A five-minute walk from the imposing 204-year-old St Andrew’s Church in central Kolkata, is a narrow bylane, so short that it would not take longer than a minute to reach the other end of it. Amid the overwhelming chaos of the heart of the city, it is easy to overlook Sukeas Lane.
In his book ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’, author P Thankappan Nair writes that this lane was named after Peter Sukeas, one of the several jurors who tried James Augustus Hickey, an Irishman who published the first newspaper Hickey’s Bengal Gazette in India during the tenure of Warren Hastings. However, this could not be independently corroborated, and archival information indicates that it is likely not the origins of the lane’s name.
The 1902 Census of India, mentions that Sukeas Lane and Sukeas Street in Maniktala were named after a “celebrated Armenian merchant of great wealth who owned a large garden house at Boitakhana”.
Sukeas was a wealthy man and archives indicate that he owned several properties across the city. It is likely that this lane was named after Sukeas, because of a large house or water tank that he owned in the neighbourhood.
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In her paper Filth, Ruin, and the Colonial Picturesque: James Baillie Fraser’s Representations of Calcutta and the Black Hole Monument, Amanda Chritstina Hui Sciampacone focuses on the Tank Square area in central Kolkata, under which Sukeas Lane would also fall, and was once heavily occupied by Europeans.
Sometime in the 1800s, among the several tanks in the neighbourhood, Sukeas appeared to have ownership of one as well. “An Armenian merchant named Peter Sukeas allowed public access to the tank of his palatial home and the communities of each paras (neighbourhoods) often dug their own tanks,” writes Sciampacone.
There are no visible remnants of Sukeas’ home today or even the tank that he once owned in the neighbourhood. The lane may have also been longer than what it presently is today. A medical periodical titled The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare, published in 1853, mentions that there was a government-run dispensary and hospital during the early 1800s. In this journal, the lane is called ‘Sukeas’ Lane’, indicating that prior to the present naming convention, the lane was identified closely with Peter Sukeas, almost as one that belonged to Sukeas.
An entry in the 1843 edition of the Bengal Catholic Herald shows that the lane also housed a day-boarding school for boys, run by an Englishman only referenced by his surname ‘Mr N Prendergast’, where pupils were taught English, French, Latin and Drawing on charges of Rs. 16, Rs. 8 and Rs. 4, with “Native languages being taught when required”, on “two Rupees extra per month….”. The Bengal Catholic Herald does not mention the school’s address, and the lane itself bears no markings of where the institution may have once stood.
The lane is also a part of what was the old Jewish quarter of the city, writes author Jael Silliman in her book Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope. That is in part because of the presence of two synagogues close to this lane: The Beth El Synagogue, established in 1856, and the Maghen David Synagogue, established in 1884.
A lesser-known history of this narrow lane and the neighbourhood at large, is its connection to the development of the jute industry, which was intertwined with the history of colonial Bengal. After the first jute mill started production in 1856, the city of Calcutta played an important role in the distribution and trade of the fibre.
In his book Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century, author Montague Massey writes: “When the jute industry first started, and for many years afterwards, it was carried on principally in the very heart of the city, in Canning Street, and various streets and lanes, branching off and in the neighbourhood, such as Sukea’s Lane, Bonfield Lane, Jackson Ghaut Street, and many other back slums, some of which have altogether disappeared to make room for street, and other structural improvements.”
This possibly explains why the length of the modern day Sukeas Lane has been so drastically shortened, and its older structures pulled down to make space for modern structures and establishments.