Near the end of Chowringhee, we hear a yarn from the old-timer Hobbs. This grizzled veteran of the Raj has memories of a Calcutta grand hotel, the Shahjahan - the story-stuffed centre of this banquet of a novel - that stretch back to "the eighth decade of the 19th century". Now, staying on in India after Independence, Hobbs remembers the career of an equally venerable bar manager, Sohrabji. This poor Parsi restored his fortunes by running raucous Calcutta drinking-dens. Hookers, soldiers and businessmen filled his pockets while he, sober and dutiful, would dream of his clever daughter's radiant future as a great professor. One day she turns up in the money-spinning dive and discovers, with horror, the tainted source of their respectable family life. Sohrabji's world collapses, while Hobbs's belief that "every brick in this hotel has a novel in it" is vindicated yet again.
Brick by brick, tale by tale, Chowringhee builds up into a panoramic and utterly captivating picture of a workplace, a city and an era. Sankar – pen-name of the writer Mani Sankar Mukherji, who is happily still active – first published the novel in Bengali in 1962. It rapidly became a modern classic of a hugely rich but (to English-language readers) all but invisible literature. Like some late-arriving round of burra pegs after hours at the hotel bar, Arunava Sinha's translation, both fruity and spicy, tastes all the better for the wait. This old-fashioned feast of storytelling crawls with character, heaves with drama and bursts with flavour.
The humble employee whose "education in the school of life" we share is Shankar. A clerk-cum-receptionist, he fetches up at the Shahjahan after the death of his kindly mentor, "the last English barrister of the Calcutta High Court". If our narrator shows the ageing remnants of the Raj in a fond light as they stagger on post-Independence, this stems not so much from any post-colonial cringe as from an all-embracing benevolence. Chowringhee depicts its whole seething cast of staff and guests with equal charm and affection.
Tender-hearted Anglo-Indian tarts; posher but tormented "hostesses", showgirls and entrepreneurs, laundrymen, bartenders, bandleaders, captains of industry, upper-crust memsahibs: all Calcutta – all humanity – flows through these doors. Film diva Sreelekha Devi may turn up in a late-night panic to demand a room because she fears her jealous husband will attack her – but she has come before, will come again, and the wide-eyed receptionist sees not a "sensational criminal case" but a "reconciliation drama" to add to his growing repertoire of emotional accidents and emergencies.
Any reader who associates the fiction of Nehru's India with a certain high-minded decorum may be surprised by the sheer raciness and worldliness of Chowringhee. With one eye on the modernising society of the 1950s, where German investors fly in bearing the new "crown jewel: know-how", and one cast back on the rackety days of errant barmaids and shady adventurers in "the second city of the Empire", Sankar frames Calcutta as a pleasure-loving entrepot. New fates and new plots wash up with every tide (or, now, on every flight). From the Greek hotelier "Marco Polo" to the thrusting industrialists of the Pakrashi clan and the Scottish stripper Connie, every character receives a double measure of compassion.
Yet a dash of the bitters qualifies this sweetness. A flair for comedy lets Sankar make the hotel a spotlit stage for the follies and pretensions of nouveaux riches and proud throwbacks alike, where a tipsy hen-pecked "purchase officer" from the South lusts after pert Bengali girls, or a burlesque queen begs advice from a fortune-telling charlatan. Also, we grasp the sheer hardship of these pleasure-giving lives.
Cooks, waiters, entertainers, prostitutes, bar-keepers - all service clients who reward this labour with contempt. In solidarity, they lavish tenderness on one another, mutually uplifting fellow-toilers in an after-dark domain where "poverty knows no caste".
One by one, departures, dismissals and deaths break up this below-stairs band of brothers and sisters. The narrator believes that "none of us is interested in the history of happiness", and this novel likes to douse its laughter in tears. When Shankar's boss – and beloved friend – Bose-da falls for the sassy air hostess Sujata Mitra in her sky-blue sari, we know their bliss cannot last. It does not. "Nothing can defy eternity and keep standing in Calcutta" – except, perhaps, the "unbelievable arrogance" of the hotel itself.
Meanwhile, translation gives a second life to this sumptuous buffet of a book. It ends with a retort to Rudyard Kipling, the Bombay boy who branded Calcutta the "city of dreadful night" and set the tone for a century of insults. Looking back on his "dear inn", the narrator hopes that "this sin-infested city would surely be sanctified some day by the healing touch of the good". Chowringhee has just that healing touch.
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