JOSEPH LING, slim and with a hairline that has receded too fast, leant over the balcony of this once elegant edifice in Kolkata’s Tiretta Bazar, shouting above the din. “Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, they all came here!” Joseph waved. “They waved like this! To big crowds where you’re standing.”
I tried to imagine being part of a mob of swooning fans on this lane, faces craned upwards at filmstars. If Joseph didn’t quite fit my mental picture of a star, the scene on the street didn’t quite fit my mental picture of a crowd of fans.
Joseph and friends had described this place to me as it must have been circa the late 1950s. Consider then the reality of 2012: this dusty crimson shell of a building, stripped to the bone inside, stained glass panes chipped and cracked, intricately carved decorations stolen or broken.
The once-famous playground of stars, Kolkata’s Nanking Restaurant dates to 1924 and is by some accounts the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city, maybe in India. And actually it was more than a restaurant. The building housed the Toong On Church, one of several Chinese temples (under the British, we called them churches, said Dominic Lee, who runs a nearby Chinese grocery) in this Tiretta Bazar precinct. Nanking was a tenant, occupying the cavernous ground floor. A flight of stairs at the back led up to the temple, with its idols and delicate wooden ornaments. Just as I did now, Raj and Dilip must have walked up and crossed the floor here to emerge on the small balcony, high above the hoi-polloi.
Standing in the balcony, Joseph and Dominic pointed down. “You know,” said Dominic, “they’d have violinists playing just outside the entrance, welcoming customers to the restaurant.”
The 1962 war with China brought suspicions in its wake. That, and a legal tussle with the founder’s grandson, one Au Yau Wah, meant Nanking grew gradually less popular, more decrepit. In the mid-1970s it closed down altogether. Over the years, Au went “renegade” on them, Dominic said. He surreptitiously tried to sell the premises; what’s more, he quietly spirited away most of its idols and decorations. “In the dead of night!” spluttered Dominic.
At the time, the secretary of Toong On Church, Li Han Kuang, was working on a ship docked in Athens. He returned post-haste to Calcutta and led an effort to overturn the illegal sale. In June 2008, The Telegraph wrote up this battle, complete with a sequence of photographs by Li that spoke eloquently of Au’s stealthy campaign: the elegant Chinese lettering that spelt out “Toong On” vanished and a tacky cloth banner saying “Nanking Restaurant” in English was nailed above the door. No matter that it had been more than three decades since anyone had eaten here.
In July 2008, Toong On got a court order staying the sale. Au died a few months later. With his heirs uninterested, the case is stuck in judicial limbo, though as of July this year the trustees now have possession of Toong On. They are trying to restore the inside of the structure, a massive task.
And earlier this year, an entirely new problem cropped up outside. For years, an open garbage dump stood at the entrance to the lane. That was awful enough, but the municipality decided to move it into the lane, adjacent to Toong On, and swiftly erected a structure for it there. The trustees and the Kolkata Chinese community have objected strenuously—banners in the lane lament the desecration of the community’s heritage—but to no real avail so far.
So in merely making my way to Toong On’s entrance, I stepped over discarded stiletto heels, a fluorescent toilet brush, vegetable leavings, empty ice cream cups and plenty of generic slime. Idly watching me pick through it all were a naked child, several women, a man sprawled on a handcart and a flock of crows.
Up on the balcony again, Li’s eyes sparkled. “You know what Pran once did?” he said of the gruff star of countless Bollywood potboilers. “He was standing here, so many people outside to see him! Didn’t know how he would be able to leave. So he threw some coins down, the crowd ran after the money, and …”
Li’s large, expressive hands mimed Pran’s getaway. Past the keening violins. Past the garbage.
Dilip D’Souza is a journalist living in Mumbai and the author of Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America.