Life on the golden strip
Sankar's book is set in the 1950s when the glittering days of Chowringhee were not yet over.
Through the prism of a lowly hotel clerk's eyes, Sankar presents a microcosm of life in the city with extraordinary candour.
Chowringhee, Sankar, translated by Arunava Sinha, Penguin Books, p.403, Rs. 295
CHOWRINGHEE was one of the most popular books in Bengali literature in the 1960s. A translation into English was long overdue. It is well that Arunava Sinha has taken the initiative to fill the gap, thus giving a glimpse of Calcutta (long before Kolkata was accepted as the norm) in its heyday to a wider readership.
Writer Sankar (Mani Sankar Mukherjee), who made a mark with his first book Kato Ajanare, which presented fragments of life as it unfolded in the High Court on Old Post Office Street, took up a much more ambitious project with Chowringhee, depicting life behind the facade of a grand hotel. The film which was made based on the novel with Uttam Kumar as Sata Bose, the central character, was equally successful.
The high life
Sankar's story revolves around the Shahjahan Hotel, a jewel in the crown of Chowringhee, the Golden Strip of Calcutta. Chowringhee's reputation along with the adjacent Park Street as a hub of the entertainment and high life evolved right from the colonial days when the city was the capital of British India. This is where the planters, the rich and powerful from across the country, assembled to enjoy the best nightlife this side of the Suez, patronise the gourmet restaurants and live life as if there was no tomorrow. Even after Independence, for more than a decade Calcutta retained this reputation for offering the best winter sojourn in the country beginning with Christmas. A political change brought in an accompanying change to this ambience.
Sankar's book is set in the 1950s when the glittering days of Chowringhee were not yet over. For Bengali readers, his Shahjahan Hotel, the characters that fleet across its magnificent foyer, are quite recognisable, thinly disguised as they are of real life models. Through the prism of a lowly hotel clerk's eyes, Sankar, or the narrator Shankar, presents a microcosm of life in the city with extraordinary candour. It is a whole new world for the poor boy from a Howrah suburb now transported into this luxurious abode by a fluke. As he is introduced to this world by the enigmatic Sata Bose, the receptionist, he also becomes aware of the underbelly of the metropolis and people who live on the other side of midnight.
Expectedly for its setting, Sankar's Chowringhee is crowded with characters of varied hues. While giving them contour with their tragedies and conflicts, their meanness and humaneness, he is never judgmental; nor does a lower middle class morality colour his characterisations which makes the book so delightful. His keen eyes are at times sardonic describing the nightly rendezvous of social worker and society lady Mrs. Pakrashi, at times full of pathos for people like manager Marco Polo, successful but lonely, and the tragic Karabi Guha. His admiration for Bose-da (Sata Bose) and air hostess Sujata Mitra, the sense of camaraderie for fellow workers from the same poor background like himself who help the cogs of the hotel run smoothly, set another tone to the narrative.
The style of writing is crisp and fast paced, sometimes even reportage-style, which makes for a gripping read. There is no flowery language, neither long philosophical discourses. The characters and situations speak for themselves.
Das's translation sticks faithfully to the style though at times the arrangement of words makes it slightly jarring. For example, "He (Marco Polo) started looking around for a job. And Susan sang." Or, "Sutherland asked, `Do you know whether there were ever barmaids in this hotel?'" Also, it is hard to believe that a true-blue British woman, a guest, would speak like this: "Wherever I go, I find them (American tourists) corrupting good taste chewing on their gum, bulldozing through beauty everywhere."
But these are minor hiccups and it is worth submerging in the life of the Shahjahan Hotel for a while. Living out of a suitcase hardly makes one look behind the curtain.
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