Requiem For a Lost Home: The Statesman House in Kolkata

I have come to know from reports that the building at the Chowrunghee-Chittaranjan Avenue crossing in Kolkata that had housed the office of The Statesman newspaper for the last 90 years or so, is now being sold off to be turned into a shopping mall.

The news brought back old memories of my association with that grand old building, the premises of which I first stepped into way back in 1962 as a reporter. As I entered the portals, I stood in awe, recalling the haloed tradition of the newspaper. I remembered when I was growing up in the 1940s, my elders used to venerate its English editor Ian Stephens. During the devastating famine in Bengal in 1943, he alone dared to defy the then war time censorship imposed by the British colonial government. He published reports and photographs of starving and dying people on the streets of Calcutta. With such exposure, he accused his own English rulers of being complicit in suppressing the real facts about what came to be known as the Great Famine. The graphic pictures carried by The Statesman drew worldwide attention to the criminal irresponsibility of the British rulers.

On that first day as I entered, I kept recalling that past. I reached the lift; on entering it, I was brought up to the present. I stepped on to the first floor, the lift opening up to a long corridor. On the right was the office of the editor, and the left had separate rooms for reporters and sub-editors.

My first reporting assignment

Our editor in those days was an old Englishman, Geoffrey Powell. My first encounter with him was quite funny. Soon after joining The Statesman in 1962, I was assigned by our chief reporter Kedar Ghosh to cover a public rally to be addressed by an important political leader. My report of his speech was carried the next morning in The Statesman. I felt quite happy seeing it in print. But when I opened up the other newspapers to see how their correspondents had reported the same speech, I found that all spelt that political leader’s surname as ‘Chatterjee’,  while I was the only one who wrote ‘Banerjee’. Surely, all of them couldn’t be wrong. I realised, to my dismay, that I had made an awful mistake – replacing his last name with mine, being obsessed perhaps with my own surname!

Anyway, that morning I arrived at the office, entered the reporters’ room with some trepidation, and awaited the expected notice of dismissal. A little later, I was summoned by the editor to see him in his room. There was old Powell, relaxing in his chair and reading that morning’s edition of The Statesman. Lowering his spectacles down his nose, he turned to me and held up the page which carried my report, marked by him in red pencil. He asked me: “Is this written by you ?” I shamefacedly said: “I’m sorry, sir. I made a mistake.”

Powell then gave me a gentle smile and said: “Young man, don’t get worried. From tomorrow, this politician will be known by his surname Banerjee. Whatever appears in our paper is gospel truth.” Immediately after, he took on a stern appearance, and warned me: “But never again make such mistakes! Or else you’ll be sacked.”

A home and college for me

For me, during the five years (1962–67) that I spent within the walls of that historical edifice,  it became more of a home and a college of learning than a mere office.

Poring over the old records preserved in its library, I discovered that The Statesman was the younger sibling of the Old Lady of Boribunder – the Times of India newspaper which was born in 1838, its office still located in Bombay. The Statesman began its journey in Calcutta much later, in 1875, after being incorporated with one of the earliest newspapers, The Friend of India, which was founded in 1818.

As for reporting in the 1960s, it was an exciting  decade and all of us reporters swung to its mood. What with the Sino-Indian war in 1962, the 1964 split in the Indian Communist movement, the 1967 election results in West Bengal which defeated the Congress monopoly and replaced it with a new political regime, ‘gheraos’ by striking workers, clashes between radical students and the police, and the outbreak of the Naxalite movement soon after –  all these events provided newshounds like us with adventurous opportunities for news coverage,  which we termed in our journalese as ‘stories’, some of which often became ‘scoops’.

Our reporters’ room

But our reporting assignments in those days were not confined to the daily coverage of such political events which caught headlines. Under the patronage of our editors (both Powell and Evan Charlton who succeeded him in 1964), and the leadership of Ghosh in particular, we reporters were encouraged  to delve into other corners of our country’s socio-economic life.

We were quite often given assignments to report on what was happening in other parts of Calcutta and rural Bengal at the ground level. We were allowed to move beyond the strict need of reporting statistical details and data, and instead write our own personal impressions about the experiences of the common people whom we met and interviewed. These sketches of ours were carried once a week on the last page of The Statesman.

