Daily Life in 1940s Calcutta



Home    Sitemap    Reference    Last updated: 19-May-2009






This intends to give an over view over the numerous topics covered in the daily life section of this site. 


Return to top




Arriving in Calcutta

The 1940s saw a great turnover of population in Calcutta.  Many left in the late 40s, but many also arrived for the first time: soldiers from all corners of the world, many young enlisted men with little experience of life beyond their homes and no previous knowledge of India; workers attracted to the wages in the war related industries; refugees from Burma, East-Bengal and the famine-districts; journalists reporting on the upheavals and administrators trying to cope with them; and of course all of their families as well. Their means of travel, cultural backgrounds and reasons for coming here differed widely as did their reactions to Calcutta, but few would ever be able to forget arriving in the city for the first time. 





Top of page    How I got to Calcutta    My First Days in the city



Family Life

A vital defining part of any life, are family relations. What was yours like? From large traditional family to lonely soldier waiting for a many weeks old letter from a sweetheart, everyone will have a story to tell.



Top of page    Me    My Parents    Brothers and Sisters    Boyfriends and Girlfriends    Husbands & Wives    Children    Relatives  Family Life    Pets    Friends    Colleagues    Servants    Family Events & Ceremonies   Weddings     Family Activities



The preparation and enjoyment of food has always had a great cultural significance in Bengal.

Many people who have spent even a short time in the city would never forget its food.

Even the war at first seemed to affect the food situation much less than expected and many foodstuffs were available which people in strictly rationed Britain could only dream of.

In fact many new tastes came along with new people, and as many of those had come without families and often had some money to spend, a plethora of new restaurants consequently opened to cater for a great variety of tastes and styles.

All the while though food prices were rising and so on the opposite end of the social scale the famine deprived millions of even the most basic sustenance.



Top of page    Food    Cooking    Drink    Sweets    Paan & Cigarettes



The Calcutta of the 1940s was a much more crowded city than it had ever been. The war brought many more workers for the war industries as well as hundreds of thousands of soldiers from all over the world. Many building such as schools, museums, and hotels were requisitioned to house them.  The political turmoils as well as the famine further brought vast numbers of refugees to the city.  How and Where did they all find somewhere to stay? And what where housing conditions like for those already there, living in anything from huts on pavements to aristocratic palaces ?



Top of page    Our House    The Neighbourhood    The Palace     The Rajbati    Mansion Courts    Boarding Houses    Student Hostel Days    The Village Hut    In the Bustee    In Barracks & Camps    The Refugee Camp    On the Street   

  Fashion    Toys



By the very nature of their age group many of our contributors still remember their schooldays in the 1940s. Even at the most settled times there would have been vast differences in the way people experienced their schooldays. Many did not go to school at all while others went to boarding schools in the Himalayas. Some church mission stressed practical skills and other institutions went all the way into English literature.

The special political situation of the 1940s further added to the complications.

Some schools were evacuated up country, to avoid the bombing and to free up much needed space to billet soldiers. Other pupils had to unexpectedly stay on in India as the customary sending of British schoolchildren to boarding schools in England was halted due to lack of safe transport. 

Many Indian students were also getting deeply involved in the political events, attending protest marches or running soup kitchens for the destitute or falling victim to communal violence. 



Top of page    Pre-School    Private Tutors    In School    Occupational Training    Boarding School    At University    Presidency    Bethune    Shantiniketan



A day in the Office

Even after the move of the capital to New Delhi, office work remained dominant activity for many people in the city.  With its colonial and municipal civil service, with its many imperial business concerns, and with the war bringing with it mind boggling military bureaucracies of several nations, it was not surprising that the days of a great many Calcuttans, established or newly arrived  were spent in offices.  With the extra loads or work due to that war and many office workers being called up to the forces those that remained in fact seemed to never be able to leave the desk at all. 

Office life with its messengers and tea boys, sweepers and durwans, middle-ranking babus, young newcomers on the make and old (-fashioned) India hands, with all its ranks privileges and traditions, was often a microcosm of the colonial world in general. Yet as the forties went on political change on the outside was bound to seep through the shutters and change attitudes in the offices of Calcutta as well.



Top of page    The Civil Service    Banks & Insurance Companies    Management Agencies    Mercantile & Trading Firms    The Professions    The Media    The Newspapers    All-India-Radio    Science




Working in Industry

Calcutta in the 1940s was one of India's foremost industrial centres.  The rapid growth of industry had attracted people from all over India and the rest of the world.  Thus working in industry was one of the main situations where different nationalities met.  The war was a major factor in the growth of industry as Calcutta became a major armaments manufacturing centre to re-supply the China India Burma front.

