The Calcutta essay

(This was written for Seminar’s Calcutta issue.)

It was when we heard about Argha the mali selling the books that we finally accepted the house in Calcutta was dying. The house was of a type once common in Calcutta, now increasingly rare, the few specimens left either already crumbling, already neglected, or looking strangely out of place, forlorn bungalows dwarfed and flanked by multistoried buildings.

But when we grew up, it was the apartment buildings that were rare, especially in South Calcutta. There, most of the families we knew lived in houses like the one on Rowland Road: gracious, sprawling, one-or-two-storeyed bungalows in red or white or cream brick, the louvred window shutters painted in green or blue.

No one in our tiny corner of Calcutta would ever be crass enough to discuss family money, but it was easy to see who had it and who didn’t. The ones who still had trust funds and deposits and prosperous folders of share certificates had their houses painted every year, the silver polished every week, the red or black stone floors swept and swabbed to a high gloss, the Irish linen or Bengal Home tablecloths washed, starched and returned in pristine condition by the family dhobi. For burra khanas, the plate and china would come out from pantries, the chandeliers or the candelabra would be dusted, the old portraits would receive another coat of varnish, the latticeworked iron door and window grills repainted–even the gravel on the driveway would be shampooed.

The ones who had long since lost their trust funds still kept up appearances: it was considered polite to carefully not notice or comment on the peeling paint on the walls, the widening cracks from roof to floor, the dust on those impractical, beautiful shutters, the dirt darkening the brocade curtains that fell from ceiling, the frayed uniform of Abdul Bearer who was also now khansama and cook and masalchi and mali rolled into one, the diminishing of the silver plate in the grim old wooden cabinets as creamers and gravy boats and salvers were sold off one by one.

Back in the 1970s, the house in Calcutta was the only fixed point for us, the children of this generation. My father was a government servant; two of my uncles were in the air force; all of us cousins were used to shifting from one government colony to another, one air force base to another, one city to another. For my mother, her sisters and her brother and their assorted offspring, the red-bricked bungalow in Calcutta with the green-shuttered windows and the vast garden at the back was an unassailable point of stillness and rest in lives where everything else was in a constant state of flux.

We were just the children; we weren’t supposed to know about the ups and downs of family fortunes, about the generational migration out of Calcutta, about those perennial villains of the piece, Taxes and Rates. The odd bits of gossip that came our way as the first signs of a dying state economy and the waning fortunes of a thousand apparently unassailable families took their toll on those gracious, rapidly emptying, increasingly silent houses were interpreted in our particular fashion. When we heard that the M~s family home was a perfect white elephant, we wanted to see the elephant in question: it seemed perfectly in character for a house that had hosted goats, cows and a mongoose in the past to turn now to elephant-keeping.

One by one, all those white elephants vanished, along with the wind-up gramophone players on which the strains of the Andrews sisters or Harry Lauder or Ustad Allaudin Khan or Hemanta could be heard. It was on a sweltering day in June that, walking down a road whose old-fashioned cobblestoned pavements I’d known all my life, I noticed the gap between two houses. The bungalow that used to stand in that space had seemed to be every bit as permanent as all our homes. I had played on its long, cool verandahs every year of my childhood, raided the book cupboards fitted under the stairs, had afternoon tea in the informal drawing room and dinner in the formal drawing room. The wrought-iron grills that had decorated the front porch lay like uprooted teeth in a dentist’s office; the foundation stone was all that was left, and a long, snaking line of workers, sweating in that merciless heat, would soon remove that, too. The houses on either side looked exposed, vulnerable; for the first time I saw the cracks running up the façade of one, the banyan tree roots that had taken firm possession of the wall of the other, the dark patches of damp and rot like sweat stains that pockmarked both.

I must have been 12 or 13, and for the first time, it occurred to me that the uncertainties of life in Delhi or Bombay or Bhuj, where your house was a shifting point on a grid that expanded or contracted almost arbitrarily, might have infected the changeless, sealed world of Calcutta.

Decay was not frightening, or alien; we had all grown up knowing houses that had rotted from the inside out or outside in, we had seen the linen and the hangings fray at the edges just as the lives of the inhabitants unraveled, thread by thread. Pianos lost their keys, houses lost their music when there was no longer someone to place a hurricane lantern, the flame turned low, inside the Steinway to keep the strings warm in winter, dry in the monsoons. As the next generation left the city–the skeletal, graceful arc of the Howrah Bridge always behind us, never ahead–in search of better jobs, brighter opportunities, first one bedroom and then another, one wing and then an entire floor, were locked up or leased out. But the houses that I knew dwindled into shabbiness or revived temporarily under a new coat of paint, responding like terminal patients to all-too-brief injections of prosperity: they rarely disappeared.

