Tag Archive for 'Calcutta'

Jazz singer Pam Crain, R.I.P

Naresh Fernandes (@tajmahalfoxtrot) just tweeted that Pam Crain, the diva of Indian jazz, has died.

More about her at jazz singer Radha Thomas’s blog.

And here she is with the Braz Gonsalves band.


Why Salman Rushdie could not set foot in Calcutta

In The Telegraph:

The state machinery swung into action to prevent Salman Rushdie from setting foot in Calcutta today and launched an equally spirited effort to conceal its footprints, accounts from multiple sources and events through the day suggest.

 Hours after it was confirmed that Rushdie would not reach the city, one of the senior-most government officials made a statement at Writers’ Buildings on one condition: his name cannot be revealed.

 The official declared: “The state had no information about Salman Rushdie’s visit. But a rumour spread last evening that the author was supposed to come to the city for a series of programmes. The city police were asked to enquire about this. The Mumbai police confirmed to the city police that Rushdie was not supposed to visit Calcutta today (Wednesday). The city police informed the state home secretary last night.” More:

Ellington in India, 1963

[Thanks to Naresh Fernandes @tajmahalfoxtrot]

Read here

The Gentleman behind the story: Jehangir Dalal

Finding Carlton is documentary film about the story of jazz in India.


Mamata Banerjee personifies populist force in Indian politics

Simon Denyer from Kolkata in The Washington Post:

She spent her life fighting communists but is the biggest obstacle to economic liberalization in India today. She is the leader of a small regional party but wields more power than the prime minister.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, is a rising force in Indian politics, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton paid a special visit to Kolkata this month to meet her.

The 57-year-old Banerjee — determined, resolutely populist and hardworking, yet eccentric and intolerant of dissent — holds the balance of power in India’s coalition government and has used that political might to huge effect.

Time after time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts to introduce economic reforms have foundered because of Baner­jee’s opposition. Time magazine recently listed her among the world’s 100 most influential people, and 25 out of 50 CEOs surveyed by a leading Indian newspaper last week said she was the biggest stumbling block to economic growth.

Banerjee is the personification of a fundamental change that is transforming Indian politics: the declining vote share of the country’s two main political parties and the rising influence of regional parties. More:

Kolkata — The city that got left behind

From The Economist:

A native-born writer, Amit Chaudhuri, says that Calcutta should be compared to world cities like New York and Paris for its rich past and mix of influences. Yet ever since the Suez Canal was built in 1869, boosting trade in Bombay (now Mumbai), people have said the city (now Kolkata) has been going to the dogs. They have been right. Calcutta lost its title as India’s capital a century ago, and its status as the country’s industrial engine in the 1950s. By the early 1970s visitors were making apocalyptic predictions of plagues and starving, rampaging mobs, and by the end of that decade Marxists were in charge. Today Kolkata evokes Havana, beautiful but shabby, the last city to remain largely untouched by India’s 20-year boom. “I love the city, but am ashamed of its condition,” says Sandipan Chakravortty, boss of one of the few units of the giant Tata Group to be based there.

Now West Bengal, the state which Kolkata dominates, has a new government, led by the redoubtable Mamata Banerjee. Her victory in an election last year ended over three decades of Marxist misrule. She insists that she will turn things around in the state. But she is also a figure of national importance, because her Trinamool Congress is a key ally of the Congress Party, which heads the ruling national coalition. Her rise will be a test of two things: whether the bits of India left behind can catch up, and whether a populist who depends largely on a rural base for support can still prove to be a reformer. More:

Bones kill myth of happy Harappa – Study shows gender discrimination

G.S. Mudur in The Telegraph:

A study of human bones from the ruins of Harappa has revealed signs of lethal interpersonal violence and challenged current thinking that the ancient Indus civilisation was an exceptionally peaceful realm for its inhabitants.

An American bioarchaeologist has said that her analysis of skeletal remains from Harappa kept at the Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta, suggests that women, children and individuals with visible infectious diseases were at a high risk of facing violence.

Gwen Robbins Schug studied the skeletal remains of 160 individuals from cemeteries of Harappa excavated during the 20th century. The burial practices and injuries on these bones may be interpreted as evidence for social hierarchy, unequal power, uneven access to resources, and outright violence, she said in a presentation earlier this week at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Montreal, Canada.

