Calcutta of the 1850s
In 2008, for the first time, a full length English translation appeared of a book written first in 1862 and which has never been out of print since then. Hootum Pyanchar Naksha (from now, Hootum) occupies a special place in Bengali literature; it continues to be read for its witty sketches of people and places in Calcutta, for its use of the lively elemental language that was once spoken in the city, which vanished too soon from print once an authoritative ‘sadhu’ prose came into use in the last decades of the 19th century. While the translation may have lost some of his vibrancy in language, its ability to bring a city of a certain period to life makes this a book worth one’s while.
The author of the book, Kaliprasanna Sinha, was born in 1840 to a wealthy family. His other and arguably chief, claim to fame was his employing of several pundits to work on a Bengali translation of the Mahabharata between 1859 and 1866 that he distributed later free of cost. Like some others belonging to his station and class, he also established several literary societies as also magazines, most of which had a short-lived existence. He was not above courting controversy; offering to pay the hefty fine imposed on James Long, the Irish missionary who was punished for publishing the English translation of Neel Darpan, written by Dinabandhu Mitra.
Neel Darpan was a tale of exploitation, of hapless peasants by exploitative indigo planters. It was seen as daring, bold and openly seditious and Mitra and Sinha were obviously courting danger. But it was a time when Calcutta was a city of limitless possibilities, an immense vital city, seething with people, and it offered new scope, opportunities; when risks could be taken and not mistaken for bravado.
The city had come to be shaped by events that had taken place in recent decades. Since the 1820s, as British rule became a reality and Bengal saw change in the shape of new land settlements, introduction of English education, Indigo cultivation and also social reform movements, among other things, a new class of educated Bengalis too had emerged. Most came from the ranks of landed gentry but there was the increasing visibility of a new urban professional class in Calcutta. An early modern culture of sorts was emerging in Calcutta and around this time, the culture of subordination of a subject race was giving way to the assertion of a new state of mind.
Moreover, barely five years before Hootum was published, there had occurred a seminal event in Barrackpore, near Calcutta—one that in a way triggered off the 1857 revolt. In April that year, the sepoy Mangal Pandey refused to bite on cartridges greased with animal fat which was soon to have wider repercussions. But the revolt itself left Calcutta and Bengal unscathed. But while the ‘educated Bengali’ pledged his loyalty to the British Empire in 1857, he also asserted his identity as a member of a self-respecting community—in a kind of quotidian contradiction.
As articles of the day demonstrated, he ridiculed the Europeans in Calcutta for their fear of the revolt and for exaggerating atrocities committed by the rebels. In a vociferous article in the Hindoo Patriot Girishchandra Ghosh poured scorn on ‘the class of European writers who maintain we have no civilization, no public opinion or national feeling.’
1861, four years after 1857, was the year of the ‘Blue Mutiny’ in Bengal when farmers rose against the forcible cultivation of the unprofitable indigo crop. This offered a chance for the educated community in Calcutta to close its ranks and protest against the tyranny of the indigo planters. It was in this context that Dinabandhu Mitra wrote Neel Darpan, but soon a lively literary culture would come to dominate the city as poets, novelists came to the fore. In 1873-74, Bankim Chandra Chatterji established the Bangadarshan, a literary journal reflecting awareness of this new cultural identity. At the same time, a popular culture as opposed to ‘high’ culture continued to thrive—vulgar, irreverent and catering to a wide range of subaltern elements.
It was a time when the institution of caste was influenced too by the new urban situation. Very many of the new class for example were from the Kayastha community, who had taken advantage of the British rule to learn English; they now took a leading role in socio-religious movements that broke caste rules or at least deviated from caste orthodoxy. They also came to the forefront as the new land settlement came into operation.
Here is a description of Upendrakishore Roychowdhury’s father’s rise to prosperity. Upendrakishore was a noted children’s writer and father of his equally illustrious son, Sukumar and grandfather to Satyajit. The family belonged to the Kayastha community who later were followers of the Brahmo Samaj:
Upendrakishore’s ‘father had great linguistic talent. He was expert in English and Persian languages and in the traditional Indian and British Indian legal systems. He became a topmost expert for interpreting old land deeds written in Persian and in helping the landowners to get the best deal from the newly introduced British legal system in India. He became affluent and in due course the family was able to afford two elephants.’