I owe gratitude to Ghosh. He gave me assignments to cover events that had hitherto  been away from my comfortable middle-class upbringing. One day, he asked me to explore the Calcutta underworld, and come up with reports. That sent me into a fantastic adventure of interviews with both police officials and their targets – robbers, burglars and local gangsters.

Once every  week I was put on night duty, when I was required to ring up the the Calcutta police headquarters in Lalbazar to find about the latest crime situation. Quite often, on hearing about a burglary or a murder, I landed up at the spot to be able to prepare a report for our readers the next day.

It was this curiosity about the Calcutta underworld, generated by those assignments, that encouraged me in my later days as a social historian to dig into the past history of Calcutta’s criminal underbelly. In 2009 – some four decades after my tryst with The Statesman – I came out with my book, The Wicked City: Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta.

 Joi de vivre

The reporters’ room in The Statesman office in those days was a centre of conviviality – bringing together seniors and greenhorns like me, in an atmosphere of joie de vivre, where at the end of our assignments, we used to share our experiences during the day, narrating particularly the humorous encounters that we went through.

Among my senior colleagues who helped me to enter this new environment, I cherish fond memories of one of them in particular. He was the gregarious and colourful Prasanta Sarkar, who wore many hats. Besides coming up with investigative reports for The Statesman, he wrote for the US journal Time (which was right-wing) and the Bombay weekly Blitz (which was left-wing).

When I once asked Prasanta how he juggled these two opposing roles, he cracked a joke at his own expense, saying: “I learnt the art of juggling during my days in the Communist movement in the 1940s. Immediately after Independence, our general secretary P.C. Joshi asked us to accept it. The next year in 1948, our new general secretary B.T. Ranadive asked us to reject it as ‘Yeh azadi jhuti hai’. I learnt to change my positions according to demands from our leaders.”

The Statesman newsroom. Photo: Pamela Philipose’s Facebook page

I remember another colleague, Bhabani Chaudhury, who taught me how to write a report in a few short sentences, yet encapsulating the essence of the event being covered. He was a conscientious journalist who refused to toe the politically inclined commands of the new business house, the Tatas, which in the mid-1960s took over the management of our newspaper from its earlier British owners. Bhabani resigned in 1971/1972 and joined the underground Naxalite movement.

I remember also our deputy chief reporter Satya Bose. Satya-da, as we reporters used to call him affectionately, was an aficionado of 19thcentury Bengal. He asked me one day to go to an old house in Theatre Road (now known as Shakespeare Sarani) which was about to be demolished by its then owners, a mercantile family, to build a new structure. I arrived at the scene before the demolition started and saw the beautiful red brick bungalow, the typical architecture that marked the landscape of the old White Town. I then traced  the owners, the mercantile family which lived and carried out their traditional business of selling merchandise from their ‘gaddi’ in Burrabazar in north Calcutta. I asked them if they had any records of the past history of this building, before their family came to own it. They dug up old papers, and to my amazement, I found out that the house was lived in, way back in the early 19th century by no less a person than John Herbert Harrington (1764–1828) – a judge who became the principal of Hindu College and later the president of the Asiatic Society.

I came back to my office with my findings and an ecstatic Satya-da asked me to get on to the typewriter immediately. My report appeared on the last page of the next Sunday edition.

But the most memorable reporting event in my life was in 1967, when I and my colleague, the novelist Ashim Ray, were tasked to report how the common people of Calcutta reacted to the defeat of the erstwhile ruling Congress party in the assembly elections that year. I remember, as both of us walked down the city, we were amazed by the sight of thousands coming out in the streets, welcoming their release from the stranglehold of the previous Congress regime which had earned notoriety for corruption and crimes.

We came back to our office, and immediately started typing. I sat on the typewriter taking down Ray’s dictation, describing in his inimitable literary style the scenes that we witnessed that evening on the streets of Calcutta. He described the defeated Congress boss Atulya Ghosh as ‘a colossus with clay feet’.

That was my last reporting assignment from the Calcutta office of The Statesman, soon after which I was transferred to its Delhi branch. But I whenever I came to Calcutta, I made it a point to revisit that home of mine, meeting old colleagues who were still around. I paid  tribute to that old building which not only trained me as a journalist, but also nurtured me as a sensitive and dispassionate observer of both the present and the past.

Sumanta Banerjee is a senior journalist and author.

This article was first published on The Wire.