“The skeletal remains from Harappa tell us a compelling story about social suffering and violence,” said Robbins Schug. “The violence was present in low frequency at Harappa, but it affected some communities more than others,” she said. More:

Our bestial stamp on British cities

The British talent was building cities. The Indian talent is renaming things others built. Aakar Patel in Mint Lounge:

The British talent was building cities. They gave the Chinese Hong Kong and Singapore, they gave the Lankans Colombo, they gave the Burmese Rangoon, they gave the Kenyans Nairobi. To us they gifted Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and New Delhi, the five greatest cities of the subcontinent.

The Indian talent is renaming things others built. We gave the world Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru.

This put on display our pettiness and our ingratitude, and it also exposed another thing. We squat aggressively on names but we have not been able to create a single city of this quality on our own. The British did not build Surat or Ahmedabad, it is true, and these cities rose whole cloth from the Indian mercantile tradition. But they are quite provincial. Even if commercially independent of English language and colonial architecture, they’re actually giant villages. They have nothing of the metropolis about them. The cities we inherited from the British, it must be admitted, we have run into the ground. No city in India is Hong Kong.

Delhi and Kolkata look as if populated by a race different from the one that built the city. Like Rome overrun by Vandals or—to reach for a more popular allusion—like Planet of the Apes. The symmetry, the order, the Classical lines of Lutyens’ Delhi are the product of another civilization. These neighbourhoods are not designed for the people who now occupy them. Armed with its vaastu shastra and servant quarters, a second-rate civilization is spreading its slum over the creation of a civilized one. More:

P. Lal — 1929-2010

Purushottama Lal, poet and publisher of Calcutta, died on November 3rd, aged 81. In The Economist:

The books published by Purushottama Lal from his house in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata), from 1958 onwards were like no others in the world. Each slim volume of Writers Workshop poetry, fiction or drama—they tended to be slim—was bound in bright handloom cloth, and hand-stitched so tightly that it would open with a creak. The title pages and chapter-heads featured the swirling calligraphy of Professor Lal himself, done with a Sheaffer fountain pen. The type, at least until this century, was handset in a mosquito-infested shed by workers who did not know the language but could recognise the letters; and the galleys were printed on a flatbed treadle machine in the next-door garage of P.K. Aditya, who had kindly moved his car out for the purpose. In this form appeared the early works of Vikram Seth, Dilip Hiro and Anita Desai.

Professor Lal’s business was publishing Indian writers in English. Of the great old works he made masterly translations; new writers he encouraged. When he began, ten years after independence, the practice was controversial. Although English was one of India’s official languages, writers in it were often mocked as colonial remnants, “caged chaffinches and polyglot parrots”. He passionately disagreed. His love of English had begun in boyhood and was crowned with his long tenure at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, to which his landowning family had come from the Punjab. Mention an English poet—Donne, Swinburne, Keats—and “Profsky”, as all his friends called him, would launch into reciting. Give him a word, and he would burrow joyously into its etymology. He was determined to keep the best English writing alive and well in India. And that meant making space for new creative writers, too. More:

Sept. 13, 1833: Imported ice chills, thrills India

From Wired:

Nearly 100 tons of ice, cut in blocks from frozen New England lakes earlier in the year, arrives in Calcutta. The first shipment of ice imported to India soon fires up a market for cold drinks in a country unaccustomed to such a chilly luxury.

The transoceanic operation, undertaken by the Tudor Ice Co., began in early May 1833, when approximately 180 tons of freshwater ice was loaded into the insulated hold of the sailing ship Tuscany in Boston.

The historic four-month trip of the precious, perishable cargo was made possible by advances in ice harvesting and storage adopted and pioneered by Frederic Tudor, aka Boston’s “Ice King,” member of an influential Boston Brahmin family that had already built a lucrative business shipping Northeastern ice to the Caribbean and Europe.

Chief among the technological leaps was a horse-drawn metal ice plow invented by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth that allowed mass-production of the substance.

Previously, slabs of ice had been hand-harvested by workers, who used axes and saws to hack the frozen water from Northern lakes during winter months. The labor-intensive undertaking made ice a luxury item that only the wealthy could afford. More:

Also read: The Ice Trade Between America and India in the Mechanics Magazine, circa 1836

The Anglo-Indians: Fadeout for a culture that’s neither Indian nor British

Mian Ridge from Calcutta in The New York Times:

Entering the crumbling mansion of the Lawrence D’Souza Old Age Home here is a visit to a vanishing world.

