A major road in the middle of Cuttack, formerly the capital of Odisha, named in Hindi? Naya Sadak may have been new in the 19th century, but must have certainly been renamed more than a century later. We wandered along the road, The Family looking at the jewellery shops and silver filigree that the town is famous for. I kept an eye on the big houses lining the street. The decorative facades with a medley of themes, dragons, peacocks, zig-zag lines, rippling curves, picked out in mortar, marked them as mid to late 19th century constructions. These would have been the homes of the upper crust, the merchants and jewellers. The first support for political self-determination, within the legal framework of the British empire, would have come from here.
The dilapidated state of the two houses that were the most grand told me that the family that built them probably sold the properties piecemeal, perhaps first the shops on the ground floor, and then, one by one, the flats that the upper floors would have been converted into as the joint family disintegrated. In the shadowed verandahs of an upper floor I could see a row of pillars with wonderful segmental arches between them. Some of the arches contained riotous decorations in mortar and plaster, echoing the ornamentation of the capitals of the pillars. Others had large fanlights. It looked like the whole building had changed function; it seemed unlikely that anyone lived there.
I wondered what these rich merchants thought when the political movements they supported turned against the empire and started demanding independence. The fieriest opponent of the empire was born five lanes away, in an area where the lawyers and doctors had made their (less) grand mansions. Subhash Chandra Bose was a divisive figure who disagreed with the tool of non-violence and raised an army to fight the empire. From the mass of documents from that time, diaries, letters, government dispatches, and memoirs, it is clear that the merchant families were divided. On one extreme, some retreated even from their earlier timid demands, and some at the other extreme, covertly supporting the armed movement.
Another grand mansion stood across the road. I had a little difficulty taking its photos because I was shooting against the light. Where did the dragon finials come from? They could be saying that this family’s money, now clearly vanished, came from the opium trade with China. It was quite as devastating for India as it was for China, since rice and wheat farmers were forced to grow opium by the agents of the East India Company. Famines and mass addiction followed, but merchants who dealt in the drug grew rich. It is quite remarkable how much moral ambiguity can be discovered in the wrack line of the world left as the tide of the first capitalist empires ebbed.