Thursday, August 18, 2016

Unfathoming The Mystery Behind a Street Name – 'Galif Street'

The open-air “Galiff Street Pet Market” in Kolkata is a bustling trade location visited by over 2,000 people every Sunday morning. It is also the largest wholesale ornamental fish market in eastern India.

The market is a fairly recent development at this location, but traces its roots back to the 'Hatibagan Haat' which has a much longer history. The Hatibagan Haat was located in a congested area of north Calcutta (Kolkata), and sometime in the 1990's (?), the authorities decided to shift the venue further north - to a broad street that carried little traffic on Sunday mornings. This was Galif Street.

So far, so good. Galif Street soon became a popular haunt for pet and ornamental plant fanciers of the city, and even attracted visitors from places like Guwahati in Assam and other neighbouring states. The aquarium fish trade is the main draw in Galif, which is an outlet for the hundreds of fish-breeders from the surrounding areas of south Bengal. The rest of the pet business is essentially retail, and fairly low key.

This the is background story connected with the the Galif market and its location. But we are concerned here with origins of the name the street on which this popular market is located.

English names of locations in India are as varied as its people. Most place names are a rich cocktail of alternatives, and it is not hard to find a location surviving under the burden of half a dozen ways it is spelled in English. But usually this occurs with vernacular names and, perhaps, the British rulers are responsible for some of the mess. Such mistakes are uncommon with proper names/surnames - especially if they are European names. So, even names as complex as Ochterlony Monument (now Shaheed Minar) are generally spelt correctly in literature and records.

It was thus a surprise to run into hurdles the moment I started to dig deeper into the history of 'Galiff Street'. The first step was fairly straightforward though - the street in question is actually spelled 'Galif' and not 'Galiff", as the Calcutta Tram Company would make us believe (see header image). Historical records dating back to 1910's mention it as Galif, and the Kolkata Police, Municipal Corporation and other august bodies insist on that spelling. So, the extra 'f' is the contribution of the tramways, and immortalized by Google whose search shows "Galiff Street Pet Market", even if you search for "Galif Street Pet Market".

That there is no such road as Galif Street any more in the city is besides the point. You will reach nowhere if you start asking for directions to Mahatma Sisir Kumar Sarani, which is what this stretch of tarmac is now rather grandiosely called! It is much like asking most Calcuttans for directions to Mother Teresa Sarani when you want to reach Park Street! You will meet with blankness and surprise. Renaming streets is akin to a disease in our parts - the concept of convenience, history and culture associated with the older names are of little consequence. So Galif Street is what everyone calls the stretch – and Galif Street it remains for us.

Establishing Galif's claim to fame, however, does not make our task any easier in identifying the person thus honoured. An extensive search on 'Google' came up with no useful results. It appeared that Galif is not a last name that is common across the globe, and no one answering to that name had anything significant to do with British India. The closest choice appeared to be Mirza Galib, a preeminent Urdu and Persian-language poet of yore, somehow erroneously honoured as 'Galif' instead of 'Galib' - but that was stretching logic I thought.

Without a straightforward solution to the naming problem, it was time to start again from scratch. As always, when faced with such predicaments, a dig into history and geography usually helps. Galif Street is a small strip of road that runs south of Beliaghata (Beleghata/Baliaghat) Canal, or Circular Canal. This canal was originally a distributory of the river Hugli (Hoogly) and in times past emerged into the river Bidyadhari. The canal has a rich history, being connected with Job Charnok's landing in Calcutta (Kolkata). In times past, the strip of land through which Galif Street runs was hemmed in between the infamous "Maratha Ditch" and the Beliaghata Canal. But when the fear of Maratha invasion receded the ditch was filled up, and a little part of it now serves Galif's Sunday customers.

Let us, however, ignore the 'Maratha Ditch' for the time being and focus our attention on the other geographic landmark - the Canal! At this time, the waterway is at best a drainage canal. But in its heydays it was a major creek, facilitating trade with the hinterland. Many large commercial vessels used to traverse this channel and it would have been smart to set up a system of tax collection near the mouth of the channel. Such an office would ideally be located close to the canal - and Galif Street (or presumably Chitpur Road then) possibly met that bill.

