Street market in Calcutta. Photo by author.
Part 1 — The Mitra Family
Deb Sadhan Mitra, 45, lives in North Calcutta, in a neighborhood known as Hatibagan. It is the old and once-aristocratic Bengali cinema and theater hall community, now replaced by glittery malls and a few multistoried apartments. A few cinema halls still stand, but they now run Bollywood movies and host reality music and fashion shows. The electric tram still noisily winds down the spiral tracks; their long, steel antennas still click on the overhead wire joints, and flash blue electricity, just like what we see in a Satyajit Ray movie.
Deb rents a three-room flat for 8000 rupees a month. With him live his wife Sujata, 39, father Hari Sadhan, 80, mother Pratibha, 72, son Soham, 13, and daughter nicknamed Hasi, 7. A speech-impaired, orphaned distant cousin named Lalu also lives with him. Lalu sleeps in a small storage-like area, and does the family’s errands. Nobody knows Lalu’s age, or date of birth.
Pratibha has been diagnosed with cancer recently. Cancer is now common across India and Bengal.
It was Hari Sadhan who first rented this flat from the previous landlord Saha Babu forty years ago at a moderately 400 rupees a month, when he got a big promotion and raise in his exporting merchant company, and moved from a small and unhealthy one-room East Calcutta flat. It was his father Guru Sadhan who lived there by himself, leaving his family in the village of Rajpur, and paid 8 rupees per month. He made forty rupees monthly as a jute mill clerk. When Hari Sadhan left that canal-area rat hole, the rent there had went up to 40 rupees. This Hatibagan flat in North Calcutta that Hari Sadhan got through a broker was luxurious by comparison, and when Guru Sadhan heard the rent was 400 rupees per month, both he and his wife Kamala who lived in the village nearly had a heart attack. From 40 rupees to 400? That was a big shock for them.
In the village, all the neighbors and relatives decided Guru’s son Hari struck gold, and became rich overnight.
Now in forty years, the 400-rupee flat’s monthly rent has gone up to 8000 rupees. Even then, it’s relatively inexpensive, compared to Calcutta’s Ballyganj, Tollyganj, or trendy Salt Lake or Newtown areas, where Calcutta’s affluent and one percent live. Monthly rents for a three-room apartment with bathrooms and verandas could be between 20,000 and 50,000 rupees.
(To be continued)