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



  1. Anirban I was fully engrossed to your thoughts while going through your blog. The part of the city you strolled down is very close to my heart. This is the place I grew up and I have lots of memories to share. The brands like Cottons Ice-cream soda is a very popular brand among the erudite lawyer community of Kiron Shankar Roy Road (erstwhile Hastings Street). I still miss the smell of the freshly baked cakes and breads from the Bakery of Great Eastern Hotel ( today's Lalit)
    It is really very shocking that the pavement of erstwhile Great Eastern is still not open for public....... I am waiting for the day when this part of the city would be renamed as Piccadilly Circus ......

    1. Chirabrata, your comment is so very interesting, insightful and lovely to read. Your own personal connection and knowledge on Calcutta are commendable and there is always an element or delightful surprise in your reciprocation - like you said about the Cotton's Ice Cream Soda. I thought when people refer to this product, they generally talk about Bijoligrill or at best Dutches...! I was added the extra punch :-)

  2. Few year's ago, in Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, on 29th July, club's annual day, I was a part of a grand opening ceremony of Club's new website. As a group, few of us, club members and supporters designed and built the site and it was scheduled to be inaugurated by Mr.Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the then Governor of West Bengal. Suddenly, one of the very ranking official said (not to the audience, but to another fellow official), on this day, in 1911, the club was established. I was shocked, and corrected, that we won the IFA shield on 29th July, and club's foundation day was on 15th August. He accepted and asked which year the club established then? OMG, it is there in club's logo , which is displayed everywhere!! I said -1889.

    Our awareness of own history is one of poorest in the world. I am sure, this official, who is a dedicated and honest football lover, did heard the year of Mohun Bagan's establishment many a times. But he never gave the importance to remember it. Same goes to everywhere , every part of our society. How many of us, knows that Great Eastern hotel was "The" most famous hotel in the east, and it was like a dream to stay there even for the high ranking European officials visiting Asia.

    Excellent narrative, I can actually see and even smell the streets, and can hear the sounds of that area. The way you have established the connection with the past, depicting the Cook & Kelvey and few other things is something that I always look for but very rarely have seen.

    The way our historical places are changing names, and we are trying to glorify only the present authority, nobody else has correctly pointed out. For example, Chawringhee (Chourangee) has been re-named Jawaharlal Neheru Road. What the hell !!! How Jawaharlal is connected with Chourangee??? Chourangee was a perfect name. Same as Park St. This is something that can mutate the city's character. Watreloo St cannot be Siraz Ud Daula Sarani. No connection between them. It is forcefully imposed.

    At last, few words on your writing style. First and foremost, elegance, the long lost Victorian gentleman ship and sharp humor, which is not very prominent, but hidden between every line and every word.

    I am fortunate to read such an article Anirban. Let us walk through Calcutta more. The city Calcutta was

    1. Somnath, very glad to hear from you in details and especially know about your experience on Mohun Bagan. My father was a member and I remember the membership card and the greetings/invite mailers that used to come by post and were proud receipts! I agree that many people are completely oblivious and largely not interested in our roots and surroundings. Also concur on your feelings about the most disgusting act of changing street names, especially those with profound historical importance. Thank you and I enjoyed reading your notes and in knowing and echoing your impressions...