Modern India’s first capital was also its most global
Sunanda K Datta-Ray | 04 Oct, 2018
WHEN A BRITISH INTELLIGENCE agent heard ‘a voice that was both plummy and oriental’ in Geoffrey (not Jeffrey) Archer’s thriller, The Burma Legacy, he at once thought of Calcutta. Plummy, meaning a fruity accent typical of the English upper classes, marked a sahib. The oriental inflection revealed the sahib was brown. The combination would have pleased Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and administrator who recommended in Calcutta the creation of a genre ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’.
The arts and sciences, religion and politics, sports and entertainment forged in the crucible of Bengali Calcutta enriched every aspect of Indian life. But the synthesis Macaulay spoke of uniquely shaped how Indians define modernity. Old comrades recall that Jyoti Basu, Marxist chief minister of West Bengal (1977-2000), educated in Calcutta by Loreto nuns and Jesuit priests and called to the Bar from London’s Middle Temple, epitome of the bhadralok or gentleman, took a month off from public speaking to brush up his Bengali when the communist leadership ordained speeches should only be in the mother tongue. Sir Michael Parsons, a boxwallah (another Calcutta phenomenon like bhadralok and Bania) who spent more than 30 years in the city, thought even some ‘well-educated’ local Punjabis sounded ‘almost more English’ than boys from England’s best public schools.
The lifestyle that evolved in Calcutta and spread throughout the country as the hallmark of success prompted the Duke of Bedford to note 20 years after India became independent to remark that ‘Living in an English way is more important in India today than it was in the times of the British Raj.’ Few Indians would admit this of course. Today’s politically dominant Hindu-Hindi triumphalism denies any debt to British rule. Younger Indians cannot believe that a city that lags behind Bombay in wealth and can’t compare with Delhi’s power once blazed a trail for both.
Calcutta—modern India’s first capital—is where it all happened. India’s first courts, colleges, newspapers, libraries and museums meant access to Western thought and literature with the Young Bengal pioneers ‘cutting their way through ham and beef and wading to liberalism through tumblers of beer’. The Bengal Renaissance (19th century to early 20th century), blending the best of Asia and Europe, was modern India’s mission civilisatrice. Education was its principal weapon. Schools with heraldic crests and distinctive ties harking back to Victorian England’s invention of tradition highlight the craze for education in English that still drives ambition. Even Narendra Modi, the robust Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister, abandons Hindi and turns to English for crucial speeches and key phrases.
For Lord Curzon, viceroy from 1899 to 1905, Calcutta was ‘in reality a European city set down upon Asiatic soil.’ A correspondent in The Englishman, a local newspaper nicknamed ‘John Bull of the East’, declared more bluntly, ‘Calcutta is a purely English city. The city belongs and has always belonged to the English, and the native community in it is simply a foreign and parasitical community which would cease to exist if the English were to abandon it.’ The English were always a tiny minority. There were only 3,138 of them in a population of 229,714 in 1827. They were birds of passage. A Scots jute mill manager’s percipient wife noted the absence of old folk because they went home as soon as they retired. Other Europeans called them Ditchers. ‘A Ditcher’s Diary’ was a popular column in the European- owned and edited weekly Capital.
‘The history of Colonial Calcutta dates from August 24, 1690,’ says P Thankappan Nair, the city’s dedicated chronicler. That was when the East India Company’s Job Charnock slipped anchor in the Hooghly. Nine years later he paid Rs 1,300 to the Savarna Raychaudhuri family of Barisha for zamindari rights over the three villages of Kalikatah, Sutanati and Govindpur. The town had a bad press from the beginning. Robert Clive thought Calcutta ‘the most wicked place in the universe’. Mark Twain complained after only two days that the climate was ‘enough to make the brass doorknob mushy’. Rudyard Kipling called it the ‘city of dreadful night’. The mythic horrors of ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’ of British imagination became the metaphor for the city until Saint Teresa, the Albanian-born Roman Catholic missionary, replaced it with an even more horrific image of death and disease.
There was compensation for braving this fearsome reputation. Kipling chanted:
Me the Sea-captain loved, the River built,
Wealth sought and Kings adventured life to hold.
Hail, England! I am Asia Power on silt,
Death in my hands, but Gold!
