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Kolkata between the covers

A large hotel has a world of its own with everyone with a story to tell, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2007 23:44 IST

To the best of my knowledge Mani Sankar Mukherji is the most widely read novelist in Bengali. Having just finished his Chowringhee (Penguin), I am not in the least bit surprised. It is set in Calcutta of the 1950s and deals largely with the lives of hotel staff, its clientele and itinerant cabaret dancers. He names his hotel Shahjehan; I guess it is The Great Eastern, which is slightly off Chowringhee and close to the Raj Bhawan.

A large hotel has a world of its own with everyone with a story to tell. There are rich patrons, predominantly Marwari industrialists, who have a suite or two permanently reserved ostensibly to house visiting partners-in-business, but more frequently to entertain lady friends who enter the hotel by the rear entrance unnoticed by the throng in the reception lounge. Liquor flows like the Hooghly in spate. There are cabaret girls of different nationalities who sing, dance and strip tease till the early hours of the morning.

In one story, a junoesque Scottish lass is accompanied by a male dwarf who stands between her wide-spread legs with his gaze turned upwards. People presume he must be her lover. He turns out to be her brother. There are local boxwallas with entertainment allowances as well as police officers and excise officials, who expect to eat and drink free of charge to keep the hotel out of trouble. The hotel staff has its own hierarchy from the general manager (in this case an Italian named Polo), head of dining rooms, reception counter clerks, chefs, waiters, barmen drawn from Bengali bhadralog, Beharis, Oriyas, Goan musicians down to room waiters, dhobis, sweepers — everyone privy to some secret or the other. Sankar knits them together like a skilled craftsman using melodrama, humour, inside information, wit and whatever else it takes to the making of engrossing a long story embracing short stories. The best compliment I can pay to the translator, Arunava Sinha, is that I did not realise what I was reading was a translation of a Bengali novel published in 1962. Flawless.

As a post-script I add a few lines of Urdu verse which might go well in future editions of Sankar’s novel:

Chowringhee kay chowk peh deykho mastaaney Bungalee. Rasgulley say meethee baatein, in kee chaak niraalee. Kaheen Mukherji; kaheen bannerjee. Kaheen Ghosh; Dutta hai. Suno ji, yeh Kalkatta hai.

(On Chowringhee square you meet lots of wayward Bengalis sweeter than Rasgullas in their speech, unique is their gait one is a Mukherji, another a Bannerjee, a Ghosh or a Dutta. Dear Sir, this is Calcutta.)

Free loaders

In my younger days in school and college in Delhi, I used to look forward to attending Punjabi weddings. I noticed one character that was often among baraatis (bridegroom’s party). He looked very much like the chachaji we see advertising masalas (spices), with a red turban on his head, a necktie and a western-style coat. No one knew if he had been invited but he was always there. Invariably he would be in the front row at the milini with his starched turban, waxed moustache, a red tie and singing shabads lustily. Thereafter he did full justice to the feast laid out by the bride’s family. He came to be known as Diwan Saheb. He got to know about impending marriages like hijdas who get to know of births and marriages and chose which one would provide the most sumptuous feast. I do not know what became of Diwan Saheb, probably he died of too much feasting.

Every club has its quota of identifiable spongers. After a game of golf or tennis men take turns to sign for drinks — tea or chilled beer. When it comes to the turn of the sponger, he is usually in the washroom when the bearer arrives with the bill for signature. They are known as pencil shy.

I have noticed that freeloading runs in families. Husband and wife have to team up in the operation. I know of a friend who was a congenital sponger. He married a woman over-generous in her hospitality. The marriage broke up within a few months largely because he poured very small drinks and filled glasses with soda water. She got irritated and asked her guests to help themselves.

There are well brought up families who are adept in the art of freeloading down the generations. They tend to be very kanjoos in spending their own money.

While living in Paris, I ran into a family. They lived in a single room apartment with a lavatory and a kitchenette. The parents slept on one bed, the children in the car parked on the road below. The family breakfasted on croissants and coffee. That was the only meal they ate together. At lunch time the wife and the children would do the rounds of offices on the pretext of seeking advice from people. They knew and usually succeeded in being asked to lunch by the adviser. Evening meals were more easily taken care of by cocktail receptions in the office complex. All very gourmet and free of cost.

Keeping freeloaders off conferences and book lunches is difficult. Ajit Cour, head of the Akademy of Art and Literature, has a few writers conferences every year where writers from other countries are given free hospitality. At every one she confronts a few uninvited Indian pen-pushers who join lunches and dinners. On one occasion she had to get the police to arrest three freeloaders. At every book launch the number of people who turn up far exceeds those invited. Amongst them I have noticed are middle-aged sardarjis doing justice to Scotch and eating to their fill. Twice he presented me with his visiting card and said, “I would like to read one of your books if you give it to me.” The motto of freeloaders fraternity is “Maan na maan, main teyra mehmaan.” (Whether you like it or not, I am your guest.)

Problem uncle

Banto had gone to her parents for a week. So Banta started going to Santa’s for dinner. For first five days Santa’s children welcomed him as ‘chachaji’. But on the sixth day, they called him ‘mamaji’. Banta asked them: “Earlier you welcomed me as chachaji, why are you calling me ‘mamaji’ today? The children said: “Uncle, when you came today, Papa said to Mummy: ‘Phir aa gaya saalaa.”

(Contributed by JP Singh Kaka, Bhopal)