Chowringhee by Sankar

10/12/09, The National

Very few writers achieve the distinction of becoming a household name in their lifetimes as Sankar (real name: Mani Shankar Mukherjee) has done in Bengal. The term ‘household name’ is used advisedly: it would be difficult to find an educated home in Bengal that did not have at least one of his books. Two of his novels, Seemabaddha (‘Company Limited’) and Jana Aranya (literally, ‘A Forest of People’, translated as The Middleman), were filmed by Satyajit Ray in the seventies. Prolific and immensely popular, the seventy-seven-year-old author of over seventy books that include thirty-seven novels, five travel books, children’s books, essays, and devotional works has had to wait for nearly half a century to be translated into English: Chowringhee, arguably his most popular book, was published in Bengali in 1962, in English, in 2007.

Any reckoning with it should begin with the figure of the first-person narrator, ‘Shankar’. Since there is a significant degree of overlap between Sankar the author and Shankar the narrator, I have tried to mark off the difference by using a variant of the usual spelling of the name. It is a congruence that is advertised at the very beginning of the novel. Sankar was, famously, the clerk to the last English barrister in Calcutta, Noel Frederick Barwell, an experience he wrote about in an earlier work, Koto Ajanare (‘So Many Unknowns’). Chowringhee opens with Shankar set adrift by the death of an unnamed English lawyer, to whom the narrator was clerk, and there is a recurrent elegiac motif running throughout the book, lamenting the loss of his beloved employer. As the novel opens, Shankar is rescued from penury by Byron, an Anglo-Indian private investigator, who finds him a job at the Shahjahan Hotel, through his connections with Marco Polo, the manager of the Shahjahan. Shankar becomes both member of staff and recording observer of the life that passes daily through the doors of one of Calcutta’s biggest, oldest and most renowned hotels. Perhaps inevitably, Calcutta has a glittering presence in Bengali fiction of the mid-twentieth century, and Chowringhee could well claim to be the novel that attempts almost a psychogeography of the metropolis. Its setting and concerns are urban; its characters are a heterogeneous lot, culturally, racially, socially, economically, a definite marker of the urban; it is intensely anchored in a very real, and realistically evoked, Calcutta, the text replete with names of streets, shops, businesses, landmarks, parks, monuments and statues.

And true to its cosmopolitan credentials, Chowringhee manipulates a huge cast of colourful characters. There’s Nityahari, the hotel launderer, garrulous, puritanical, afflicted by such a strong sense of defilement and pollution that he slips out of the hotel before dawn every morning for a cleansing ablution in the sacred river, Ganga, a few minutes’ walk from the hotel. He also suffers from Lady Macbeth syndrome, a tendency of washing his hands compulsively. There’s the larger-than-life figure of the manager, Marco Polo, a Greek orphan saved by Italian priests (from the rubble of an earthquake in the Middle East), brought up by them in a monastery and sent off to study hotel management. There’s Jimmy, the machinating steward, and Rosie, the manager’s secretary, a descendant of the African slaves who, in the early nineteenth century, were ‘made to disembark at Chandpal Ghat, ropes around their waists, and sold at Murgighata for twenty-five rupees each’. Their individual stories and histories are told in staggered, intermittent narratives, a technique that allows for the creation of suspense, as in the story of Marco Polo and his difficult marriage to singer Susan Munro, a bar chanteuse; the conclusion of the story is withheld right until the end of the novel. Other stories – and there’s a virtual cornucopia of these in Chowringhee – are more neatly inset, such as that of Karabi Guha, resident hostess of suite number two in the hotel, or of Scottish cabaret dancer, Connie, who appears for a few weeks’ stint at the Shahjahan with a dwarf, Harry Lambreta, in tow.

So the fundamental structure is not unlike, say, the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales where the framing device provides a loose structure to contain a multiplicity of tales. Within this parameter, two kinds of narration, heavily overlapping, can be distinguished. First, with Shankar as the raconteur: here, the primary narration is always by him but only to provide a frame within which the central characters voice their own stories; Shankar retreats as the stories unfold. The second mode of narration involves Shankar as a more active participant, a character, if you will, like the others. This is most evident in the story of Sata Bose, the head receptionist at the Shahjahan, and his relationship with Sujata Mitra, the air-hostess. Shankar and Sata become close friends through the course of the novel so his presence when Sujata Mitra enters the picture is not obtrusive. Strung between these two kinds of telling, Chowringhee has no plot, in the Forsterian or Jamesian sense of the term; what we have, instead, is a collection of stories, sometimes discrete, sometimes tumbling and interlinked, all mediated, in differing degrees, by Shankar.

