CHARLES DICKENS IN KOLKATA – Sudeep Chakravarti

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of  Tin Fish and The Avenue of Kings. His major non-fiction work, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Non-Fiction Award 2008.  Sudeep’s next work, Highway 39, set in Nagaland and Manipur, will be published in April 2012.

The poor man literally wrote himself to death in London. In Kolkata that was Calcutta in Charles Dickens’ time, he would have lived better—there were exchange-rate princes even in those days. He would have been a star curiosity and chronicler at the socialist end of the spectrum, opposite to, say, fantasies of Empire wrought by a writer that came after him, Rudyard Kipling—the other Victorian-era star curiosity and chronicler. They both had a father called John, but there rested commonality.

I imagine Dickens would have lived for about the same years in the Calcutta of his ‘when’; a relatively better quality of life than in London compacted by various Calcutta-borne diseases and, for sure, overwork from an overload of subjects. The White Nabob’s Papers, perhaps? Hard Times and Bleak House would surely be ready titles.

And now? Dickens would die in a decade in Calcutta-now-Kolkata attempting to stave off overwork and everyday compulsion: so many subjects, so little time, such urgency to earn, what a churn to earn it in. Perhaps he would die of asphyxiation as he rested a nervous breakdown. This would be at a hospital once named after Mother Teresa and to be run not-for-profit—but now a privately-run hospital-for-profit in which nearly a hundred patients died of fire and fumes a few weeks before Christmas. In death, Dickens would morph into a character in one of his stories of supreme irony.

He would have such a full life, though, till the end came. Walking, seeing, feeling, smelling Kolkata in a way no National Geographic documentary seen in London could ever convey; gathering material for his stories he would churn out each week for miserly websites and struggling literary magazines, saving novellas for the pulp-literary annuals timed each autumn around Durga Puja, and novels for release at Kolkata Book Fair each January—here at the mercy of his workhouse publishers.

(Such would be the life of a person who chose to not return home after his fellowship at Jadavpur University’s Department of English had expired. Kolkata would welcome him with its seductive tentacles of ambient culture that mesmerized generations of self-seeking gullibles into belief that it made poverty and decrepitude worthwhile. And, it would hardly help that, driven by the example of worthies such as William Dalrymple he pinned his hopes on earnings as a writer in this ‘place of fertile plots’ and contrived to bring along his surly wife Catherine and their brood of ten. Too late, Dickens would realize what Dalrymple already had: there was much money writing about a romanticized past, nearly none writing a sordid present.)

The good news: As he wouldn’t write about religion, Dickens would at least be permitted to exhibit his works at the book fair, and even sign copies, a privilege not granted fellow writers like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. But such a politically craven ban would perhaps be to the good as Dickens would be swept away by the marketing finesse of his colleagues. Writing twitter, he would discover, is as crucial as writing prose. And an agent—oh, for a smart agent!

I can picture him, seated one evening by the traffic policeman at the corner of Park Street and Russell Street, watching the play of beggars and modern-day nabobs as they exited Bengal Club, to his left; younger nabobs and their frilly ladies from the music and dance clubs of Park Hotel, to his right.

I can see him walking under the flyover that stretches from the ragged cultural centre around Rabindara Sadan—an angrily thrown stone’s distance from the grand memorial to Empress Victoria—east toward a road once named after Viceroy Lansdowne. This flyover Kolkata claimed as a showpiece of progress to rebut claims of its death. Smooth vehicular movement for a few kilometers in a metropolis in which at the same time, several hundred kilometers worth of road would be gridlocked—even the roads the ‘fly over’ swept under its concrete and tar carpet. By walking under, Dickens would see huddled people in rags cooking meals in their homes of blue sheeting and beaten aluminium sheets that once held cooking oil. But he may already have seen those in a thousand shanties in Kolkata, a thousand streets. (Remember: he would have already written a short story about pickpocket children and their tormented leader, the lame Falguni who lived in the warrens carved under the platform of the suburban train station near the Lakes. The children would scurry in and out between trains; some would be run over, but there you have it.)