Although the profit motive created Calcutta, European officials playing at being gentlemen dismissed European businessmen as boxwallahs or itinerant pedlars. Even the Scot Sir David Yule, who headed the biggest British conglomerate, Andrew Yule and Company, market leaders in jute, tea and river shipping, couldn’t escape the taint of trade. The official sahibs didn’t think him good enough to meet King George V who visited Calcutta in December 1911. The king sent for him nevertheless and the two men got on so famously that their meeting, scheduled for 30 minutes, extended for an hour. Office lore had it, recalled Bhaskar Mitter, who became Andrew Yule’s chairman in 1968, that His Majesty was mightily impressed when crossing the jetty to a jute mill the thrifty Scotsman bent down and picked up a strand of the silvery fibre. His staff was warned not to waste the precious raw material. Indians were never similarly supercilious about boxwallahs. Sir David’s uncle and the company’s founder, George Yule, was invited to preside over the Indian National Congress in 1888, the first non-Indian in the chair. Trade was Calcutta’s lifeblood. Many of the grandest families descended from the Banias or agents of empire-builders like Charnock, Clive and Warren Hastings. They became formidable traders on their own account and rebutted the popular charge that Bengalis make poor businessmen. ‘If you see a pillared palace in north Calcutta,’ says Dr Somendra Chandra Nandy, scholarly heir to the princely Cossimbazar family’s thriving china clay business, ‘the chances are the founder was a salt trader!’ His own ancestor, Maharaja Krishna Kanta Nandy (known as Cantoo Baboo), Hastings’ Bania, began with buying the fruit of a jackfruit tree in 1742 when he was only 22. Trading in salt, silk and zamindari made him so rich that Edmund Burke thundered in the House of Commons in 1783 that Cantoo Baboo earned an annual £140,000 in rents alone. The highly cultured Tagores were also businessmen. The first prominent Tagore was a stevedore. His grandson was a moneylender. Dwarkanath, poet Rabindranath’s grandfather, styled ‘Prince’ by the British because of his lavish lifestyle, was into salt and shipping. The shipowner, Ramdulal Dey (1752- 1825), the first Calcutta merchant with overseas links, lent money to American traders. Money didn’t always buy taste but it enabled Banias to patronise the arts and indulge in philanthropy. Marble Palace, the most spectacular of the ‘pillared palaces’, built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur, is a neoclassical fantasy carved from 90 different kinds of marble from all over the world, crammed with statues and chandeliers, paintings, weapons, china, crystal, mirrors and clocks. The Mullicks were bullion merchants. Their family trust still feeds 500 poor people daily. Like the Savarna Raychaudhuris, Tagores, Cossimbazars and other grand families, the Mullicks also celebrate Durga Puja, the Mother Goddess’ brief return to her parental home, with great fanfare every October for all corners. Drawn by lucrative trading opportunities, the influx of Marwari businessmen from Rajasthan’s Marwar district spiralled by 400 per cent between 1890 and 1920. Two local grandees, Maharajadhiraja Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab of Burdwan and Nawab Sir Khwaja Salimullah Bahadur of Dacca, both GCIE, KCSI (imperial orders of knighthood for Indians), joked that Marwari was really ‘More-worry’. They probably meant the great 1917 scandal of adulterated ghee, a trade Marwaris monopolised. As frenzied rumours swept the city, tests showed that only seven out of 67 samples were pure cow’s milk ghee. One sample had only five per cent ghee, another not a drop. Much of the so-called ghee was untouchable fat that would horrify any self-respecting gau-rakshak. Pundits from Benares prescribed extravagant and elaborate purification ceremonies, and Lord Ronaldshay, Bengal’s governor, noted the ‘electrifying’ spectacle of nearly 5,000 Brahmins desperately cleansing themselves on the banks of the Hooghly. A reputation for cutting corners was compounded by the jute memsahib’s observation, ‘The Marwaris from Rajasthan never mixed with the Bengalis.’ DESPITE THEIR JEST, neither Bijay Chand nor Khwaja Salimullah was a Bengali. Dacca’s nawabs were Kashmiri Muslim businessmen, the first Mahtab of Burdwan was a 16th- century Punjabi Hindu trader. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, undivided Bengal’s last premier and briefly prime minister of Pakistan, wasn’t of Bengali origin either. He traced his name to the Iraqi city of Suhraward and his lineage to the Prophet Mohammed (like Queen Elizabeth, according to some genealogists) as he dreamt of an independent Bengal governed from Calcutta. He called it a city that had been ‘built up largely by the resources of foreigners, inhabited largely by people from other provinces who have no roots in the soil and who come here to earn their livelihood, designated in another context as exploitation’.