Breakfast tea from a cup and saucer, Agatha Christie murder mysteries and Mills & Boon romances, a weekly visit from the hairdresser, who sets a dowager’s delicate hair in a 1940s-style wave. Sometimes, a tailor comes to make the old-style garments beloved by Anglo-Indian women of a certain age. Floral tea dresses, for example.

“On Sundays, we listen to jive, although we don’t dance much anymore,” Sybil Martyr, a 96-year-old retired schoolteacher, said with a crisp English accent.

“We’re museum pieces,” she said.

The definition has varied over time, but under the Indian Constitution the term Anglo-Indian means an Indian citizen whose paternal line can be traced to Europe. Both of Mrs. Martyr’s grandfathers were Scots.

Like most Anglo-Indian women of her generation, she has lived all her life in India and has never been to Britain. But she converses only in English. At school, she said, she learned a little Latin and French and enough “kitchen Bengali” to speak to servants. More:

Mumbai: Great city, terrible place

In his new book, A Place in the Shade (Penguin India), renowned architect Charles Correa explains why, despite bad infrastructure, Mumbai gets better and better as a city. Excerpt from the book in Mint Lounge:

Perhaps we are paying too much attention to the physical and economic aspects of a city—and not enough to its mythical and metaphysical attributes. For a city can be beautiful as a physical habitat—trees, uncrowded roads, open spaces—and yet fail to provide that particular, ineffable quality of urbanity which we call: CITY.

We all know examples of this. Bombay, of course, illustrates the very opposite. Everyday it gets worse and worse as physical environment and yet better and better as city. That is to say, everyday it offers more in the way of skills, activities, opportunities at every level, from squatter to college student to entrepreneur to artist. The vitality of the theatre (and the evergrowing audiences), the range and talent of newspapers and magazines—there are a hundred indications emphasizing that impact (implosion!) of energy and people which really is a double-edged sword— destroying Bombay as environment, while intensifying its quality as city. More:

Recalling an old school

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in The Telegraph:

A country’s future cannot but be bright if its citizens prize education so highly as to commit crime for its sake. But one wonders whether qualifications are not bound to be flawed if there’s a backdoor into school and college and a bribe overcomes the hurdle of examinations. No wonder Singapore derecognized Indian medical degrees.

Media reports about my old school prompt both thoughts. Yet — faint ray of light in the engulfing darkness — I know for certain of one recent instance of La Martiniere for Boys admitting only on merit a Bengali child without money or influence. This heartwarming news mitigated to some extent the shock I received 18 years ago when a respected private tutor told me she couldn’t coach my son — not even a teenager then — because she did not take pupils from schools for “moneybags”. Her objection was not ideological. Nor communal though she did identify “moneybags” in ethnic terms. Her point was that scholarship had to take a backseat in institutions so awash with money.

It was a shock because the school I remembered was anything but rich. Most pupils were poor Anglo-Indian boarders supported by the church or private foundations. No shame attached to being a foundationer. That was the purpose of Claude Martin’s philanthropy. The Armenian boys also received help: the school prayer extolled their benefactor, Paul Chater.

The scattering of full-blooded non-Christian fee-paying Indian day scholars who went to school by bus or tram were admitted under gentle government pressure. The art master was the only non-Christian Indian on the staff, and he was not invited to the last British principal’s farewell party. I could understand it when the owner of Park Street’s best restaurant, an old boy from before the Second World War when the school moved to Lucknow, told me he felt no attachment because “they didn’t really want us”. More:

The other passions of Satyajit Ray

Ashoke Nag in the Economic Times:

The world knows about Satyajit Ray as a movie auteur. But very few may be aware that the master, away from the shooting floors and closetted in his famous Bishop Lefroy Road (South Kolkata) study, was quite often immersed in quaint passions.

“Father was deeply interested in word games and quizzes and anagrams. He was also drawn to alliteration. These were a purely private preoccupation, known only to an inner circle of family members, especially my mother (Bijoya Ray) and myself. Of course, occasionally, his deep interest in things like word games and alliteration had entered his films. For instance, he incorporated a word game in the script of Arayner Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and alliteration in Charulata. Some of these elements, including IQ and personality games were also infused in some of his Feluda stories. But, largely, they hovered around his private life,” says son and film maker Sandip Ray.