Many places in India are named after people who had considerable influence in the area, even if they are not native to the area. 'Hamilton-ganj' in North Bengal springs easily to mind. Now, it is just possible that someone answering to the name of Galif had influence on our stretch of road. Someone who collected Canal taxes perhaps?

This is where it gets interesting as 'Google' at last offers a solution. “Galiffe, J. F., Esq.”, was a Collector of Tolls and Supervisor of Canals in Calcutta some time back in history. 

And there is more. 

In the book "The Life of Grish Chunder Ghose" we find this line on page 188 ......."You doubtlessly have seen from the Patriot's Register of News that Mr. Galiffe, late Superintendent of Police, has got the Canal Collectorship”.......  This is dated "Calcutta, Simlah, 8th November, 1855", and is an extract from a letter from Grish (Girish) Ghose to his brother entreating him to seek the position of the Deputy Collector and Assitant to Mr. Galiffe.

So, it seems that there was a Mr. Galiffe who held a position of considerable importance in Calcutta during the 1850's, and very likely collected toll from vessels plying up and down the Beliaghata Canal. It is also likely that his office was located on or near Galif Street! Being an erstwhile Superintendent of Police as well, it is presumed that Mr. Galiffe was a man of considerable power and influence. 
So did the British name the street in his honour? 
It is easy to think so, but the answer may not be so straightforward. If it was, then the street should have been officially named 'Galiffe' Street in record books, as it is unlikely that educated Englishmen would make such an obvious, and potentially embarrassing, spelling mistake. It is more likely that what is now Galif Street was a part of Lower Chitpur Road during Mr. Galiffe's lifetime, and at some later point came to be known as Galif's street in memory of association with Mr. J. F. Galiffe. By the time the stretch was renamed "Galif Street', the original link with the "Collector of Tolls" may well have been lost, and the name reflects the recognition of popular local usage. 

This is conjecture for sure, but may be the most likely solution to this street-naming conundrum. And that it somehow justifies the additional 'f' (in Galiff) used by the Tramways Company may be purely incidental :).

There is just one more potential contender for the naming honour as far as I could find. Again, it is a Galiffe, - a 'John-Frederic Galiffe' this time. A decorated Major in the 60th Regt. British Army, and in service to the East India Company in the mid 1850's, located in Calcutta. He retired and passed away in Chandernagore, and among other things, donated a snake he collected to the Indian Museum. Much as I would love to associate this street name with someone who has contributed to our knowledge about the animal kingdom, I think his candidature is a little weak.

What do you think?

UPDATE: I wrote this piece on 18th August 2016. Today (11th October 2016) I received a comment on the post from M Rodney Galiffe. The contents are germane to this post and I reproduce the comment in full -
Dear Author, I read the article with interest as the Great Grandson of John Frederic Galiffe. I too was only aware, through friends and family discussions that a street did bear the family name in Calcutta. J F Galiffe retired from the Army in India and settled in Calcutta having entered into the employment of the EIC. It was John's father, Jean Pierre who had served in the 5th Battalion of the 60th Regiment which never saw service in India, having been disbanded shortly after the expulsion of the French from Portugal and Spain. There is no mention in any family document of a street being named after J F Galiffe in Calcutta, so it may indeed be a coincidence as to the closeness to name the street now bears. I have attached a link to our family web pages which you may find of some interest. My family embraced India and all its culture throughout its residence and two entire generations are buried within its soil; it is a Country in which the family will always have its heart. My dad and I were both born and raised in India and straddle pre and post British rule - my dad was an admirer of the great Vinoba Bhave and a contributor to his worthy cause in Mysore before he retired from farming. I did once see an old black and white photograph somewhere with an old road sign which did have the name "Galiffe" just visable and the 'e' was the most faded - I wonder if you have come accross this photograph which may assist in your cause and discovery. I do hope this is of some assistance.
Yours sincerely, Rodney Galiffe "

Note and Disclaimer: This is not an accurate description of history and is more in the nature of fiction based on established, but unverified, documentation. I am happy to correct/edit the piece if I receive valuable suggestions.