There is little reason for people today to visit Bethune Row, a largely residential lane in Kolkata. But it is more likely that they happen to find themselves in the adjacent lane, Ramdulal Sarkar Street, in search of the 178-year-old mishti shop, Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy.
A few metres from the mishti shop stands an imposing colonial building with green-slatted windows, marking the beginning of Bethune Row. This red-brick building is one of the few remaining colonial-era structures in the neighbourhood, with newer construction slowly replacing the crumbling mansions.
There is no mystery behind the naming of Bethune Row—it was named after John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune, an Englishman known for his contributions towards women’s education in the Indian subcontinent. He later set up the institution that came to be known as Bethune College. But that is just scratching the surface of this neighbourhood’s history.
Locals have another name for this narrow lane, Simla para, one that is not as frequently used these days, presumably named after a local market by the same name. But less well-known is the neighbourhood’s association with poet Mirza Ghalib, who lived in the red-brick house in ‘Haveli No. 133’ in Simla Bazaar. In his book Ghalib: A Wilderness At My Doorstep, author Mehr Afshan Farooqi details Ghalib’s time in the city, specifically in the house on the corner of Bethune Row.
Farooqi writes that Ghalib arrived in Calcutta in February 1828 and letters written by the poet to his acquaintances during that time provide vivid insight into the red-brick house on the corner of Bethune Row. In his correspondence, Ghalib references the mansion’s address: Haveli of Mirza Ali Saudagar, Gol Talab, Shimla Bazaar.
Farooqui writes that this house “had a big courtyard, a well with sweet water, a delightful room on the terrace and a spacious lavatory! The rent was a mere Rs 6 per month”.
Farooqui quotes portions from a letter written by Ghalib to Mirza Ali Bakhsh Khan, “Calcutta is remarkable! It is a world where everything except a remedy for death is available. Every task is easy for its talented people. Its markets have an abundance of everything except the commodity of good fortune. My house is in Shimla Bazaar. I was easily able to find a house within a day or two of arriving here. In short, it is God’s grace that a careless one like me, who had awakened from a deep sleep, and who went to the durbar without washing his face, was given a place in the heart of the rulers, and was awarded a position higher than I expected in the assemblies. I was blessed with a kind-hearted mentor, a member of the Council, Mr Andrew Stirling, who is willing to listen to the plea of this broken-hearted one and put healing ointment on his wounds.”
Farooqui’s writings indicate that Ghalib’s trip to Calcutta was an attempt to get the governor-general to restore his pension, and he was hoping to impress Andrew Stirling, the governor-general’s Persian secretary known for his love for poetry, with his verses.
Today, there is no sign of Shimla Bazaar, or of the expansive courtyard that Ghalib wrote about. The house on the mouth of Bethune Row is cloistered on both sides by newly developed construction, the paved lanes having long swallowed the grand gateway that such mansions were known to have.
It is likely that over the years, the house underwent several changes in its exteriors and interiors and the structure that is visible now may not have been the haveli that Ghalib stayed in. The house belongs to the Dhar family now, a family of solicitors, who may have purchased the building several decades after Ghalib left.
Ghalib did not appear to live in this house on the edge of Bethune Row for very long. Farooqui writes that the poet lived in the city for around a year and a half, between February 1828 to August 1829. Mirza Ghalib Street, just off Park Street, is more commonly associated with the poet. But that may just be because the house on the corner of Bethune Row has never been given official recognition for its association with the poet.
Without the house that Ghalib lived in, this narrow lane would have been an unremarkable one, easy to miss if one was not paying attention. Between three-four-storey buildings, there is a women’s hostel in Bethune Row and some hawkers who have set up shop on the lane’s pavements. Mirza Ghalib does not live here any more and few people know that he ever did.