Some diehards are still waiting for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose of Indian National Army fame, killed in a plane crash in 1945, to rise from the dead and restore Bengal’s former glory
Suhrawardy was right about the cosmopolitanism. Europeans from diverse nations, Armenians and Chinese, Jews and Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Hindus and Muslims, people from all over India made Calcutta global before globalisation was even invented. It worshipped at many shrines. The never- ending bustle of Kalighat, temple to Kali, may have inspired the name, Kalikatah, but the Gothic majesty of St Paul’s Cathedral dominated the sprawling central park, the Maidan. The lofty minarets of Nakhoda Masjid, modelled on Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra, and the jewelled intricacy of the Parasnath Jain Temple co-existed with Jewish synagogues, Parsi agiaries and Sikh gurudwaras. Nirad C Chaudhuri, who himself preferred exile, thought ‘to live in Calcutta was to be reminded at every turn of the cultural history and achievements of modern India and to be aware of every significant activity of the present’. For Geoffrey Moorhouse, a British journalist who wrote a sympathetic book on the city, ‘the story of Calcutta is the story of India and the story of the so-called Third World in miniature’.
Calcutta claimed the first Indian to storm the white bastion of the Indian Civil Service or ICS (Satyendranath Tagore), the first president of the Indian National Congress (WC Bonnerjee) and the first Indian to win a Nobel Prize (Satyendranath’s brother, Rabindranath). ‘Lord Sinha Road’ honours Satyendra Prasanno Sinha, Baron Sinha of Raipur, the only non-white ever to be raised to Britain’s hereditary peerage. A plaque marks the hospital where a British army surgeon, Ronald Ross, discovered the cure for malaria by getting mosquitoes to bite his servant. Calcutta was also the birthplace of the deadly dum-dum bullet. Some Bengalis believe the local scientist, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, invented but didn’t patent the wireless. Others find glory in the Bose-Einstein theory recalling Einstein’s cooperation with a Bengali mathematician, Satyen Bose. Some diehards are still waiting for a third Bose, the lost hero, Netaji Subhas Chandra of Indian National Army fame, born in 1897 and killed in a plane crash in 1945, to rise from the dead and restore Bengal’s former glory. Calcutta was a city of contradictions. The White Town’s spacious mansions and tree-lined squares inspired the ‘City of Palaces’ sobriquet. Curzon added the Victoria Memorial, built of white Jodhpur marble and paid for by Indians. Yet another palatial edifice, Belvedere, in Alipore, now the National Library, recalls Curzon’s dream of ‘a place to which people will resort as they do to the British Museum in London or the Bodleian in Oxford’. Given his commitment to the city, it is fitting that Raj Bhavan, formerly Government House, completed in 1805 exactly a century before he retired from India, was modelled on his own family home, Kedleston Manor, in Derbyshire. White Town’s business heart was Dalhousie Square (today’s Benoy Badal Dinesh Bagh) over which rears the red-brick Writers’ Buildings, which once housed East India Company writers (clerks) and is now the Bengal government secretariat. Jackals howled in the narrow lanes of the congested Black Town to its north and east where the Greater Adjutant Stork (hadgila or bone-swallower in Bengali) saved the populace from infection by gobbling up the garbage. When Calcutta Municipal Corporation was set up in 1896, it rightly featured the bird on its coat of arms. Despite this expression of gratitude, storks suffered from the youthful pranks of writers who fed them marrow bones stuffed with gunpowder so that the greedy creatures exploded in a fury of flesh and feathers.
