People and places: The return of the ‘Ganj’ and Kitty Memsaab
McCluskieganj, visualised as an Anglo-Indian settlement, is back in the reckoning and provided the setting for Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut movie ‘A Death in the Ganj’ (2016)
McCluskieganj came up in the mid-thirties as a hamlet or ‘Mooluk’ for the Anglo-Indian community. McCluskie, a smart real estate businessman from Calcutta, invited AngloIndians from across the country to settle in this ‘Mini England’, through a venture that was named ‘Colonisation Society of India’ in 1933. He had acquired 10,000 acres of land from the erstwhile king of Ratu.
And against all odds, the hamlet flourished and did become a ‘mini England’. Barely 65 kms away, it was close to and yet not too far from Ranchi- the summer capital of Bihar. Sparse local populace, abundance of locally available construction material- for a pittance, abundant bounties of nature with a river flowing by completed the idyllic settings of a dream home. Even more importantly, it was serviced by a railway station.
More than 400 Anglo-Indian families chose this place to settle down. They converted their savings of a lifetime in building majestic bungalows. In less than a decade, it grew into an enviable happening place. A church, a club, departmental stores, an abattoir, bakeries, schools and what not came up. It was a fun filled hedonist’s paradise.
The social calendar was a back to back listing of game hunting for men, croquet and rummy for ladies, evenings of coffee and conversation, culinary delights and rum parties, of weddings and baptisms, of church services and Christmas parties. In nutshell, it was wild and free.
There was, however, a fatal flaw. The place had no potential for sustainable livelihood and the community was not primed for the rigour and toils of agriculture.
None defines McCluskieganj better than Kitty Texeira. It was a chance encounter with her during my first visit to the place in the seventies. The sheer oddity of the name of the station and the glimpse of bungalows after bungalows through the woods as the train meandered onto the station platform had got the better of me. On an impulse I had got down from the train.
The train left after a brief halt, other passengers who had got down dispersed when I saw her unburdening her head of the wicker basket full of Guavas. She and not the guavas drew my attention and I walked up to her. She had blue eyes, set on a chiselled face with a heavily tanned fair skin. It was not a face to be found in these jungles. In a minute or so of conversation, she was into her flawless English with a diction and articulation that left me feeling humble.
The railway station also had a tea stall run by another remarkably graceful and English-speaking Mrs Carnie. As we bought and ate some savouries, my enchantment was complete. Here was a nondescript station with an English name in the remote jungles of Chhotanagpur, where vendors spoke English and bakery products comparable to the best I had.
Kitty ‘Memsaab’ was in her teens then and had been vending fruits for the last ten years to make ends meet. Her grandfather had put all his eggs in one basket called McCluskieganj. After Indian independence, the emigration started. Some went to UK and Canada, others to Australia. The younger ones left first for education and livelihood to be soon followed by elderly. Others went with time.
In 1974 there were only a handful of Anglo-Indians left there. They had more of the past to talk about and a very sad present. The ones I met were not very keen to share their sorry plight. Kitty could never go to a school but then English was her mother-tongue. She lived in an unkempt half a bungalow; her father had sold the bigger half to repay the exponentially burgeoning debt.
McCluskieganj’s fortunes- or whatever was left of it, went on a downward spiral as Maoists started ruling the roost. By eighties it was truly a ghost town that was steadily being devoured by the forest. Nevertheless, it did appear a romantic place for a second home to some, especially those with a fat purse and a handsome annuity. Huge premises could be bought for a song. Some did come to live, got disenchanted in no time and left the property padlocked to gather dust and rust. Only a few stayed on, integrating themselves into the local society and economy.
The Don Bosco School came in 1997 as harbinger of a new dawn, thanks to Alfred Rosario, an Anglo Indian from Patna. As the school built up a reputation to reckon with, the students came calling from places beyond the neighbourhood. Enterprising families started to run hostels. More schools have come up making the place a hub of education.
As Maoist influence declined over time and infrastructure improved, it started attracting tourists. Today the place is a veritable, open-museum sans a curator, set amidst virgin nature. People come to visit from far off places, especially during weekends in winters and in the rains. The journey from Ranchi is a sheer driving pleasure though dense Sal forests.
McCluskieganj is back in the reckoning and provided the setting for Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut movie ‘A Death in the Ganj’(2016) and is subject of a book by Vikas Jha.
Kitti Texeira has been mentioned in dispatches time and again. Now old, she still sells fruits to passengers of trains which stop at the station. Mrs Carnie rests in the local cemetery.
In its own queer way, the cemetery is a telling chronicle of the fortunes of the place. The headstones from the glorious days are all marble and granite still visible through the undergrowth, and then there are modest rows of iron and wooden crosses followed by unmarked graves surrounded by the falling perimeter wall