Mess baris, the quintessential boarding houses, had been part and parcel of nineteenth and twentieth century Kolkata’s checkered past. Interestingly enough, Permanent Settlement acted as a catalyser to the development of such boarding houses. Land subinfeudation led to decreased earning for the landowners and in certain dire cases, landlessness. These push factors led to large scale migration to Calcutta, the colonial capital. Hordes of young men thronged the city in search of educational and professional opportunities. In order to accommodate this never-ending trail of fortune seekers, boarding houses sprang up in and around the major educational institutions and business areas.
In his seminal work ‘Sei Somoy’, Sunil Gangapodhyay talks about the emergence of mess baris or boarding houses in colonial Calcutta. In this excerpt from The mesmerising confluence of history and fiction, we see the mention of a couple of early mess baris in the Boubazar area, including the one allegedly inhabited by the social reformer Iswarchandra Bidyasagar.
The accompanying pictures are from ‘Sei Somoy’ and ‘Those Days’, the former’s English translation.
Gangapodhyay, Sunil, Sei Somoy: Ananda Publishers Private Limited, 1991.
Gangopadhyay, Sunil, and Aruna Chakravarti. Those Days:Penguin Books, 1997.
Excerpts from Partha Chatterjee’s ‘The Nation and its Fragments’ documenting the day to day functioning of Mess Baris or Boarding Houses. Chatterjee here refers to the Indian National Congress leader Bipinchandra Pal’s anecdotes to illustrate the decision making process of such Mess Baris.
Citation – Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories . Princeton University Press, 1993.