Monday, April 24, 2017

Bridges of Calcutta #2: Alipore or Zeerut Bridge

Detail from map produced by the Society
for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
In this post we look South West at a bridge that crosses Tolly's Nullah at Alipore. W.H. Carey describes it as connecting "Calcutta and Alipore", the latter evidently not being considered within the strict municipal limits.

The nullah or creek-bed was completed in 1777, and was meant to facilitate passage of ships from Hooghly to the delta region by making use of the Khidirpur creek. It was the work of Colonel William Tolly.

On 27 August 1795 the old Alipore bridge, "which had been in a ruinous condition gave way and fell into the nullah." Calcutta, it appears, is not new to the phenomenon of collapsing bridges. Thankfully it happened at night and there were no casualties.

It nearly took another forty years for a bridge to be put in place. Once again, Captain John Thomson was assigned the task, and at the expense of rupees 26,430, he built the shortest iron bridge in Calcutta at the time, with a single curve of 89 feet and a roadway that was 24 feet wide.

William Wood, Alipore Bridge (1833), British Library collection
Sir Charles D'Oyly, The Suspension Bridge at Alipore (1848), British Library collection
Frederick Fiebig, Alipore Bridge (1851), British Library collection

H.E. Busteed recalls two trees that stood opposite the bridge. They were called 'The Trees of Destruction', "notorious for duels fought under their shade." This is where the fateful duel between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis took place in 1780.

The suspension bridge built in 1833 appears to have served a short span of time, being reconstructed in 1854. It underwent some alteration around 1904, which "rendered it a bridge worthy of Calcutta", but it is unclear what these were. H.E.A. Cotton felt that the modifications were made with "complete disregard for the picturesque." A new bridge was put in place in 1929, which serves the city to this day. We'll come to that later.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Bridges of Calcutta #1: Chitpur Bridge

The Maratha Ditch was dug by the citizens of Calcutta in the mid-1700s to guard against a possible Maratha attack. The canal at Chitpur was revitalized in 1824, when the municipal authorities decided to use the waterway for transport.
From the British Library collection. Photograph by Frederick Fiebig (1851-52)
Map produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
A bridge was built in 1843 by Captain John Thomson, Superintendent of Canals, and Agent for Iron Suspension Bridges. We learn from W.H. Carey's The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company (1882) that it was valued at Rs. 39,344. Spanning 99 feet, the roadway was 22 feet wide. It was popular referred to as the Baghbazar Bridge.

Carey further records that under the bridge was a lock for allowing boats to pass between the river Hooghly and the Circular Canal at all times of the tide. "This lock is 60 feet long and nearly 24 feet wide, with double gates; it was constructed by James Prinsep, Esq. in 1829-1833, at an expense of 61,000 sicca rupees."

A new bridge was built a little to the East of the original bridge in 1934. More on that later.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Run to Sumeru

Shoshee Chunder Dutt (1824-1885) was one of the most anthologized of Indians writing in English "back in the day". Apart from writing some mimic-poetry that is not altogether lacking in points of interest, as John Watson would say, he wrote The Reminiscences of a Kerani's Life. His prose essays, and his accounts of the 1857 war, offer insights into the times. Among Shoshee Chunder's best known poems is "A Vision of Sumeru", which narrates in classical form tales of the Hindu deities.

Recently I came across one of his more frivolous pieces, "A Run to Sumeru", where the author is whisked away by a Flibbertigibbet to Sumeru, where the Gods are acting in a most ungodly manner.
The Flibbertigibbet, or Imp of Satan, appears to be the personification (or impification) of the evils of Western culture. Not only does he quote Shakespeare, at the end of the story we find the author lying in a drain--the classic image of the Young Bengal wastrel--and looking for the mischievous influence.
The gods are consuming pork vindaloo, goose dumpoded, and Irish whiskey, in this drunken vision, as Saraswati flirts with Mahadeva. Bottles of Cordial Old Tom of the finest quality change hands, and Parvati ogles Vishnu.

The (clearly drunken) conversation about Shakespeare goes thus:
"Trust my wisdom once for all, and believe with old Will that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Well, really, this passes all bounds. You, Flib, have you the audacity to quote Will?"
"Audacity be hanged. I dined with him three hours ago in the groves of Chaitra-ratha; and were not we boon companions, both of us?"
"Now take care, Flib, or I shall break your head in earnest. You have been snarling over a bone with some dog, I suppose, named after the immortal bard of Avon."
"I have been drinking nectar (amrita) with the whole club of them, man; with Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Vyasa, and Valmiki. Just trust your precious self with me for sixty minutes, and see if I don't get you into better company."
While this is suitably scandalous and impressive in its inappropriateness for its time, what struck me most is the opening passage.

