Calcutta continues to amaze me even this time around.Mr. Bhattacharya’s government has been hard at work and the results, as far as building flyovers and highways is concerned, are obvious. ‘New town kee sarak.. makhan hai makhan’ sings out the radio jockey on the airwaves. The upcoming townships, towering high rises and new cars on the highway that leads out from the airport belie the state’s Marxist leanings. The sprawling Salt Lake City Centre and Forum Mall in the city are chock full of Calcutta’s young, eager to pledge their allegiance to the new goddess of consumerism. The Forum Mall in the city stands ironically right opposite Netaji Bhavan, the ancestral home of Subhas Chandra Bose. Sadly, ‘Give me Red’ is now relegated to advertising a popular brand of batteries.
I am in Calcutta to explore a character I had first met in the pages of William Dalrymple’s White Mughals. Major General Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart had fascinated me as the Irishman who had wholeheartedly adopted Calcutta in the 1780s. Dalrymple’s description of the General who travelled across the country with his Indian bibi beside him, “his buggy followed by a cavalcade of children’s carriages and a palkee-load of little babes…(going) as far as employing a group of Brahmins whose ritual purity he regarded as essential for properly dressing his Hindu family’s food” (Dalrymple, 2003:44) is captivating. The General openly expressed his abhorrence towards consuming beef, thus, I am sure, scandalising his colleagues who, after a couple of years serving in India, would be salivating for their share of a decent Yorkshire steak and kidney pie and a pint of lager. The good general was instead diligent about performing his daily puja and had developed a penchant for daily baths in the Hooghly (which is often called the Ganga by Calcuttans). His plans for participating in the week-long pilgrimage at the Kumb Mela must have created quite a stir with the good Catholics back home in Ireland. Dalrymple labels Stuart as the “first recorded devotee of what the Bollywood film industry knows as the ‘wet saree scene’” subsequent to a magazine article the general wrote extolling the merits of Indian women’s dress for ‘Western women’, printed anonymously in a women’s journal. The article wanted all Western women to adopt Indian clothes for their comfort and versatility (much before Lady Diana, Jemima Khan and Cherie Blair discovered this for themselves) and dwelt at some length on the image of the Indian woman stepping out from a ritual bath in her wet garments. Buried in Calcutta’s South Park Street cemetery, it was claimed that his coffin contained his much beloved idols. The tomb itself had an elaborate edifice with stone carvings of Indian deities.The South Park Street cemetery is also home to the last resting place of Josephine Skinner, granddaughter to the famous Anglo-Indian Colonel James Skinner (the illustrious Nasir-ud-Dowlah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jhung or just plain Sikander sahib as he was known to the good people of Delhi). Colonel Skinner was responsible for raising the valiant ‘Skinner’s Horse’ regiment.
I proceed to visit them on my second day in Calcutta.The cemetery was easily found. The particular gravesites I came searching for, less so. My requests were met with a toothy grin by the guards on duty as they pledged ignorance. I was too late, they claimed, as the gardener who maintained the lawns and who was better acquainted with the graves in his charge, might have already left for the day. I sat in the shade of one of the many infant memorials (“This lovely bud so young and fair, Called hence by early doom, Just came to show, how sweet a flower, In paradise will bloom”) as the guard made a pretence of searching for the elusive gardener. Underneath my feet, a slug morosely inched its way as the minutes ticked away with still no sign of the guard. Freshly washed laundry left to dry on the mausoleums, some dhobi’s ingenious idea to economise free space, was the only splash of colour in the endless grey-green vista of mossy undergrowth and imposing tombs. My companion and I started our own search. The commemorative booklet published by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Cemeteries in India that we had purchased at the Gate House, served as our guide. We came across famous society beauties like Elizabeth Jane Barwell, who had twelve of her besotted admirers turning up in identical pea-green at a ball so they could match what she wore. “She had confidentially advised (sic) each one of them individually beforehand” the booklet informs us.That even then the men in uniform had a desire to stretch the truth is evident in many a twenty year old officer’s grave who, in his short life, had already achieved “an urbanity of manners and benevolence of heart, which made him beloved and admired by all classes and the pride of every circle.” What’s heartbreaking however are the monuments to young women dying in childbirth and the frequent ‘infant memorials’. Smallpox, rabies, cholera, drowning, snake bites or ‘dying of one of the fatal diseases incident to the climate of India’ is the sad litany coming up on gravestones. My search abandoned, I reconciled myself to spending the afternoon reading my book in this oasis of calm. The chaos and clamour of neighbouring Park Street seem far away.
My visits to Calcutta are incomplete until I have made my quasi-religious pilgrimage to Jorasanko Bari (Tagore House), the birthplace and some time residence of Rabindranath Tagore. I devote this trip to catalogue the Anglo influences over this talented Bengali family. My guide, perhaps nervous after the scandalous theft of Tagore’s Nobel medal and jewellery belonging to his wife at Shanti Neketan, hovers anxiously every time I ponder too long over an exhibit.Tagore House seems like a gay little house and I believe the stories of the lively Durga puja celebrations held there. Though Tagore’s father Debenderanath had become a Brahmo and done away with the goddesses and puja room, shunning as he now did idol worship like his fellow reformists, the courtyard and former puja room stayed alive as a site of cultural evenings and theatre performances. On the rooftop, the guide animatedly portrays the scene of Jyotirindhranath, the elder brother wheeling out his piano and treating friends and neighbours to impromptu concerts in the summer evenings.
No shy wallflower she, Tagore’s wife was an impressive woman in her own right. Though belonging to the conservative Raichaudhri family in Khulna, she quickly learned the ways of her illustrious in-laws. I look at the sepia-tinted photographs in her personal chambers that chart her own journey through the years. From the demure Bhabatarini Devi she becomes Mrinalini Devi as her in-laws ‘rename’ her. She is now dressed in the Western-inspired high shouldered and gathered sari blouses which she introduced as a trendsetter in Bengali society. Sari blouses were launched by the puritan British, their Victorian morals shocked by Indian fashions of draping saris. On the following wall, Mrinalini Devi evolves into the Mrs. Rabindranath Tagore of the scribbled post card the poet-laureate sends her from Paris! Tagore in his lines to her is quite enamoured of the Eiffel Tower. A world map superimposed with a chronology of Tagore’s travels is quite impressive. In today’s Calcutta, he would be like many of his recent compatriots queuing up for his frequent flyer’s membership.
Outside, as I gingerly step across sleeping garbage pickers who even all of Australian cricketers’ money has failed to rehabilitate, I am reminded of Tagore’s words which he might have written in foresight for such a visitor, “If you weep for the sun at night you will also miss the stars.”