In the 19th century then, several factors such as Christianity, Brahmoism, more frequent sea-voyages, inter-dining, widow remarriage, inter-caste marriage and tensions within joint families were causing all kinds of strain within society, all of which in a pithy, satirical style found expression in the pages of Hootum Pyanchar Naksha.
Humour in Everyday Life
Hootum has an immediacy, it looks at these changes in Calcutta, at how the old and the new live in juxtaposition with each other, with irony and humour. Calcutta offered unprecedented avenues of social mobility, and fortunes could change as quickly as the stroke of a pen. The sketches are contemptuous of the new vulgarity, even as it makes fun of old mores, unable to adjust to new ways.
In the range of people depicted, it is an ethnographic sketch of 19th century Calcutta. Take a look: the dissolute babu and his mistresses and grog shops, the charlatan priests and gosains, the servants seemingly deferential but who defy and mock their masters, the labourers and peddlers and their festivals.
This is a description of a city street :
“When the rains stopped, everyone emerged from the woodworks—pedestrians, hawkers, fishwives and their men, outcaste Brahmins went around singing and begging for alms carrying the image of the goddess Sitala on a tray, vaishnava mendicants wondered about singing, playing their ektaras and tambourines, migrant Brahmins went around begging for alms crying, there were opium addicts, sweepers in their grog shops buying rum after work was over, drummers, cremators, pig-rearers, palki-bearers too emerged.‘
In its sharp observations, there is satire and an underlying, much needed humour. Humour was a necessary ingredient of those times; times that seemed on most occasions a chaotic amalgamation of too many eras, old and new, ever-changing, yet tradition bound. What the scholar and linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji wrote about end 19th century Calcutta could well apply to this period too. Of student life in 1912-13, Suniti Kumar Chatterji wrote, the life then ‘demonstrated the mind of civilized man in its various stages. The 20th century jostles with the eighth or 12th century, mid Victorian England and 18th century France with 16th century Bengal..’
Chatterji came from that milieu where cultivated hilarity existed alongside an atmosphere of high seriousness. And Sinha’s irony in Hootum was an attempt to understand or depict the chaos and the change all around him. Calcutta was a city like no other; around it were miles and miles of villages and rivers. It was a world of its own and it needed to be understood—irony and humour were just two ways of doing so. The cultivation of nonsense too was serious business in Calcutta. In the early years of the 20th century, Sukumar Ray the writer of nonsense verse formed an informal association called the Monday club, which actually was a pun on the words relating to the day the meeting was held and the sweets (Monda) that were served and worked as a prime attraction for many. And ‘adda’ itself was virtually institutionalized around this time.
Humour too was amply evident in the everyday lives of the lower classes as Hootum shows, in describing their festivals where their mimes and jatras mocked the higher classes. Humour was also the thread running through the popular cultural forms of the poor—directed at the rich and famous, the babus and the dandies, the deceitful Hindu priests, as also Christian missionaries, who were viewed by the lower orders with distrust and envy.
There was a popular saying
Ajab Sahar Kalketa
Ranri bari ghari gari michchey kathar ki keta
(A strange city is Calcutta, Whores and houses and carriages abound. And how fashionable it is to lie)
Companir latgiri, parer dhaney poddari (Usurping the wealth of others, the company’s merchants have become aristocrats)
Pantomime shows or 'sang' were popular during ‘charak’ festival that was used effectively to lampoon the higher classes. The objects of the lampoon ranged from rich babus to religious hypocrites. A procession of sangs (jesters) was described in 1833 that mocked the bloated rich by depicting an old man covered with flowers with a foot swollen by elephantiasis. Another sang was worshipping his foot with all the piety of a devotee.
Such satire of trends in contemporary society emerge more forcefully in another form of Calcutta folk art—the ‘pat’ paintings of Kalighat, or what came to be known in European circles as ‘bazaar paintings’.