The exact date for "A Run to Sumeru" is not given, but it was published in a volume titled Bengaliana: A Dish of Rice and Curry, and Other Indigestible Ingredients, in 1878. Do the first few paragraphs ring a bell?
After a hard day's work I was taking my siesta at the foot of my favourite citron-tree, having liberated my mind to divert itself for a while by a sentimental ramble over the vanities of existence. A slight rustling of leaves betrayed an intruder, and turning myself in that direction I saw, peering through the leaves, the mischievous face and leering eyes of that little rogue, Fliberrtigibbet, who tried to hide himself the moment he was seen.
"Come out from the copse, you little devil. What are you doing there now?"
"A cowrie for your thoughts, nuncle!" said he, grinning. "You are moping over the vanities of life, and would like to have a run to Sumeru."
"To Sumeru, you stupid? What for there?"
"Why, to see how the gods dispose of themselves to be sure."
Just for easy reference and cheeky speculation:
বেজায় গরম। গাছতলায় দিব্যি ছায়ার মধ্যে চুপচাপ শুয়ে আছি, তবু ঘেমে অস্থির। ঘাসের উপর রুমালটা ছিল, ঘাম মুছবার জন্য যেই সেটা তুলতে গিয়েছি অমনি রুমালটা বলল “ম্যাও!” কি আপদ! রুমালটা ম্যাও করে কেন?
চেয়ে দেখি রুমাল তো আর রুমাল নেই, দিব্যি মোটা-সোটা লাল টক্‌টকে একটা বেড়াল গোঁফ ফুলিয়ে প্যাট্ প্যাট্ করে আমার দিকে তাকিয়ে আছে!
আমি বললাম, “কি মুশকিল! ছিল রুমাল, হয়ে গেল একটা বেড়াল।”
অমনি বেড়ালটা বলে উঠল, “মুশকিল অবার কি? ছিল একটা ডিম, হয়ে গেল দিব্যি একটা প্যাঁক্‌পেঁকে হাঁস। এ তো হামেশাই হচ্ছে।”
আমি কিছুই বুঝতে পারলাম না, কিন্তু পাছে বেড়ালটা আবার সেইরকম বিশ্রী করে হেসে ওঠে, তাই সঙ্গে সঙ্গে হুঁ-হুঁ করে গেলাম। তার পর বেড়ালটা খানিকক্ষণ আকাশের দিকে তাকিয়ে হঠাৎ বলে উঠল, “গরম লাগে তো তিব্বত গেলেই পার।”
আমি বললাম, “বলা ভারি সহজ, কিন্তু বললেই তো আর যাওয়া যায় না?”
বেড়াল বলল, “কেন, সে আর মুশকিল কি?”
আমি বললাম, “কি করে যেতে হয় তুমি জানো?”

Monday, February 20, 2017

কল্‌কাতার দুপুর [A Calcutta Afternoon]

কল্‌কাতার দুপুর
কাঁশারিদের কাঁশির আওয়াজ ঝন্‌ঝনিয়ে বাজে,
ঘরের ভিতর একটা চড়ুই চেঁচায় কড়ির খাঁজে,
চিলের সরু কাঁপানো ডাক আকাশ হতে আশে,
একটা কাকে আল্‌শে-পাশে কেবল কলভাষে।
মাঝে মাঝে থাম্‌ছে ধ্বনি, নীরবতা জাগে,--
শব্দতীত কোন্‌ সে দেশের পরশ মোরে লাগে!
-শ্রীপ্যারীমোহন সেনগুপ্ত

Not the most inspired poem by this prolific writer perhaps, but these things tend to get lost.

Monday, December 19, 2016

All that is solid

In Jorasankor dhaare Abanindranath recorded one of the most evocative descriptions of the city of Calcutta. Towards the beginning in a short passage he describes the sounds he hears in the city from inside his house, may be even his room. We return to it either to remember some street cries that were familiar even some years back, or to read it as an archive of urban ephemera. Recently, while reading Khatanchir khata, published in 1921, I found another fantastic example of writing the city.

Those who are familiar with the story will know that it is a loose adaptation of Peter Pan. There is a young boy dressed in leaves and refusing to grow old. His name is Putu. Here are the kids describing and failing to describe who Putu is:
In Sona and Anguti-Panguti's maps of hidden lands, their mother began to notice the appearance of a half-bird half-human form, in adddition to Sonaton, Bohim, Ink-pot, the red notebook and the house-wife. They had written the word 'Putu' below. The pictures of Putu in Anguti-Panguti's notebooks were a little hazy but a much clearer picture could be seen in Sona's. Putu looked somewhat like a cross between rooster and human.
The children could never tell their mother who Putu was. She searched her memory hard but could find nothing of his kind in the stories they heard as children. What they did know for sure was that Putu would never grow up. He would remain exactly the size he was then. But then Putu starts leaving material traces in their house. They inform their mother that Putu plays the flute and enters the house through a window, dressed in leaves. One day she finds Putu's notebook. It contained everything--where he came from, why he remained ever young and how well he knew the city of Calcutta.

