London and Calcutta – Contemplation on a Novel
London and Calcutta – Contemplation on a Novel. This is a rumination on the relationship between these two cities, their intertwined destinies. Excerpted from Wordsmith Communication’s long and running project – An Intimate History of Bengal.
It was a happy chance that made me leave Calcutta on a cold February morning for England as a student. A week back, I went to Silchar flying over Bangladesh air-space after getting my one month old son entering our ancestral home at Silchar – the vaastu-vita where my father was born some sixty odd years back. The Family thus settled somehow, I came back to Calcutta and started into last minute preparation for the journey.
There was urgency and so many finer and annoying details need to be taken care of and it made quite a good travel in the city. Amidst such travel, I passed near the Cemetery where Michael Madhusudan Dutta has been interned and during childhood my father used to show me the place whose only decent exhibit is the epitaph written by poet himself. This unique poet was bewitched by the Albion’s distant shore and could finally manage to have a life quite identical to that of the great Romantic poets he admired. It is not in the scheme of things of municipal Calcutta to have any spending on something as useless as a poet’s last resting place because the dead poet, after all cannot give votes nor get investment. So the grave of this poet now lies by the side of a busy road among dust and squalor. It was fortunate to find Madhusudan’s grave in better shape than Derozio’s – the organizer of Young Bengal now receives gift in the form of nitrogenous waste from modern Bengal. As I was moving past College Street in the afternoon, lazily sitting in the taxi, Nirad broke my reverie – It is ingrained in the nature of tropical climate to degenerate things, ideas, traditions and nobility. I don’t know whether to agree or not.
This restless poetic genius of Bengal was a dreamer and he was one of those Bengalis whose imaginary faculties got burned by the noblest and strongest cultural radiation emanating from the Literature of Europe that suddenly flashed in Calcutta. Of all the gifts of Greece and Rome that England brought in India, Bengal’s response was most active in the domain of Literature. A generation of young men of Bengal got permanently bewitched by Shakespeare and Romantics, Chaucer and Virgil, Keats and Shelley. Madhu-kabi* was having all the gifts of Fortune to launch his ambitious career to be one among the greatest English poets. He learnt English, French, Latin and started living in virtual England. Some of his friends have noted his state of mind and he scorned Bengali language as something totally incapable of being the conductor of carrying his poetic electricity. He was quite convinced that he was among those immortals and if his immortal fame has to be rested, it was the marble of the English language and not the muddy slime of Bengali. But Madhu-kabi’s England was not the real England. It was the England that literature of England shaped in his eager and credulous mind and the enervating atmosphere of Bengal and his personal situation of being son of a rich landed aristocrat allowed his fancies to run wild. The poetic genius discharged in the form of promising imitation of English and European masters and mahdu-kabi decided to sail for England at any cost. The first was Hindu religion, he embraced Christianity as it was an enabler and leaving Calcutta behind, saying Good Night, Bengal like Byron started a journey that will prove fatal for him, England and Bengal. He remained the last Bengali who loved literary England with such force and intensity that the rejection by the real England of his imaginary future sowed the seed of Modern Bengali Literature. He became successful in securing poetic immortality, not in the English Marble but rather transformed the slime of Bengali into a marble that bore the weight of his epic genius. His epitaph is significant and very few poets could capture in a mature tenderness and epic grandeur the summary of a gifted used as well a wasted life. In his death, he was reclaimed by Bengal again and as Bengal was mourning her gifted son, the novelist Bankim celebrated this mourning for a poet as an indication of a higher culture and ended his observation in a very hopeful note. He was right.
In this age of jet-set travel, some of the grand beauties of inter-continental Travel are lost forever. Imagine the Journey from Calcutta to London a hundred years back. Most of the traveller’s tales of that period constituted this journey as the larger part of the entire narrative and most notable in Bengali are that of Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. The former wrote his Europe Yathris Diary and the later wrote Prachya and Paschatya [Orient and Occident] and the long voyage from India to London via Suez Canal was more interesting than the actual travel in Europe itself. The Journey was through Red Sea and then entering into Mediterranean waters and the journey was also a journey through a cultural thread that war, religion, trade and commerce built through centuries.
On a cold February morning, I looked from the aisle of a British Airways Jet and only the traffic of Jessore Road and some coconut tree was visible. The ugly Calcutta buses were seen plying at a distant. Then, surpassing all anxieties of a unknown place and stay there, a very strange thought came to me – the place where I am going is as integral part of Bengal as its local place and there are lots of people in both the cities of Calcutta and London whose cradle and grave were vice versa. Or in terms of cultural memory, there is a common space which Time has modified, mellowed and in cases, erased.
