Shikha was a travel writer. She loved her job and enjoyed both travel and writing. Off late, she had been doing a series on ancient palaces converted to hotels. She had an invitation to a new hotel that had opened in an ancient palace near Calcutta. Bhanga Bari, translated the Broken Home, had been renamed The Rangmahal. It was located in Chinsura. Shikha decided to drive down from Calcutta one weekend. She pre-informed the management of the hotel so that they would be ready for her.
The date she started was 22nd June. She planned to spend the day and night and drive back on 23rd morning. It was sweltering hot. Shikha drove out early in the air-conditioned comfort of her car. She liked early morning drives as there was less traffic on the road and the only interruptions were meandering cows and traffic lights. She reached the little township within a couple of hours. She was met by the eager manager of the hotel, Mr Bono Behari Das.
Mr Das folded his hands in welcome, “Namaskar, welcome to our humble abode. I am the manager of the hotel. The owner will come down to meet you around 11am. I will take you to your room and you can freshen up and have some breakfast … is that fine with you…?”
“Sounds good,” responded Shikha.
Her room was ample and big with an old-fashioned four poster bed and a mosquito net. The attached bathroom was huge with modern fittings. The balcony had a swing where she could sit and read under a ceiling fan. It overlooked the garden and a lotus pond. The view was idyllic and beautiful.
Shikha went down to a breakfast of loochi-tarkari by the swimming pool. As she sipped some Darjeeling tea, Mr Das announced the owner of the Rangmahal. Shikha had expected someone from the Bandopadhayay family (the title the family took on after they dropped the raja and the rai from their names) that had originally built Bhanga Bari but she was faced by a short marwari called Mr Gowerdhan Lal.
Mr Lal informed her he bought the house from the original owner and had it renovated with all modern fittings to make it into an exclusive hotel. What was most interesting was he not only had a room full of antiques recording the history of the family from before the battle of Plassey in 1757, but had also found some diaries written in the nineteenth century by the lady of the house. That diary could also be found in The Galleria, the name he gave the little museum housed in the Bhanga Bari.
“The history of the family spans the rise and fall of the British Raj in Bengal and the start of Independent India,” he said. “Before I take you for a tour of The Galleria and the hotel, let me give you a brief background of this house”
“A year before the battle of Plassey in 1757, the battle where the British gained suzerainty of Bengal, Bhanga Bari was bought by Krishna Ballabh Rai, the son of Raja Raj Ballabh Rai. He escaped from the clutches of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah of Bengal. The Nawab put Raj Ballabh under surveillence for supporting Ghasiti Begum, the richest woman of Bengal and Siraj’s aunt, in a plot to dethrone him. Siraj Ud Daulah was known for his bad behavior, rudeness and lascivious life style. When Siraj took to harassing Raj Ballabh Rai , Krishna Ballabh’s wife was expecting a baby. The Nawab was known to be ruthless to his enemies. To save the baby and his son’s family, Raj Ballabh requested Mr Drake, the British representative who he interacted with, to give them a letter of safe conduct to the white colony in Calcutta. Seth Omichund, a banker and trader, arranged for their housing in this house in the Dutch colony in Chinsura. He had a number of houses in the white colonies. Also, it was considered safer for them to stay away from the British stronghold as Siraj Ud Daulah was angry with the British for raising ramparts in the fort at Calcutta. At that point, Calcutta was truly multinational. They had the British, French and Dutch zones. They also had Armenian and Portuguese traders. The French had also raised their ramparts to defend themselves but their representative did a better job of convincing Siraj Ud Daulah than Mr Drake.”
“Krishna Ballabh escaped with his pregnant wife and plenty of wealth to Chinsura. He paid Seth Omichund for the house. On 21st of June, 1856… Krishna Ballabh went to Fort William in Calcutta to thank Mr Drake in person for his help. That was the day Siraj Ud Daulah struck with his army and took captive the white population and their supporters. Krishna Ballabh was rounded up with the supporters and jailed. More than a hundred ‘prisoners’ were stuffed into an airless room, which we know of now as the infamous Black Hole. At that time, it was occasionally used to confine soldiers for short periods. Siraj Ud Daulah slept as his prisoners suffocated and died. His soldiers were too scared to wake him up and tell him that the prisoners were dying. The Nawab was capable of killing the guards too if he lost his temper. The next morning only 23 prisoners were pulled out living. The rest were given a mass burial. Krishna Ballabh was one of the victims. When he did not return, his terrified wife consumed poison and took her own life. The child, who was barely a few months old, survived. One of Krishna Ballabh’s cousins who had come as part of the entourage was kind enough to see he got his education and brought him up along with his own child as the heir apparent to all the wealth. The grandfather, Raja Raj Ballabh, drowned a year later when the boat that was bearing Ghasiti Begum and her supporters capsized.”
“The child grew up like majority of zamindar‘s sons. He drowned himself in wine, women and song. This went on for a few generations till their wealth was squandered off and the scion of the family dropped his title and started working.”