Mohun Bagan represents the city. Two other local teams—East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting—also proclaim sectarian loyalties. India’s identity politics began in Calcutta
Black Town’s quintessential bhadralok were distinguished by ‘their deportment, their speech, their dress, their style of housing, their eating habits, their occupations and their associations— and quite as fundamentally by their cultural values and their sense of social propriety’, according to the sociologist John H Broomfield. Six hundred Bengali bhadralok and only two Europeans heard WH Auden, then at the height of his reputation, read his poems at the British Council’s inauguration in 1949. An ardent nationalist like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, author of Vande Mataram, described Bengali babus as ‘those who are invincible in speech, masters in languages of others, and are hostile to their own tongue’. The 19th-century poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutta (nom de plume Timothy Penpoem), whom Moorhouse called ‘besottedly Anglicised’, boasted, ‘I can speak in English, write in English, think in English, and shall be supremely happy when I can dream in English.’ Living up to their contrary reputation, Bengalis simultaneously created a Society for the Promotion of National Feeling among the Educated Natives of Bengal, urging people to speak and write Bengali, wear Indian clothes, eat Indian food, take up Hindu medicine and adopt traditional sports. Rabindranath’s father once refused to accept a letter addressed in English from his son-in-law. But another notable, Rajah Peary Mohan Mookarjee, proudly regretted to Lord Hardinge ‘that the sudden aggravation of the pain in his legs caused by the proximity of the full moon prevents his attending’ a viceregal levee. Little did he know the viceroy would forward this ‘oriental gem’ to London for King George’s amusement.
Bengalis were (are?) a garrulous lot who solved the world’s political problems during hours of heated debate—adda—in coffee houses. They packed football stands, and celebrated Durga Puja with fervour. Their physical world was divided into precincts called paara. ‘The old paaras of Calcutta were like tiny villages, and taken altogether were little strange worlds by themselves. In them again, each lane had its own character,’ Radhaprasad Gupta recorded in his delightful monograph, Kolkatar Feriwalar Dak O Rastar Awaz (Calcutta’s vendors’ cries and street sounds).
If plummy brown sahibs lorded it over one extreme of bhadralok society, revolutionaries, or biplabis, infested the other, brewing tea and sedition in grubby cafes and making bombs as a cottage industry, decades before tea garden workers hoisted the banner of Marxist- Leninist revolt in Naxalbari in North Bengal. At the same time, Calcutta was fervently loyal. Lord Hardinge noted that when King George V and Queen Mary left a public reception in January 1912, ‘the crowd burst the barriers, and the curious sight was witnessed of Indians kissing the ground where Their Majesties had stood, and carrying off with them small handfuls of dust from the proximity of the thrones’. Bengalis proudly told each other that the great Lenin himself had predicted ‘the road to world revolution runs through Peking and Calcutta’. He hadn’t, wrote Moorhouse. But the revolutionary illusion seemed to come true in 1948 when Soviet commissars, Australian ideologues, French trade unionists, Viet Minh soldiers, Yugoslav revolutionaries and Malayan Chinese guerrillas flocked to the grandiloquently titled ‘Conference of Youth and Students of Southeast Asia Fighting for Freedom and Independence’ in a cluster of hutments that American troops had used as a wartime hospital. Inspired in Calcutta, they secretly fanned out to ignite the flames of revolution in Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines.
‘The history of Colonial Calcutta dates from August 24, 1690,’ says P Thankappan Nair, the city’s dedicated chronicler. That was when the East India Company’s Job Charnock slipped anchor in the Hooghly
Our perceptive jute memsahib acknowledged that Europeans never got to know Indians. Among the many instances of racial segregation Chaudhuri cites is Indians being banned from the vicinity of the bandstand in Eden Gardens. When a liberal-minded European civilian complained about this to The Englishman, a correspondent signing himself ‘Trouser Shoes’ responded that the ban applied to ‘only the dhootie-wearing part of the population’. The jute memsahib complained that ‘snobbery, precedence and protocol’ were also rife among Whites and that ‘certain Europeans in Calcutta imagined that they resided on a higher plane than those who lived in the compounds at the mills, which was quite ridiculous as not many came out of the top drawer’.
