Monday, February 16, 2009

Oh Calcutta!

The Calcutta Fraternity Club consists of Keralites who went to Calcutta when they were young and spent several decades there. Post-retirement they have settled down in Kerala and established a club

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The author doing an interview

Xavier Sebastian speaking at the gathering

“In 1958 the employment situation in Kochi was very bad,” says Manjooran Cherian Paulose, 72. Born in Cherai, in the Vypeen islands, Paulose studied at the Sacred Heart College at Kochi. “I was planning to go to either Mumbai or Calcutta (now Kolkata),” he says.

But at that time, an acquaintance, Shenoy, had come for a vacation from CalcuKolkata. “He told me that in Calcutta I could get a job within a fortnight,” says Paulose. The young man arrived in the city on February 1, 1959.

And immediately, Paulose was struck by the grandeur and neatness of the city. “To walk through Chowringhee, which is so congested now, was such a pleasure,” he says. However, his Malayali friends warned him that if he saw a large crowd he should run away.

On the third day he went to the crowded Lyons Range. “Soon, I heard a loud noise,” he says. “I thought there was some trouble and ran away.”

After a while he noticed that nobody else was fleeing with him. So he turned back. When he came near he saw that the people were raising their hands and shouting. “I asked a man, ‘Is there something wrong?’” says Paulose. “He smiled and told me, ‘This is the Kolkata stock exchange.’”

Paulose eventually lived in the City of Joy for 42 years, working for more than three decades in one company: Andrew Yule & Co. Ltd. The father of a boy who works in Zurich and a girl who lives in Philadelphia, he stays in Kochi.

N.P. Joseph, 87, was in the British Indian Army when he was demobilised in 1947. “I had two job offers,” he says. “One was in Mumbai and the other was in Calcutta.” His Bengali friend, Mahendra Das, with whom he had worked with in the Army, sent a telegram, ‘Job arranged. Start immediately’.

Since Joseph’s Army boss, Colonel Bishop was in Calcutta, he decided to go there. Das told him the job opportunities and educational facilities were much better. Joseph ended up doing his M.A. in Calcutta. After doing several small jobs he secured employment with the Eastern Railways and worked there for several decades. He returned in 1990 and stays at Thiruvankulam.

Joseph Sebastian, 82, left for Calcutta in 1947 and stayed there till 1999, the longest among all the Malayalis who left for Kerala during the early decades after India’s Independence.

Paulose, Joseph and Sebastian are members of the Calcutta Fraternity Club which met recently for a sumptuous lunch and bonhomie at the Raja Ravi Varma Club. Greying husbands and wives mingled around, with smiles on their faces, while a few narrated their experiences in the City of Joy. Among them was Xavier Sebastian who spoke about K.J. Cleetus, one of the leading lights of Malayali society in Calcutta a few decades ago.

“When somebody asked Cleetus what is the secret of a successful marriage he said, ‘Always marry a woman older than you’,” says Sebastian. “Incidentally, Cleetus used to always call his older wife, ‘Ammachi.’”

Listening, with a chuckle, was Cleetus’s son Joseph, who is married to a Bengali, Kumkum, and owns a management firm in Fort Kochi. He also runs a weekly Kochi Reading Group (www., a group of keen literature lovers.

And who can forget the sight of ‘Meesha’ Mathew, the driving force of the club, with his handle-bar moustache and jovial nature, singing songs with gusto, but always with a glass of whisky in his hand.

So what is the benefit of this annual meet? Divakaran Mullapally, 73, says he was meeting some people after 25 years. “A few members have been managing directors, general managers and held other senior positions,” he says. “But here they are all just ex-Calcuttans and designations do not matter.”

So do they miss the city they called home for so long? “I miss the people,” says George Mathew. Feeling nostalgic, he went on a visit a couple of years ago to meet up with old friends.

“Kolkata welcomed us with open arms,” says Joseph Sebastian. “When I left it was with tears in my eyes and a bleeding heart.”

The distinctive feature about Calcutta is that there is no distinction between rich and poor, says Xavier Sebastian. “In Delhi your neighbour will ask, ‘What type of car you have?’ or ‘What type of TV?’” he says. “But in Calcutta, whether you are poor, rich or from the middle-class, you can co-exist peacefully. It may be one of the cheapest metros in India.”

So much praise for Calcutta but what about Kerala where they have come to spend their sunset years? “The people are narrow-minded and non-co-operative,” says Paulose. “The leaders in all spheres are undisciplined and lack vision. However, the younger generation is aware of this and hence I am hoping there will be a change for the better in future.”

Joseph Sebastian bemoans the lack of camaraderie between people. “People are only running after money,” he says. “I find that seclusion is the most suitable for a peaceful life.”

Xavier Sebastian, 79, the managing director of the Indo-American Hospital at Vaikom, has been taken aback by the lack of respect that Malayalis show to seniors at the office. “Maybe it has something to do with the influence of Communism,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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