Among word games that Satyajit Ray seriously loved and enjoyed playing were Accrossticks, memory games, Boggle, crosswords and Scrabble. He particularly enjoyed the Scrabble brand from UK’s Parker Brothers. He had also devised a game which was an improvisation of Scrabble. “While travelling for shoots, on trains or buses, father would also play some of these games,” says Sandip. In fact, when Ray travelled overseas, he would make it a point to drop by at stores like Games & Puzzles for word games, brain teasers and magnetic games. Games & Puzzles also published a journal which kept Ray updated about word games evolving worldwide. Ray, in fact, had a few favourite haunts in London. A must visit was the Foyles bookshop in London, while it was Winsor & Newton for art material, music from the HMV store and, time permitting, Selfridges for pens, refills and cartridges. “When he fell ill after his heart attack, he would always instruct me to drop by at these outlets every time I went to London,” says Sandip, who naturally obliged. More:

The Tagore women

Arunava Sinha in Mint-Lounge:

Women of the Tagore Household: Penguin, 640 pages, Rs499.

Some time in 19th century Kolkata, an almost historic confluence of minds took place. No, this wasn’t the beginning of the famed Bengal Renaissance, but of another revolution that was born, both literally and metaphorically, out of sight. That is the remarkable story that’s captured in Women of the Tagore Household, Chitra Deb’s now classic account of the lives of women in the inner sanctum of the Tagore household—translated in English by Smita Chowdhry and Sona Roy, academics both.

The first family of culture in Kolkata through much of the 19th and 20th centuries is, obviously, best known for its most famous son, Rabindranath Tagore. Fortunately, Deb is not blinded by his brilliance. With single-minded focus, she reels off story after story, anecdote after anecdote, milestone after milestone, to establish the incredible achievements of the women of the Tagore family.

It wasn’t just the daughters but also the daughters-in-law who flew the flag of freedom and rebellion. Telling tales that span more than a century and include both those who were born Tagores and those who married Tagores, Deb’s slice of family and social history—rendered into English with loving fidelity—lifts the veil on events and initiatives that can scarcely be believed in the context of the period. More:

10 of the best train hourneys

From The Guardian:

Siliguri to Darjeeling, India

This steam train used to haul ­overheated expats to the British hill station of Darjeeling, where they would sit out the summer blaze ­before returning to Calcutta. The line is now a World Heritage Site and the stations along the way have been restored to vintage quaintness.

Click on the image for more

O Calcutta!

The fire at Stephen Court was a reminder of how little of the city’s abundant past is left. But walk around the ‘Brit bit’ of the city, Park Street, Free School Street, Sudder Street, New Market, and you also get a sense of why Calcutta is a city of second chances. Mihir S Sharma in The Indian Express:

The waiter looks shocked for only a moment. “Of course, Flurys couldn’t stay shut,” he explains, his gravely courteous manner returning. The old tea-room has been forced into temporary quarters at the Park Hotel, where it perches uncomfortably like an elderly lady forced to move in with a brash nephew. Cramped for space, he begins to turn away to return to the bustling cash register, but looks back to say, his eyes crinkling above high, Anglo-Indian cheekbones: “Holy Week, after all. The people gotta have their hot cross buns, man.” And, sure enough, a group of schoolchildren is standing at the counter sampling the sweet, slightly spicy rolls eaten during the week leading up to Good Friday.

When 100-year-old Stephen Court on Park Street burst into flames last week, more than just Flurys’ routine was disrupted. The dozens of fatalities reminded Indians that complacency and neglect has turned heritage buildings into deathtraps; but, for Calcuttans, it triggered a moment of near-panic. The sight of a devastating fire in the very heart of its faded glory, Park Street, focused attention on what little of its abundant past is left. The gawkers staring at the charred remnants of the building’s top floors kept on looking around too, at Stephen Court’s graceful sisters, as if seeing them for the first time in years. More:

In Calcutta, there is more for money to buy, less to enjoy as a right

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in The Telegraph:

We were entranced by the legend of the shining brass pole. It was supposed to run top to bottom in the Fire Brigade headquarters so that when the alarm sounded, athletic young firemen saved precious minutes by sliding down its polished surface to leap into waiting tenders — damkal — and rush clanging to the rescue.