There are numerous editions of Hootum Pyanchar Naksha in Bengali, the English translation had to wait a while. Maybe this was related to its bawdy, irreverent language, its sheer irreverence, something that even Bankim Chandra Chatterji alluded to. Bankim Chandra compared Hootum to Dickens’ Sketches by Boz. He wrote, ‘The follies and peculiarities of all classes , and not seldom of men actually living, are described in racy vigorous language, not seldom disfigured by obscenity’ (ital reviewer’s).
For instance, here is a description of ‘khemtawallis’ who performed at night or in secret during the time of important festivals. The khemta was a jaunty dance form popular among the lower orders, though babus were not above patronizing it too. This performance below took place in one Pyalanath Babu’s mansion.
“Like the city, the mansion came alive at night. Once the baijis (dancers) had cleared off, the khemtawallis marched in.
Khemta is a terrific nautch! The wealthy babus of the city watch khemtas in their garden-houses every Sunday. Many savour this fantastic nautch along with their sons, nephews, and sons-in-law. Some babus even strip the khemtawallis before the dance begins! In some places the khemtawallis aren’t given tips till they kiss! You can’t mention these things aloud anywhere.
The khemta nautch began. The khemtawallas sang a saucy song from behind, while two middle-aged khemtawallis danced rhythmically, swaying their hips to the song. After some time, the khemtawallis went up to the guests and stretched out their hands like poor Brahmins to collect tips. The nautch ended at two o’clock in the night. The khemtawallis began to frequent the rooms of the patrons, the puja ground was sanctified.”
Festivals for Every Occasion
Hootum wasn’t moreover the first book of its kind to be written. Forty years before, in 1823, Bhabanicharan Banerji wrote Kalikata Kamalalay, that likened the city to the home of Kamala or Lakshmi, the city being a paradise for money-makers, where Lakshmi dwelt surrounded by sharks and crocodiles of all kinds. His second book—Nabababubilas in 1825 mocked the new Babu and new Babu culture that was dawning; while Nababibibilas (1831), or the whims of the ‘new lady’ took off on the career of a wanton girl in the degenerate society that Calcutta had become, in a prurient and still hard-hitting manner. There was Alaler Gharer Dulal (the rich man’s spoilt child) by Pyarichand Mitra who wrote of the effects of allowing children to be improperly brought up, with remarks on the existing system of education, self-formation and religious culture, and also the condition of Hindu society, manners, customs, etc. Besides there were two plays as well, Michael Madhusudan Datta’s Ekei ki baley Sabhyata (is this civilization?) and Dinabandhu Mitra’s Sadhabhar Ekadashi (The wife’s ‘widow-fast’).
But Hootum went further; it was a riot act that ran breathless through the city, describing it for the chaotic circus that it was, narratives that at the same time came with a fable attached.
The 'Charak' festival, which the book begins with, was observed mainly in the month of March-April and saw an amazing and quite natural subversion of social conventions. It was a time when the subaltern ruled. Low caste devotees of Lord Shiva performed this penance, when people swung from ropes with an iron hook embedded into their backs. It had also its own pantomimes and cultural functions. Hootum describes how a fourth generation servant became the ‘mula sannayasi’, the chief devotee of Shiva for a day, when even his master propitiated him. In 1865, the practice of 'charak' (binding a person to a hook and suspending him from a high pole) was banned on grounds that it was a cruel practice. In a sense however, memories of occasions when customary subservience was overturned with the intervention of ritual remained, which is why sometimes it took on bizarre forms, as described, for example, by Sumit Sarkar in his ‘Kalki Avatar of Bikrampur—a twentieth century scandal’ when a domestic servant in the course of one night subjected his master and his wife to a series of ritual humiliations, on the grounds that he had been possessed.
A week before the charak puja, men of the lower orders wore anklets around their necks, and the sacred thread (emphasis reviewer’s), went dancing around grog shops, brothels, and courtyards of people’s houses to the beating of drums. They went from house to house gathering sannyassis, ie, servants who would then undertake the ritual penances associated with this festival.
