Fairlawns and a love story.

  • Aninda Mukherjee

William Ford negotiated a deal. When, on 27 May 1781, Sheikh Ramjam and Bhonoy sold 13 cottahs and 7 chittacks of their land in Central Calcutta to Ford, they would hardly have thought about creating history. Yet they did. As the first cart load of bricks arrived from the kiln in early 1783, the legend of Fairlawn was born. It would still be a dozen years or more that Washington DC would be declared the capital of USA.

Soon the 'Sadar' ( pronounced Sudder) kacheri or Appellate Court House came up in the neighborhood. Suddenly the pucca red brick house had an address on the newly christened Sudder Street.
After a change of several hands, Sir David Ezra inherited the property in 1873. Kyd Street and Sudder Street then housed many influential Armenian and Jewish families right through the 1800s during which the British and both these communities traded extensively between Bengal ( which in those days included Burma, Bangladesh, Bihar, Orissa, the hill territories and the North East) and Hong Kong and China.

The Fairlawn operated as a guest house first for British businessmen, soldiers and then other ' gentlemen of the day' right through the nineteenth century.
During the Second World War it was requisitioned by the Canadian Air Force in Calcutta and for two years was known as the Canada House.
During this time, Jennifer Ann Fowler was growing up as her parents, the Smith’s, ran 'Fairlawn on Sudder' next to Hogg Market. No one would guess that she would be the queen of Sudder Street for the next well nigh half a century!

1956......A young man called Shashi Kapoor checked in to the Lawns. He would be in Calcutta for a month. Prithvi Theatre was travelling with their group. He had every plan to sample the electric night life that Esplanade offered. Coincidentally, a pretty young British lady, Jennifer Kendal, was also in town. Travelling with her parents and their nomadic theatre company.... The Shakespearewala, they were staging regular shows at the Empire Theatre next door. One evening, between drinks at the Astoria, Shashi took a seat at the Dress Circle of the Empire. A young Jennifer, after assisting backstage,walked across the aisle and plopped on the next seat... oblivious to the beautiful love story she would script with the good looking young Indian boy in the next seat. Shashi Kapoor fell in love with and married Jenny for ever after. They returned to Fairlawn in 1958 for a cosy honeymoon and were never far from the Fowler’s property since......till J passed away.

I remember dropping in to the cafe one evening when Aparna Sen was shooting 36 Chowringee Lane with Jennifer, and the crew were unwinding on the lawns of the hotel. Shashi Kapoor had dropped in for a day with their daughter Sanjana. As we watched from a distance, I was fascinated by the 'down to earth' Kapoors who let their hair down with the crew and soaked in the festive Calcutta Winter.

Many of us have always relished spending time at the Fairlawn, mostly drinking beer and snacking on their delicious Fish Orly, during our years in the city. Many a times, while on annual leave from my submarine, I have taken a leave of absence from my ancestral home at Creek Lane, to spend a night at the first room on the ground floor.... cheapest rate, single bed and strictly no guests!

Recently the Oberois of Elgin have taken over the Fairlawn. It’s now Elgin Fairlawn. The Fowlers are gone. The local rickshaw no more carts in beer cases from Free School Street! Now you can’t order a steak, medium rare, or a plate of ribs. Beef and pork are not served. But the old world charm continues to reside at the Fairlawn. Thankfully.

As I walked in sometime early last year, I saw nothing had changed. Except Violet ( Ann’s mother) was not there behind the counter to march me in to Room 8 with the quintessential Fairlawn warmth ..
" Wonderful to have you back, officer!" Instead, I handed over my Aadhar to the desk and scribbled on the register.

From a distance, loud rebellious protesing voices said something about CAA….. NR whatever.

I sometimes wonder if Mrs Violet Smith could ever prove her Indian citizenship! Much like the origin of the delectable fish orly under the shamiana on Sudder Street! In this beautiful world of here and now, maybe it’s okay to just let it be…..