Other traffic stopped immediately. Children rushed to see the exciting spectacle of red vehicles with standing men holding on to a horizontal rail, one of them clanging away at the gleaming brass bell. One reason for fantasizing about the service was a man whom we knew only as “Fire Brigade Das Gupta”. He had been in England with an uncle, and living nearby, often gave us a lift to school. I didn’t know his position but his crisp khaki, polished leather and bright brass made him the most smartly kitted out man in our world. I imagined the entire crew to be equally lean and trim, and as nattily turned out, all sliding down that unseen but smooth and shining brass pole.

I had seen them in action. Visiting from Lucknow during the great famine, we were guests in a flat in Entally when the meter box caught fire. The engines were there even as we rushed out under the licking flames. Why do meter boxes of tatty wood and grimy net with festoons of wire and cobweb have to be next to the front door? That’s still the usual place in most middle-class apartment blocks. More:

The falling man

Twenty-four people died in a fire in Kolkata’s landmark building Stephens Court. Nineteen are missing. From The Telegraph:

Burnt, scarred and no stranger to adversity, the city of tinderboxes had seen bigger blazes. Just another fire, it looked initially, with the attendant commotion, people running helter-skelter.

Then, Park Street froze.

Something — no, someone — is tumbling out of one of the high windows. A human body, possibly alive but crashing like deadweight.

A shriek explodes like a siren, then drowns in a chorus of horror-struck voices.

The man hits the ledges on his way down, once, twice, before hitting the ground.

The descent takes only a few seconds, beginning and ending with the abruptness of a whiplash.

Once the shock ebbs, another image bobs up — one we caught on the cold glare of the television screen on September 11, 2001. More:

Also in The Telegraph:

Original Letters From India by Eliza Fay

From The New York Times:

She was only 23, the half-educated wife of an Irish barrister, when the newlyweds set off in 1779 on a rough-and-tumble journey across Europe and the Middle East to Bengal. There, he quickly ran up debts and fathered an illegitimate child. Leaving the scoundrel, she returned to England in 1782 and supported herself by importing muslin and other goods that required her to voyage three more times to India, and once to America. Alas, no more successful at business than at marriage, she almost vanished from history. Little is known about her last 20 years except that she died penniless and intestate in Calcutta. More:

A way in the world

In The National, a review of A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee:

The novel begins with a cremation. Ritwik, whose name means “priest who officiates at a fire sacrifice”, stands at the mouth of a furnace in a Calcutta crematorium, stripped naked to the waist, clutching a bundle of burning twigs. His mother’s body lies before him. When Ritwik’s father died, just 11 days before his mother, he had refused to perform the last rites Hinduism assigns to eldest sons. (“Endless abracadabra by the phoney priest, pour this on fire, pour that on fire,” he objected.) But he won’t take chances with his mother’s soul. He circles her body seven times, each time singeing her forehead with the twigs. Later, he sets a bowl containing her navel (or, he thinks, “whatever lump of rock or charcoal” the crematorium tout had thought sufficient) afloat on the “stagnant and stench-bound” Ganges.

Ritwik’s concession to ritual is especially self-effacing given the revelation, later in the book, that his mother once broke his ribs. She bruised him repeatedly throughout his childhood, misdirecting her rage at their choiceless coexistence in a cramped flat with a dysfunctional extended family. Her death frees him from having to assume his father’s role as sole provider for his family; the news of her cerebral stroke “burnt out a clearing in his head”, and through that clearing he flees to Oxford on scholarship, to read English literature. More:

Birds of a feather

Gopalkrishna Gandhi in Hindustan Times. Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009.

My wife Tara is the birds-person in our family. I know next to nothing about the feathered kind. But about a couple of months before we left Kolkata after our five years’ stay in its leafy Raj Bhavan, I made friends with two mynahs.

Or rather, two mynahs flew into my life.

A verandah has edged the governor’s apartment overlooking the mansion’s spectacular south-western garden for as long as the building has stood, some 206 years. This verandah has been enclosed with a tight meshing in an ingenious design to keep the estate’s prolific pigeons out. No pigeon, or any other bird for that matter, could violate the governor’s privacy — nor anoint his person with the siftings of avian blessing.

But Tara and I longed for an unobstructed view of the garden and the trees around it. So we had the ‘cage’ opened through a series of windows. The delectably airy stretch on the first floor, a screen of blue sky and green earth, now became the site for our morning coffee, biscuits and newspapers.