Over the next few years, as the landscape of the Calcutta I knew and had grown up with transformed, what made the new order particularly cruel was the pace of change. The construction crews in Delhi and Bombay worked with swift, brutal precision: old houses went under the hammer, new apartment buildings came up, a neighbourhood could be built, eradicated or reconstructed in the space of months. The lassitude and lethargy of Calcutta drew out the breaking down of one of those ancient bungalows with their strong foundations and their stone pillars to impossible lengths. The new buildings came up over a space of several seasons, not overnight. The slow, crawling pace at which these transitions happened gave everyone time they didn’t want and space they didn’t need in which they might assimilate what had happened to houses that had been occupied by three, four, five generations before facing the wrecking ball.

We watched the houses on Rowland Road go, one after another. The new buildings towered over the few bungalows left; no garden had a hedge or a wall high enough to ward off the gazes of curious new tenants on the fourth or fifth floor. And the number of apartments that could be crammed into spaces which a previous generation had considered insufficient for a large family made any form of protest unseemly. Bungalows and mansions in a city as teeming with people as Calcutta were a luxury; just by living in them you were automatically stamped an enemy of the people.

What the houses appeared to stand for was wealth, power, security, a kind of selfishness; the real histories of these houses could be harder to read. It could lie in the dark smudge on the ochre outside wall where a plaque had hung carrying the name of a Muslim doctor whose family had to leave their homes, their possessions and their identities behind during the Partition riots. It could lie in the monetarily worthless sketch of a typical rural Bengal scene that had been done by a great-grandfather who kept this over his desk so that he might never forget, in the rushing tides of the city, the village that he had come from. It could rest silently on the bookshelves, as our family’s history did to some extent.

These were floor-to-ceiling bookracks; to pull a book down from the highest shelves, you needed either a ladder or the custom-built cane like an inverted walking stick whose comma-shaped end hooked tidily around the tome you wanted. There were books that even the most intrepid grandchildren had never attempted to read, because they were written in languages that were inaccessible to us: Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic and Farsi, the languages a great-grandfather had learned, loved and cherished all his life. There were the legal books my grandfather, a lawyer and a judge, had amassed. These, too, we avoided. And there were the rest, the usual mishmash of volumes of Punch and The Decline and Fall jumbled in with ancient travelogues, Georgette Heyers and Gothic novels, encyclopaedias and dictionaries of every stamp, the obligatory sets of Tagore, Sharatchandra and other contemporary Bengali authors, and cookbooks that went from Bengali cuisine to Escoffier, Miss Beaton and Flora Annie Steele.

No one knew exactly when Argha had started pilfering the books, but by the time we found out, the library had been sadly diminished. Only the front rows remained, and even there, he had skillfully spread out books to hide the gaps. If all of us had been living in Calcutta, he would have found the theft impossible; his raids were testimony to the emptying out of the house, the migration of families. In typically Bengali fashion, it wasn’t the theft that hit us hard—it was the fact that Argha Mali had sold the books to kabariwallahs, not to bookshops or book dealers. To lose our books to other readers, even if they were non-familial readers, was a bearable loss; to have those books converted into packing material or paper bags seemed untenable. Or so we said, and it was much easier anyway to mourn books than it was to mourn the passing of a house, or a way of life, or an era.

In Calcutta, we took the presence of books for granted: every one of my friends, whether they lived in immaculate bungalows or crumbling cubbyholes, seemed to furnish their homes in paperback and hardback. Bookcases and libraries were part of the furniture, so much so that it never occurred to me to ask why we read the books, whether everyone who owned those books actually read them at all, and why we read the particular books we did. It was only when I came back to Delhi after my school years in Calcutta were over that I began to wonder whether those venerable, mahogany bookcases hadn’t become the enlightened intellectual’s equivalent of the small gods in the puja rooms that seemed ubiquitous in the capital’s homes.

And my reaction to some of Delhi’s houses was that of a true believer confronted with evidence of appalling apostasy. There were houses that had everything from Italian marble to Belgian crystal, French furniture and Kerala sculpture, but lacked two things: books and music. There were respectable, prim middle-class homes done up in imitation Ikea that boasted the wide-screen TV set, where books had never crossed the threshold and were not missed. It didn’t matter where these houses were located in Delhi’s complex social hierarchy: they all seemed faintly obscene to my censorious eyes, those living rooms rendered stark and unpleasantly naked by the absence of bookcases, of rows of 78 rpm records or carefully hand-recorded cassettes.

What I was looking for seemed to be elusive in both of the cities that belonged to me, that I had claimed as my own. Calcutta enshrined its books all too often; as Amitav Ghosh noted in a memorable essay, the key to the unusual range of books on his grandfather’s bookshelf was to be located in the list of Nobel literature laureates, and the worth of those books was often measured in their inaccessibility to those who might want to actually read them. And Delhi did without books, reaching instead for a vibrant, living culture whose underpinnings I wasn’t equipped to even see, let alone judge.

