Cities of the Dead

A view of South Park Street Cemetery

Two men sit deep in discussion in a small, sparsely furnished office inside the South Park Street Cemetery (SPS), cups of tepid tea in front of them. Outside, the antique, silent tombstones stand cool under the shade of giant trees in the blazing noonday sun. The bustle of Park Street is a muted hum, nothing that the chirping of birds and squirrels cannot easily drown.

The men are Ranajoy Bose, executive member of the Christian Burial Board (CBB), and Dr Sudip Bhattacharya, a reader in the department of English, at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur. And both are engaged in a task that has the potential to make the difference between survival and extinction for a large chunk of the city’s heritage – its colonial cemeteries.

Bose, a former member of Kolkata’s corporate circles, and Bhattacharya, who almost accidentally finds himself writing a book on Kolkata’s colonial cities of the dead, are united in one other respect: a fierce pride in their city’s past, and an urgent realisation that unless steps are taken now, cemeteries such as the ones on South Park Street and Lower Circular Road may well go the way that a few others of their kind have done – become irretrievably extinct.

“Outwardly, some of the cemeteries are in relatively decent condition, such as South Park Street, but without constant fund, maintenance and renovation, the existing tombstones will join those already ruined,” says the 41-year-old Bhattacharya. Bose adds, “South Park Street is one of the world’s oldest walk-through cemeteries, but not too many people in this city know that.”

As they take us on a guided tour of the eight acres of lush green land, Bose and Bhattacharya point out graves of historical significance. Mary Bowers, who died in 1781 after having survived the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, young Rose Aylmer, a renowned beauty and the heroine of Walter Savage Landor’s poem of the same name, Sir William Jones, the celebrated Indophile, Sanskrit scholar, and founder of the Asiatic Society, and, of course, HLV Derozio, founder of Young Bengal and rebel extraordinaire.

A few blocks away, at the still operational Lower Circular Road cemetery, Bhattacharya points out an interesting fact. “You’ll find the graves of many American sailors here,” he says. “They came out on the ships that brought ice to Kolkata, which was stored in the old mint near Howrah Bridge. Clearly, the Europeans here had a weakness for natural American ice.” Interestingly, LC Road also houses the tomb of Rev Sudhir Chatterjee, a member of the IFA Shield winning 1911 Mohun Bagan team.

This is just one of his findings, one of the many that he has come across as he read up about the cemeteries and the people buried in them. “You know, I found out that when he first came out to India as a judge, Sir William Jones’ only priority was to save 30,000 pounds from his salary, which he calculated would take him six years, and then go back to England,” he smiles. “Without exception, Europeans came to this city to get rich. India was the pagoda tree for them.”

Bose adds, “When you look at the graves, you realise the enormity of Kolkata’s cultural diversity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its tremendously cosmopolitan nature. As a Bengali, that is a source of great pride for me.”

Also significant among Bhattacharya’s findings is the fact that many of the deceased in these cemeteries died young, and of diseases as yet unknown to European medical science (the earliest death in SPS dates back to 1768). “On the one hand, they were forging an empire, and on the other, their doctors were trying to combat diseases for which they often didn’t even have names,” he says. So, with the cemeteries as his starting point, part of his agenda is to figure out the European plan of action in the face of the assault.

Neither is it possible to ignore the archaeological significance of SPS in particular. “This cemetery is probably unique in that it is a Christian cemetery with almost no crosses on the tombstones,” says Bhattacharya. “Instead, you have an explosion of Indo-Saracenic architectural styles that clearly indicate the influence of local builders and architects on the tombstones.”

A most remarkable example is the tomb of Maj Gen Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stewart, who converted to Hinduism and ritually bathed in the Ganges, though he was given a Christian burial. Modelled on Orissa temple architecture, his renovated tomb proudly attests to his flamboyant life and times.

Also clear is the economic significance of every burial. “Quite clearly, the more lavish tombstones contributed handsomely to the local economy,” says Bhattacharya. “An average tombstone would cost in the range of 900 sikka rupee (around 400 pounds). The more lavish ones could cost anything between 3,000 and 5,000 sikka rupees.”