One morning as I was taking in the bitter berry draught and breaking my biscuit in half to dip into the brew, a mynah darted in and stood on the window’s ledge directly in front of me, no more than two feet away. Bobbing his head, going ‘keek-keek-keek’, he made his interest clear. But would he acknowledge it? No way. He cocked his head sideways, upways, every conceivable way, as if looking for something he might have inadvertently left in this public space where his entitlements were no less than mine. More:

A passage in Kolkata

Kolkata’s Park Street is the most iconic road in India. Jaideep Mazumdar in Open:

It is a road like no other. Its origins as ‘Road to Old Burial Grounds’, nearly 250 years ago, were ignoble indeed. Haunted by ‘thugs and rascals’ and used mainly by hearses and carriages carrying the bereaved, this road in Calcutta metamorphosed by the turn of the last century into South Asia’s prime ‘good life’ destination, before hitting turbulence in the late 1960s. Now, it is a ‘sarani’ (lane). Steeped in memories, Park Street’s plebeian present haunts it, and is something the street and its stakeholders desperately want to shake off. Few other streets in the world have perhaps changed character so dramatically over two-and-a-half centuries as Park Street-turned-Mother Teresa Sarani has. Neon signs are still aglow and an empty table would be scarce at all the 25-odd restaurants and pubs there on any evening, but Park Street is no longer the destination it was. It’s just a thoroughfare. Though, to be fair, one that still manages to entice, even if not as forcefully as it used to.

It is a road like no other: it is a corridor that connects British-era Calcutta—with its grand colonial structures—with the more recent and rundown Kolkata. Driving down Park Street from west to east is like witnessing the city’s transition from its magnificent past to its proletarian present: the glittering shop fronts in the grand old mansions slowly give way to smaller establishments in decrepit structures. The fine restaurants make way for pavement food stalls and biryani outlets and, ultimately, the road reaches Park Circus area in which are nestled unsightly slums. More:

Looking backward

The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata. Image: Oberoi Hotels

The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata. Image: Oberoi Hotels

The works of the immensely popular Bengali author Sankar are finally starting to be translated into English. Neel Mukherjee reads his 1962 novel of day-to-day life in a storied Calcutta hotel. In the National: ["Chowringhee" by Sankar]

Few writers anywhere become a household name in their lifetimes to the extent Sankar (real name: Mani Shankar Mukherjee) has done in his native Bengal. The term “household name” is used advisedly: it would be difficult to find an educated family in Bengal that does not possess at least one of the 77-year-old author’s 70-plus books, which include 37 novels, five travelogues, children’s stories, essay collections, devotional works, even two books on Bengali food and gastronomy. Two of his novels Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (literally “A Forest of People”, translated as The Middleman) were made into acclaimed films by Satyajit Ray in the 1970s. Chowringhee, arguably his most popular book, published in Bengali in 1962, was his first to be translated into English, in 2007; this year it is available from British publishers for the first time.

Any reckoning with the novel should begin with its first-person narrator, “Shankar”. (In the Bengali original, the author and narrator’s names are spelt identically, allowing for play in the degrees of congruence between the two. The English translation attempts to preserve that somewhat by using variant spellings of what is effectively the same name.) Chowringhee opens with Shankar set adrift by the death of his boss, an unnamed English lawyer, to whom the narrator was clerk. He is rescued from penury by Byron, an Anglo-Indian private investigator, who finds him a job at the Shahjahan, one of Calcutta’s biggest, oldest and most renowned hotels. There Shankar becomes a staff member and an observer of the life that passes daily through (and behind) its doors. More:

India’s Scottish heritage remembered

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

From the Telegraph, London:

Now, keen to underline its independence from London in foreign affairs, Scotland’s new nationalist government plans to reclaim that forgotten heritage in Calcutta, the capital of British India.

Its first target will be helping to restore the rubble-covered grand staircases and peeling walls of once-magnificent buildings like Duff College, named after Alexander Duff, a Scots missionary and pioneering educationalist who arrived in Calcutta in 1830 after being shipwrecked twice en route. But Holyrood also hopes to remind Indians of the role that Scots played in educating and inspiring some of the sub-continent’s leading independence campaigners.