It was a stray visit to Sham Lal’s house, as a very junior cog in the wheel at a tremendously respected literary magazine, that helped me find my moorings. Stacks of new books, some still in their wrappers, waited to be read. His bookcases in the drawing room appeared to be constructed out of literature, the books so thickly layered that they took on the roles of dividers, book-ends and bricks rolled into one. The rooms breathed in a way I hadn’t seen very often in either Calcutta or Delhi; the silent compact they made with their owner was that they were there not to be displayed but to be read. Their pages would not stick together because the books were there to be riffled through; they would not fall prey to silverfish because they would be taken out of those shelves, read, and put away again. They would be dusted not as a domestic chore, but because any of these volumes might be needed for reference or pleasure at any given moment in time. The books would be lent out, discussed, argued over, read with pleasure and attention: they would not be allowed to die.

Delhi’s bookcases began opening up to me at the same time as I developed an obsession with charting the death of Calcutta’s libraries. The readers I met in Delhi had tastes that were far wider than my own; they travelled a lot more, they were generous with their opinions, their books and their bibliographies. The conversations I began to have about books and reading and authors, in this city of ancient monuments and aggressively modern malls, took up where the conversations in Calcutta had ceased.

Part II

In my thirties, long after the house on Rowland Road had been demolished to make way for a block of flats, I have developed a habit as unbreakable and annoying as a nervous tic. For my generation, visits to Calcutta are almost ceremonial—the three-month vacations of our childhood days are just memories, it’s hard enough to snatch a week or a fortnight out of our impossibly crowded schedules. Scattered across different cities and continents, we make the pilgrimage back not for the house or the city any more, but for my grandmother, a woman who makes the eighties seem like an ebullient, enviable age to be. She lives in an apartment built in the block of flats, where the old house used to stand; it’s the same place, the same space, but we are now four floors up, and the view has changed. From her bedroom you could see the red-brick house that was twin to our own, now almost the last of its kind left on Rowland Road. It looks so small, so vulnerable, so exposed to the gaze of its neighbours in their five-and-eight storyed towering blocks of flats; like the head of a balding man, you can see the crowns of the trees, the bare patches of pink cement on the roof.

Now, when I’m in Calcutta, there are always two places I visit: the second-hand booksellers on College Street and Free School Street, and the auction houses on Russell Street. I go back to these places the way some of my contemporaries in Delhi subscribe to The Statesman: what we’re looking for is the obituaries.

My family’s books died messily. My grandfather’s legal library fared the best, perhaps—his books were distributed among other lawyers and friends in the legal profession, at a time when it seemed that none of his children would follow him into the courtroom. No one had anticipated that my mother would earn her LLB at the age of 39; for years afterwards, she would open dusty volumes on the intricacies of constitutional law or the law of torts in some lawyer’s office and be surprised by her father’s seal and stamp on the frontispiece. Some of the children’s books were donated to school libraries years before Argha did his raiding. Though my niece and nephew will never see them, it gives me pleasure to think that other children might read them, and greater pleasure to know that The Little Engine That Could and Tuntuni were not transmuted into paper bags, after all.

As for the rest of the books, the ones that survived the monsoons, the silverfish and Argha’s depredations had a harder time outliving the death of the house. My sister, my aunt, my mother and I salvaged a few volumes here and there, just before the symmetry of those open verandahs and those cool inner rooms was shattered by the wrecking crews. The rest of the books were packed carefully into custom-designed crates, dusted with borax and strewn with neem leaves, layered like coddled babies in plastic; despite those precautions, they didn’t survive. Histories, geographies, collections of books on Burma and the Indo-Japan war, the collection of biographies and letters put together by one of my ancestors, the first editions, the clothbound classics of Bengali literature decorated with unusually fine calligraphy, huge tomes on painting and architecture—I never read them then, I will never read them now.

In the large echoing spaces of the auction houses, I find families who share something–a look of disbelief, a sense of awkward comedy: can this really be us, selling off Dadua’s charcoal drawings and Didibhai’s collection of china cats and shepherdesses at a pathetic Rs 1,200 or Rs 800 to the highest bidder? There are soup cups decorated with mushrooms and hand-painted leeks; Murshidabad brass; a rash of Jamini Roys, real and fake; glass, cut-glass, blown glass; dessicated ships in dusty bottles; black-lacquered hurricane lanterns; chandeliers too large for most contemporary ceilings; ancient box cameras and pinwheel cameras that still, miraculously, work; mahogany sideboards and politically incorrect elephant’s-foot umbrella stands. The whispered histories of these items are obliterated in the auctioneer’s crisp prose: Lot no 12, assorted glassware and a picnic basket, Lot no 15, a dancing Nataraja, two Tagore sketches (provenance unavailable), a lady’s sewing basket and three scrapbooks. Sometimes there are books, though not often; often, however, there are pianos and harmoniums, their silent ivory keys deepened to golden-yellow with age, and sheet music, brought in by the sackful, sold by the sackful.

