I entered the "Boro Bari" through a nondescript door and walked into a quiet, cool, and dark hallway, while the smell of Calcutta summer made my senses dance.
In a blink, I found myself standing in a courtyard with no roof above me, surrounded by a three storey house with long verandahs. The shutters were green, the house was a bright orange-yellow then, now pink. It was a vibrant and happy house. Instantly, I was transported to the early 1900s to the grand homes of the early part of the century.
Boro Bari was built by Tarun's great-great-grandfather's brother, Ganga Prasad Sen. His name mimics the meandering Ganga river that runs right by the house.
By all accounts, Ganga Prasad and his brother Durga Prasad were very accomplished auyervedic doctors, "Kaviraj" as they say in Bengali. As the older sibling, Ganga Prasad, was the more renowned of the duo. They counted among their patients the Grand Poobahs of Calcutta and Lucknow who paid them in gold coins, I am told. Intensely devout, they were blessed to have treated the revered Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa who was diagnosed with throat cancer prior to his passing.
Boro Bari is an eclectic mix of Indian and European.
The structure of the house is suited to the quintessential Indian joint family with parents, siblings and adult children living in semi-autonomous and dependent ways. Each had individual living quarters but shared a kitchen. The women in the family spent their days managing the household while the men went about their academic and professional business. The accouterments in the house range from a hookah to highly stylized European chandeliers, mirrors, and statues. Whenever I am in the house, I feel energized by the many rhythms that silently ring through the rooms.
The house predates electricity. Large cloth fans hung on gigantic hooks and were operated by hand using ropes. The fans are gone, the people who operated them are long dead, yet the hooks hold fast, as a reminder of ingenuity of a simpler era.
In the courtyard, a large "alpona", a decorative hand-painted design, welcomes guests and gods alike. In the old days, alpona was made from ground rice flower, then colored powders, and now with paint.
Boro Bari has several large rooms to entertain guests. During the festival of Durga Puja, in honor of Goddess Durga, all branches of the family come together for celebrations and meals. We sit at rows of tables, eating on banana leaves with our hands. The traditional menu has remained unchanged by the winds of time. One of the rooms is called the "Naach Ghar", the dance room. This is where the men were entertained by dancers while the women watched from above through tiny windows with slats. A part of me wishes to go back there just to fling open the windows and doors and watch without hindrance.
The narrow alley that leads to this house with the grand courtyard, ends at the Hoogly river, another name for Ganga. One side of Boro Bari sits on the river bank, separated by a train line carrying millions of commuters from the suburbs into the bustling city.
It is pricey real estate for sure. Probably unaffordable now. Ganga Prasad was a man of tremendous foresight. He left the house to his descendants with one stipulation. They are required to celebrate Goddess Durga's festival in the most dedicated manner, without fail. As long as this happens, the children of his children and their descendants can continue living in this property, otherwise they will have to move out. Brilliant strategy to preserve a heritage!
Each fall, sometime between mid-September and end of October, Goddess Durga arrives in the courtyard with pomp and circumstance. For ten days, her victory over evil is celebrated with morning and evening prayers. Family, friends, and neighbors gather at the sound of the conch shell, offer flowers and food to the deity, sing her hymns, and pray for peace, love, and joy.
Several years ago, Tarun and I were in Calcutta during Durga Puja. The goddess is an imposing warrior. With ten hands each wielding a weapon, she stands tall, glowing with a serene and beautiful smile, pleased that her children - two boys and two girls - helped her defeat the demon king, Asura, who was terrorizing the good people of the earth.
We ate, reveled, rested, and enjoyed time with the family, thankful for Ganga Prasad Sen and his amazing vision that allows generations to enjoy this beautiful house. For our sake and our children's sake, we hope that Durga will never stop visiting the Boro Bari and will continue to bless the house with affection and care.
In the meantime, I count my blessings for landing in this family, by chance.