Many of Calcutta’s most illustrious sons, including Subhas Chandra Bose, the controversial independence movement leader, were educated in Scottish colleges in Calcutta. A Scottish official in the Bengal Civil Service, Allan Octavian Hume, later founded the Indian National Congress which led the country to independence in 1947. More:

Why they love to hate Mother Teresa

Brendan O’Neill at Spiked:

mother_teresa1Hating Mother Teresa has become a de rigueur dinner-party prejudice. As the Vatican speeds up its canonisation of Teresa, having already beatified her in 2003, feminists, atheists and liberal commentators are engaging in games of Teresa-denouncing one-upmanship, to see who can slate her in the shrillest, most outrageous terms. She was a ‘charlatan’ and a ‘master of her own mythology’, said Ian O’Doherty in the Irish Independent last week. No, she was a ‘wicked fundamentalist’, said a feminist contributor to a BBC TV debate last weekend. In fact she was a ‘disgusting fraud and a hypocrite’, says a columnist for the UK Independent, and ‘if there is a hell, Mother Teresa is already there’.

Much of this Teresa-baiting springs from the work of arch atheist Christopher Hitchens. In his 1995 book The Missionary Position, Hitchens described Mother Teresa as a ‘religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermoniser and an accomplice of worldly secular powers’. He exposed her backward beliefs on poverty – it is ‘beautiful’, she said, and the poor should embrace it – and her shoulder-rubbing with dictators and other dodgy individuals. She should never have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Hitchens said, or granted audiences with US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, because she is little more than an ‘untouchable in the mental universe of the mediocre and the credulous’.

Of course, much of the criticism is justified. I am an atheist who has no truck with Mother Teresa and her kind. More:

Calcutta’s Scottish cemetery a scene of desolation


Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent, in the Independent:

As the British Empire expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of its most prominent pioneers were Scots, whether as traders, soldiers, missionaries or administrators. They left their mark in multifarious ways, among them the monuments to their dead.

Although many imperial cemeteries were unified, with Britons of all countries and religious persuasions buried side by side, in some of the larger cities there were separate burial grounds. One such place was Calcutta, where hundreds of gravestones in the Scottish cemetery decay gently amid the tropical vegetation.

“It is an extraordinary record of the lives of generations of Scots, a part of Scotland’s heritage overseas and surely a site for which present-day Scotland should feel some responsibility”, said Thomas Addyman, an Edinburgh-based archaeological consultant who has initiated a survey of the Calcutta cemetery, “but it is a scene of desolation. Monuments are in every stage of decay and collapse, burst apart by roots or swamped by strangling undergrowth.”

Mr Addyman’s survey, under the auspices of the Calcutta Scottish Heritage Trust, has begun to assess the potential and the problems of the six-acre site, which lies in a densely-packed mixed Muslim and Christian neighbourhood. More:

Singing and dancing with the Bauls of Bengal

Subversive and seductive, the wandering minstrels of Bengal have plied their devotional music for 500 years. William Dalrymple in the Guardian:

Each year, in mid-January, several thousand saffron-clad wandering minstrels or Bauls – the word means simply “mad” or “possessed” in Bengali – begin to gather in the flat flood plains 100 miles to the north of Calcutta. It is the biggest gathering of tantric musicians in the world. As they have done on this site for 500 years, the Bauls wander the huge campsite, greeting old friends, and smoking copious quantities of ganja. Then, as the night draws in, they gather around their fires, and begin the singing and dancing that will carry on until dawn.

Throughout their 500-year history, the Bauls of Bengal have refused to conform to the conventions of caste-conscious Bengali society. Subversive and seductive, wild and abandoned, they have preserved a series of esoteric spiritual teachings on breath, sex, asceticism, philosophy and mystical devotion. They have also amassed a treasury of beautifully melancholic and often enigmatic teaching songs which help map out their mystic path to inner vision.