As we noted earlier, the closures to the stories can often be deferred, whetting the reader’s appetite, but, frequently, these inset stories also end with a predictable twist in their tail, indicating a transparently obtrusive management of readers’ expectations. Take, for example, Rosie’s story. Initially made to come across as an unsympathetic character, what with her vicious temper and bad dynamics with Shankar, Rosie modulates, at the very end, into a creature deserving our sympathy: a lonely, victimized woman, at the receiving end of racial prejudice, living in one of the most squalid areas of Calcutta, scrabbling to feed her siblings and mother.

The technique is used so regularly and so unchangingly that it is difficult to withhold the increasing suspicion that Sankar is cooking his books. The story of Dr Sutherland, WHO expert on smallpox, who insists on being taken to the elderly Mr Hobbs to listen to a long, marvellously dramatic story about Jane Grey, a barmaid at the Shahjahan in the late nineteenth century, and the miserable end of her life and her husband’s, Robbie Adam’s, in the insalubrious Williams Lane in the backstreets of Bowbazar, is overdetermined by virtue of this technique: you can see how Dr Sutherland is connected to this unhappy tragedy of ostracism, illness and impoverishment from a long way off. Then there is the sudden end to the life of Karabi Guha, who makes the mistake of falling in love with the young Anindo Pakrashi, scion of the Pakrashi family, a big and notable player in the industrial sector of the state. There is nothing organic to the tale that warrants Karabi’s extremely abrupt suicide, except sentimentality. All turnings in fiction are by authorial fiat but their minimum requisite, within the realist mode, is that they do not offend a sense of credibility. Karabi’s death is one of the many instances where the conclusion of a tale transgresses that fundamental law.

While some of the narratives in which Shankar is mostly a member of the audience, letting the actors do the telling, work well, there begin to arise ‘credibility questions’ with others, largely centering on Shankar’s presence during the narration of the inset tale. For example, there is no way Shankar could have been involved in the history of Dr Sutherland’s life, so Sankar (the novelist) has Dr Sutherland insist that Shankar accompany him to Dr Hobbs, where the first part of the history unfurls, and then to the cemetery on Lower Circular Road for the penultimate part. The conclusion lies in an unlikely letter the good doctor writes to Shankar, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Characters used as device, whether technical (narrative) or moral (as a vehicle for ideas), have never made for convincing fiction. Repeatedly, this gratuitous, incredible and ubiquitous presence of Shankar, or the equally unbelievable popping up of characters, when Shankar is around, to tell or carry on with a story or outline a plot twist, calls for ever more strenuous suspension of disbelief.

Sentimental again is the story of Connie, the cabaret dancer. Once again, the way the cards are stacked in the beginning – in this case, the way readers are actively nudged to see something unsavoury in the relationship between comely young dancer and ugly clownish dwarf, most notably by Nityahari, in a three-page-long rant, but also by Shankar’s own innuendoes – can only make the reader suspicious of such furious oversignalling; predictably enough, the surprise at the end of the tale leaves one feeling slightly manipulated, as if one has been forced to be complicit with the salacious audience of her evening shows.

Often, the tenor of this narrative overdetermination is the compulsive tendency to tug at the heartstrings – an entrenched cultural tic, this – whenever an opportunity presents itself. Lonely, single women are always leading hard-bitten lives to provide for their desperately poor families. Rosie, Connie, Karabi, Lisa, all belong to this category. The end that awaits them is always already unhappy. The ever-swelling strings section even gets in the way of factual consistency: less than a page after Karabi Guha says that she supports her mother and siblings we are informed that she has no one in the world, no family, no relatives, nothing. Underpinning all this is an inescapable misogyny, women predictably polarised between the mother and the whore. (Tellingly, all mothers are absent from the novel – what would a mother be doing in the arch-locus of immorality that the Shahjahan is? – except the bad mother, Mrs Pakrashi, who uses the hotel for her adulterous trysts.) Here is Connie visiting a fraud astrologer, Shibdas Debsharma: ‘Arranging her skirt, Connie sat down on the floor. No one could tell from her rapt, devout expression that she didn’t belong there. Had our mothers and aunts dressed in skirts, they would probably have presented themselves at temples in the same fashion.’ The binary terms couldn’t be more explicit: mothers and aunts versus cabaret dancers, temples versus hotel bar and, most tellingly, us (‘our mothers’) versus them. Coming as it does after some semi-prurient writing about Connie’s strip-tease performances, there is no question about where Shankar’s support in this fission between the sacred and the profane, the home and the world, lies. Accordingly, women who have strayed from their realm of homemaking are punished; the judgement seems inexorable. Alas, the profane makes for more interesting reading, hence the absent mothers and wives, hence also the loving yet judgemental descriptions of cabarets, drinking, adultery, as if the reproving narrator is hypnotically fascinated by that which repulses him.

