Wednesday, April 14

Surveyor of time: 171-year-old shop continues to thrive in Kolkata

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In 1848 — when Bahadur Shah Zafar was still the Mughal Emperor and the Earl of Dalhousie had just taken charge as the Governor-General of India — a Bengali man called Pyary Mohan Soor opened a stationery shop in Calcutta’s China Town.

In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny broke out, following which India was placed under the British crown. Then, in 1947, the British exited, after partitioning India into two. Calcutta, the British capital until 1911, saw its own share of upheavals even after Independence. But Pyary Mohan Soor’s shop, which he had named after himself, survived it all — and continues to be in business, selling survey equipment. Today, it is run by his grandson’s grandson, Somnath Sur. Over time, not only did the surname get shortened to Sur but even the shop was rechristened Ruth and Company.


It is not clear whether Pyary Mohan Soor himself diversified to selling survey instruments, but the diversification is likely to have happened early on because that was the time the British were building their empire. The shop remained in China Town until 1930, when the construction of a new road forced it to relocate to the nearby Dalhousie Square, where it sits even today. The renaming happened during the relocation.

“When the shop was shifting to Dalhousie Square, my grandfather, Prasanto Kumar Sur, realised that almost all the shops in the neighbourhood had European names, such as Martin Burn. He too wanted a European name for his shop, so a family friend advised him to name it after Ruth, a character from the Bible,” says Somnath Sur, who is 54.

Ruth and Company is not only old, it looks — and even smells — old. Seated next to Mr. Somnath Sur is an aged clerk who is typing away — on a typewriter nearly 100 years old — a tender document for rain gauges. In the aged shelves of the shop are stocked with goods that belong to the 20th as well as the 21st century.

Changing with time

“We have survived because we changed with times. Earlier, we sold manual survey instruments like the theodolite, dumpy level and prismatic compass. These have now been replaced by high-precision instruments such as total station, auto level and GPS,” says Mr. Sur.

“We also sell cube-testing machines, which are used during construction to test the strength of cement, and also echo sounders, which are used by the Port Trust for dredging and which are also used to located shoals of fish in water,” he says.

Thanks to automated equipment, some of the items that used to be a must for a surveyor — such as scales and tracing paper — are now outdated; unopened packs of scales gather dust on his shelves and Mr. Sur isn’t quite sure what to do with them. The rich history of the shop, in fact, sits lightly on his shoulders. When this reporter asks him whether he possesses documents belonging to the bygone days, he extracts a musty file from a drawer to show a picture — of King George’s coronation — gifted to his grandfather.

History on the cards

He is unable to find the picture, but from the file tumble out three yellowed cards. One of the cards had invited his grandfather, Prasanto Sur, to the laying of the foundation stone of the first Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur by Jawaharlal Nehru, another invited him for the inauguration of the same institute by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and the third card was an invitation to the third annual convocation of the institute.

“These cards remind me that the survey equipment for the construction of IIT-Kharagpur was also supplied by us,” says Mr. Somnath Sur nonchalantly.


Source: The Hindu

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