First published as Caught Somewhere in Time – Early Bengali Influences in the Commercial Heart of Shillong in Writing Shillong – CULTURAL CARTOGRAPHIES OF MEDIA
Police Bazaar or ‘PB’ – is the main commercial centre of Shillong. To begin with, the bazaar may be visualized as an elongated mountain of concrete buildings and business establishments crammed within a network of crowded streets and narrow alleyways. Walking through the main street, one is dwarfed under a canyon of untidy buildings, and assailed by long lines of fellow pedestrians and persistent hawkers. Residents have come to look upon such crowded scenes as proof of the hill-station becoming ‘unbearable’ and ‘bursting at the seams’.
Drawing its name from the nearby police station, Police Bazaar was born in 1864, and is old as the ‘hill-station’ itself. It grew slowly with the arrival of Bengali and Marwari traders whose ‘general stores’ were initially patronized by British soldiers and officers. In 1874, Shillong became the capital of the new province of Assam. As the town grew into an important centre of colonial administration, the marketplace started to expand. Starting from the first decades of the 20th century, a string of different communities – Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans, Chinese, and later, Tibetans – all arrived to start businesses in the area. Coming into the present century, a handful of large Khasi businesses have also emerged onto the scene, while recent developments point to a spurt of investments coming into market from the coal rich Jaintia Hills. Apart from these ‘business families’ there have always been countless others; coolies, cooks and construction workers, many of whom ‘have long since disappeared, as silent as shadows.’
While all these communities have shaped the market in various ways, this article attempts to look at the prominent historical presence of some early Bengali business families in the area. Prior to 1947, this community held a dominant position within the emerging commercial landscape of the marketplace. Apart from owning much of the prime land and real estate within the bazaar, they were also pioneers in the fields of trade and transportation. Today however, this position of early prominence has given way to an ambiguous sense of decline laced with continuity. While some of the old business families still continue to have important business concerns in the area, they have mostly been overshadowed by the phenomenal success of other communities like the Marwaris and the Sindhis.
From a tiny cluster of wooden structures about a century ago, the market has since grown into a concrete and glass jungle. Seen through the crowded prism of the present moment, these early Bengali influences emerge as a series of traces, disappearances, memories and continuities, all embedded within the larger contemporary landscape of Police Bazaar. These ‘stories in the landscape’ communicate the differentexperiences of the old Bengali community in ‘PB’ ranging from tales of complete effacement to those of successful continuity.
Traces, Memories and Disappearances:
There were traces. Just till two years ago, At the western edge of Police Bazaar, the eyes of the visitor were drawn onto the expansive first-floor remains of what used to be ‘The Grand Hotel’. The structure was once part of the erstwhile prosperous house of ‘NK Bhattacharjee and company’, which operated the popular Shillong-Sylhet bus service for several years in the 1920’s. Looking up at the dilapidated structure, one wonders if ‘NKB’ was trying to import some of that old colonial charm from those larger contemporary trading houses in Calcutta. This once successful business family seems to no longer have a presence in the area, and I am forced to look elsewhere to find out more. This leads me to the residence of Mr. Afzal Hossain; who lives in a large Assam type house located on the outer fringes of PB.
It is cloudy outside, and inside there are memories. Upon entering the house, I am shown into the main sitting room. Entering again, I find myself in a spacious room that emerges more like a small provincial museum. The walls are covered with an array of framed black and white photographs (both large and small). Hanging next to one of the larger photographs, is an old iron lantern, put up there for display. Immediately below, is a long shelf of books entitled mostly in Bengali. Adjacent to the bookshelf, an old gramophone sits silently atop a small table. With the sound of raindrops on the roof above, and a large portrait of Tagore watching us from the background, Mr Hossain begins to narrate his family’s history in Shillong.
Afzal Hossain’s ‘great-great grandfather’ – Golam Hyder Ali – opened the first shop in Police Bazaar way back in 1864. This ‘departmental store’ was first located right at the centre of marketplace, and would have initially been surrounded by forests in every direction. There would have been a small path outside the wooded store, which would have led westwards to the traditional Khasi market of Iewduh, and up eastwards to the newly established sanitarium home for British soldiers. In 1887, Golam Hyder’s son, the late Haji Kasimuddin Molla, introduced and operated the first Tonga Service on the Shillong-Guwahati road. Later in 1906, Kasimuddin also became the first to introduce an automobile service on the same route. His son, Mowla Buksh went on to become a respected contractor who played an important role in developing the town’s Golf-Links.
Each of these pioneer endeavors is not only narrated to me, but also commemorated through the photographs on the walls. There is a picture of ‘Golam Hyder’s Departmental’ store with a tag reading ‘established in 1864’. On the opposite wall is a much larger group photograph which highlights the automobile service. It features Kasimuddin and his family, surrounded by an entourage of drivers, and flanked by two vintage automobiles (‘Rani’ and ‘Maharani’). I am then told that the ‘iron lantern’ that hangs next to the image was used in one of the earlier Tongas which preceded the automobile service.
My attention is then directed to a line of three photo-portraits which are hanging high up on the adjacent wall. With the trio looking down at me, I am told their names – ‘Kasimuddin’ (every bit the pioneer with his flaming white beard, fierce eyes and stern posture), his son ‘Mowla Buksh’ (with that refined appearance carried by certain Indian princes of the Raj), and finally, the almost semi-formal portrait of ‘Aulad Hossain’ (smiling generously and seeming much more relaxed than his predecessors). It is interesting how the visual elements of dress, posture and facial appearances, change from one generation to the next; so that when all the three portraits are viewed in quick succession, one can trace the transformation of a ‘traditional business family’ into an established and comfortable business house.
