March 3, 2007 1:10:46 pm
Every great city deserves to have its own bookshelves of novels written about it. Chowringhee, by Bengali novelist ‘Sankar’ (Mani Sankar Mukherji), is one such novel of Calcutta. Sankar’s novels Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman), from his trilogy Swarga Martya Patal, were adapted for film by Satyajit Ray, along with Sunil Ganguly’s Pratidwandi, for Ray’s own superb Calcutta series. Seemabaddha is a story of corporate Calcutta. Jana Aranya, which Ray described as the only bleak film he had made, is about an idealistic young man compelled to become corrupt in a changing city.
Chowringhee, Sankar’s much-loved 1962 novel set in 1950s Calcutta, was also made into a film. Pinaki Bhushan Mukherji’s 1968 adaptation had Bengal’s great heartthrob Uttam Kumar playing the reception clerk, with Utpal Dutt, Shubhendu Chatterjee, Supriya Choudhary and Biswajeet in the cast. Despite the success of the film, the stage adaptation and translations into several other Indian languages, Arunava Sinha’s lively English translation, completed in 1992, had to wait 15 years for publication.
The novel begins on what is formally known as Esplanade, which “people like us”, says our narrator, simply call Chowringhee. Shankar, a boy from Howrah who earlier worked as clerk to an English lawyer, is struggling to survive as an itinerant vendor of wastebaskets. An acquaintance from happier days, an optimistic private detective poetically named Byron, finds him a job at the city’s grand old Shahjahan Hotel. Here young Shankar enters a new world, “a city in itself” — where the doorman matches his salute to the lineage of the car; where the carpets are so fine you sink in them and then rise again; where 300 banquet guests means 300 napkin flowers; where the menu and wine cards are typed out afresh and cyclostyled for every meal; where the “list of precedence” of the city’s rich and famous is strictly observed; where the building bears “the stamp of ancient aristocracy” and isn’t so much a hotel “as a framed picture”.
But the Shahjahan is also an abode of transients, the location of carefully, discreetly planned liaisons as well as careful monitoring of guests from “certain countries”. It is not one world but two, where, as the lift moves up from the cold, air-conditioned guest floors to the warmer air of the employees’ terrace, even the liftman relaxes and bends to scratch himself. Shankar’s mentor Sata Bose reserves his formal politeness for guests, and warm friendliness for fellow employees. The main thing that matters to Gurberia the waiter is not who built the Taj Mahal but whether the tips are shared equally among the waiters at the Taj, or retained individually. And the finicky ways of the glittering set are mystifying to the hotel staff, for whom even RSVP, as far as they knew in school, meant only “rashogolla-sandesh-very-pleasing”.
One of the most moving scenes in the novel is a farewell party given by the hotel employees for one of their colleagues, a man who fought for their free tea and stood by them through every crisis. The simple affair is held in “Little Shahjahan”, under a tin roof and a naked sixty-watt bulb, with neither napkin flowers nor cutlery. But in front of their guest of honour is a china plate, proper cutlery and a napkin neatly folded into a flower. Their guest, who until now has been an employee like them, chides them gently: wouldn’t the management be upset that they had borrowed the hotel’s crockery without permission? But no, the employees tell him, they haven’t brought it from the hotel; they have each paid four annas and bought a new plate, cutlery napkin from New Market. Watching the lives of the employees as they scurry about to keep their wealthy guests in comfort and their own jobs secure, our narrator observes their situation: “All of us seemed to be sitting like beggars by the roadside, trying to grasp the extraordinary through ordinary means.” Chowringhee is the moving story of this struggle.
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