TOP OR BOTTOM, there were enough Old Etonians among them to challenge the ‘Rest of Calcutta’—whites, naturally—to a cricket match on January 19th, 1804. The Golightly Ball (organised by a group called ‘The Unceremonials’) at which men wore breeches and dress coats with red facings was probably Calcutta’s most exclusive event with whole sheep turning on spits and suckling pigs munching apples. St Andrew’s Day was a popular cold season celebration when the Caledonian Society presented a concert at the New Empire Theatre at which evening dress was de rigueur. Boasting he was Scotch by absorption (although Indian by birth and English by education), Bijay Chand Mahtab was an honorary member and had his audience in stitches by addressing them as ‘Brither Scots!’ His son, Maharajadhiraja Bahadur Sir Uday Chand Mahtab KCIE, resplendent in brocade smoking jacket, told the World Wildlife Fund that he was as much an endangered species as tigers and rhinos. That might explain why his son, Saday Chand, universally known as Henry, the first Mahtab to go to university abroad (St John’s, Cambridge) and the only one to marry a real-life princess, Deepinder Kaur of Faridkot, doesn’t use the title.
The announcement that British India’s capital would move to Delhi in 1911 prompted the racing correspondent of The Statesman , another Raj newspaper but of a liberal bent, to ask cheekily, ‘Would a change of capital from London to the ancient capital, Winchester, have any effect upon racing at Epsom, Newmarket, Ascot or Doncaster?’ The king promised Calcutta would ‘always remain the premier city of India’. Thirty years later as Japanese bombs rained down, the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, warned, ‘The loss of Calcutta would be tantamount to the loss of India.’
Bearing out the famous prediction of the nationalist leader, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,’ Calcutta also set the ball rolling in reinventing the past which today’s nationalists have taken up with even greater gusto. It cost Bengal’s Marxist rulers nothing to rededicate a monument honouring the American-born Sir David Ochterlony’s success in Britain’s Nepalese wars to shaheeds (martyrs) in the cause of independence. As roads were renamed and statues hauled down, zealots had to be persuaded that the classical figures of Justice, Commerce, Science and Agriculture flanking Minerva atop Writers’ Buildings weren’t colonial memsahibs. Chief Justice AK Mathur and Justice Jayanta Kumar Biswas of the Calcutta High Court even reinvented the city’s origins. ‘Calcutta does not have a birthday,’ they ruled. Charnock was banished from history books.
True, weaving and trading communities probably flourished by the Hooghly even before 1690. Mud and thatch townships sprang up each year when Portuguese galleys swept up the river seeking merchandise. But today’s Calcutta sprouted only when Charnock let down roots, and Indian traders and service-providers sought the protection of his settlement. Fort William, still commemorating England’s King William III, was completed in 1700. This was the township the young Siraj ud- Daulah, succeeding his grandfather as Nawab of Bengal, captured in 1756, from which arose the grossly exaggerated Black Hole legend of 146 British prisoners being locked up in a tiny cell one hot and sultry June night. This was just the casus belli Clive wanted. He defeated Siraj ud-Daulah on June 23rd,1757, in the Battle of Plassey after taking the precaution of buying over his commander-in-chief, Mir Jafar Ali, who was rewarded by being made nawab. The name Calcutta, which Siraj ud-Daulah had changed to Alinagore, was restored. The new Fort William Clive built is now Eastern Command’s headquarters.
Although the fort hasn’t ever fired a shot in battle, it was almost attacked one heady July afternoon in 1911 when barefoot Bengali footballers in Mohun Bagan colours defeated booted British soldiers of the East Yorkshire regiment. As the deliriously joyous victory procession stomped the streets, fans urged the Bengali lads to storm the citadel of the Raj. Mohun Bagan represents the city. Two other local teams—East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting—also proclaim sectarian loyalties. India’s identity politics began in Calcutta football.
An earlier threat comes to life when Bengali mothers croon their babies to sleep by invoking the Mahratta horsemen whom the Bengali historian, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, called ‘human locusts’. Macaulay wrote, ‘Wherever their kettle-drums were heard, the peasant threw his bag of rice on his shoulder, hid his small savings in his girdle, and fled with his wife and children to the mountains or the jungles, to the milder neighbourhood of the hyena or the tiger.’ Today’s Lower Circular Road, or rather Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Road, was excavated in 1742 as the Mahratta Ditch to repel invaders. It was filled in and by 1802, ‘on the Circular Road of Calcutta, the young, the sprightly and the opulent during the fragrance of the morning in the Chariot of health enjoy the gales of recreation’.