This war boom brought with it many opportunities but the stresses of that, as well as the strained political situation outside the factory gates, led to many tense situations.  Strikes, sabotage, violence and sometimes murder where becoming frequent and often lasting features in Calcutta’s industrial life. 




Top of page    Working in Industry    The Jute Industry    The Steel Industry   The Tea Industry    The Building Industry    The Railway Industry    The Motor Industry    The Chemical Industry    The Electrical and Telephone Industry    The Armaments Industry 




Working on the Waterfront

The Port of Calcutta and the river Hooghly were still a vital part of the city's and even India's economy in the 1940s, and a great many people were involved with it at all levels. With Calcutta as the main city and re-supply station for the Burma and China fronts there was tremendous pressure on all the facilities and people involved.  In addition to that the port and its approaches were often under attack by the Japanese.  The 1940s leave us with many vivid memories of Calcuttans relationships with ships and boats and rivers and the sea.



Top of page    The Merchant Navy    The Port    The Hooghly Pilots    Ferries    On the Riverboats    The Boatbuilders    Fishing



Military Life

With Calcutta as the main re-supply station for the Burma and China Front the city was full of military personnel from all countries of the allied cause. Many were away from home for the first time and although due to military regulations they often stayed apart from the general life of the city, they nevertheless have vivid memories of it. For many it was only a starting point for or a rest station from the actual war on the front in the East. Nevertheless Calcutta made an impression on them and they on Calcutta.




Top of page    In the Army    In the Navy    In the Airforce    Military Hospitals    Other Services   Special Forces   Intelligence Services    Voluntary Services    Calcutta Light Horse    Women's Auxiliary Corps (India)    Bengal Ladies' Artillery   ATS    VAD   Women’s Voluntary Service    American Red Cross


Village Life

The 1940s saw a large influx of new population into Calcutta. Many were from villages which they had left for work in the city or because they had had to flee. The rapid growth of the city also swallowed up a lot of villages in the vicinity.  So even in a large city like Calcutta for many the village lifestyle was not far from their minds.



Top of page    Village Life    Farming and Gardening    By the Pond    Staying in Calcutta



Calcutta as a major city of the British Empire provided shopping opportunities probably unparalleled anywhere in India.  From the daily basics to antiques and souvenirs everything could be bought at a price; and from roadside hawkers to municipal markets all the way to imposing pukah department stores (now long gone) there always seemed to be someone trying to sell it to you.  For many who were new to the city and India in general, going to the shops was an exciting and often bewildering experience.  See how people went to the shops in those days, or did the shops come to them? 



Top of page    Shopping    The Markets    Bazaars    Department Stores    Shops and Craftsmen    Wholesale Markets    Roadside Hawkers    From Abroad     Advertising    Money & Prices 



In a world without internet and mobile phones, yet a world of momentous rapid change and uncertain futures how did people keep up with the news?  How did people separated for years from loved ones, by war and political events, stay in touch with each other? How were the vast amounts of data handled that informed the machinery of war and imperial business and the organised resistance thereto? 



Top of page    Communications    Postal Services    Telegraph Services    Telephones    Timekeeping    The News 



Calcutta with its ports, its factories, its railway stations, its large population, had a vital need for transport of all kinds for goods and passengers.  Indeed still today Calcutta has the most varied transport options of all Indian cities including such curiosities as handpull rickshaws, trams and innovations such as the underground metro.  The many uncertainties of the decade put a great deal of extra strain on all those transport systems, and brought many into contact with ways of getting about they would not have considered previously.  The military situation, economic and technical changes also found a reflection in the city’s street with many more jeeps and army lorries beginning to clog the streets and the famous Sikh taxi driver becoming more prominent figure.  Some made enough money to even buy their first car.  The end of the decade with independence saw further changes with Calcutta State Transport Corporation sorting bus travel, plus plans for the metro railway emerging.



Top of page    Transport    Bicycles    Automobiles    Goods in Transit    Roads    Bridges    Ferries    Suburban Railways   Tramways    Bus Services    Taxis    Hackney Carriages    Rickshaws 




The 1940 was a decade where more people where on the move than in any previous age.  Troop ships and army lorry convoys, refugee trecks, are a memory for many.  Plane travel was becoming a much more wide spread proposition.  Yet in the day before the jet plane, travel in and to India was very different and a whole experience all by itself.   Weeks on board ship, many days on trains often left vivid memories.  Even flying in from London took almost a week with many stops on the way before one landed by flyingboat at Bally Airstation.  The politics of the decade added further complication with requisitioning of rolling stock, overcrowding, detours to undisclosed destinations, torpedo and air attacks and other dangers.  All this made travel a memorable part of the Calcutta experience.  



