Saturday, 23 August 2014

An affair to no END.

Anirban Mitra.
Calcutta, Sunday 24th of August.

“Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it” – Leonardo Da Vinci.
A fine, mechanical wrist watch is probably one of the most beloved possessions of man – something very ‘human’…as it runs when you wind it or by the movement of your wrist. It is so very personal and attached to us…just like a pet. It is not independent like a battery driven machine…and hence we tend to develop a special bond with it. We know it is dependant on us J
Imagine, a small, coiled spring which could unwind itself in few seconds does so in 36 hours by the aid of complex engineering! In the history of time keeping - from sundials to tourbillon, so many illustrious brands have graced this supreme and timeless invention of mankind – our time keepers: The clocks and watches.
For me, and I am sure for many, one particular brand remains very special in that journey.
WEST END WATCH CO. Swiss made. Since 1886.
With India, the bond is historic. From Her Majesty’s troups to civilians, it graced generations...
In the recent times, remember Kareena Kapoor’s old wristwatch in the film '3 idiots'?
It was a West End Watch: a true classic and one of the best of Swiss horology.
I am sure, for many of us, there's a West End we possess or at least we know of there is. Don’t we?
I fondly recollect the joy of getting to see for the first time - my Grandfather's gold cased, full hunting, West End ‘Competition’ pocket watch. It was a high-end model of that era. The watch was taken out of the bank locker nearly half a century after his demise. The bold, Roman letters on the superb, enamelled, sub second dial looked riveting and the watch – regal. In the red velvet case, it seemed to be a pearl in the shell.
The expert technician delved into the watch with his eye glass. It was a 23rd January – Indian National Holiday on account of Netaji’s Birthday. The service centre was opened, by appointment, exclusively to attend my Grandfather’s watch so that the work could be done uninterrupted, in quietness and peace. I sat anxiously as the adventure unfolded…
“This watch was last serviced in 1954, right?”  I was taken aback by the unexpected deduction.
“Yes, probably, it was the last time before my Grandfather died in 1958.
I heard my father told me the watch used to be maintained by the famed Abrecht & Co. of British India, but how did you infer?”
What Holmes would have termed ‘elementary’, came from the technician as:
“Hmm. In almost microscopic size font, they have inscribed the date on the case inside back.”
The comprehensive servicing was completed at 9:30 p.m in a neat 4 hours job.
I remained a patient and amazed spectator waiting to see the long awaited continuity of the past in the present.
And finally that wonderful rhythm started to play: tick tock, tick tock… The old, gold watch looked and worked like a showroom piece.
Handsome beyond compare, pristine, spotless and with an attached gold chain, it came as a gift for the bridegroom from my Grand Mom’s home! 
The recollection makes me excited, whenever I think of the episode -the unmatched joy of seeing the watch ticking (after 50 years of rest). It was a moment of truth and a sense of great contentment for me to place the newly serviced watch before my father. It was a rejuvenation of fond memories of profound association.
It is about such joy of restoring and preserving these treasured heirlooms. Of hunting and procuring NOS (new old stock) models which erratically (and rarely) pop up from old shop attics ; and then getting the right wrist straps befitting these old world models!
One day, one of my friend (a fellow watch aficionado) told me:
Anirban, great news, that shop, I found has got a stock of vintage, but unused West End Watches! 1950s Sowar Prima. Daisy fresh. I got one for myself …people are picking in 2s and 3s…rush, rush !”
Oh, what a discovery!!
And there are so many other lovely memories and trivia - that’s the essence of the relationship with this great brand.  Each West End Watch that I had inherited or have bought has some special story and adventure around it. No wonder, cause the brand epitomises strength and adventure!
Great watches, great moments, great memories…
The love affair with West End has no end!!

Some of the past /present models of West End Watch Co. are listed, below.
(You can check their lovely website and Facebook page.)

Queen Anne, Sowar / Sowar Prima, Secundus, Keepsake, Sillidar, Philos, Bijou, Competition, Matchless.

And the relatively lesser known:

Imperator, Aftab, Dost, Index, Themis, Mohka Prima, Genteel, Campaign.

The name of “Queen Anne” was given to this wristwatch in homage to the last queen of England and Ireland of the Stuart dynasty, whose reign, from1702 to 1714, was marked by the ascendancy of the British navy over the oceans of the world and by the birth of the United Kingdom through the union of Scotland with England and Ireland.
This watch proved itself worthy of its name, so dear to the British, by its exceptional qualities of reliability and resistance to all the trials of everyday life - like Queen Anne herself.

Queen Anne vintage Trench Watch.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a model was launched, called the Sowar — the cavalryman —
a tough watch that could be kept in the pocket or worn on the wrist.

It soon came to the attention of the military, and in World War I, tens of thousands of Indian soldiers bought Sowar watches before leaving on campaign.

By 1934 the Sowar was a modern wristwatch, the first with the Incabloc™ anti-shock system.
Today, after more than a century, the model follows the same concept — robust, clear and functional —
with a trustworthy feel and look.


Silver Trench Watch with enamelled dial, circa 1930.

In India, West End watches proved their excellence in their use from the end of the 19th century by all the staff of the main railway companies, the post and telegraph offices, the police, the ports and the Indian and British government administrative services.


The West End Watch Co. in Dalhousie Square, Calcutta.
From a postcard published by Thacker, Spink & Co.
Photograph by Johnston and Hoffmann, circa 1908.


Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Great Eastern Waterloo

Anirban Mitra.
Calcutta, Friday 22nd of August.


“To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to forever remain a child” – Cicero.

