Most well-known for being the address for Nakhoda Masjid, Kolkata’s largest mosque and streetside food stalls that multiply in number around it during the festival of Ramzan, for many, Zakaria Street’s identity ends there.
But this street’s story is as much about communal coexistence as it is of conflict; a story about the two communities — the Marwaris and the Muslims — who called it home.
Located within the larger microcosm of Burrabazar, the narrow street is choked with vehicles transporting goods, traders, labourers and hawkers, making it a challenge to navigate on foot. Clustered around the masjid where the street ends to meet Rabindra Sarani, are permanent as well as streetside shops selling everything to garments and ittar to meats and kebabs.
Like most streets and bylanes in this central-north Kolkata neighbourhood, Zakaria Street was once a largely residential area. That, however, changed when Marwari families began moving out and settling in larger bungalows and flats of south Kolkata sometime in the 1950s.
The man after whom Zakaria Street is named never lived there. Hadji Nur Muhammad Zakaria, a Muslim trader and a deeply respected member of the community, lived approximately 10 minutes away, in Amratolla Street. In the 1890s, Hadji Zakaria, also spelled Haji Zakaria, was an important member of the Kutchi Memon community in Calcutta that was centered around the Chitpur neighbourhood in the north of the city, writes Dipesh Chakrabarty in his paper ‘Communal Riots and Labour: Bengal’s Jute Mill-Hands in the 1890s’. Zakaria played an influential role in Bengal’s politics and was adopted by Calcutta’s poor Muslims as their benefactor and leader, to whom they turned for resolution of their problems.
The Nakhoda Masjid itself was named after the Kutchi Memon community and was developed out of an existing mosque, named Zakaria Mosque, that the Haji had founded, writes Chakrabarty. Zakaria was a powerful member of the community and owned a firm called the ‘Haji Jackariah Mahomed and Company’. He was also the secretary of the Indian Trades Association in Calcutta and also an individual whom the British turned to for advice when the first Factories Act for India was being drafted, which was later passed in 1881.
By the time one of the first instances of widespread communal violence affected the Hindu and Muslim residents of Zakaria Street in 1910, the Haji had died.
Largely a Muslim bustee before rich Muslim landlords began selling sections of land along that street to wealthy Marwari traders from Rajasthan, many poor bustee dwellers in what later came to be known as Zakaria Street, found themselves abandoned by their Muslim landlords and subsequently displaced by Marwaris who now owned the plots of land. It wasn’t that the Muslims were completely ousted from this street; wealthy traders and shopkeepers still owned their homes and properties, not swayed or enticed by realtors and landlords.
Following the riots of 1910, Bengali political leaders explained the violence as agitation between Hindus and Muslims, and through the intervention of community leaders and local police, the violence was stemmed. But the simmering resentment and anti-migrant feelings, particularly for the community from Rajasthan became so spectacularly wealthy, remained.
In 1911, after the Calcutta Improvement Trust was established and got down to working on the redevelopment of Surtibagan and Zakaria Street, Muslim bustees were further cleared to make way for the large mansions that were developing for Calcutta’s wealthy traders, many of whom were Marwaris. The resentment, still fresh from the aftermath of the riots of the previous year, became even more deep-seated among the Muslims of Zakaria Street and its neighbourhood.
Some of the most prominent families in the Marwari community, and others in the Oswal and Maheshwari communities, lived in Zakaria Street. In his autobiography, ‘Brushes With History’, Krishna Kumar Birla recalls how the men in his family had moved to Calcutta to make their fortunes, with the women having been left behind in their hometown of Pilani, Rajasthan. It was only a little before his birth in 1918 that K K Birla’s father “shifted to a house on Zakaria Street”. The Birlas would continue to live there until 1921, when they moved to the upscale south Kolkata, like many in the Marwari community who had seen a sharp growth in their wealth.
In his autobiography, Birla mentions the frequent riots that took place in and around Zakaria Street. “Whenever there was a communal riot in the city, we had to live in constant tension. Once, during one of these riots which took place around 1920, our house was surrounded by a riotous Muslim mob… Whenever the house was in danger of being attacked, our servants immediately locked the entrance to the house.” Birla writes that it was the frequency in communal riots that also contributed to the Birla’s family’s decision, like many other Marwaris, Oswals and Maheshwaris living in that neighbourhood, to move out to other parts of the city.
With the Marwaris leaving Zakaria Street in larger numbers by the 1950s, some of the grand mansions that they lived in were either sold or leased. Walking down the street is chaotic today and haphazard modern construction attempts to swallow the grander, older buildings that have somehow managed to survive the neighbourhood’s transformation.
Among them is the 82-year-old Presidency Muslim High School that continues to be one of the city’s leading educational institutions with Urdu as its medium of instruction. A few doors down at 20, Zakaria Street, is the grand mansion of Carrimjee Allibhoy Merchant, built in red brick with heavy iron gates and a marble plaque still bearing his name. Not much is known about him, but a 1956 edition of the Foreign Commerce Weekly, published by the US Department of Commerce, indicates that he was a wealthy export and commission merchant of paint and shellac based in Calcutta, who regularly traded with companies in western nations.
Like Surtibagan nearby, this residential neighbourhood has become entirely commercial today and only a handful of families remain. Over the years, the emptying mansions have been subdivided into smaller parts, with some having been converted into office spaces, while others into residential units. While some residents have remained here because of the nostalgia and the attachment to their family’s heritage, for others, the reasons are financial.
The violence that this neighbourhood witnessed over the years is less well-known in Kolkata, even among many in the Marwari community. That may be because most of the original inhabitants of this street do not live here anymore and those who do may just want it to be a distant memory. The Marwaris and Muslims of Zakaria Street—those who are residents here—have over the years grown accustomed to living together, helplessly observing the rapid changes being brought about to their street that may be unwelcome to both.