Generation of madhu-kabi used to come to England after a sufficient exposure to Shakespeare, Milton, Homer (through his English admirers including Chapman Keats and Shelley) Chaucer, Virgil, McCauley, Wordsworth, Lamb and likes and they used to look for these symbolism in the actual landscape. My generation has little to do with it, thanks to our education system and except for re-cycled tourist attractions and car models (this owes to liberalization of Indian economy since 1992) they have nothing to neither observe nor match. One of the effects of English Education in India during colonial times was to imbibe a tender love for one’s city (a honourable imitation from London Bridge) and best of Calcutta citizens had it from the best of its practitioners. Even today, an aristocratic Calcutta citizen speaks of its city-sights with a tenderness and affection because it was taught to be a sign of urbanity. The spirit of this city-love was perhaps one of the lasting cultural heritages of crossing of horoscopes of London and Calcutta and it finds its echo in Suman Chatterjee’s classic lyric in Bengali – Garihatar More.
My father has entrusted me the responsibility as well as assurance of reimbursing the cost to visit Westminster Abbey and after having done this walking among the dead, I went to pay my tribute to my childhood hero and favourite Englishman – Mr. Sherlock Holmes Esquire at his Baker Street home. Next, my horoscope’s pull took me to Didcot where I met Mr. Andrew and his wife Susan for the first time even though we have been in electronic communication for quite sometime. Mr. Andrew’s grandfather was a tea-planter in Sylhet [now in Bangladesh] and Silchar [now in South Assam in India] during 1860s and it was his horoscope pull again that made him wonder to see those places through my grandfather’s eyes. The eyes of mine that saw the Grecian Urn in British Museum the previous afternoon was actually a camera fitted up into a box made from the clay of Bengal but the internal organ that actually sees meaningfully into the output of the camera is neither mine, nor Bengal’s but is an alienable heirloom to all humanity as the Ode to Grecian Urn contemplates over so beautifully. Under a tender light, Pastis and Red wine’s sweet glow, they narrated their story of the birth and growth of one of their children – their home in a remote mountain area in Southern France and as I was leaving their home, Susan embraced me like a mother does to her son and making this Bengali forever indebted of getting the proof what my native Scripture declares – Hark, my son – I dwell as Supreme Motherhood in all feminine forms in the Universe.
Then I went to Coventry to meet another friend and co-worker on Sylheti culture – Ms. Kavita Gupta, a resident in England for some thirty odd years but speaks and cooks purest Sylheti. It was an honour to know about the cultural issues that shape and re-shape the immigrants in their adopted land and their aspirations and anxieties. Calcutta features prominently in the discussion not only because British Airways and Bangladesh Biman (which is generally preferred because of additional 25 kg it allows as baggage and physics calls it weight but in the culture scheme of things this is carrying a bundle of curiosity through oceans) touches her but also for the fact that just like a British soup has English, Scotch and Irish flavour in it, Bengali sweet of Calcutta has variant mixtures of communities that make and break Greater Bengal.
Then to Birmingham where lives a sister of mine after getting married, not by relation but being neighbours in Silchar for some sixty years. They are in restaurant business, a virtual monopoly of Sylhetis and suffice to say this much that the curries they prepare and excel has something to do with the unseen mixture of admiration, anxiety, jealousy and longing they put into the boiling excitation. There again, Calcutta features for altogether different reasons. They observe the stark difference of efficiency between Heathrow and Calcutta Airport and the way officials behave. They narrate with relish how, after landing at Immigration in Calcutta, the situation dramatically changes as they take up their acquired pure British accent (as courtesy they spoke in Bengali first with the official and received not a good response) and the things changed immediately. But the relish has a tinge of sadness in it because they also contemplate of having a home in Calcutta for their old age.
In London’s Hounslow area, I have my old friend and colleague Mr. Deepak Sharma who is the Technical Head at the London office of the same Tata Company I work for (another post-liberal India’s symptom of going global) in India. This connection made London air sweeter for me considering the painful or pleasant exchange rate of Pound and Rupee, depending on which way the Queen or Mr. Gandhi is looking at. His flat was my resting place and met some young Punjabi student there. There I met Mr. Harpreet, meaning omni-pleasing – a young man of barely twenty. He is a student and works harder than a Cabinet Minister to earn his living and study costs. As an aside, he lives upto his name and having learnt that I am coming from Scotland, he arranged a Johhine Walker Blue Label and the rest is silence.
