Price: Rs 295
I have always been fascinated by hotels. From the maze-like corridors of Paharganj’s Metropolis to the understated white elegance of Bhopal’s Jehan
Numa Palace to the colonial grandeur of New Delhi’s Imperial, hotels with character, like good poems, always conceal more than they reveal.
In his 1962 novel, Chowringhee — now available in an excellent English translation by Arunava Ray — the best-selling Bengali author Sankar seeks to expose the seamy underbelly of the Shahjahan, a big Calcutta hotel. While skilfully evoking the claustrophobia of lives led within closed spaces, Sankar also opens the doors of his novel to the Calcutta outside, a 1950s colonial city of shantytowns, whorehouses, Anglo-Indians and box-wallahs (“I very good Bengali babu/ in Calcutta I long time e’stop”).
This is a city where wastepaper basket companies bear names like Magpil & Clerk; impressionable young men are misled by ‘Eliot Road types’; at the docks, ‘Africa, Asia and Europe mingle and become one’; and every locality has its distinct smell: “I could distinguish between Chhatwala Lane and Dacre’s Lane blindfolded.” The city is a presence even in metaphor: the skin of Byron, a detective, has a sheen “just like shoes after they have received a four anna treatment from the shoeshine boys at Dharmatala”.
Inside the hotel (which still boasts of a taxidermist’s counter), Shankar, the principal protagonist, a noble savage after Raj Kapoor’s heart, comes in contact with a depraved new world of intrigue and deception. On the one hand, we have overworked attendants with swollen varicose veins and servile managers who, while used to being humiliated by guests (“I believe they squeeze out the hormones responsible for anger when a person enters a hotel management school”), eventually take out their frustrations on their underlings. Sata, the receptionist — who will later enter into a tragic relationship with a bubbly airhostess — becomes Shankar’s mentor: “The ideal hotel worker is neither masculine, nor feminine.”
The moody manager, Marco Polo — the orphaned son of a Greek innkeeper — falls in love with Susan, a singer at the hotel who ditches him after becoming famous. Other permanent employees include the resident musician, Prabhat Chandra Gomez — a Mozart fan — and the resident prostitute, Karabi Guha.
Also passing through the Shahjahan is a conveyer belt of international barmaids and cabaret dancers. Some like Connnie, and her dwarf brother Lambreta (“the deformed and the ugly have a lot of opportunities when it comes to entertainment”), are in Calcutta as part of a “chain programme”.
Others include Lola, the Tomato Girl from Cuba, and a German girl called Hydrogen Bomb. Reduced to poverty back home, they come to Calcutta searching for a decent livelihood. Often the agents cheat the Shahjahan, promising youth but delivering middle-aged washouts like Marian Booth who insists she is 25 “more or less”.
While giving each of these characters a chance to tell their stories, the novel also focuses on the lives of the navel-gazing rich and famous as seen through the eyes of the hotel’s employees.
Many of these stories are thinly-disguised accounts of the private lives of real celebrities — the P3P of 1950s Calcutta. An actress takes shelter in the hotel paranoid that her husband is going to throw acid on her face, while an industrialist’s wife with a host of fake charitable causes to her name throws a lavish banquet.Chowringhee, like Arun Kolatkar’s epic poem ‘David Sassoon’, laments the moral and physical degradation of a city. It is an old-fashioned narrative with looping twists and turns that coil around the reader, holding her in a tight iron grip right to the very end.
The lives of most characters end in tragedy; very few have happy endings. Sankar’s sympathies lie clearly with the marginalised and the working class; those who stumble and fall down are as brave as those who somehow manage to keep walking.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra teaches at Doon School, Dehradun