At none of the other cemeteries, though, is one to find the level of renovation evident at SPS. As Bhattacharya and Bose both point out, the relatively happy situation at SPS is the result of the combined efforts of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), the CBB, and the Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India (APHCI). Add to that the efforts of retired archaeologist A Bandopadhyay and botanist Dr KN Ghosh, and SPS has a relatively decent outlook.

“At both Lower Circular Road and SPS, we are planning a botanical map of the rare plants on the premises,” says Bose. “And both are also potential ‘carbon sinks’, or green zones that provide much needed pollution control.”

Clearly, though, it will take several years for the same efforts to reach the Maniktala cemetery, for instance, which houses the graves of the remarkable poetess and novelist Toru Dutt and her family. Though partially renovated recently, the graves are lying in the midst of appalling neglect and ruin, as are those at the Scottish Cemetery on Karaya Road. The Greek cemetery at Phoolbagan is in a happier condition, but strictly keeps visitors away.

Happily for the Scottish Cemetery, the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust has taken up its cause and is seeking to at least restore parts of the cemetery, to it former glory, as was done with SPS. ‘These cemeteries are clearly among our most important colonial relics,” says Bandopadhyay. “Every single grave is worthy of preservation.”

While those preservation efforts may have come too late for some cemeteries and tombs, Bose feels the only way forward is to make the cemeteries more tourist friendly, so that revenue generation is a possibility. “These tombs are a testament to the social, economic, and political conditions that have shaped our present. We ignore them at our peril,” he says.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 27, 2011

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Mother Superior?

Mirror image

There’s a cacophony outside Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s ‘home for the destitute and dying’ in Kolkata’s Kalighat area, right next to its famed Kali temple. A ragtag bunch of children are clamouring for what they call chhoto coupon (small coupons). These prized scraps of paper make them eligible for an ‘outing’ the next day.

It is the morning of Mother Teresa’s 100th birth anniversary, and apart from the much-discussed outing, the children are also being treated to cakes and juice, consumed at lightning speed. In case we have missed the point, one of the kids gravely points to the photograph of the ‘saint of the gutters’ at the building’s entrance and says, ‘Boro ma’r janmadin’ (roughly, ‘it’s the senior mother’s birthday’).

As a beleaguered Missionaries of Charity (MC) nun tries to keep them under control and smile enquiringly at us at the same time, a shriek suddenly goes up: “Laash aschhe (corpse coming)!” In a trice, the doorway is forsaken, the children dispersing in all directions as one of the home’s inmates emerges from it for the last time, on a stretcher, mercifully shrouded, but still forcing us to shrink against the wall of the narrow passage.

As soon as the body disappears inside a van, though, the children are back. Business as usual. Inside, it’s business as usual, too, though there has been some effort to brighten the gloomy interiors with blue and white balloons, and the destitute and dying are dressed in colourful new clothes. Two nuns and a volunteer are in charge, and permission to speak to them or to the inmates is politely but firmly refused.

On the previous evening, at Mother House on AJC Bose Road, the mood is quiet, too. There’s almost nothing to indicate the significance of the day after. Near Mother Teresa’s deserted, unpretentious, nearly unadorned tomb, two Spanish volunteers shred marigolds and collect the petals in a carton, for “tomorrow’s decoration”. Lawyers from Madrid, the two women are also volunteers at an MC centre there.

Every day, between 1 pm and 3 pm, all MC centres take a break. At Mother House, nuns take it in turns to police the otherwise wide-open gate during this period, sifting through the constant stream of visitors — camera-wielding Japanese tourists, a chattering group of Anglo-Indians, bemused Americans, an argumentative journalist from Delhi — to decide whom to let in. The routine never varies, and the rigid sense of discipline and abhorrence for pomp is uniformly striking.

Emmanuel Biswas, a Bengali man in his mid-50s, limps in, takes off his shoes, heads for the tomb and prays audibly, almost weeping.

He’s a Protestant, he tells us later, but has been praying at the Catholic nun’s tomb ever since a debilitating stroke robbed him of normal movement. “What can I say about her? My sins are great, but she will forgive me,” he says.