On 25 September, there will be a very rare chance to hear some of the most unforgettable of these wandering philosopher-musicians in London, at the Nine Lives concert at the Barbican, which will bring together four different varieties of South Asian devotional music: as well as the Bauls of Bengal, the concert will showcase Theyyam dancers from Kerala, Thevaram singers led by London-born Susheela Raman and the Shah Jo Raag Sufi Fakirs from Bhit Shah in Sindh. More:

Yesterday once more at Trincas

In its 50th year, Mint-Lounge revisits this Kolkata institution with Usha Uthup, who found flame here:

There are Park Street old-timers who maintain that Trincas existed as an unassuming corner deli before the 50 years that the restaurant is currently commemorating. But all agree that it is only in these five decades that Trincas-under the stewardship of two friends, Ellis Joshua and Om Prakash Puri (the Puris continue to run it)-became the original home of live pop music in India, only to fall from grace when the Naxalite movement, the exodus of corporate houses and the Anglo-Indian community from the city, a higher entertainment tax regime and changing cultural morality teamed up to dent its fortunes. “But we never stopped having live music here,” says Shashi Puri who, along with her husband Deepak and son Anand, runs Trincas these days. “Not even for a single day over all these years,” she reiterates.

“Molly was a black beauty from the Middle-East”, J.L. Wadehra, the 69-year-old general manager of Trincas, muses. “And when she sang, there used to be a queue outside the restaurant.” Since 1961, when Molly became Trincas’ first pop performer and its first star, the restaurant has seen a long list of bands and performers stopping by-somebody such as Biddu Appaiah, before he and Carl Douglas became famous with the international smash hit Kung Fu Fighting and much before Disco Deewane and Made In Indiahappened, even taking a cut on his professional fee to perform seven-eight months at Trincas, according to Wadehra. “Some years back, he came back with a troupe from the UK to film at Trincas, where he had started his career with the band Trojans and later as the Lone Trojan,” recalls Wadehra. More:

Filming the real Slumdog Millionaire

Sourav Sarangi recently won eight international awards for his documentary film Bilal, which tells the story of a five-year-old boy who looks after his blind parents in a cramped hut in a poor district of Kolkata. The film-maker describes the journey he and the family have taken with the documentary (watch trailer below). From the Guardian:

I first met Bilal when he was only eight months old. His head was wrapped in bandages after an accident and he was lying on a cot next to my wife. His mother, who was blind, was clinging on to him. After attending to my wife, who had been hospitalised, I looked at the baby. He seemed to smile at me and seemed to nudge his mother as if, in a silent communion in a dark world, he was trying to tell her to talk to me. I was convinced about that. At that point in time, Bilal the film was born.

My friendship with the family grew. As I saw him grow up, what struck me about Bilal was his common sense. Even when he was three years old, the time when we launched the film, he was wise and that is the word I would like to use when describing this remarkable boy.

His Muslim father, Shamim, also blind, had married Jharna, a Hindu who changed her name to Humera Begum after the wedding. That in itself is quite unusual among the poorer communities in India – a Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man and then changing her religion.

Shamim himself is quite a man. He runs a portable phone call centre and, before this film was made, he used to carry a telephone to one of the busiest traffic intersections in Kolkata and sit on the pavement with a table. He has a photographic memory. Even now, he can rattle off 10-digit telephone numbers I told him six months back simply from memory. I am still amazed by this man. More:

See also: http://www.bilal.in/

My name was red

Calcutta in 1977 when the Communists came to power (32 years later, they are still in power) and Kolkata now. Shamik Bag, a U2-loving, bourgeois Kolkatan, born the same year Jyoti Basu was elected chief minister at the head of a Left Front government, looks back at the confusing, decadent years. From Mint-Lounge:

jyotibasuFive years after a stretch of it was renamed, Kolkata’s Park Street is yet to get used to being Mother Teresa Sarani. It’s early into Saturday evening and Park Street is playing true to form: Ladies in miniskirts, long-haired musicians, encyclopaedia sellers, drug pushers, well-fed happy families hand-held by paan-chewing patriarchs, pimps and prostitutes-all ready to mingle seamlessly into the night of food, alcohol, dance, music, money, sex. Park Street doesn’t seem to be in any urgent need of missionary charity yet.

As we turn the corner into Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, the Park Street cool metamorphoses-volubly and visibly-into chaos. Vehicles piled up behind a tram car that has stopped dead in its wrecked, wretched track; crowds on the road while hawkers rule the pavements, honking, shouting, screaming, jostling-urban paralysis. Luke Kenny, well known as a video jockey till he became better known with Rock On!!, is sitting next to me, I’m at the wheel, there’s Steely Dan playing and air conditioning too-comforts carried over from Park Street. Kenny is back in the city of his birth-we had got together incidentally-and sitting immobile amid the anarchy of the street, he opportunely lets one slip in: “You think the Communists have been good for Calcutta?” More: