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28 May 2001

The ghosts of empire haunt the city of night and joy

The fractious memsahibs and exuberant soldiers of the Raj may lie dead and buried, but Calcutta's to

By Jeremy Seabrook

The texture of the city is intensely evocative: the remains of unrestored structures, crumbling, ornately monumental; flowers and shrubs growing out of the fissured masonry; bone-bleached wood and cracked stained glass, dingy with grime; the fallen brickwork and ruinous grandeur of broken cupolas; rusty metallic vegetation and fallen minarets, designed to last for an imperial infinity.

These are haunted places. They call forth the silenced voices of fractious memsahibs whose servants could do nothing right; the cries of an exuberant soldiery celebrating days of jubilee and the power of the empress; the grumbling of the functionaries of empire, languishing in their lucrative Bengali exile; the sighs of professionals, the doctors and lawyers whose loneliness drove them to the consolations of women in the native quarter; the discontent of underlings whose only hope was to make money as quickly as possible so they could return to a secluded villa in south London.

Calcutta still exudes the colonists’ preoccupation with parades and festivals, card parties, polo and shooting expeditions, long weary evenings at the piano, accompanied by the phantom aerial drumming of rain on broad leaves outside the open windows.

You can almost hear the tinkle of the chandelier glasses with their languorous rainbow refractions, see the faded images in the cloudy cheval-mirrors, hear the backgammon tiles and the chink of whisky glasses as the curls of cigar smoke spiralled through the humid air, dispelled by tireless punkah-wallahs. As they drove in their carriages along the grand Esplanade and took tea in the Great Eastern Hotel, did they imagine they had recreated Cheltenham or Harrogate, or were they content to parade an exiled lordliness that they could never have got away with at home?

In their clubs, the stuffed leopards and tigers remain in their tarnished glass cases, surrounded by arrangements of the material weaponry that slew them. Meticulous records in brittle marbled-cover ledgers, the careful identification of the flora and fauna of each district, etched in copperplate script in volumes half-devoured by white ants: the British left to free India the indelible marks of their obsession with taxation, taxonomy and taxidermy.

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All dead now. Some became part of the perpetual dust of Kolkata, others lie in shady churchyards in England, where their lichen-effaced tombstones bear witness to their duty to empire. But if their ghosts still inhabit the city, this is not only as figments of the imagination: what they thought and felt is not difficult to discover, as the newspapers of the time faithfully chronicled their prejudices and parochialism, as well as their observations of the culture from which most remained perpetually and intentionally estranged. The Statesman is one of the oldest English-language newspapers in India, and it yields some revealing insights into their perceptions. When, in 1881, the Maharaja of Kuch Behar started a Native Club, in imitation of the colonial occupiers, the paper recorded that “education and European ideas are making such rapid progress among our Aryan brethren, and club life has become far more acceptable to the latter”. They welcomed the setting up of the Bengal Laundry Company, which would do away with “the manifold inconveniences of the present system of washing clothes adopted by country dhobis, including the spread of infective and various other evils, which it is the object of the present company to overcome”. They warned against attending the theatre because, “owing to the condition of Hindoo society, it is absolutely impossible for any respectable female to appear upon the stage, and the actresses can never possibly be anything else than public women”. Some, more liberal, residents protested at early forms of slum clearance, a projected “grand sweeping away of thatched huts” in a premature and doomed attempt to beautify the city.

The complaints against the natives were never-ending. For example: “On Saturday last, I had engaged a coolly to carry my purchases from China Bazaar to Howrah, and putting the bazaar [goods] into the basket of the man, I told him to follow me. He did so to my satisfaction for the first hour, but during the second, to my great loss and surprise, I discovered that he had cleared off with my things . . . I then felt keenly the want of an order by the Municipality to make every coolly within its bounds carry a ticket on a conspicuous part of his body.”

There were 697 deaths from cholera in the town during the fourth quarter of 1882. And thus it was announced that “the Viceroy and a party from Government House will leave by special train for a day’s pig-sticking. Lord William Beresford will pilot the party, and good sport is expected.” Also: “Now that the hot weather is setting in, is it too much to request our Aryan brethren to cover their bodies when travelling in the tramway, as it is anything but agreeable to take a seat vacated by a half-naked man . . . reeking with perspiration and oil?”