On the official Missionaries of Charity website — operated by the California-based Mother Teresa of Calcutta Centre — there are 195 entries in a section that invites users to “report any favours or miracles received through the intercession of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”.

Of course, 13 years after her death, Mother Teresa is an overwhelming presence at the institutions she founded. Both Mother House and Nirmal Hriday are overflowing with reminders of the woman who evoked love and distaste in almost equal measure during her lifetime.

Critics, led by Christopher Hitchens, accused her of accepting money for her mission from gunrunners, smugglers, fraudsters, and mass murderers. They demanded explanations about what she did with that money, ridiculed the Vatican’s rush to canonise her (a process that remains unfinished, hence ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’ instead of ‘St Teresa’), accused her of abetting poverty rather than alleviating it, and were scathing about her decision to be treated at a California hospital rather than one of her own “primitive” medical facilities, where the caregivers supposedly depended on love and faith rather than medical training.

Today, in private conversation, former associates confirm what many suspect: despite her critics, Mother Teresa’s personal charisma went a long way in drawing attention to her order. That is not to say that the MC has stopped its work, or that there are any visible signs of decline (MC accounts have never been audited anyway), but, as one former donor says, “They won’t admit it, but there has been a 200 per cent drop in public interest in the MC.”

In similar vein is a comment by a young woman whose livelihood indirectly comes from Mother House —she ‘guides’ all the ‘lost’ foreigners who come in to the house as volunteers, and finds accommodation for them nearby, for a fee. Did she ever see Mother Teresa? No, her husband did. “Mother used to look after him and his brothers when they were children. She used to give them baths, meals…the sisters now are nothing like her,” she says.

Really? “Look at that pagla (lunatic),” she says dramatically, pointing to a homeless man lying on the pavement. “He’s been asking for some clothes for months now, and they won’t give him any. You think Mother would have tolerated it?”

Unfair, probably, given the rate at which the MC’s workload has gone up over the years.

And there’s nothing to show that the order minds the diminishing attention levels. A nun, who declines to give her name, says they love nothing better than to be left in peace. “We are only letting people in because of Mother’s centenary. All this attention is very distracting,” she says.

Nonetheless, attention from all corners of the world made the MC what it is. Today, its founder’s iconic status hasn’t eroded, but in death as in life, she seems to be surpassing the order that she founded, and the cult of the Blessed Teresa is alive and well. Is her life’s work as secure?

This article was first published in Hindustan Times on August 29, 2010

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Dance Like Me

A performance by Kolkata Sanved members

Sitting in the sparse, nondescript Kolkata Sanved office deep inside Jodhpur Park, the slim, soft-spoken Sohini Chakraborty hardly seems the kind of woman who, with her Sanved team, is driving a relatively unique concept – dance movement therapy (DMT) – that appears to have the potential to actually heal broken minds.

A student of Sociology, who took a special paper on criminology, Sohini is also a trained dancer who was with Manjushree Chaki Sircar’s Dancers’ Guild. “But I always knew I wanted to do more with dance than just perform or teach,” she explains. And the idea took firmer root as Sohini began studying such issues as women’s trafficking and violence against women. “There is a tendency to view dance as either entertainment or, if it’s a classical dance form, as elitist,” says Sohini. “But dance is much, much more. In its purest form, dance is total catharsis.”

The dancer-cum-social activist realised she could attain her goal when she came across a poster for the NGO Sanlaap at the Kolkata Book Fair, and took the first step towards a life-long dream of working with survivors of trafficking and violence. And yet, when she first began teaching the women how to dance, she realised she was not connecting with them. “I was using stereotyped, traditional dance moves, and I realised I would have to devise something new,” she says.

One thing led to another, and Sohini finally set up her own NGO, Kolkata Sanved, in 2004. Today, she can proudly say that many of the girls whom she worked with during those early days are now dance therapists themselves. “We sort of discovered dance therapy without realising it was already a valid therapy tool in the West,” she laughs, describing the time in 2000 when she helped organise Rangeen Sapne, a physical theatre performance comprising dance and mime, with 120 children.

Once they did realise it, however, there was no looking back. From training 10 dancers initially to propagate what Sanved calls ‘saving lives through dance’, Sohini and her team have now devised a whole DMT curriculum that focuses on ‘body awareness’ and ‘integration’.

