Excerpt | The Lesser Known Stories of Delhi’s Bengali Residents

Excerpted with permission from Adrija Roychowdhury’s book ‘Delhi, in Thy Name’ published by Rupa Publications on October 10, 2021.


Bengali presence in Delhi today is considered almost synonymous with CR Park. Lesser known is the long history of Bengali-speaking residents of the city that goes back to the late 19th century. Delhi at that time, was primarily Shahjahanabad, which explains why the early Bengali settlers’ imprint can be found in Old Delhi.

The first Bengali resident of Delhi as per records was Umacharan Basu from Chandannagar in West Bengal, who came here in 1837. Umacharan had enlisted himself in the Mughal army and was perhaps appointed in Delhi.17. Three years later, the first Kali Bari came up at the spot where the Nigambodh Ghat exists today. Temples dedicated to Goddess Kali are almost an essential requirement of Bengali religious sentiments. Consequently, wherever the Bengali diaspora settled, the establishment of a Kali Bari became a subsequent development. The first Kali Bari of Delhi though was destroyed during the mutiny of 1857. The idol was later salvaged and placed at a temple in Roshanpura. It was only in 1917, that land for a new temple was bought at Tis Hazari where the Kali Bari was shifted and still exists today.

Half a century after Umacharan, we come across the famous doctor Hemchandra Sen, whose name is given to H.C. Sen Marg which shoots out of the Chandni Chowk market. Sen is believed to have come to Delhi to attend a fair and remained here thereafter. He started his pharmacy in the fountain area of Chandni Chowk, which is marked as a symbol of the first commercial enterprise by Bengalis in Delhi.

Another significant enterprise was started in 1883 by Aushutosh Ray of Jaipur. Ray started the Indian Medical Hall Press, which produced publications in Urdu, Persian and Arabic, which were widely used languages in Delhi. The business flourished for about a hundred years in the fountain area before shifting out to the newly developed southern part of the city. Ray’s family lived in the area behind the Jama Masjid. This was also the place where Swaminath Banerjee, who began the Bengal Paper Mills, lived.

Then there were the ambitious businessmen who popularized Bengali sweets in Delhi. Panchanan Banerjee came to Delhi in 1913 in the hope of making a fortune. He is credited with establishing the first Bengali sweet shop in Delhi, also in the Chandni Chowk market, called the ‘Kamalay Mishtanna Bhandar’, which later got another branch in Gole Market. Another sweet shop, the Annapurna Bhandar, established by Mohini Mohan Mukherjee also came up in the fountain area of Chandni Chowk.

The shift of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 ushered in a new phase in the history of Bengalis in Delhi. A large number of Bengali government employees shifted to the city. Parts of what is the North Campus of Delhi University today served as the viceroy’s house soon after the shift of the capital. In Timarpur, nearby, government residence was made available to the employees who moved from Calcutta to the new capital.

By the 1920s and ’30s, a thriving Bengali community came to exist in areas like Kashmere Gate, Daryaganj, Timarpur, Karol Bagh, Chandni Chowk, Sadar Bazaar, Nai Sadak, etc.

Ruma Ghosh, who is currently a resident of CR Park, is one of those whose family had migrated to Delhi from Bengal in the early decades of the twentieth century. Her father, Shantiranjan Dutta Ray, had moved to the city from Comilla in East Bengal in 1936 looking for a job.

Ruma’s father had settled in Kashmere Gate, which was the heart of Old Delhi at that time and a location where a large number of Bengalis were living. The neighbourhood got its name from the ornate gateway built by Emperor Shah Jahan to the north of the walled city and named it so because it faced the road that led to Kashmir. In the memories of Delhi’s Bengali community though, the significance of Kashmere Gate lies in housing the oldest Bengali club in the city which was established in 1925, and hosting the first ever Durga Puja as well.

Ruma was born here in 1953. As she told me over and again on several occasions, ‘to me, the culture of Delhi Bengalis would always be the one that I grew up with in Kashmere Gate.’ Tall, slender and astonishingly beautiful, Ruma is a veteran theatre artist. She also worked with All India Radio throughout her professional life. She told me about how her interest in theatre and culture grew out of the Bengali club, which would be the point of congregation for all Bengalis in Delhi.