In the evening, the children thronged to see the Jhula Sanyas when sadhus were swung over bales of hay set on fire. As the sky darkened, the city looked altogether different, and then it was time for the truth to emerge surreptitiously, Hootum says. Young men would frequent grog shops, and babus visited the shady quarters of the city, to meet prostitutes while pretending not to recognize or see anybody.
Festivals were indeed occasions for such subversion. It was a time when as a new order came into being—with office routine, adherence to a schedule, something unheard of in the times of the nawab, people or more specifically babus sought welcome relief in chaos.
The occasion of the ‘snanyatra’ at Mahesh, a village by the Hooghly, where people went for a holy dip, turned out to be rambunctious adventure for men. They would smoke ganja and take along with them fancy women, as Hootum calls them euphemistically. Gurudas Guin was a carpenter who lived beyond his means and splurged on festivals. On this occasion, he decided to rent a boat with his friends to go to Mahesh. They went in search for a fancy woman and being unable to find one, Gurudas persuaded his widowed aunt, who was more than willing, to accompany them.
Festivals such as this marked the calendar all the year around. Snanyatra was followed by Rathyatra a festival for older, more staid people, with Manasa puja, Arandhan, Janmashtami and finally the grandest of all, the Durga Puja in quick succession.
These community pujas were moments when wealth (usually ill-gotten as Hootum insists) was vulgarly displayed, when the babu’s hapless manager went seeking donation (as described in ‘community puja’) and where the durwans took pleasure in humiliating the latter by making him wait or poking fun at all his fanciness.
Hootum tells the travails of Kanaidhan Dutta, Birkrishna Dan’s manager who hired a carriage and set out to collect funds for the community puja. Dan owned barns for storing grain, he invested money in lending activities, and he owned a buggy, a mistress, a couple of lackeys, a garden-house in the immediate suburb, among other things. Dan was the chief patron of the community puja, and it was his manager’s task to solicit funds.
As the manager is ill-treated by durwans, Hootum also slips in a fable. He tells the story of the fishmonger who appearing before the big zamindar asked to be punished because everyone from the gate to the inside chambers had asked him for a bribe, to give him his appointment.
Some practices such as young men going around looking for contributions for Durga Puja seem very contemporaneous. Moreover there were rituals that had obviously descended into malpractice and exploitation, especially of hapless, vulnerable women, such as the instance of gosains who slept with a new bride citing custom in defence; Harahari, as Hootum narrates, however, had other ideas. He hid under the marriage bed and when the time came, beat the gosain to pulp. Since then, Hootum says, almost in Cheshire cat manner, gosains have been lying low.
As for the actual puja at a time when the British ruled , this is what happens:
“Instead of feeding the Brahmins they offer wine and rice to their dear friends, among whom there are some ladies….imported tapers burn in front of the image and one is allowed to visit the sacred spot with one’s shoes on. The image is decorated with finery brought from England. The Mother Goddess wears a bonnet instead of a crown and takes sandwiches instead of fruit as offering.”
The community puja, Hootum elaborates in the instance of the worship of Kali, “has now been taken over by loan sharks, wholesalers, shopkeepers, vegetable sellers ; traders/ shopkeepers have to drop a cowree for evey maund of goods he sells/ exports in a year. It goes towards the community puja."
The authenticity of this account is in turn confirmed by the account of Ramgati Nyayratna, the first historian of Bengali language and literature, who valued Hootum for its accurate depictions of society. A review in the Hindu Patriot observed— ‘His pictures are so vivid and truthful—they are sometimes so faithful as representations of current weaknesses that many will be pointed at as having sat for their portraits.’
Shibnath Shastri’s non-fictional Ramtanu Lahiri o Tatkalin Bangasamaj written in 1904 also appeared to corroborate this, ‘Calcutta spread a moral infection too. Men did not hesitate to further their nests by telling lies, cheating, taking bribes, and committing forgeries, and similar crimes, and instead of being looked down upon, they were praised for their cleverness.’
The threatened world of the ‘Babu’
Community pujas could indeed drive the babu man bankrupt for all their indulgence in licentious practices. Hootum is also then a description of a vanishing culture, the old style Babu, who tried hard to adjust to changing times but in the end, was simply a victim of his times.