The mythic horrors of ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’ of British imagination became the metaphor for the city until Saint Teresa replaced it with an even more horrific image of death and disease
The 1940s was the decade of darkness. Waves lashed Bengal’s coastal districts flooding the city with destitute villagers. About three million people died from starvation with the authorities in Calcutta, New Delhi and London in total denial. Corpses littered the pavements. Desperate mothers tried to sell starving infants. The piteous cry Vilago! Ektu phan dao (Dear mother, spare a little gruel) of children tottering from door to door filled the air. The harvest had been plentiful, but food stockpiles for Allied troops, exports from Bombay, and hoarding and profiteering by local businessmen left nothing for the poor. Whether or not the shortage was also engineered to cripple India’s independence movement, as the American novelist Howard Fast alleges, the British parliament was told the weekly death rate was 1,000 when it averaged 30,000.
THERE MIGHT HAVE been no relief at all but for the vigorous campaign by The Statesman and its editor, Ian Stephens, who accused the authorities of trying to play down, suppress, distort or muffle the truth. When Stephens died in 1984, Amartya Sen wrote in The Times (London), ‘In the subcontinent in which Ian Stephens spent a substantial part of his life, he is remembered not only as a great editor (with amiable, if somewhat eccentric, manners), but also as someone whose hard-fought campaign possible [sic] saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.’
Then came the murderous orgy of August 16th, 1946, Direct Action Day, to press for a Muslim homeland. Estimates of the dead ranged from five to 20,000 and more, with tens of thousands wounded, many critically. Independence the following August meant further waves of Hindu refugees fleeing the new Muslim theocracy next door. East Pakistan refugees accounted for 27 per cent of Calcutta’s population in 1951. Calcutta lost its granary. Its jute mills lost their raw material. Migration spiked during crises like East Pakistan’s 1950 and 1964 religious riots and the 1965 India-Pakistan war, reaching a high peak during the 1971 liberation war when the Pakistan army’s atrocities drove 10 million refugees to West Bengal. Despite a major repatriation effort when the war ended, many stayed back. Refugee shantytowns swallowed up open spaces. Shops and eateries straddled pavements. East Bengal’s cuisine and dialect diluted Calcutta’s metropolitan culture; the ‘refugee vote’ gave a new twist to competitive politics. The unplanned influx continues.
Calcutta’s clubs remained oases of tranquillity amidst the chaos. Most were originally ‘whites only’ and reflected the city’s pecking order. Born in 1792, the Cricket Club is the oldest. The Bengal Club, set up in 1827 for ‘all gentlemen received in general society’ meaning senior European civil and military officers and the heads of the biggest firms, was the grandest. John Masters rejects the rumour that an American colonel who was an honorary member during the Second World War peeped into the Bengal Club’s smoking room after lunch, saw veteran members sunk in post-prandial slumber, and exclaimed, ‘Gee, back home we send them to the mortuary!’ Nor is it confirmed that Bengal’s governor (or was it the viceroy?) was refused service because his dinner guest was the self-made Bengali industrialist, Sir Rajendra Nath Mookerjee. But it is true that when local Europeans wanted to entertain Lord Mountbatten, independent India’s first governor- general, in 1948, he would dine only at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club not because it was second in age only to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrew’s but because, barring the Calcutta Club, it was the only one ‘which had full Indian members’.
The Naxalbari uprising was a local event in an international context, confirming that revolution, biplab, was as integral to the Bengali identity as the Bania, boxwallah and bhadralok
Not burdened with any such scruples, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi allowed himself to be smuggled into a Bengal Club bedroom to be interviewed by a Daily Telegraph correspondent from London. The Mahatma had no hang-ups. When Nellie Sengupta, an Englishwoman who was elected Congress president in 1933, complained that people criticised her barrister husband, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, popularly called Deshapriya (lover of the country), for socialising in the Calcutta Club, he wrote back consolingly, ‘I wish I was a member of the Calcutta Club whose members, I know, are all decent people.’ The Calcutta Club’s lotus-and-rose crest symbolised ‘the promotion of friendly relations between Indians and Europeans’, which explained official patronage for its launch in 1906. The bitterness of the Ilbert Bill’s frustrated attempt to empower Indian magistrates to try Europeans still rankled. The agitation’s ‘most abiding, although perhaps the most unlooked for, result’ was the formation three years later of the Indian National Congress, according to HEA Cotton, civilian president of the Bengal Legislative Council. It may not have been only a coincidence that one of the club’s founder- members was Behari Lal Gupta, the second Indian member of the ICS, whose letter of January 30th, 1882, to Sir Ashley Eden, the lieutenant-governor, objecting to discrimination against Indian judges, prompted the Bill (named after the viceroy’s law minister) and sparked a virulent ‘white mutiny’ against it.