For the books you must go elsewhere. Standing at the second-hand booksellers on a winter afternoon, I watch as a family brings in the books that haven’t been donated or distributed. The mother is calm, matter-of-fact; she haggles over the final price in the same way that she haggles over vegetables and packets of camphor at the Park Circus market. An elderly gentleman—father, uncle, cousin, who knows?—cannot tear himself away; he returns to each pile, nervously sorting through them, separating the cookbooks from the travelogues, trying to alphabetize each small stack. The booksellers watch him wryly. As soon as he leaves, the books will be reorganized, not by genre and author so much as by condition, the rainspotted ones with fragile, crumbling pages tossed aside regardless of content, the ones with pristine bindings and clean pages, which were usually the ones least loved and read in their lifetime, taken to the top of the heap. But they allow him this last, fumbling farewell.

The weeks blend into months and years, and I begin to see a pattern. It seems to me that every family selling its books contains at least one collector, one eccentric, one person whose passions were allowed to dominate a small corner of the family library. Butterflies and roses, the art of soap-making and steam engines, histories of the Raj and biographies of Indian women pioneers, treatises on lovemaking or flower arrangements, miniature paintings or modern art: every human passion seems to find a final destination here, on these pavements, to be weighed, assessed and priced. One family brings in a collection of books devoted only to the Himalayas; one family brings in a library of long-forgotten hunting, shikar and wildlife tomes. They hover, they haggle, they smooth pages absently; the booksellers will perform the last rites, the truly final ones, only after they leave, in much the same way that attendants at a crematorium begin their true work only after the mourners leave.

I want to tell them what I know: that you cannot bring the house or the people you have loved back once they’re gone, that every childhood must end, and that no carefully preserved collection of dolls or child’s cooking utensils or books will return you to that time.

I want to tell them about the Great Eastern Hotel. A friend, a writer whose next book is set around that legendary establishment, browsed its archives and came back with photographs. Papers and diaries, letters and telegrams, dance cards and handwritten place settings line the corridors; you have to walk over the yellowing, blackening pages of history in order to locate the little that’s left. Paper mildews and tears; books rot or, as with many of the manuscripts in Calcutta’s National Library, desiccate until nothing is left, until a page will literally crumble at a touch. In some corridors of Calcutta’s libraries, the private and the public ones, so many books have dried out that to browse the stacks is to set off small explosions of dust: you don’t read the words, you inhale them.

But I stay silent. We saved the strangest things from our house. A winding, wrought-iron staircase, unmoored without anything to hold up, followed one member of our family reproachfully from one rented house to another. Somewhere, on a cassette played so often that the tape is now unspooling, is a recording of one of the last times my grandmother and my uncle played the piano in the old house. The notes sound different in that large drawing room, as they move from Take Five to Rabindrasangeet to Don’t Fence Me In and the Lambeth Walk. We saved iron grilles from the windows, and huge glass Mason jars; and yes, we saved a few books.

I suppose everyone needs the small grace of hope. Everyone needs the rituals of dispossession as much as we need the rites of possession. We need to docket the china and give it away, to number the paintings and affix handwritten labels containing their history on the backs of the frame, we need to give the family books away to libraries, to friends. Even when you sell entire collections testifying to the curious passions of the past to a bookseller, what you hope is that something of these books, these passions, and the people who housed them for a time will endure.

As for me, I don’t know what I hope to find here, in the booksellers’ caverns that smell of dust and mould, in the auction houses that smell of despair and loss. I have turned my back on so many things: on the house I grew up in, on Howrah Bridge, on Calcutta. There is nothing to regret: all of us now have new homes, new cities, new friends, new books threatening to grow into new libraries. But somewhere in these two places, the auction house and the secondhand bookseller, in the histories of the people who come here with their possessions and leave with small but precious cheques, is something I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. It has no name, the thing that brings me back here, and no books have been written about it. I know that it is elusive, and I know that it is necessary, and that, for the moment, is enough.





4 responses to “The Calcutta essay”

  1. Sritanu Avatar

    brilliant !! … very very touching !! 🙂

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Beautiful and evocative. Transported me to my childhood. Keep writing and godbless.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    The write up was awesome!!Brought back many old memories,which had somewhat receded to the subconscious part of the mind in our humdrum existence.Keep up the good work.

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