In the 250 years of its existence, the Park Street cemetery in Kolkata has seen its share of stolen kisses and frantic lovers, both gay and straight. In Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel, Suitable Boy, Lata takes a leisurely through the Park Street cemetery along with a friend, Amit. They visit the tomb of Rose Aylmer, a Welsh girl who sailed to India with an aunt in 1798, and died of cholera two years later. Famous British poet Walter Savage Landor, a suitor of Rose, immortalised her in a poem Rose Aylmer. Amit and Lata recite the poem together at the spot.
Not far from the bustle of one of Kolkata’s busiest streets, is the South Park Street Cemetery, with two functional old iron gates at the entrance. Inside, rows of obelisks and gazebos spread out on both sides in no particular order. A marble plaque on the left pillar declares that the cemetery opened in 1769 and closed in 1790, but historians will tell you that burials continued into the 1830s.
The cemetery is the final resting place of many like Rose Aylmer. As Souvik Mukherjee, assistant professor of English, Presidency University points out, most Europeans who would land in the muggy, mosquito-ridden city, would last only “two monsoons”. “They would almost always fall prey to malaria,” says Mukherjee, who specialises in the cemeteries of Bengal. The truncated pillars that dot the cemetery signify lives lost too soon. “You will find graves of many, many children here,” says Mukherjee.
According to Susan Hosking’s book, The Great Burial Ground at Chowringhee: Reflections on the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, this is one of the oldest non-church cemeteries in the world. Hosking says that by the mid-18th century, the old Christian burial grounds in the ruins of the first Fort William, established in 1665, had become inadequate. Eight acres of relatively high ground in an uneven and swampy area were marked out for a new cemetery on what was then the southern outskirt of the town.
The oldest tomb in the cemetery, according to Mukherjee, is that of Mrs Sarah Pearson, who died on September 8, 1768. Very little is known of the oldest resident of the place but tomes have been written on the one who has the most prominent tomb of the cemetery — a blindingly white structure in a maze of greys. The tomb of Sir William Jones, renowned philologist and founder of Asiatic Society of Bengal, finds pride of place bang in the middle of the cemetery.
It is definitely not the most beautiful structure in the premises. That distinction belongs to the tomb of Charles Stuart (1758- 1828) or as the officer of the East India Company was popularly known, Hindoo Stuart. A beautiful synthesis of Hindu, European and Islamic styles, the tomb looks like an exotic guest in a genteel gathering. “He was one of the few British officers to embrace Indian culture,” says Mukherjee. CP Hodson’s biography of Stuart mentions that he “had studied the language, manners and customs of the natives of this country with much enthusiasm, his intimacy with them … obtained for him the name of Hindoo Stuart.”
However, in 1984, this very tomb almost fell prey to the greed of realtors. “The cemetery continues to exist thanks to a legal intervention by the Calcutta High Court. An order was issued stopping a well known family business from turning the cemetery into an arts centre. The demolition work had already begun and the damage can still be seen. Innumerable graves have been lost, replaced by strewn rubble and a multi-storey car park. The tomb of Charles Stuart was demolished, later restored, and the demolition of DeRozio’s grave had begun. Justice Bagbati Banerjee saved the South Park Street Cemetery,” says Anthony Khatchaturian writer, guide and Kolkata Heritage activist.
Deepanjan Ghosh, who runs an exhaustive blog on forgotten chapters of the city’s history, says one of the most interesting personalities to be buried in the cemetery is Elizabeth Jane Barwell, popularly known as Miss Sanderson. The “celebrated Miss Sanderson”, daughter of a colonel in East India Company’s army, was widely known as the most beautiful girl in Calcutta when she arrived. She was also notoriously mischievous. “A popular story about her is that she told 16 of her suitors that she would be going to a ball in a Parisian dress and it would be marvellous if they wore a similar costume of pea-green, with pink silk trimmings. All of the men turned up in the exact same ridiculous outfit!” says Ghosh.
Not very far away from her tomb is the modest one of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (died 1831), the revolutionary thinker and poet who, in many ways, shaped the then Bengali intelligentsia. At the age of 18, he got the post of a lecturer in English literature and history at the Hindu College. He was considered to be a rabble-rouser by the orthodox, Hindu-dominated management of the college as he encouraged his students to question social evils. Eventually, he was expelled. His untimely death soon followed. But his legacy lived on. “His grave is the most visited one in the cemetery,” says Ghosh.
Not surprisingly, the cemetery has inspired its share of ghost stories. There were rumours of a priest in white cassock haunting the premises. Mukherjee dismisses it with a simple, irrefutable logic. “Priests in India wear black cassocks,” he says.