I have an uncle in Calcutta – a mellow old man who had a phenomenal ability of making you laugh using ordinary conversation. He came to Calcutta somewhere in 1942 from East Bengal and fell in a life-long love with the city. He started his life helping his older brother in setting up a Book Binding Business near College Street. The older brother was a Graduate at that time but left the cushy Government job to start a entrepreneur career. The venture had a grand success. During 1960s, an Englishman came to their Press to get some of his old books bound. He had promised to come back after a month to take them back. He never came back. My uncle, quite an Anglophile and very systematic man kept the package ready for some fifteen years. Neither the man came nor any communication for the books. So around in 1987, my father came to know of this incident and took the package to Silchar. I remember two of books in the package – Collected Essays of Edmund Burke and Decline and Fall of Roman Empire bound in leather and I loved Mr. Burke’s language and I could only remember his reference of ten thousand swords not coming off the scabbard of the French nobility as a look of insult was thrown at the Queen of France. Mr. Gibbon swept my feet away by his unforgettable starting which is still felt by the nations of the earth. In my bus journey, I read Mr.Burke again after some thirteen years sitting in a bus bound from Glasgow to London, rethinking about the first reading in our sweet Silchar home. With Mr. Burke in my pocket, I loitered in the Trafalgar Square after seeing Waterloo Bridge and as I walked casually in Waterfront, the book store, a strange hand of destiny made me buy The Social Contract in condensed form. In the evening I landed up in another bus with Mr. Burke in my right and Mr. Roseau in my left (no symbolic connection please in choice of pockets). They co-habited by my sides and as I landed in Glasgow in a chilly morning, I smiled at myself – little mischievously of being the carrier of essential opposites
I leave the job of documenting the historical relation between London and Calcutta to the historians of both cities – a task, which will require the labour of a Gibbon with the steadfastness of Momsen. I also relinquish all claims of writing the breezy, public-consumption oriented journalistic sweep that flows -to the happy majority of writers that flourish in present literary weather in both cities. And finally, I leave this intimate history to those readers of mine who might have once experienced the profound feeling expressed in these four lines:
The Moving Accident is not my Trade
To freeze your blood I know no ready Art
It’s my delight alone in summer shade
To pipe a single song for a thinking heart.
A Tale of Two Cities – Part II
The time has now come to go into the horoscope scheme of things and study how individual horoscopes are related to city horoscopes. In finding the connection between London and Calcutta, a strange image haunts me, sketched by few lines in his novel Pather Panchali, by Bengali novelist Mr. Bibhuti Bhusahan where he describes the ruins of a Nil-Kuthi [the all powerful office, estate and judiciary of Indigo plantation that flourished in Bengal and ravaged the land and its tillers] and little far away lies the grave of the child of the Head Official of the Kuthi, long gone. The whole place is in ruins, the grave also shares the overall sense of being lost, forgotten, and uncared. Only light yellow flowers from the nearby sodal tree fall softly on the grave and there, the poet of Pather Panchali again became a chosen instrument of history that lies beyond it and uttered something profound but in simple sweetness of Bengali – “sakale bhulia geleo baner ei sodal gach-ti sei bismrita engreg sishuti-ke ekhono mane rakhiache.” [Everybody has forgotten, but this Tree of the Forest has still remembered the long dead English child]. The author of Pather Panchali was a friend as well as a mess-mate of Nirad C Chaudhri in Mirzapur Street in Central Calcutta while he was writing Pather Panchali. One day, Nirad found the author simply telling that sometimes he feels like Count Bezhukhov of Anna Karenina and Nirad observes – The possibility that there can be a connection of spirit of a Bengali Brahmin with a Russian Count was something unknown to us in previous tradition. Nothing but the new spirit that
rages among us can be held responsible for that. The author of Pather Panchali went on enriching Bengali Literature and Nirad lived in Calcutta for thirty two years, shifted to Delhi and then adopted Oxford as his last place and died past ninety, active as a writer in English and Bengali almost upto his dying day.
In another of his novel Ichamati, Bibhuti Bhushan sketches the relation between Gaya-mem, a local Bengali woman and an Englishman, an Indigo-trader somewhere in the early eighteenth century in the most beautiful part of the Jessore district of then Undivided Bengal. In a poignant scene – as the Englishman was dying in a far away Indian village, far away from home, Gaya sits by his side, not connected by any legal or religious bond but by the pure and primitive bond of flesh and blood, of man and woman and there he dies. The drops of tears trickles down from Gaya’s face and in these tears, the poet transcends all local relations, all national and foreign issues, all that divide us and unsettle us, we find echo of one of the profoundest observer of human hearts – There is a reason of the heart which Reason can never comprehend.
Far away from the Ichamati and Bengal, in one unusual chilling morning in February I stood near a grave in Bristol cemetery where lies interned Raja Rammohan Roy since 1833. A rare man of East and West whose true contribution is too early to predict as a historian of twentieth century told while asked about the implication of French Revolution of 1789. The chilling air from the Bay area blew hard and cold and it was a historical tribute as well as a personal journey.
The Tale of Two Cities – London and Calcutta, as my readers now might have anticipated cannot be contained in the Art form of an essay. It perhaps requires a novel in epic dimension and I leave here with the hope that there will emerge, in God’s own time a wordsmith who will write that tale and whichever city he might choose to be born, we will look for signs in the skies to know that the hour has arrived. Until then, we can keep our memories fresh and spirits high so that neither the tropical heat nor the freezing cold can wither the infinite varieties of the Tale.
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