailing the incident, was built out of funds raised by public subscription. While locals and old-timers are aware of Kundu’s story, his monument is in a sad state of neglect. There is much about Kundu that could be highlighted today. A Hindu man sacrificed his life to save two Muslims, also in contrast with a city that is now so apathetic that accident victims are often found lying bleeding by the roadside while traffic rushes past.

Colesworthy Grant Memorial, Writers’ Building

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

Colesworthy Grant came to Calcutta in the mid-19th century to join his brother’s clock business, but his real talents lay elsewhere. An artist with a keen eye, Grant created a book of sketches titled Rural Life in Bengal. He is also remembered as the founder of the Calcutta Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Moved by the plight of draught animals, Grant founded the CSPCA in 1861 and even helped animals drink water from a fountain at the northeastern corner of Lal Dighi.

A year after his death in 1880, a memorial obelisk along with a drinking trough for animals was erected in front of the Writers’ Building, which then served as the Bengal Secretariat. But its prominent location has proved to be its undoing – aggressive police personnel have, for years, prevented any photography of the building or the memorial. The water has dried up and the drinking trough disappeared. Even parts of the plaque memorialising Grant have been obscured by paint. The only saving grace is that, even though its founder has been all but forgotten, the CSPCA continues to function.

Panioty Fountain, Esplanade Row East

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

The Panioty Fountain is a reminder that Europeans of all nationalities once called India home. Among them was the Panioty family from Greece which moved to India in 1750 as traders. As trade opportunities in India declined, the Panioty family turned to other means of income.

The most well-known Panioty was Demetrius, who began professional life at the young age of 16 as a writer at the Bengal Secretariat. He went on to become Assistant Private Secretary first to Governor General Ripon and then to several of his successors. Three years after his death in 1895, Lord Curzon, a lover of history, had a drinking water fountain installed in the park at the junction of Esplanade Row East and Old Court House Street. A detailed write-up about the Panioty Fountain traces members of the Panioty family currently living in the UK. The fountain remains excruciatingly difficult to locate, surrounded by an overgrown garden and without a single identifying plaque.

Lascar War Memorial, Napier Road

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

The Indian Navy has been both a boon and a curse for the magnificent Lascar War Memorial on Napier Road. The memorial commemorates 896 lascars or sailors from the Indian Subcontinent who fought and died on European ships in WWI. William Ingram Kier, the architect of the Bengal Engineering College (now the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology) in Shibpur, was the man who designed this 100-foot-tall Indo-Saracenic monument.

The monument was unveiled on February 6, 1924, by Lord Lytton, then the Governor of Bengal. But because it was located inside an area under the Navy’s control and very few people visited it, the monument went to seed after Independence.

In 1994, Commodore Bibhu K Mohanti took note of its sad state. He had the monument restored and lights installed. In December, he reopened it to the public. But as the rules of access and photography keep changing with changing commanders at the INS Netaji Subhash (the Navy station which maintains the monument), the Lascar War Memorial remains a difficult monument to access.

Bengali War Memorial, College Square

Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh
Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

The Bengali War Memorial in College Square serves to remind Bengalis that they too had a role to play in the Great War. Those who find it difficult to imagine the fussy Bengali bhadrolok going to war, forget that Bengal has a long history of armed rebellion against colonial oppression.

Bengali soldiers responded enthusiastically when the colonial government announced on August 7, 1916, the recruitment for a Bengali Double Company or BDC (which was renamed 49th Bengal Infantry Regiment, or 49th Bengalee), hoping that if Britain won the war, they would be granted independence in recognition of their faithful service.

Unfortunately, they were shipped off to Mesopotamia, the most mismanaged theatre of WWI. They would go from Aziziyeh to KuK-el-Amara to Tanuma, near Basra city, ultimately becoming disillusioned with the forces. With the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, the war came to an end and the 49th Bengalee was demobilised by August 31, 1920. Angry Bengali soldiers came back from war and joined the ranks of Indians who demanded independence.

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