Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Guns of Kolkata

Visiting the curio-like shop of the oldest gun manufacturers of Kolkata is an experience forever. Aitrayee Sarkar shares her emotional journey from a glorious past to a mortifying reality 

It all began when Narasingha Chandra Dawn, one of the ancestors of the Dawn family of Uttar (north) Kolkata, took up the challenge to spread the family business of spices along the Hooghly River, giving a real tough time to his English and Portuguese rivals. It is said, that Narasingha Dawn showed interest in trading sulfur and gun-powder, too, for indigenous-gun users of that time to protect his own business as well as theirs. Using his goodwill and rapport with the then British government, Narasingha managed to secure a license for trading raw-materials for guns. This is the story behind establishment of the N C Dawn & Company in Kolkata. Later, Narasingha’s younger son Asutosh Dawn set up the A T Dawn & Company—the gun-makers and dealers from Kolkata. Dawns are the oldest gun dealers of the city and they are into this trade for more than 130 years.

An antique British rifle
Anup Kumar Dawn, a successor of Asutosh Dawn, is one of the few people who are still trying to keep the business of A T Dawn & Company alive. He knows that the trade has lost its glory as well as viability. But he still holds onto it and the legacy of his ancestors. He and his brothers are always at the shop of A T Dawn & Company in Dharmatala (present Lenin Sarani) to welcome buyers and ready to spend hours talking to the visitors with a hot cup of tea. But unfortunately, visitors often enter the museum-like shop out of curiosity only, none comes to purchase guns anymore. Every year, a number of foreigners come and visit the shop and Anup Kumar Dawn is happy to help them and proudly exhibits the shop’s valuable possessions like rare German and British pistols and rifles and stick gun etc.

Narasingha Chandra Dawn

Once Dawns had managed to spread their Kolkata-based business in Rani gunge, Ranchi, Asansol and to the entire North-East frontier of India and even in Chittagong and Rangpur (currently in Bangladesh) etc. During the British period the gun-dealers and manufacturers of the then Calcutta were patronized by not only the English-men but also the deshi Maharajas and Zamindars who needed guns and bullets for their own protection and power show. The business was doing well even after the Independence but experts say, the downfall started in West Bengal when the Naxalite movement begun in the 70s. Civilian arms licensing system became stricter and thus, marked the death of the trade. But the situation is not that bad in other parts of the country, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan or Jharkhand as the large land- holders of those areas still patronise civilian arms manufacturing. 

There was a time when one could easily purchase guns from one state of the country, using license issued from another. But that is almost impossible now. The families which still own civilian arms are more interested in handing over custody of those weapons to professional gun manufacturers and sellers who are capable of maintenance of those. But most of these families often come but never pay the maintenance –fee. Hence, maintenance of such a wide range of stock has become impossible, says Anup Dawn.

But people like Anup Dawn are determined not to put the shutters down. He proudly remembers famous visitors like Satyajit Ray, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Tarasankar Bandhopadhyay who once came here and fell in love with the shop forever. He says, “Bengalis are emotional people, you can say that we are the custodian of that emotion”. He, however, is clueless about whether our own legacy has burdened us! 

The writer is an editor of WebPressClub

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