“Any questions so far?” asked Mr Lal.
“None as yet,” said Shikha. “It is all so interesting… hard to digest… like living through history…”
“There is more,” responded Mr Lal. “Let us now go to The Galleria.”
They walked from the poolside into the house. There were many rooms and coridoors.
“Were all these rooms part of the old structure?” asked Shikha.
“Some we added on. The swimming pool is an addition. But your room is part of the original structure. It is the largest bedroom in the old house. Mr Bandhopadhyay had told me that the rooms that side were probably the antarmahal ( inner quarters)where the ladies lived. They had been locked up for as long as he could remember. They used only a small portion of the house in front. The paintings you see on the walls were stacked in the antarmahal under a dirty tarpaulin… some of them are very valuable. I have a feeling Mr Bandhopadhyay never knew much about them. He regarded the antiques as junk. I have kept the portraits mainly in The Galleria. The Galleria is where the stables used to be…”
The Galleria turned out to be a longish hall full of odds and ends, which Mr Lal had found lying around the house. There were two men standing at the doors in security uniform. The stables had been converted into a gallery full of curios from the house. There were coins from different periods, an old gramophone with a horn, old tablas, harmoniums and even a sitar. There were huge portraits hanging on the walls and some fine antique furniture. Some of the paintings had dates and names of the people they represented. Mr Lal said he did not know the names of all the people and Mr Bandhopadhyay had forgotten most of them. The artists who painted them were not the best known. There were some kitchen utensils, some family statues of Gods and other small knickknacks. At the other end of the room were books and diaries. There was a newspaper from the turn of the century.
“Perhaps, one day I will have someone from a museum look over all the things I have unearthed in this house and see if I can make some profit from a museum or had them over to the government against money…I am sure some of the stuff will be very valuable.”
Shikha asked if she could take photographs and clicked away.
Mr Lal picked up a diary and told Shikha, “This is the diary I mentioned earlier. The diary was kept by the former owner’s great grand mother at the turn of the century. This was given to me by Mr Bandhopadhyay when he saw the galleria. He told me it belonged to his great grandmother and it deserved a place in the Galleria rather than his cupboard. It seems she rode horses, spoke seven languages and could discuss scriptures. Her father was a friend of the famous Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. She married the scion of this family for love…”
“Can I read it? ” asked Shikha.
Mr Lal told her that he was afraid the pages would crumble and the ink was faded as it was over a hundred years old…however, he let her handle it. Shikha found entries in Bengali, Urdu and English. She even found a page in what looked like French… this was surely an erudite lady!
After Shikha took her fill of pictures, she stepped back into sunshine. The two security men saluted her. “I have posted some security at the door of The Galleria as I do not want anyone to manhandle, touch or steal any of the objects. Later, if it proves profitable, I will get special casings made.”
“So have visitors started coming?” asked Shikha.
“I have had a few groups stay overnight and number of individual bookings… mostly tourists who want to take a look at the ancient homes or the Dutch cemetry in Chinsura. Things are picking up now that Chinsura has been declared a Dutch heritage site… but I could do with more guests. What really gets me my revenue is my restaurant. It is considered one of the best in Chinsura. I also charge day visitors for the use of the swimming pool,” said Mr Lal.
Mr Lal walked her over the whole house, pointing out the views and the older structures from the new improvements he made.
Shikha had sumptuous and grand meals at the restaurant, spent the whole evening at the pool and then ambled off to bed, hoping for an early start the next morning.
The hotel thankfully had wi-fi. Shikha googled the family history, Siraj ud Daulah and the Black Hole in the history of Bengal. She was so tired that she fell asleep with the light on and her head near her i pad.
Suddenly, she awoke… the lights were off and the furniture seemed different… strange and shadowy. She could hear a voice howling… the weeping drew closer. The door of the room screeched open. In the dark, she could see a shadowy figure of the woman head for a strange looking almirah. She opened the door and drawers… all the while the figure wept… slowly the figure sat on the bed where she lay. Shikha was terrified and covered her eyes with a sheet. Suddenly, she felt the figure fall on the bed by her. Footsteps were running up. She peered out of curiosity and could see more shadows of more weeping women… she was terrified. She could here a voice declare the body next to her as dead…. what was happening? Shikha passed out…
The next morning, Shikha woke up to urgent knocking at the door.
“Madam, is everything all right?”a voice was asking.
The lights were on and her i pad was under her arm…and she had been sleeping…My god! It was past ten in the morning…She had said she would leave by nine thirty…
The furniture was back to normal. She was still in one piece. What had happened? She had surely overslept…Had she had a bad dream… a result of sleeping in an odd posture and reading about the dark incident of the Black Hole? She had been browsing dark annals of history … from archive.org… ancient archived stuff that gave vivid descriptions of the incident…
When she finished breakfast, she told a sympathetic Mr Das of her strange dream. Mr Das merely smiled and said, “Actually, yesterday was the 250 th anniversary of the death of Krishnaballabh’s wife, the 22nd night of June…”