“Being a trained dancer helped me, but if you look at it another way, dance is in all of us. We can’t survive without movement, and dance is nothing but a series of coordinated movements,” Sohini says. “And movement is in itself a liberation.”

Based on that principle, Sanved has been working with inmates of the city’s Lumbini and Pavlov mental health centres and has commissioned a study on the effects of DMT on mentally challenged individuals. “In terms of rediscovering the body, discussions reveal dance brought in an element of magic and fantasy that energized and inspired the participants,” says an extract from the abstract of the study.

“We like to think we have broken the elitist approach to dance,” smiles Sohini. “Of course, Sanved is not a miracle worker, but we do recognise that DMT has had an impact on people living with mental illness, as well as helped numerous women live purposeful, dignified lives.”

On March 27, Sanved launched the Kolkata Sanved Curriculum – Dance Movement Therapy for Mental Health & Recovery. For details, call +91 33 24174093 or write to

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Lalgarh Comes Calling

The rally in Kolkata

The rally in Kolkata

I was back at home from work on Friday evening, and sitting in front of the TV, when a colleague called to say she still hadn’t got home because… some people had shot arrows at the bus in which she was travelling, and that had caused a tyre to burst. All this on Mayo Road, geographically the centre of Kolkata, and within virtual shouting distance of both Writers’ Buildings (the city’s administrative headquarters) and Lalbazar (the police headquarters).

Naturally, I reacted with complete disbelief. Arrows? Tribal activists? Shooting with lethal intent in the heart of the city?

Well, yes, she said, describing how she and fellow passengers had ducked to avoid further arrows, and how there seemed to be very few policemen around.

When it finally registered, there was a sense of inevitability about it. At last, trouble in Lalgarh had come home to roost, and we could no longer pretend that tribal militant activism in West Bengal was limited only to some vague corner of Midnapore and had no direct bearing on our lives.

Years of administrative neglect and exploitation have piled up to bring the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) out on to the streets, and they are in no mood to back down this time. Curiously enough, most of us identify with them, because anyone who has been to rural areas of West Bengal will testify to the complete lack of government involvement in the lives of the people, and the iron hand with which the ruling Left Front coalition seeks to rule their daily activities.

All that is changing, and in years to come, Lalgarh could well become a model for other disaffected regions. The area’s residents have declared a boycott of the elections scheduled to be held here in a week, banned the entry of policemen of any description, and, with a series of carefully coordinated shows of strength led by Chhatradhar Mahato (of whom we are likely to hear a lot more), demonstrated how thoroughly they can bring an inept and hitherto indifferent state machinery to its knees.

Well, indifference is no longer an option. Every single Kolkatan I have spoken to, including those who suffered the PCPA roadblock on Friday, seem to be endorsing the ‘serve them right’ line of thought. For many, the people of Lalgarh have done what we in the city have been unable to do, and they have finally spoken to the Left Front in the language that it understands.

Yes, we all know that the language of violence takes on a life of its own after a point, and if the situation in Lalgarh is not brought under control soon, it could well spiral into a bloodbath, but if that is the only threat that seems to get our leaders to listen, so be it.

For far too long, West Bengal has been steadily pushed along the road to ruin by a party that claims ideological high ground for all its acitvities. It villages and cities have rotted away, its brightest workforce migrated to other cities and countries to shine there. Other than Kolkata, we have no major city to speak of, and the one-time capital of British India, rather than the cosmopolitan cultural hub that it used to be three decades ago, is striving to be a poor copy of Delhi and Mumbai, and failing miserably.

Whichever way you look at it — industry, healthcare, agriculture, education, employment — West Bengal is likely to be found at the bottom of the list, and the constant attempt to inject the CPI(M)’s cadres into every walk of life has finally become too much to tolerate. Therefore, the people of Lalgarh, for instance, now look to the Maoists, not the state, for help, in times of crisis.

Therefore, no matter how great our fear of violence, our desire for change is likely to overshadow it. In the coming months, don’t be surprised if a hundred Lalgarhs spring up across our unfortunate state.

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