From her childhood days itself, she had been hearing conversations around a colony being developed in the southern part of the city. ‘My father was not at all keen to move to CR Park. He would be terrified thinking about moving so far away from the city into this forested area,’ she said, laughing. Ruma recalled those days, ‘During that time the workplace for most ordinary Bengalis was in Old Delhi,’ she said. It was only in the early 1990s that she managed to convince her father to sign up for a plot in CR Park. ‘But this is only the story of my father. Most Bengalis in CR Park were very happy to acquire a plot here.’

Ruma, however, had shifted to CR Park much before her father did, in the 1970s, after she got married. This was the time when the colony had just begun to sprout. ‘Culturally, I felt uprooted to be honest,’ she told me about her early days in CR Park. ‘Perhaps because in Kashmere Gate we were a community living alongside several other communities, and because Bengalis in Old Delhi were centred around the Bengali Club, we had become very close-knit,’ she explained slowly and with long pauses in between. ‘In CR Park, the community was no longer this close-knit. Here we were too many Bengalis spread out over a large area. In Old Delhi, even though people lived faraway from each other, all Bengalis would come together and find common ground in the Bengali Club,’ she explained.

This club, famous for having hosted Rabindranath Tagore during his visit to Delhi, was where Bengalis of the city found their cultural identity through music, dance, theatre, sports and festivals ranging from the Bengali New Year, Rabindra Jayanti, Saraswati Puja and of course, the Durga Puja. Ruma remembered her disappointment in finding that every block in CR Park had a separate Durga Puja. ‘I don’t remember a time when all Bengalis of CR Park congregated in a single puja. That kind of interaction and close bonding was missing here,’ she said.

Nonetheless, the establishment of EPDP colony was a fresh phase in the history of Delhi’s Bengalis. Hitherto, though the community existed in large numbers in certain neighbourhoods of Old Delhi, there was no one area which was just defined by Bengalis. EPDP colony became that space—a slice of Delhi that was completely Bengali.

Consequently, it had to be given a name appropriate enough to capture both the Bengali identity of its residents and their history of losing land and property due to the Partition of the country. When the question of naming first arose, the residents began weighing out their options among the large number of celebrated Bengali personalities who were part of the freedom movement.

Two names were the initial favourites—the Bengali literary giant and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and nationalist revolutionary hero Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Both options, however, were dropped soon after. By the 1970s, Delhi already had Tagore Park named after the former, and Netaji Nagar had come up carrying the name of the latter.

Then there was another name that was incidentally more popular among those who had initially voted for the colony to be named after Tagore. This was ‘Purbanchal’ which translated as ‘mountain ranges of the east’. The name was to be a reminder of where the residents of EPDP colony came from.

Ranajit Raychaudhury, a resident of I block in CR Park told me that the residents had in fact accepted the official name of the neighbourhood as Purbanchal. Ranajit was born in the village, Chandpur in East Bengal, and had moved to Calcutta with his family after the Partition. Like Paritosh, he too moved to Delhi in the 1950s after clearing the civil services examination and was one of the first few applicants for a plot in EPDP colony. ‘Most of the surrounding areas here were occupied by the Punjabis who came from the west. We wanted to assert the fact that we were different in that we belonged to the east,’ he said to me.

But not everyone was happy with the name. There were some who pointed out the fact that Purbanchal referred to mountains. Neither did it describe accurately the place of origin of the neighbourhood’s residents, nor did it signify in any way the new home they had built in Delhi.

There was also the problem of a political controversy hanging over the name. Purbanchal was the name proposed for a new state by the Bengali-speaking people of Barak Valley in southern Assam. This region had seen a large inflow of immigrants from East Pakistan in the wake of the Partition. The proposition was met with violent protests and created a disturbing rift between the Barak Valley and the rest of Assam, one that continues to exist till date. This conflict between the Bengali immigrants and the local population of Assam came to the forefront very recently when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Indian government.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s though, the separatist movement in southern Assam and the political tensions it had created in the North-east was still very fresh. Consequently, it was but natural for the residents of EPDP colony to avoid being associated with a name that was already a source of much conflict in a different part of the country, that too in a state bordering their original homeland.

The other choice for a name that emerged by now was that of Chittaranjan Das. Popularly called ‘Deshbandhu’ (friend of the nation), Das was a freedom fighter and lawyer who helped defend several nationalist revolutionaries during the struggle for Independence. Das was born and raised at a time when the Bengal renaissance (a cultural, social and intellectual movement in Bengal under British influence in the nineteenth century) was at its peak.

Featured image credit: Amazon/Editing: LiveWire