The sheer verve, energy and evident delight with which Sankar writes find expression in the plurality of registers the original Bengali employs. From the oleaginous colloquialisms and swearing of Phokla Chatterjee to the civilised, polite friendliness of Sujata Mitra, from the uneducated yet supremely eloquent demotic of Nityahari to the casual skittering between the purple and the ordinary that Sata Bose employs in his conversations, Chowringhee is a novel loud with chatter. While a lot of it is spot on, especially the dialogue, some of it, notably the bridge sections that give us Shankar’s own meditations, can come across as overwritten and rhapsodic, employing a more formal, Sanksritised register. While Arunava Sinha’s wonderfully readable English rendering is both fluid and fluent, running without any glitches, it is impossible to capture the range of registers in English and the translation, of necessity, flattens them out to a more uniform style. As Sinha has remarked, ‘Converting them to spurious English dialects hardly makes sense. Also, in any case, doing these in English automatically means no aural verisimilitude. Ultimately you end up creating a fictitious AND fictional patois.’ Paradoxically, it is the energy at work in creating the characters that also tip many of them into the cartoonish: there are too few regions of cross-hatching in these portraits, too little possibility for shadow areas. The despicable Phokla Chatterjee is all venal, vulgar chancer, while Mrs Pakrashi is the unmitigated embodiment of hypocrisy. In the latter instance, Sankar, characteristically, overeggs the pudding by putting forward not one but three egregious instances of her moral failure, the last one of them encapsulated in the final line about her in the book, as if the killer blow had to be delivered right at the end in case the reader is in any danger of losing sight of her immorality.

Immorality seems to be a consuming concern of Chowringhee. The misogyny that marks the book, a reaction to the pervasive immorality, is just one element in a set that is created by crossing a tricky boundary from the moral – and the novel, as a genre, is an ineluctably moral form – to the moralistic. One of the loci of this moralism, this unpalatable admonitory tone, is Nityahari. In keeping with the easy equations the book peddles, it is unsurprising to find the man in charge of cleaning dirty linen articulating its most extreme sense of corruption, of pollution, of moral and spiritual degradation, in galvanic rants sometimes reeking of the pulpit, at other times, of simple middle-class prudishness. In a way, he short-circuits some of the feelings of distaste and repulsion that torment Shankar as he goes about his duties at the hotel; whereas Shankar’s moral judgements are arch, indirectional and what we would now call ‘passive-aggressive’, taking often the form of laments for lost innocence, Nityahari’s have at least the honesty of being what they are: unsheathed attacks.

The urban cosmopolitanism that seems to be the novel’s veneer – the setting; the multicultural cast; the frequent and often nostalgic backward glances to the city’s history, especially its recent British-ruled past – is progressively occluded by the patina of middle-class morals. Here is the inevitable flipside to those lingeringly horrified-fascinated passages describing the cupidity and the excesses. Here, also, is a measure of the artistic cost a novel pays when a ‘speaking straight to the camera’ narrator becomes participant, moraliser, judge. Gone is the exquisite control of ironies and distances that the narrator of The Canterbury Tales achieved. It is here that the novel’s own historicity rebels against the universality which it would arrogate to itself. Its narrator makes heavy weather of the significance of the setting of all the action in the novel: the hotel as a microcosm of life; humans as temporary residents in the world, as they are in the hotel; the universality of human nature and human tragedies. But wouldn’t such claims towards immutability and universality always trip up over the real and the material, kinked by the historical situatedness of the narrative, its very synchronic position in time? The infamous ‘flight of capital’ from Bengal has begun; food riots, insurgency, militant Maoism are all lurking around the corner; social unrest is in the air; these hardly pit the surface of the novel, which is so studiedly and sentimentally nostalgic. Sankar was to go on to write urgent, tighter, more morally truthful novels, such as The Middleman, but Chowringhee remains, above everything else, an unruffled photograph of a city, important as a record of a particular time but frozen, both as a snapshot and in its conservatism.