Dickens would have fought off for much his short, intense life all adulation from the Marxist government that ran Kolkata and the state of which it was the capital,West Bengal. Searching for propaganda victories, they would want him to join their version of the Communist Party. A man of Dickens’s proletarian, driven prose, they would reason, had to carry their card. He would even be summoned by their leader, Supremo, a gentleman who summered inLondonand appreciated the finer scotches. After passing on news of the stricken Charles’s former home, he would offer him a commission to write about the trodden in a manner that helped Supremo claim credit for saving the trodden.

Dickens would decline, pleading that such honour belonged to writers better than he. He would naively suggest Mahasweta Devi’s name—the tribal and caste rights activist—thinking her to be a kindred spirit, but without realizing she had gone past favour with Supremo. He would also choose to not see anger blazing through Supremo’s thick glasses, passing it off as an illusion worked by his own lack of sleep.

Some of his books would mysteriously burn in public squares as a result. Later, Supremo would send minions to the press that was readying to publish his next, an exposé of the wretched life of brick kiln workers near Kolkata. The thinly-veiled character of U. Ray, the overlord of those ‘bonded’ labourers was a senior Party functionary. Such exposés simply would not do.

Dickens would spend the next two years as a guerilla writer, underground, as his family remained sheltered by friends from a slum near his tenement home in Dhakuria. In particular a rickshaw puller called Joy, or Anondo, in Bengali. On one of his travels in the stricken northern suburbs of Kolkata—far from the new glitter of the tall towers of glass and steel to the east built over rich wetlands and farms—he would be searched out by a band of Maoist rebels. They had discovered that Supremo and his cohorts, worshippers of Marx, Engels and Lenin as they purported to be, were actually closer in characteristic to Stalin and a warped Croesus. This would please Dickens, as his recent writings focused on hypocrisy of power, especially crafted by those who claimed to speak on behalf of the powerless. Dickens, even on the run, appreciated the intent of these fighters who lived in the shadows of society, helping spread the word of revolution among the truly poor and the trodden: laid off factory workers; migrant farm workers who flocked to Kolkata from poorer parts of Bengal, and similar wasted lands of Bihar and Odisha; the children of prostitutes; beggars with limbs and faces deliberately disfigured to enhance the flow of alms.

While his power flowed from the keyboard of his trusted but nearly crumbling netbook; he would acknowledge that the power of some others may need to flow from the barrel of a gun. Anyway, it made for many plots for many stories. A man—and his wife and children—had to eat.

Alas, more clouds would visit our Charles, as soon he would shift his thoughts to how some of his Maoist brethren resembled Mao’s darker side in their dealings, suggesting radical social reconstruction as the only way out. If it were not for a Maoist fan of his early works, Dickens would not be able to escape to his family—he would likely be instead held up as a traitor to the cause. Even pushed to this wall, he would think to himself: more plot, more stories, more income (the resolute rickshaw-wallah and his family had been kind, but to feed ten children in this day and age?).

A lady in the neighbourhood, a new friend of his deeply bitter wife, Catherine, would intervene then as an angel. She worked at the home of a beautiful and wealthy spinster, Himali Sen. Himali had for long admired Dickens’s writings—‘truth must be told, even if it hurts,’ she would maintain, to some sniggers in her circles. And she would be delighted that her maid emerged as the conduit to this victimized talent, a shada-chamra—white skin—who had forsaken his own homeland to make a home among her kind; well, nearly so.

It would come to pass that one morning the maid would bring Dickens, camouflaged in burqa, to the stately mansion of Miss Himali Sen. The delighted lady would promise Dickens that better days were soon expected. Supremo and his cohorts were expected to be swept away by the impelling force of one she would only describe as Our Lady of Compassion—Mamata in Bengali—in the coming elections. And, by the way, did he realize that his powerfully descriptive works about commonplace tragedies and the trodden had become quite the flavour among society? Indeed, these could be said to provide motive force for political changes sweeping Kolkata. Dickens would be told he was now a darling of the classes, too.

His extreme nervous disorder would manifest itself soon after.

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