The city we find in Putu's books is one that functions exclusively in the realm of play. The cityscape changes continuously, but that does not prevent the author from presenting it in the form of a map. The map was drawn by one Sukumar Ray.
Maps that accompany literary works have interested me for a while now--you could extend that to spaces and literature more generally. I remember reading how R.L. Stevenson had first drawn a map of the Treasure Island story and only then written the book. But by the time he finished his novel he had lost the original map and had to reconstruct the place from his writing. I wonder what kind of exchanges Abanindranath and Sukumar Ray had while conceiving of this map of Calcutta.

Putu has known the city for many years and where we see offices and houses and tram-ways, he sees what used to be underneath the surface of what is.
In the day-time the buildings appear, but make no mistake, this does not mean the gardens are not there. You see that football field across the Gol-bagan? There is a giant pond with a banyan tree right below that. We used to go fishing in that pond. On some days I can still see the tree and the pond very clearly. How do you think that stork is surviving? Surely it doesn't feed on grass like a cow. At night when the pond comes back from its subterranean hideout, the stork hunts for fish there. That is how it has survived all these years.
As he plays with the vision of the city he must explain the changeability of forms. All that is solid in the city of Calcutta, which at that time was one of the most impressive models of western urbanity in the East, melts into air, giving way to visions of the past and the future. Abanindranath's manner of blending a keen interest in what exists--call it factual knowledge if you will--along with a sense of wonder is unparalleled (for me at least).
If you manage to stay up after two at night, you might take my word seriously. When the shiyals [foxes] of Sealdah start yelping in the dead of night, all the city's bricks turn into woods and gardens. As Putu starts playing her flute all the fairies come out with little lamps. You don't believe me? Wondering how stones and bricks can turn into plants, aren't you? Go to the museum some day. You will see trees that have turned to rocks and rocks that have become trees. You see the stars in the night sky, little specks of light? Once a star had fallen to the earth. They kept it in a glass box at the museum. It doesn't look like a radiant flower, but more like a lump of shiny iron.
 If you must explore the city, follow Putu, because he does not walk. Indeed the city is no more than the absolutely fantastical map and yet infinitely greater than the visible city.1
The road goes past Jorasanko and converges at the crossing. If you go south at the crossing, you cross Chowringhee and come to Raja-bagan. If you go north, you find Ray-bagan. Between these two great gardens lie two lakes, the size of the seas. In the Raja-bagan you find the rectangular Lal-dighi and at its heart the White Island. Inside the Ray-bagan is the Gol-dighi with the Jambu Island at its centre. The Great Raven with its many offsprings inhabits the Jambu Island, whereas the wingless fairies and faires live on White Island. Beyond the Lal-dighi is the king's fort, and on the banks of the Gol-dighi stand the living rooms of the babus. A picture of a cannon is drawn inside the fort, while a hookah denotes the living room of the babus.
Now let's take a look around Ray-bagan. It would take you fifty years to explore it on foot, but since this is a map we can cover it quicker.
 Not only do images and little symbols denote entire spaces in the city but also stand for the culture of a particular place (the hookah representing the living rooms of the babus), the letters in names of places become part of the map, including in themselves the very house where the reader of his book is.
What are you looking for? Our three-storeyed house? Look at the twin pools of Jorasanko. Notice the circle inside the loop of the 'R' of 'Pirbagan', which is written in the blank space between the pools. The house is right inside that. It's very small, but you can see it.
Sadly, you or I cannot look at the city quite in the same manner as Putu and must take his word about the real map of Calcutta. And why is that?
You see White Island and Jambu Island? No one who doesn't have wings can go there. To this day, I among all the children, have succeeded in visiting that place. You know why? It's because I never wanted to grow up.

1 Translations are mine. Quotations from Abanindranath Tagore, Khatanchir khata, in Abanindra Rachanabali Vol. 3, Kolkata: Prakash Bhavan, 1958.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Coming Back to Life: The Electric Solution

You can't bring someone back from the dead but with the "Electric Solution" imported from America you can give a new lease of life to those who are dead in life. Just write to D.D. Hazra in Garden Reach.

The advertisement for the Electric Solution appeared on 31st August 1930 in the sixth issue of the Chuchura Barttabaha, or the Chuchura Post (?). If you weren't dead but felt dead you could try the tonic. It can cure anything starting from gonorrhea, erectile disfunction, neurasthania, piles and constipation among men. But it worked also on younger people, the elderly and even on women, who could be suffering from leucorrhoea, amenorrhoea and hysteria. It is priced at Rs. 1.50.