Top of page    Travel    Railways    Howrah Station    Sealdah Station    Lorries    Riverboats    Overseas Steamers    Flights & Airlines    Consulates   



Faith is an important part of life in India for those of all religions.  Life in a city brought those religions closely together and sometimes changed religious practices. 

Even for those who were not especially religious the great sensibilities relating to it, and the profusion of different faiths and gods, made it a memorable part of life in Calcutta.

The linking of religion to nationality and politics would lead to bloody disasters in this decade.



Top of page    Religion 

PLACES OF WORSHIP  Hinduism and Temples  Kalighat  Dakshineshwar  Bathing Ghats  Islam & Mosques  Nakhoda Mosque  Tipu Sultan Mosques  Jain Temples  Christianity and Churches  Jewish Synagogues Parsee Fire Temples  Buddhist Temples  Brahmo Samaj Churches  Chinese Temples

 FESTIVALS  Durga Puja  Holi  Christmas  Diwali  Kali Puja  Lakshmi Puja  Saraswati Puja  Machine Puja  Ramadan  Eid-ul-Fitr  Eid-ul-Adha  Eid-Miladunnabi  Muharram  Yom Kipur  Naboborsho  New Year  Chinese New Year 


Cemeteries  Burning Ghats 



Community Relations

In such a diverse society as Calcutta, how did people of differing background interact? How were these interactions impacted but the strains put upon the city during the 1940s? 

Many books have been written outlining this subject as a whole but we wanted to show these issues with individual examples.

Top of page    Languages    The Colourbar    Interactions    Bengalis    West Bengalis (Ghothis)    East Bengalis (Bangals)    Muslims    Sikhs    Marwaris    Nepalis    Biharis & Oriyas    South Indians    Anglo-Indians    British    Scottish    In Chinatown    Jews    Parsees    Armenians    Greeks    Japanese    Germans


On Holiday

For those that could afford it, holidays away, especially up to the hills in the hot summers had always been a Calcutta tradition.  In addition there were hunts and long home leaves for some.  The 1940s brought new people to the city who also wanted to see something of India while they where there.  Some where lucky enough to be sent away to recuperate after injuries or illness.  Other fled the expected Japanese advance. For all it was a break from the routine which they seldom forgot.



Top of page    Daytrips    Darjeeling    The Bihar Hills    Hill-Stations    The Seaside     Holiday in Calcutta    Sightseeing    On Home Leave    On the Hunt    Other Trips



Calcutta’s rich cultural life was and is an important feature of the city.  The changes of the 1940s brought new ideas and trends in drama, painting, film appreciation.  Classical music, books, poetry and literature where at their height, although with the death of Tagore an great era came to an end. 



Top of page    Culture    Drama    Books, Poetry & Literature    Indian Classical Music    Western Classical Music    Painting    Cinema & Filmmaking    Associations    Institutes and Societies    Museums 



The 1940 saw a great upsurge in entertainment in the city of Calcutta.  The war had swept both new audiences into town as well as more money to spend.  The many Americans brought new tastes but Indian nationalism also demanded to be heard in the sphere of entertainment.  Cinemas were full but wartime restrictions on materials made new Indian films rarer.  Radio often initially installed just for the news gained much popularity with music and comedy broadcasts.  Some of Britain’s famous entertainers even went on tour to Calcutta entertaining the troops.  Park Street blossomed with many professional live bands and new types of food, but even roadside entertainers found a willing audience of fascinated outsiders everywhere. 

All the while social change swept away the old Bengali commercial theatre and the formal upperclass ways of the traditional colonial ‘Calcutta Winter Season’. 



Top of page    Entertainment    Films & Cinema    Theatre    Radio    ENSA    Records & Popular Music    Dancing    Games    Street Entertainment    The Calcutta Season




A relatively wealth city such as Calcutta always provided a great variety of possibilities to relax at least to those who could afford it.  Clubs, beauty parlours, hotels and restaurants  all provide spots for those wanting to get away from the stresses of life in the busy city.



Top of page    Leisure    Clubs    Hairdressing & Beauty treatment    Hotels, Restaurants & Bars    Great Eastern Hotel    Firpo’s    Nizzam’s    Chinese Restaurants 




Calcutta had always had a special relationship with its parks.  Although some features where taken up for war duties they were still an important part of life in the 1940s and provided a much needed escape from an increasingly overcrowded city. 