Indira Gandhi once sneered that every town had two sahibs, one English, the other Bengali. She meant pioneers like Gupta, Bonnerjee and Sinha, the Anglicised elite or Ingabanga, literally Anglo-Bengali, segment of bhadralok society. They were often ridiculed for being more English than the English. But an Ingabanga worthy like Sir Taraknath Palit, lawyer and philanthropist, was also associated with resistance to the 1905 Partition of Bengal and funded the Calcutta and Jadavpur universities. Being closest to the British and steeped in their ways, they were able to spot injustice and quietly apply effective correctives without counter-productive publicity.
THE INGABANGA AND boxwallah worlds met in several venues. Smart young Calcutta danced at ‘The 300’, founded in 1936 by a white Russian, Boris Lissanevitch, while his pet python slithered about the floor. Lissanevitch had been a fighter pilot, chef, trapeze artist and dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It was rumoured he had put Nepal’s King Tribhuvan in touch with Jawaharlal Nehru, which led to the overthrow of the Rana oligarchy. It was also whispered that a Rana prince ‘bought’ Burma with his gambling winnings one hectic night at The 300. Ingabanga and boxwallah shopped at Hall & Anderson and mocked the less fashionable Whiteaway Laidlaw store as ‘Whitelaw and Laidaway’. They went to the races, dined at Peliti’s, and dawdled over the long leisurely Friday ‘packet lunch’ at Firpo’s after the steamer had sailed for London with the week’s mail. Asked in 1970 why his elegant and popular restaurant was closing down, Firpo’s Italian maitre d’hôtel shrugged, ‘Fancy having to serve minestrone with Kalimpong!’ India’s import restrictions had banned Parmesan: only Kalimpong cheese was available.
To start with, Ingabanga (or even Indian) influence didn’t penetrate the boxwallah world of managing agencies which the eminent lawyer, Sir Nripendra Nath Sircar, described in the Legislative Assembly as being uniquely Indian, like communal electorates. They controlled commerce and finance through the Palladian offices of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry and were responsible for some of Calcutta’s finest architecture and quaint mercantile traditions. Mackinnon Mackenzie’s young assistants called the glass dome of their lofty central hall ‘the inverted chamber pot’. Nilhat House, headquarters of J Thomas, tea merchants, recalled the company’s origins in the once hugely profitable indigo trade. Four durwans slept across the threshold of the open door of Sir David Yule’s flat above his porticoed head office to signify that Andrew Yule’s was ready to do business round-the-clock. Gillanders Arbuthnot sent its files for storage to Hawarden Castle, Welsh baronial home of the 19th-century British prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Many managing agencies had passed into Indian hands before they were formally abolished in 1970. The new owners were often Marwari. Many burra sahibs, starting with Mackinnon’s Mohie R Das, Behari Lal Gupta’s grandson, were Bengali.
In the wings rumbled the Naxalites whose ideological leader, Charu Majumdar, authored their gospel, the Historic Eight Documents, in 1967. The Naxalbari uprising was a local event in an international context—the Sino-Soviet split and ensuing turmoil in the communist world—confirming that revolution, biplab, was as integral to the Bengali identity as Bania, boxwallah and bhadralok. Even some boxwallah burra sahibs thought it fashionable to claim Naxalite credentials. Like the English language, Western legal, administrative and business practices, European attire, clubs, golf and cocktail parties, it was another idea that proved irresistible elsewhere in the country. Gopal Krishna Gokhale knew what he was talking about when he accorded primacy to Bengal.
(This is an excerpt from Calcutta Then/Kolkata Now | written by Sunanda K Datta-Ray and Indrajit Hazra, and edited by Pramod Kapoor and Anshika Varma | Roli Books | 256 pages | Rs 3,500)