Not only did Napoleon Bonaparte defeated in the battle of Waterloo, but the name of Waterloo was as well. Well, the latter not in the United Kingdom of Netherlands, but nearer to our place, nearer to our times - off Old Court House Street at Calcutta.

Whenever I visit this part of the city, the footage of nostalgia tends to engulf me and I am almost, always taken into a time journey of sights and sounds of history playing like in a movie theatre. I do not recollect my past lives, no I do not, but with the memories of those wonderful, life-like photographs by Bourne & Shepherd, Johnston & Hoffmann and other studios of British Calcutta and complimented with a flight of imagination and observation, it is not too difficult to visualise the charming Old Calcutta in the decaying new.

In the silence of the taxi strike and calmness of the evening largely devoid of traffic sound and of humidity (result of the recent downpours) -walking back from Dalhousie Square to Esplanade was my preferred mode of transit. Well, almost. Tired, quite, and with my too formal, pointed boots (which could compete with Mr. Hercule Poirot’s) not particularly suitable for long walks, I still chose to walk. The trams had retired for the day a while back and I could not catch the last one near the bend at the St. Andrew’s Kirk. I had just deposited one of my West End Watch wrist watches at The Anglo Swiss Shop. The Calcutta establishment of West End Watch Company was here somewhere near by Stephen House, as also their illustrious contemporary – James Murray Clocks. The forward view with the majestic, Central Telegraph Office at North East past ‘Laldighi’ and the regal Currency Office porch on left - this is one of THE few walks Calcutta could still offer to reveal its English past. And how could I resist?

Good Lord! What an area it was and partly still is!! A lovely water body of Laldighi in center and grand edifices all round with gracious roads in between ; Government House, Writer’s Building, Church, Offices, Shops and Establishments, Hotel, Park of Lord Curzon…  Superb town planning and the quintessence of Imperial Calcutta personified.

I had just finished a bottle of refreshing Ice Cream Soda and was brimming with new energy to begin a new walk. The bottle proclaimed ‘Cotton’s, 1906’.  They seem to be preparing the drink since Curzon’s days!

After the traffic crossing while I took the left footpath, the last few customers were having roadside tea and biscuits as the magazine vendors and other hawkers started to fold their establishments – well, only for the day. Many of them had crossed the borders from further East and found a safe home in this city and convenient ground for retail business on the footpath. The benevolent government found new supporters in them, so every wrong was all right. Not so many years earlier, there would be those series of renowned English establishments along this road – F.W Baker, Hamilton & Co, Harry Clark, Ranken & Co and of course W. Newman and J. Boseck on the ground floor of the great Great Eastern Hotel.

Tea was not served on the footpath, then, cheap Chinese toys not sold, but Opium was exported to them and they sold us Tea – which we had in a more elegant and elaborate way than on the footpath.

Even till a few years back (seems to me like only yesterday), I used to see Newman’s selling odd books and stationeries. And the old world, embossed signboard of J. Boseck reminding of the glory gone by – of Swiss Watches. Rolex, Omega, Tudor, Tissot and the likes.

In front of the huge mahogany doors would be the guard of Great Eastern Hotel in full regalia ...with a world of pristine charm and grandeur welcoming you inside. Of much more than 5-Star luxury. Even a fortunate glimpse-in would be a refreshing view for me as a young boy. The view opposite, now occupied by a electronic retail shop who borrowed its name from the Hotel reminds of the erstwhile building of Cooke & Kelvey – Silversmith, Jeweller and Watch makers of unparallel repute in the undivided East. Their chain-fusee wall clock, circa 1890 shows me time in my room and reminds me of another era.

It is the narrow lane adjacent to Great Eastern Hotel that was once called the Waterloo Street.

I remember the bakery counter of Great Eastern on this street where the finest of patty, bun and other delicacies could be had, and there would be a long queue during Christmas.

A letter to the editor of the Government Gazette, dated January 17, 1828, states : “The Road recently constructed through Dacre’s Lane, called Waterloo Street, has greatly added both to the beauty of the Government House, by opening its prospect, and to the convenience of the community, by affording a direct and speedy communication to the Cossitolla Street (the modern Bentinck Street)…”

And who knew that a few decades from then, the street will be stripped of its name and history, to be renamed as ‘Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah Sarani’? And what for?? I feel sorry for the defeated Nawab, but it will not entirely be devil’s advocacy in saying that the treachery of Mir Jafar, his minister led to the birth of once lovely and great city of Calcutta from a group of few swampy, mosquito laden villages along side the river. So much so, that it was termed as the ‘Second city of the Empire’, second only to London. The City of Palaces. Mr. Charnock did us a great favour. May his soul rest in peace.

The historic receptivity and artistic sensitivity of the civic authorities are so commendable that they have chosen to reinstate the older past, even in a street name, but allowed the demolition of the GREAT, heritage hotel just adjacent to it. The façade of Great Eastern Hotel had partly been retained like a cardboard contraption and is a cruel joke. The entire building has almost completely been demolished and a new, arrogant block of concrete gleams in mockery as one walks by Waterloo Street…sorry, Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah Sarani. At the other end of the road, you will still get the Nawab’s Biryani, but not those cakes and patty you left past, and whose fragrance brings sweet and melancholy reminiscence to many nostalgic minds.

In the present times, the stretch of walk in front of the Hotel is barred for the public ; the front view is shocking like an aftermath of devastation. Ahoy, work in progress! - the renovation of the new façade has not been completed unlike the speedy commissioning of the business of business on its modern backyard.


A vintage label of the hotel in all her glory.

 Photograph circa late 1940s.

 A view from, probably, atop the Great Eastern Hotel

Photograph by Bourne & Shepherd, circa 1870s