And we were enchanted.
Much later, one fine winter day, a search began for lost treasures - in that now-not-so-decrepit suburb.
That things were worth treasuring was discovered in retrospect. Way back it was just everyday uneventful life - thodi khushi, thoda gum.
I grew up in Belghoria - a suburb of Kolkata. I had a love-hate relationship with that luckless piece of mother earth. I loved my late-sixties early-seventies childhood there, amidst friends, fights and food (mom's food!). But adolescence and teens were different. A burning desire to take a leap of faith, in spite of hard evidence to the contrary, made escape such a necessity.
And cinema was one such - only I did not know it then. Films gave sound and image to secret I-dare-not longings. That's how life could be lived; was lived...
Cut to 2nd December, 2008. Just past noon.
Accompanied by a (relatively) young para friend Raja, I reach Kamarhati. Kamarhati was (still is) a ghetto of Hindi-speaking Bihari Muslim industrial labour, some 2-3 kilometres from home - an oddity in a largely Bengali speaking refugee milieu.
We are looking for Mukti cinema hall. The last time I was here must have been aeons ago. One used to pass this way everyday, in the school bus, enroute the pretend English-medium pretend St. Xaviers', run by that enterprising superannuated babu popularly called Teko (Baldy - after the nature of absences on his pate. Teko's son was my classmate and my principal hush-hush rival for the expected affections of Ms Jonali, a bespectacled bong beauty in the same class.)
Mukti on B.T. Road (Barrackpore Trunk Road - the most important thoroughfare in the neighbourhood, linking Shyambazar in Kolkata proper to the mouldering suburbs, in an excruciatingly no-hurry, free-for-all sweaty manner) showed only Hindi films. Naturally so, it seems now, given the neighbourhood. I must have also visited it on occasions, as it was the biggest movie theatre in & around Belghoria (Biva was smaller; and Roopmandir, still more small, screened only Bengali) .
But Mukti was also more working class. Hence a large chunk of the moviegoing public, comprising of middle-class (or barely-so) housewives, would probably have kept their distance.
Coming back to December 2nd, 2008. Just past noon.
The busy Kamarhati crossroads, filled with amplified cacophonous sounds of local comrades, exhorting people (in a funny cocktail of Hindified Bengali & vice versa) to obey traffic rules and (newly installed) traffic lights (few days back there have apparently been fatalities) seems unfamiliar. And where is that huge, ornate structure?
"Flad Hoye Gaychhe" says one (has been flattened).
True enough, there is no Mukti. Only a tame, even piece of overgrown barricaded land, behind which stands a newly-built apartment complex. Flad Hoye Gaychhe!
Where the apartment complex is, there used to be watery land and cowsheds (khataals)... is my memory playing tricks... there were khataals all over these suburbs, surrounded by stagnant water - khataals manned by hardy invisibles from Bihar.
We investigate in the apartment complex. One curious lady calls us over. In her forty plus bourgeois boudi way she lets out her repugnance for the kind of place Mukti was - popular (Hindi) films and common folk. She anyway shifted here from elsewhere, once the flats were built, relatively recently.
Mukti closed down few years back. Towards the end it was in bad shape, with declining revenues and dishonest staff. The empty prime land still awaits a buyer (probably because of internecine litigation).
The now dead owner Suren Das was a Bengali, who lived near the river Hooghly, nearby. Mukti was the name of his eldest daughter. He had nine daughters. And one son (or was it, one step-son?). Mukti stays in Barrackpore.
We were to know all this dope a little later. Right now one was disappointed. And feeling cheated.
So we decided to go to the Ganga (Hooghly, if you please). The cycle-rickshaw ride to the nearest Ghat (Pituri) took us through the inner lanes of Kamarhati (unremarkable, like any other, in a similar state of precipitous survival). However I remembered our school bus travelling these lanes, nearly forty years back, to the Jute Mill compound by the river. The Mills on the Hooghly were originally built by the White Man, and the residences therein still reflected colonial pleasure principals.
The Kamarhati Jute Mill compound of my memory was elegant, spacious and clean - an acute contrast to the native ghetto just outside. It would have been interesting to check it out, four decades hence.
Instead one reached the river, past the Muslim living quarters, to the Hindu one. And got talking.
The cycle-rickshaw which brought us here was peddled by Muhammed Murtaja (in his early thirties?). He has been a Kamarhati resident since birth, and remembers sneaking in for free in Mukti film screenings as a young one. Probably it was the phase when Mukti was already set downhill.
Everybody seems to know about Suren Das (the now-at-peace ex-owner of Mukti), whose original house it seems is just round the corner. And everybody has some gossip to share on the subject.
So we sit down with Satyajit Patra and his friends, and over burnt-clay cups of tea (the tab on him, at his insistent insistence) he narrates what we want.
Satyajit, who seems like an unencumbered young idler (and whose father was apparently working in Mukti), has been eyeing us as we were talking to Muhammed Murtaja. He is curious, and very soon friendly (in this city of often unanticipated joys, everybody loves luck-by-chance conversations).
Meanwhile the great river, in low tide, flows sluggishly by, past a somnambulant group of assorted mortals. Beyond, on the far shore, one can see a row of brick kilns. A rickety half-filled ferry drops anchor.
Top left and right: flattened ground where Mukti once stood.
Bottom left: Muhammed Murtaja with his cycle-rickshaw, at Pituri Ghat.
Bottom right: Satyajit Patra in the tea-shop by the river.
THE BIG PICTURE (from Google Earth)
Top right circle: my para Nandan Nagar Govt. Qrts, and its resident pond.
Top left circle: Biva.
Bottom circle: Roopmandir.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Right circle: Nandan Nagar Govt. Qrts .
Middle circle: Mukti.
Extreme left: Hooghly, with its turbid load.
Photoshop help: Siddharth Gautam Singh, Shradha Jain