My maternal grandfather’s brother Moni dadu spent his entire life in a mess-bari near College Street and drew a lot of ire for wasting his life in a dingy shack. My parents tell me that he vehemently resisted all attempts of his friends and family to persuade him into moving out. He died in neglect and somehow his indifference to conventional domestic life in an owned or rented property peculiarly isolated him. He stayed back in the mess-bari even after he should have outgrown it. Typically mess-baris were spaces of transition, characterized simultaneously by rootedness and flux. I have grown up with anecdotes and tangible traces of the mess-bari where my grandfather spent a better part of his student life. The Mess-bari project, organized by Heritage Walk Kolkata, headed by Dr. Tathagata Neogi and Chelsea McGill seeks to document anecdotes existing mess-baris and create an archive around their histories. An excellent survey of the project is available on the official website of Heritage Walk Kolkata. Most of the mess-baris surveyed by the team (Dipanwita Paul, Barshana Basu and Anmol Grover) are in dangerous dilapidation, albeit, many of them being still fully occupied. With the rise of paying-guest facilities, and affordable rentals the practical demand for mess-baris are shrinking resulting in the disappearance of a rich and vibrant culture of alternative residence. Barshana Basu in the introduction to the survey writes that they were able to identify 26 currently functional messbaris, 24 obsolete mess baris and 4 that have been demolished. The survey contains detailed accounts of the location, present condition, lodging charges and cultural legacy of all the functional messbaris. Most of these boarding houses grew up in the 19th century as affordable accommodation options for young men and women flocking into the city from the rural areas in the wake of land regulation policies such as the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793. The larger impact of this act was decreased income from land based and agricultural earnings. This was coupled with new employment opportunities created by the colonial government. The demography of the mess-bari was as varied as the cosmopolitan capital city of British India. There were boarding houses of Indian Christian and Muslim communities. Basu writes, “The 1915 and 1935 street directories mention boarding houses meant for specific communities like Odias , Goanese, Madrasis (umbrella term in uses signifying people hailing from the Southern part of India), Portuguese, Scottish, Europeans and so on. Certain messes al so served religious communities and thus we find mention of messes for Indian Christians and Muslims .” There were all-women messes as well. So what overwhelmingly appears in popular culture as a Hindu Bachelor’s den turns out to be more complex and culturally diverse in reality. One such mess-bari was Shabari and its former owner Mrs. Beauty Bose. The Mess bari has been long demolished. She ran the hostel, after taking the business over from her husband and would do so for 38 years until it became financially impossible to sustain 48 boarders. Needless to say, running an all-women’s hostel in decades when attitudes towards unmarried working women were hostile to say the least and ensuring the safety of these women, must have been a trying task.
What many of these mess-baris possibly provided to young persons, often travelling from patriarchal family environments, was a space of autonomy. It opened up for them an opportunity to fashion their own community standards, while keeping class affiliations intact. This community outside familial ties could have been extremely liberating, albeit taxing in terms of the domestic duties that young men had to now perform which traditionally their mothers or wives would perform at home. Mess-Baris feature in the popular imagination of Bengali literature in numerous ways. Not only did many of these mess-baris had illustrious figures from the field of culture and politics spend their days here, these boarding houses are famous settings of many works of Bengali Literature. Bomkesh Bakshi, a famous fictional detective started his career from one such mess-bari. Noted humourist and short story writer Shibram Chakraborty’s erstwhile mess-bari still has walls which are scribbled with numbers purportedly by the author’s own hand. Located at 134 Muktaram Babu Street, this mess-bari purportedly housed many illustrious personalities, Bogra Congress Leader Satish Chandra Sarkar, dhrupad singer Bhootnath Bandopadhyay, essayist Upendranath Bhattacharya and freedom fighter Taranath Roy.
Mess-baris have a strange anecdotal resonance for me. My own study table, used by three generations, was bought from a mess-bari that my grandfather lived in. He was a History student in the city sometime in the 1950s, flirting with Marxism and some partywork and spending copious hours studying and reading. The table is made of excellent wood even though we don’t know how he managed to carry it home from his boarding. This table, painted and repainted with several decades of use, is a palimpsest of sorts, containing traces of the histories of so many people, their personal quirks and odd scribbling habits. It is important to remember that mess-baris are not dead institutions of the past. That they are still in use, demonstrates the utility and resilience of this cheap accommodation option. With burgeoning population and urban space crisis, it would do no mean benefit if existing residential structures can be renovated and reused, with revised tenancy rates. Converting parts of some of these mess-baris into museums, could be an interesting way of generating revenue for the maintenance and upkeep of these structures.
1. Project report available https://www.heritagewalkcalcutta.com/projects
3. Article on Shibram Chakraborty’s mess bari https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/inside-the-messbaris-that-inspired-byomkesh-bakshi-s-quarters/cid/1671771
Amreeta is a first year MA student, interested in the history and literature of Early Modern England, takes a keen interest in Latin and Greek literature and mostly swoons over anything written by JM Coetzee. She manages an informal library for students in college for which she has spent three years cataloguing books. She is definitely bad at writing bio-notes.