Here’s how Hootum describes a typical Babu:
“Bagambar Babu and the likes of him are more terrible than a snake, more violent than a tiger. They are truly speaking a kind of dreadful beast. They try to do good to the country to serve their own interests. Their only thought is how to be a big man, how to bring everybody under their feet. They are the least generous and their charity would never go beyond four annas.”
The Babu culture was a product of Bengal’s encounter with the west. The term in the 1850s came to refer to the lavish and extravagant lifestyle of the city’s newly rich, ie, the absentee landlords, the new mercantile class, banias or agents of the British and others who had made good in such times. The newly western educated Bengalis came to abhor the word ‘babu’ because the sahibs applied it to Indians in a derogatory fashion, whereas in the days of the nawabs, it was a title of honour.
“Another grotesque character, Danu Babu lays about his own father in a drunken fit, then tells his weeping mother that if the old fool dies with the blessings of Vidyasagar (the proponent of widow remarriage) he will bring home another father and the three of them will sit and drink together.”
Bankim Chandra Chatterji once wrote a satirical essay called ‘Babu’ to demonstrate the relation between Babu and the brown sahib on one hand and Black Babu and white nabob on the other.
‘The word babu will have various meanings. To those who will be installed as the rulers of India, known by the name of Englishmen, Babu will mean clerk or shopkeeper. To the poor, the word Babu will mean a richer man. To servants, babu will mean master. Different from all these, some few men will be born who will be desirous only of living as babus and it is these whom I am praising. Those who contest this will listen to the Mahabharata in vain. Reborn as cows they will become food for babus.’
It was the escapades of this last class of babus that shaped a popular genre of literature in the 19th century of which Hootum Pyanchar Naksha was a foremost example.
But for all their ill-gotten wealth, and the manner this was obtained, Hootum warns such wealth was short-lived, as he shows in the eponymous story of Babu Padmalochan Dutta.
Bad luck befell the family the day he was born, though the ominous appearance of some signs were seen as good luck, Hootum satirically soliloquies. Padmalochan indeed showed not the least interest in studies, his family had lost all land by the time he reached adulthood, and so he went to Calcutta to serve as a cook cum errand boy. His luchis were so excellent that he earned the nickname of ‘maker’. From cook, he rose to become ship sarkar, then sudder mate, and then accountant and his fortunes steadily improved. Now men thronged his house instead, in the manner of ‘timeservers’ who attach themselves to those whose star is rising. The timeservers, Hootum says, include kayasthas, babus, idle pensioners. Idolators, kulin Brahmins, and those who have gone broke—and they are always looking for someone to flatter. And while luck favoured Padmalochan, he became too ambitious. He became extravagant, spent money.
As he headed towards bankruptcy, he began to believe in all kinds of rituals, superstition, gathered around himself hordes of unscrupulous Brahmins. He soon came to believe he had superhuman powers, as they flattered him no end. From the money he obtained as a charlatan, he built himself a house and at the age of fifty got himself a mistress.
But this was as to be expected, other babus did much the same. Some built monuments for their mistresses and there were many who spent the night with their mistresses and returned home quietly, having paid off their loyal servants. The wife for her part slept alone next to a tulsi leaf.
Calcutta, and Hootum sounds rueful, became a city of whorehouses because of such lecherous babus. There were more whorehouses in a single locality than ever before. But it seemed the licentiousness of the babus spared no one literally, not even women in their family. Within homes, quacks and mendicants supplied herbs, and abortions were always discreetly carried out.
As social climber, Padmalochan had his son married off in the most lavish manner possible, into one of Calcutta’s most well-established families. Several lakhs of rupees were spent on the wedding, as rumours went, and the leftovers stashed away by the women of the family, instead of being given away to charity, rotted as days passed. Hootum strikes a sarcastic note when he says that for all their attempts to revive the Hindu faith despite the efforts of the British and the reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy, they would never deign to give money for the famine afflicted in the northwest frontier provinces; and if anyone came to them for help, they were driven away. Neither did he trust English medicine as he lay dying, and he died in abject agony, as the desi kavirajs couldn’t cure him.