The science behind it has been proven by the renowned Dr. Petal of America, who has shown that there are three essential powers that operate in the human form: strength, virility and electric energy. If either of the three is lacking you can revive yourself by giving yourself a dose of this electric solution, which will instantly restore you to full and energetic function.

The Chuchura Bartabaha was founded by one Dinananath Mukhopadhyay. This Dinanath may be the same as the one who wrote Zamindari Bigyan (1866), a notoriously detailed manual for the zamindars of Bengal (particularly of the Hugli district), who might be struggling to keep their underlings and accounts under their control. For interested zamindars, the book is available at

This rare newspaper has been digitized by the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and may be found at:

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Translations of Mr. Lewis Da Costa, Esq.

I was looking for one Mr. Da Costa, who is supposed to have helped W.B. O'Shaughnessy find out about the use of cannabis in Indian medical traditions. I chased a wild goose for the first half hour, but when I finally had it by its throat, it changed colour and species and became a red herring.

The first one, then. Eager as I always am to believe in the unlikeliest possibilities, I first thought that the Da Costa who had helped O'Shaughnessy in 1839 was a poet, who appears to have written ghazals. These were published in the Jam-i-Jahan Numa between April 1827 and March 1828. Jam-i-Jahan Numa is among the first Urdu newspapers to be printed in India, if not the first. In an article titled "Persian Newspapers in the Hon'ble John Company Days" (1927) by Nawabzada F.M. Abdul Ali (quoted in European Poets of Urdu and Persian), the author suggests that it was subsidized for the first five years by the Government, 'for the Royal Arms appear on the title page and the news bears official appearance.' He describes Da Costa as 'the only Anglo-Indian writer of Urdu and Persian poems'--a contemporary of Derozio and J.W. Ricketts. 'These poems were written in faultless Urdu.' He claims that Mr. Da Costa was connected with Doveton College, Calcutta, and that his descendants lived in Sooterkin's Lane, Calcutta, in modest circumstances. The same Da Costa may have been involved with Dr. E.W. Chambers in his great effort to form the Eurasian and Anglo-Indian Association in 1876.

Now for the other Mr. Da Costa.

I have been able to track few biographical details so far. We know that before 1824 he was the Registrar at Cawnpore (of what?), and that in 1844, when his wife gave birth to their son on 12 June, they were residing in Sealdah. He had by the time become Assistant Persian Translator to the Government of India.

Was his translation of the Deewan Pusund his first major work? It may well have been. It is a long treatise on agriculture in the subcontinent, which he initially intended to introduce with some of his own "observations in regard to the general state of Agriculture in this country". He decided against it, leaving it to abler hands.

The Calcutta branch of the Prayer-book and Homily Society needed a translation of their prayer book. The existing body of prayers had first been translated by one Henry Martyn. In 1817, it was augmented with additional verses by Daniel Corrie, who went on to serve as Archdeacon in Calcutta and as Bishop of Madras. A new wave of enthusiasm in the late 1820s saw the society elders desiring translations into "Eastern languages".

One G.F. Brown, esq. of the East India Company's Bengal Service, had "translated the greater part of the prayer-book into Hindoostani". The manuscript passed from him to Corrie, and inevitably, on to Mr. Lewis Da Costa, "a competent Hindoostani scholar." "Mr. Da Costa offered a complete translation of the whole prayer book, including the thirty-nine articles and rubrics, made by himself, omitting only the state prayers." Archdeacon Corrie took the lead in the publication, and after comparing two versions produced the complete edition of the prayer-book in Hindustani in 1828.

The previous year, D.C. Smyth's An Abridgement of the Penal Regulations as enacted by the Governor General in Council, for the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal, had been translated into Persian by Da Costa.

Alexander Fraser Tytler
Arguably the most acclaimed translation by this polyglot came around 1829. He was to translate into Hindustani the enormous Elements of General History in 3 volumes, by Alexander Fraser Tytler and finished by Edward Nares. The volumes that were translated under the patronage of the Bombay Native Education Society, were priced at 25 rupees a set. The very next year, the learned Mr. H.H. Wilson of the Fort William College Council requested the purchase of 30 copies of "Mr. Lewis Da Costa's translation into Hindustani of Tytler's Elements of General History".

Encouraged by the success (and no doubt numerous other projects which I have not traced yet) he wanted to translate Mukhzun ul Udwiya by one Mohammad Khosru Khan, but found no sponsor. Instead, in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Vol. 6) he published an excerpt in translation "On the Properties ascribed in Native medical works to the Acacia Arabica". He signs off "Lewis Da costa, Esq." This was a teaser. "I therefore think it the wiser course in the first instance to publish a specimen by which the pharmacopeist will be able to judge the aid he might derive were the whole work (collated with others placed before him in an English translation." This is shortly after the newly formed Calcutta Medical College had propsed the formation of a Pharmacopoeia.

Is this the one that W.B. O'Shaughnessy takes up? Quite likely.