The very hub of Calcutta’s jubilance and exuberance finds its home in Park Street, an eponym of the now lesser known deer park of Sir Elijah Impey. Besides the aforementioned Chief Justice, this part of Old Calcutta has been a home to many a familiar face we don’t seem to recall in our daily conversations. Park Street is bedecked with places people vie to include in their Instagram posts, leaving out, however, the charm of the deceased generation of men who had strolled along its thoroughfares.
Connecting S N Banerjee road to Park street is Mirza Ghalib Street. Not that the late great poet laureate had ever eulogised the then latest stronghold of the British East India Company, Mirza Ghalib Street is a walk down a memory lane- memories unmade by people who were otherwise quintessential Calcuttans. One of these men was the celebrated 19th-century novelist and satirist, William Makepeace Thackeray. Born in the heart of Old Calcutta, in a building that is now the Armenian College, Thackeray was the only child to Richmond Thackeray, Secretary to the Board of Revenue of the East India Company and the revenue collector of North 24 Parganas. William’s grandfather too was a district collector of Sylhet, tying four generations of the family tree to changing political visage of zamindari Bengal. With the premature death of his father, William was moved to England, where he was educated at Charterhouse while his mother remained put to remarry into the family of Major Henry Carmichael Smyth in 1818. The district collectors house in 24 Parganas still bears two plaques stating that Sir Phillip Francis and William Makepeace Thackeray in his infancy has lived in this house. Although the famous novelist never came back to India, his family nexus spread far and wide and still tugged at the nodes of the lives it went on to be associated with and bind their roots to where it always belonged – Calcutta.
Thackeray’s stepfather, Major Carmichael-Smyth was a lieutenant of the Bengal Engineers and son to famous Scottish Physician James Carmichael-Smyth, a fellow to the Royal College of Physicians and Physician Extraordinaire to King George III. The rest of the tale is as much a degree of separation as it is of unification to the fading romances of Old Calcutta. While Thackeray’s daughter Harriet Marian was the first wife of Leslie Stephen, she was consequently stepmother to Virginia Woolf, Stephen’s daughter from his third marriage to Julia Jackson, also born in Calcutta. Julia’s eponymous aunt Julia Margaret Cameron was a British Photographer born in Calcutta to Adeline de l’Etang and James Pattle, a British official of the East India Company. Adeline de l’Etang was the daughter of Chevalier Antoine de l’Etang, who had been a page of Marie Antoinette as well as an officer in the Garde du Corps of King Louis XVI. Woolf immortalised her great aunt as well as the fragmented recollections of growing up in Calcutta that her Cameron had narrated to her. To add to the list was her sister Sarah Pattle who was married to Henry Thoby Prinsep, merchant and civil servant, Bengal Civil Service, named director of East India Company 1849, served on the Council of India from 1858–74, and thereby was sister in law to James Prinsep, numismatist, linguist, artist, scholar, and former Secretary of the Asiatic Society.
Driving the point home, the lives of men both ordinary and extraordinary have been tied to this ageless city for over generations and centuries. Their lives, domestic or foreign were indispensable to the rich historical contribution this city stands on today. Individually, their lives are too illustrious to want augmentation from this city of myriad voices. Having said that, their connotation to Calcutta is as enthusing to the kaleidoscopic ethos of this city as it is to their personality. The Calcutta of these stalwarts is a Calcutta Unsung and their lives deserve more celebration than mere marble plaques forgotten moments after notice in this city of ephemeral and eternal.