Top of page    Parks    Maidan    Victoria Memorial    Botanical Gardens    Agri-Horticultural Society   Eden Gardens    The Zoo    Dhakuria Lakes    Greer Park     Park Street Cemeteries    Other Parks




Calcuttans have always had a soft spot for sport, even if it is just watching and arguing about it, if one cannot play oneself.  The mix of cultures from traditional Indians via colonial public school expats to young nationalists intent on steeling their bodies, has led to a wide variety of sports being played in the city.  The fact that the forties brought a large number of unattached men into the city also helped with the upsurge in sports in those days. Calcutta in the 1940s played host to a large variety of sports, and taking part n them was an important part in people’s social life, helping them relax from the stresses and strains of life in those days.

[The more important sport such a cricket, football and racing have got their own pages.]



Top of page    Cricket    Football    Horse Racing    Boxing    Wrestling    Weightlifting & Bodybuilding    Yoga    Swimming    Rugby    Golf    Tennis    Rowing






Football, a great passion in today’s Calcutta was important in the sporting life of our city even in the 1940s.



Top of page    Street Football    Football    Mohun Bagan    Mohamedan    East Bengal    Other Clubs    The IFA Shield    First Division Champion Ship




Cricket although not such a preoccupation for the mass of the people as it si today, still held a great interest to many people in the 1940s



Top of page    Street Cricket    Test Matches    Indian Matches    The Ranji Trophy    Eden Gardens    The Bengal XI    The Bengal Governor's XI 




At the Race Course

Horse racing a great entertainment and hobby for the race horse owning upper classes, but avidly followed by many all over the city, not a few had money invested in it in forms of bets.



Top of page    Racing    New Year's Races    Viceroy's Cup     Betting    The Calcutta Sweepstakes    The Royal Calcutta Turf Club    Polo    Paperchasing




In the Underworld

Calcutta has always been a port city where large riches and and large impoverished rootless population sat very close together.  The Social and moral rules of both India and Britain were often weakened in peoples minds upon arrival in this extraordinary city. 

The war and the resulting population pressure further increased both the desperation and temptation for many to resort to crime. 

All this and not least the overwhelming influx of single young men, led to a great increase in crime & vice.

The 1940s saw a boom in the criminal underworld in Calcutta.  New victims and perpetrators where washed into the city and the economic strains as well as the unprecedented influx of money and materials provided endless incentives and opportunity for illegal money making schemes. 

The Calcutta Police undermined by the political situation certainly had its work cut out for them and it changed itself just as much a the criminal classes in order to keep up with modern times.



Top of page    Goondas    Dacoity    Burglary    Theft & Pickpocketing    Smuggling    Blackmarket    Gambling    Pornography    Opium Dens    Brothels & Prostitution    Sexcrimes    Murder    Espionage    Calcutta Police    Surveillance    Interrogation    The Criminal Courts    In Prison 





Health & Welfare

An overcrowded city in a tropical climate, lack of food, and a large transient population with a great deal of war-time and political violence thrown in; Calcutta’s health situation was on the brink during the 1940 and many of those who lived through those days had a tale to tell bout it.  Many medicines familiar to us today were not available then and disease was much more frequent and more serious problem. 

Overpopulation, hunger and a certain amount of carelessness amongst many newcomers led to further worries on this front. 

On the other hand Calcutta had, for Indian standards, a well developed health system, which merits description.



Top of page    The Climate    Insects & Wildlife    Accidents & Diseases    Medicines    Ambulances    Hospitals    Nursing Homes & Institutions    Recovery    Charitable Homes    Social Security    Crowds    Beggars    Sanitation & Public Hygiene    Doctors    Opticians    Dentists    Massage





The war, the famine, riots, crime and disease  Death held a rich harvest in the streets of Calcutta in the 1940s.  All those who died, we will remember them.



Top of page    Death in Calcutta


Leaving Calcutta

The political changes in 1940s Calcutta, such as independence and partition,  led to many leaving the city.  It is in their minds that the city they knew and so often loved lives on.



Top of page    Leaving Calcutta




Staying in Calcutta

The political changes in 1940s Calcutta, such as independence and partition,  led to many leaving the city.  Others took the conscious decision to stay on and make Calcutta their hoe for good.




Top of page    Staying in Calcutta





Home    Sitemap    Reference    Last updated: 19-May-2009



If there are any technical problems, factual inaccuracies or things you have to add,

then please contact the group under info@calcutta1940s.org