Such strict Hindus are the bane of reformation. “They are the main obstacles to the well-being of Bengal. They are society’s pests. “
There were real life embodiments of Padmalochan Dutta that Kaliprasanna Sinha must have had in mind as he wrote this book. Several decades ago, there was Nabakrishna Deb, a native collaborator with the British who started his career as Persian tutor to Warren Hastings. He was an orthodox Hindu but his lavish worship of the gods smacked heavily of old-style nawabi grandeur and was accompanied also by nautches starring baijis from the declining Muslim courts of Murshidabad and Lucknow. Robert Clive, the Governor of Bengal and other dignitaries graced these occasions as did prominent Jews, Armenians and Muslims of the city. Indeed, it was Nabakrishna who started the public or community worship (Baroari Puja) of Durga to celebrate the British victory at Palashi (Plassey).
He was also said to have spent nearly a million rupees at his mother’s funeral. In order to raise his family in the caste hierarchy, he spent an immense sum to marry his grandson off to a girl of a higher caste, their surname was consequently changed from ‘Dey’ to the Brahmin sounding Deb.
Ramdulal Dey was another babu who saw an overnight rise to prosperity through a deal over a sunken ship. He used his wealth to seek social power and status. ‘Society is in my iron safe,’ he once remarked, ‘I will buy up all the kulins’ (a category of Brahmins). The remark was occasioned by the ‘Kaliprasadi scandal’ when Kaliprasad Datta was shunned by brahmins at his father’s funeral on account of Kaliprasad’s Muslim concubine. Ramdulal came to Kaliprasad’s rescue and made good his boast—he did win over the kulins.
The Babus as long as they were collaborators in the British scheme of things, sometimes acquired a huge fortune on account of their proximity to the new regime, yet little did they realize that in the ultimate scheme of things, the motives of rulers and ruled could never be reconciled or be the same. The disillusionment came when Babus and their mutant species, the brown sahib began demanding an equal share in power and administration. There were furious European reactions to the ‘Black Acts’ of 1836, 1849 that sought to allow trial of Europeans in indigenous courts, and these were soon followed by controversy over the Ilbert Bill controversy of 1883
The Anonymous Citizen
In Hootum’s pages, the anonymous citizen of Calcutta also makes frequent appearances. These include not merely the servants, but the many artisans and craftsmen and also prostitutes. Traditionally skilled craftsmen had been lured away from the villages of Bengal to the new city in the 18th century. They had struck it rich but gradually sank into poverty by the middle of the next century as they were unable to compete with the European tradesmen who began pouring into the growing metropolis attracted by the rich clientele.
Sumanta Banerjee narrates the story of Ramjan Ostagar’s lane that existed in most Calcutta maps till the last quarter of the 19th century.
Ramjan Ostagar was a tailor by profession, and tailoring in these times was also a Muslim monopoly in old Calcutta; the Ostagars were the master tailors. It was a thriving business given the variety of sartorial fashions then followed. The Bengali aristocrats needed the Ostagars and his kind for the still fashionable Mughal style embroidered robes that was worn on formal occasions. Less affluent members of commercial society, clerks and babus and small employees, flocked to these tailors as well for their daily attire—the banian (a close-fitting, short-sleeved double-breasted tunic, one side folded over the other and tied with laces), the ‘China coat’ (an open-breasted coat with bone buttons) and the newly introduced European shirt complete with collar and cuffs, that was soon popular among the anglicized ‘young Bengal’ generation. But by the 1830s Ramjan Ostagar and his fellow tailors had lost their rich patrons, who were shifting their loyalties to the new English tailoring firms.
Ramjan was ousted from public memory as well. In 1877, the Municipal commissioners renamed several streets and streets named after ‘lowly individuals’ were renamed after respectable persons. So Ramjan Ostagar Lane became Madanmohan Datta’s lane, the latter was diwan to collector of Calcutta and Salt agent of the district of 24-parganas.