Descriptions of Calcutta are plentiful, contrasting the salubrious southern part of the city, “with its wide boulevards and ornamental tanks, with its stone-paved footpaths, figured lamp-posts, gardens and clean-swept esplanade, which, in this weather almost makes one forget he is in the East”, and the north, “with its black, ill-lighted, narrow, slimy lanes, its atrocious ponds, its gaping ditches, its miserable by-paths on which every abomination under the sun is committed, and its sloughs of despond after each passing shower of rain”. It is also reported: “A great sensation was caused last week by the public initiation of a so-called European into the faith of Islam. This is the second case of the kind which has occurred in the past year, and the impression made upon the mass of the people is very great.” And: “It has always struck us as an incongruity that in this vast country . . . the native public should be unfamiliar with the soul-stirring words of the English National Anthem. To our mind, a conception of the sense of anthem is necessary to a comprehension by our fellow subjects of the first principles of loyalty. It is objected, of course, that, sung in Bengali or Hindustani, the result is a mere travesty of the expression when it proceeds from hearty British lungs.”

All this is picturesque enough, fit for social historians and for antiquarian excursions into an imperial past. But there are ghosts much more malignant stalking the city, more dangerous than imaginary revenants of flesh and bone. Far more menacing are the ideologies of the graveyard, values that continue to animate the social and economic practices of globalisation, which carries into our time the same beliefs and convictions of those defunct representatives of empire. The same certainties are incarnated now in new forms of dominance, in the whizz-kid brashness of the returned Harvard graduates, in the emissaries from the World Bank and IMF, in the seminars held by NGOs and donor agencies in five-star hotels. The continuities are unmistakable, even in the altered sensibilities of a new generation, who enunciate the same rationalisations for injustice and inequality that their disdainful forebears paraded more openly, with pomp and arrogance, along the dusty Maidan and amid the florid architecture of Dalhousie Square.

Within living memory can be heard echoes of an imperial policy that used starvation as an instrument of coercive policy. I recently met an old Bengali woman who recalled that, in the famine of 1943, people would pick up a discarded piece of sugar cane in the street and chew on it again; and when it was thrown down, somebody else would seize it and suck at the juiceless fibre yet again. Those who believed it was anathema to interfere with the workings of the market, and who allowed people to starve rather than in any way hinder its majestic workings, have passed on their sacred dogmas to new institutions, which insist that governments must cut subsidies to nutrition, health and education. To this ideological continuity, the grim (but more scattered) and avoidable deaths of thousands of children in Bengal and elsewhere still testify. In March this year, I saw a man pick up a banana skin and hungrily suck the remaining fragment of fruit from it; yet all around him were sellers of grapes, apples, oranges, pomegranates and bananas. An eyewitness to the famine of 1973-74, which hit Bengal after the Bangladesh liberation war – a famine made worse when the relief convoys from the United States turned back with their life-saving nourishment after the Bangladeshi government refused to annul an agreement to sell jute to Cuba – told me that every day in one small North Bengal town, ten or more dead bodies were lifted from the market, where they had crawled to die, in sight of abundant grain they could not afford to buy.

Globalisation has made distribution more efficient, but the tyranny of the market has hardened still further. The sanctity of the market, interference with the freedoms of which will bring certain ruin to the world – this is what links the time of the Raj with the burden borne by the poor of India, a nation whose bitter liberties are focused upon objectives other than the well-being of its people and the survival of its poor.

The new agents of dominance are attended by their own cohorts of attendants, camp followers and hangers-on, a different personnel from those who came in the wake of empire. What is the function of tourists in Calcutta, foreign high-castes slumming it in the flophouses and small hotels behind the Esplanade, of the laid-back youth with the faraway look in their doped-up eyes, of their search for transcendence among the drug dealers, pimps and conmen of the city, bringing some small scatterings of their wealth to Kolkata, pursuing strange tours of duty as they go through the ritual of their round-the-world experience before settling into the somnolent delights of life in the global suburb of Atlanta, Yokohama or Berlin? Are they not the contemporary equivalents of the adventurers and small merchants – the petty dealers and semi-criminals – who followed the Raj? They are the mercenaries of globalism, just as the servicers of empire once were, the artisans, railway workers and importers of the latest novelties and delayed fashions from Europe, dependants of an imperial project. What is their function in India, these tourists dressed in beachwear on the dusty margins of the roads of Kolkata, or got up in rags suggestive of a mixture of a sadhu and a derelict from the city streets?

Calcutta (to which a change of name makes no difference) has always been a city-as-metaphor: the poorhouse of the Raj, an entrepot for the draining away of Bengal’s wealth, a destination of hope to fugitives from famine, a source of fragile survival to its slum-dwellers, ruled for the past quarter-century by a Left Front party that might more properly be designated a Left Behind.

City of night and city of joy indeed. But its real significance is as a place of recurring spectres of foreign imperial dominance, of apparitions and ideologies that pass through the porous fabric of its friable, absorbent stone with all the ease of ghosts who are well at home here.

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