The conclusion of a writer’s memories of the literature that shaped her life in West Bengal
By Chitralekha Basu
A FEW years back, as I was compiling the index of my translation of Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Hootum Pyanchar Naksha – a series of sketches lampooning social life in Calcutta in the 1860s – I was struck by the many references to Krishnanagar, in connection with the Indigo revolt of 1859. I was born there and went back again as a five year old when mother resumed her teaching job.
Beyond a radius of 2.5 kilometres from the chaotic hub of downtown Krishnanagar there was a different world – of unpeopled eucalyptus tree-lined avenues and British colonial-era architecture. My maternal grandfather and I would walk past the clock tower of the Protestant Church, the ripe melon paint on it punctuated by dark, mouldy stripes, half-hidden behind the trees – a subdued cousin of its more flamboyant Roman Catholic counterpart, across the canal. There were quite a few European-style mansions along the roads we walked – high-ceilinged structures with Doric columns, holding up triangular pediments, or punctuating a series of slatted green wooden dividers. They had since been turned into public offices and academic institutes – including the one I would go to, after two years of attending a primary school run by Jesuit missionaries. As we walked past the district collectorate Grandfather pointed out the exposed lintels across the ceiling.
“This used to be a planter’s bungalow,” he said. “It’s haunted. Or so people say.”
Grandfather was a raconteur. His ancestors were, supposedly, professional bandits – the sort who would wear walrus moustaches and a red hibiscus perched on one ear and wait down by the riverside for unsuspecting travellers after nightfall. Each re-telling of those extraordinary tales of derring-do was invested with a sense of immediacy and cinematic detailing. In this case, his story about how a particularly stubborn indigo peasant was hanged from the ceiling in that bungalow and would return every night to haunt the trigger-happy planter – didn’t seem totally fabricated. The planter could have been the one I read about in a story by Satyajit Ray – the very same whose spirit possessed the mind of a writer on a stormy night. The bungalow had a sense of déjà vu about it.
Now several years later, as I went over the proofs of What the Owl Saw – my translation of Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, a hugely-raunchy and often delightfully confounding text, written by the multi-faceted Kaliprasanna Sinha, mostly in mid-19th century Calcutta cockney, a series of sketches that, in effect, is also a compressed history of how Bengal/India came to be absorbed into the British Empire and how, even as it came under the Queen’s sceptre, was forever looking for, negotiating and evolving ways of coming into its own, often using the very tools and skill sets that colonization had made accessible to Indians, even if it were by default – I was struck by the number of references to Krishnanagar and the indigo rebellion. Krishnanagar and its hinterlands had been a prime indigo-growing area in the 1850s and consequently the seat of some of the most macabre instances of human rights violation.
We bought indigo in flimsy little paper containers, carrying the image of a tweeting robin. There was nothing remotely ghoulish or rebellious about them. The cartons would, invariably, get soaked and fall apart after a longish exposure to the moisture in the bathroom, leaving blotchy blue trails on the floor. Repeated soaking in indigo solution left faint traces of blue on my white school uniform which would, eventually, take on a blue tint. As a classmate pointed out, it made economic sense, for if you bought something that was white and got it turned into blue, wasn’t that like getting two for the price of one?
Her motive, of course, was to persuade me to use the powder in more generous quantities, to a degree that my costume would no longer be wearable – not to school at any rate. She had, on an earlier instance, tried selling me the idea of dismantling a kaleidoscope my father bought me at the Marina beach in Madras, insisting that by tearing the thing apart I would have access to the little animal shapes inside that I could, so far, only see and not touch.
On a normal day I would let curiosity prevail over common sense. But by that time I had begun reading ‘The Adventures of Tom Swayer’ and knew a thing or two about conning people into doing something stupid and have them believe it was fun. So I borrowed a metaphor from one of the animal fables from the Sanskrit classic Panchatantra, telling my mischievous colleague, with a smug, self-righteousness somewhat typical of eight year olds who would take the printed word as gospel truth that I didn’t want to look like a fox dyed in blue.
Krishnanagar had, traditionally it seems, been associated with dissent and rebellion. It was one of the Naxalite hubs where frequent clashes between the insurgents and an increasingly-threatened police force would set off a chain of violence. To pre-empt getting killed by the Naxalites, the police themselves went on a killing and looting spree. After a point of time it was difficult to tell who was killing whom and for what reason. It was another matter that poorly-paid and inadequately-armed policemen were probably as much at the receiving end of the mendacity of the establishment as any of the university-educated Naxalites hungry for revolution might have been, but the protracted war between the two jeopardised public life. Those who could left town.
I heard these stories from Grandfather only in the late seventies, when the Naxalite movement had lost visibility except perhaps in the odd, indistinct graffiti on the wall, saluting the late leader, Comrade Charu Mazumdar. In Grandfather’s re-tellings, however, these stories would be charged with a sense of immediacy. He would point to a dust-laden cabinet at the back of a cycle repair shop and say that was precisely the spot from where a young Naxalite was hauled up, not before exchanging a round of fire with the policemen. The story was completely believable. Most of the glass panes on that antique wooden cabinet were broken or missing.
“You knew Kaustuv, didn’t you?” said Grandfather. “He was a friend of your second uncle’s.”
He would pause for a few seconds here — a tested tactic to draw his audience into the story, pushing her, for a moment, to question what she had, all along, thought was an absolute certainty. And then, apparently hastening to correct himself, he would say, “Well of course you didn’t. You must have been too young to remember when he died.”
Sometimes, stories of wasted young lives – even as some of these would be appropriated and mythologised out of proportion – were made proximate, brought within touching distance, almost.
My mother and I once visited an elderly woman in her spare flat in a particularly noisy and chaotic part of Krishnanagar – a placid little island only a floor above the mad jumble of constricted alleys in which cycle rickshaws hooted and raced, merrily ramming into each other. The lady was rather tall and wore the regulation un-bordered white sari meant for Hindu widows. There was nothing to give away that she was a Cambridge graduate, which I came to know years later.
What I remember most vividly is a series of framed black and white photographs of a man with an unflinching gaze and an assured smile under a thin, trimmed moustache, hung from the wall. In one of them he appeared against a backdrop of coniferous trees and the outline of a hill, a lone horse grazing in the background, looking away from the camera, typically forlorn. In another he was a much-decorated man in army gear, stars shining from the epaulette.
My mother clung to the older woman and wept. The lady held my mother in a loose embrace for a while, dry-eyed, and then went inside to look for sweets she would offer me. On our way back home Ma told me not to speak about this little adventure of ours to my grandparents.