Thursday, May 23, 2013

Calcutta: City of Palaces, City of Joy

Rajmahal by Kamalini Sengupta

                                                         By what dim shore of the ink-black river,
                                                         by what far edge of the frowning forest,
                                                         through what mazy depth of gloom art thou threading
                                                         thy course to come to me, my friend?

                                                                                          Rabindrinath Tagore

It was an agent of the East India Company, a man named Job Charnok,  who in 1690 chose the site of present-day Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) as the site for a British trade settlement, the three existing villages there purchased—Peter Minuit fashion—from the Mughal emperor, Alamgir, so that ever since the city’s inception the fates of Indians and the English there have been inextricably bound. Not only is Calcutta distinguished as a city for having been the capital of British India from 1772-1911, embodying a singular fusion of European philosophy, culture, and politics with ancient Indian traditions, but it has had a long history of armed resistance and rebellion, home, first and foremost to the Indian struggle for independence under the influence of Swami Vivekananda (commonly known as “the maker of modern India”), Sir Surendranath Banerjee, Rabindrinath Tagore, and Subhas Chandra Bose, as well to the radical Naxalite and trade unions movements of more recent years.* 

Steeped for more than a century in both Bengali and English culture, the citizens of Calcutta were (and perhaps still are) a remarkably, if sometimes reluctantly, cosmopolitan lot. “Rajmahal is Sengupta’s Howard’s End,” writes Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer in her glowing review of Kamalini Sengupta’s novel about life in post-independence Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is on the face of it an apt comparison, for, as in Forster’s novel, Sengupta chooses a single dwelling (in her case an old mansion-turned-apartment-building) as the stage for a comedy of manners that shrewdly explores the shifting political, economic, and social mores of a new and giddy nation. In this respect the novels are akin—fraternal if not identical twins. In fact Rajamahal is reminiscent of another English novel as well, Paul Scott’s 1977 Staying On, a deeply affecting tale about an English couple, Tusker and Lucy Smalley, who stay on in India after Independence, trying their best, with what little remains to them, to come to terms with the change. 

Yet the beauty of Rajmahal has less to do with its intimations of these fine English novels than with Sengupta’s own exquisite prose, and with her diverse and eccentric cast of characters—Muslims, Hindus, Sindhis, Sikhs, and a hodgepodge of Europeans (not to mention a stable of cranky old ghosts), the lot of them wrought with such affection, such attention to detail, that even now they rise before me when I close my eyes. The Ramjahal itself is personified—trembling, sighing, groaning, judging, intervening even in the lives of its tenants in order to keep the peace. Built in 1910 by a man named Sardar Bahdur Ohri in the fashionable British part of town, the once-proud building, by the time the story opens, has fallen into a state of sullen, churlish disrepair:

The Rajmahal, which was upset at losing its pristine quality after its sale and transformation into a block of apartments, had a history replete with the tales of ghosts.  It had four floors connected by a vast, soaring stairway, and the heavy wrought iron balustrades trailed down with festoons of dusty sunlight and pigeon droppings.  The iron beam which held up the roof formed convenient roosts for the pigeons and there was a constant bustle, sometimes music, raised voices, a dog’s bark, mingling with the pigeon coos and hinting at the life inside the apartments.  The lobby, at the foot of the stairs, had a graciously proportioned black and white marble flagged floor, barely visible and seductive from the top floor.  Within two curved embrasures, naked marble women tilted urns toward basins once awash with water…

This not an English novel with Indian characters, such as A Passage to India, The Far Pavilions, and The Raj Quartet, but a distinctly Indian novel with Indian and European characters struggling to find their footing in a city at once deeply familiar to them and every day more strange.

*Thanks in part to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta: A Cultural History and Calcuttaweb

Kamalina Sengupta writes for newspapers and magazines in India, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong.  As the executive director of the Surya trust, she films documentaries that aim to correct misconceptions about Indian life. Rajmahal, her second novel, is published by The Feminist Press--fast becoming one of my favorite presses.  Check out their list:

Peter Adam Nash

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