The rise and fall of Ramjan Ostagar is symbolic of the changing fortunes of the working class in 19th century Calcutta. By the 1870s, the once prosperous artisans and craftsmen had joined the ranks of lowly labourers—the barbers and the washermen, the servants and scavengers. The 1876 census has an interesting list of the variety of occupations among the city’s lower orders: domestic servants of various categories like khansamas or butlers, cooks, gardeners, pankah-pullers, barbers, water carriers, washermen, transport workers like palanquin bearers, coachmen, boatmen, and porters, flower-sellers and confectioners,, artisans like potters, bangle-makers, clay-modellers, and braziers, persons manufacturing traditional commodities like oil and salt, and the first generation of the industrial workforce—the jute and textile mill workers. Even popular entertainers were cited in the 1876 census—street musicians, singers, actors, dancers and jugglers. And there were the prostitutes, whose ranks, the report said seem to have swelled from year to year, a fact that Hootum too draws attention to.
Such groups in turn threw up their own entertainers—singers and dancers, mimes and puppeteers. Facets of popular culture were evident in songs sung by Bhola Maira, the sweet seller cum kabial or extempore singer; in the jatras of Gopal Urey, and the procession of sangs (pantomime jesters), and the street dances of the jhummurwalis.
Advent of Modernity
The last chapter on the introduction of a railway train from Howrah to Allahabad in the north humorously tells the tale of modernity’s impact on an old tradition, ie, how the railways led to the subversion of caste.
For many intellectuals of the time, ‘caste (was) non-essential,’ as Bankim wrote once. ‘There have been and there still are many Hindu sects who discard caste distinctions,’ he wrote. He also wrote in Confessions of a Young Bengal, “We have cast away caste. We have outlived the absurdity of a social classification based upon the accident of birth. But we are not such ultra-radicals as to adopt for our catchword the impracticable formula of ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’.”
As the train waited to commence its journey, Premananda Das Babaji of Nimtala, like other holy men of his ilk, had a desire to travel to Benares for the Durga Puja holidays.
“Babaji was a big shot among those who presided over the biggest monastery of the order of Sreepath Jorasanko. He was a wealthy man with a huge following. Premananda’s body was enormous, with a big bolster-like belly, and fleshy hands and limbs. His complexion was like black stone, the chalice of a hookah, or the polished surface of a paddy-boiling pot. His head was shaven, except for a long tiki tied up in a bun. The Babaji had long given up wearing his dhoti with pleats in front: he’d wrap all kinds of fanciful cloth over his G-string.”
Having picked an auspicious date for his journey, Babaji set off with two disciples acting as porter and attendant. There was his friend too, Gnananada Baba of Sreepath Kumarnagar, who was as skinny as Premananda was obese. “Gnanananda was skeletal, he had a quilt wrapped around himself, and his cough left his mouth hanging loose like a dead fish’s.”
But their journey was none too memorable. Their carriage took on a new passenger who was drunk to the high heavens. The train they boarded was crowded and Premananda’s girth made him an object of ridicule. A Jatra troupe made fun of Premananda, he found it difficult to keep his balance and by and large railway officials harassed passengers.
An anonymous rhyme of the time bewailed:
Jat marley tin Seney
Kaliprasanna Sinha died aged only 30. It is said he died of excessive drinking and that he was very deeply in debt. It was all tragically reminiscent of the babus whose lives he mocked in this book; a classic that remains the one quintessential work that delves into Calcutta’s popular culture of the 19th century.
Keshab Seney Wil-seney Isti Seney
Caste had been destroyed by the three Sens—Keshab Sen, the Brahmo leader; Wilsen, or Wilson’s hotel where Hindus would guzzle ‘forbidden food’, and then there was the ‘Istisen’ or station, as caste rules chould not be observed on railway journeys.
Calcutta, The Living City: Volume 1, The Past : edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, OUP India, 1990
‘The Kalki Avatar of Bikrampur: a 20th century Scandal’ by Sumit Sarkar, in Subaltern Studies VI, OUP India, 1989
‘Kaliyuga, Chakri and Bhakti; Ramakrishna and his Times’ by Sumit Sarkar in Beyond Nationalist Frames, Permanent Black, 2001
Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture of 19th century Calcutta by Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1989
References to Bankim Chandra Chatterji—from different chapters of Calcutta, The Living city, Volume 1.
Published July, 2010