There is one last photograph that catches my eye –it is an old picture of ‘Police Bazaar point’ taken sometime in the 1940’s. The point itself is almost deserted except for a few vehicles parked next to a large Assam type structure that is crowned with an immense octahedral tin spire. I am told that the structure belonged to ‘Jamatullah and sons’ which housed the then famous ‘Shillong Tailoring Store’. Next to Jamatullah’s is another wooden store which was ‘Abdul Gaffur’s Pharmacy’. Like the erstwhile ‘Golam Hyder Departmental Store’ (see below), neither of the two structures have survived into the present.
While the Golam Hyder departmental store closed down in the 1930s, much of the family’s considerable land holdings were subsequently nationalized after Independence.
Seen through the lenses of the contemporary moment, these preserved memories offer a window into a world that no longer exists. To an extent, these ‘disappearances’ in the landscape point towards a trajectory of decline with regards to some of the older Bengali business families in the area. As mentioned earlier, this sense of decline becomes all the more acute when compared to the relative success of other communities within the contemporary landscape. Some of the reasons for this ‘decline’ may be listed here – (a) the overwhelming competition from the Marwaris, (b) the effects of Partition, Nationalization and the anti-Bengali riots of 1979, and (c) a certain cultural preference for ‘professional careers’ over ‘family business’. Keeping in mind the constraints of the word limit, and wishing not to get into the controversial soup of identity politics at this stage, the present article briefly touches upon only the last of these above mentioned ‘causes’.
Context and Continuity:
While the narrative of decline captures an important aspect of the older Bengali businesses in the area, it is not the only trend at work here. Another important and counter-balancing trend for a large section of the community is the strong preference for professional jobs and the lure of the intelligentsia.
Within such a cultural context, the pressure for subsequent generations to remain within the family business is not as strong as compared to other traditional trading communities like the Marwaris. So even as Afzal Hossain may not be a ‘pioneer businessman’ like his forefathers, his present status as a ‘theatre baron’ and a devoted social worker might even be seen as an advancement for the family legacy – progressing from the narrow confines of profit to the more respected fields of cultural patronage and humanitarian work. Seen from this perspective; the ‘trajectory of decline’ finds itself inverted rather quickly.
There are traces and memories, and then there are ‘continuities’. Caught somewhere in time, between the disappearances and cultural preferences, these continuities are best reflected in a small handful of old Bengali businesses which are still operating in Police Bazaar today. Within this small group, there are specifically two enterprises; the ‘Shillong Medical Stores’ (est. 1919) and the ‘Chapala Bookstore’ (1936), which stand out with regards to the question of cultural preferences. Ever since their inception, the respective core businesses of both these establishments (i.e. medicine and literature) have remained unchanged. Put in another way, it is precisely the nature of their specializations, centered on the ‘highly cultured’ fields of medicine and academic literature, which have allowed the two enterprises to survive for so long. It could perhaps be said that the allure and duty of ‘cultural significance’ has allowed successive generations to continue in the faithful service of both these businesses.
In 1919, the late Dr.Pulin Bihari Dey started ‘Shillong Medical Stores’ as a clinic and a pharmacy. For the next 25 years till his death in 1944, the doctor continued to treat his patients at the clinic. Today, his grandson, Mr. Proteek Deb sits in the pharmacy; while the chamber is manned by a doctor from outside the family. In 1953, the original wooden structure was gutted in a fire, after which the Assam government helped the family to rebuild the store as ‘Pulin Bhavan’. Since then, the first-floor of the building has witnessed a succession of governmental influences – housing the Accountant General’s office, followed by the Central Excise office, and supplanted finally by the Oriental Insurance Company.
This juxtaposition of various private and governmental influences is most clearly evident in the building that houses the ‘Chapala Bookstore’. Looking past the clutter of signboards and crumbling paint on the façade, the structure still carries a distinctively modern appearance – even when compared to the new malls and multiplexes that are converging all around it. The building itself dates back to 1901, when it was opened to the public as the ambitious ‘Shillong Banking Corporation’; subsequently going bust in 1920. Until 1954, the top floor of the building was home to the ‘Assam Library’ – the precursor to the state central library. At present, the structure is owned by a Khasi businessman, and the tenants include two Bengali businesses (i.e. Chapala and Arun Hotel) along with a Marwari medical distributorship.
From early colonial influences and governmental interventions, to the successful continuities of Marwari and Bengali businesses, and finally onto the increasing local presence in the commercial area – the building seems to embody a range of larger forces which have shaped the present landscape of Police Bazaar. In the same manner that Chapala Bookstores carries on in the company of cultural influences both old and new; so it is with the rest of the older Bengali businesses in the area, as they find themselves juxtaposed within an increasingly changing commercial landscape.
For the few other remaining businesses, the contemporary mass market has long since spilled into the spaces of their shops. Located on the ground floor of a grainy old building is one such enterprise, where the walls are lined with a variety of home accessories; pressure cookers, electric sewing machines and blenders, which then finally give way, to a small preserved section right at the end of the shop. Here, the marching stacks of gleaming products seem to halt out of respect for the elderly man who sits behind a table as he stares intently through a set of magnifying lenses to fix an old wristwatch. He tells me that entry of mobile phones has dealt a huge blow to the wristwatch market, and that his family was forced to diversify into retail appliances before it became too late. Above him hangs a collection of old antique clocks with the outer glass panels all misty and golden with time. The dials on these clocks have all stopped at different hours and minutes on different days and years – reminding me of all those past endeavors and cultural influences that persist into the present landscape of Police Bazaar.
 In 2012, both Mr. Hossain and his brother were felicitated by the Bangladesh Government for their humanitarian work during the 1971 War of Liberation. The two brothers carried out relief work at border camps and took the lead in cremating fallen freedom fighters.
Ankush Saikia for the 1st photograph (Follow his photographs at http://instagram.com/ankushsaikia)