Chowringhee

I read a lot and yes, as always, I simply enjoy the feel of the paperback in my hand. Hardbound editions are difficult to hold for a long time and even though the typeset is big, your wrists ache after a while. There are very many nice ebooks available (for which I am grateful to Googlebooks) and I find the compact Acer Aspire One Netbook competent enough to handle these. So now, many historical ebooks from Google books can now be read on it in peace. It is still tough on the eyes, even with the LED backlight and towards night you wonder how all that sand got into your eyes. But still nothing can beat a real book, even if yellowed with age, or smelling musty and allergic – sufficient reason to encourage a swig of Benadryl or some such antihistamine before the attempt. Sometimes I wonder why some cruel guys mark, underline and write cryptic comments on these book margins ( 2nd hand books) and then finally decide to sell it ‘as is’.

It is funny – Does development kill the need to read or the desire to read? I guess so – Apple has been working on a ebook reader and Steve Jobs had this to say in Feb 08- "Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore," he said. "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."…

Ah! Well.. I am drifting in the wrong direction; let’s see what entertained me the last few days - My latest pick – Chowringhee – Shankar

I met Bhaskar my old friend after many years, in Bangalore a couple of months ago. He is now managing a prosperous supermarket chain, and I recalled one of our earlier conversations about a Jeffrey Archer book ‘As the crow flies’. Bhaskar had at that time talked about doing something like the protagonist and well, he ‘the man’, as they say in USA chased his dream, to start supermarkets & department stores in Bangalore.

When we met, Bhaskar recommended that I read Chowringhee, a book about Calcutta, for he had been fascinated by it. Well, I finally found a lone copy after a tedious search in Gangaram’s on MG road and have since then finished reading that glorious book. What fascinating writing and more than that, what a fabulous translation work from the original Bengali. It was simply impossible to put down the book. You enjoy the story telling, meeting and getting to know each character in the book, be it Sankar himself, or Bose or Sutherland or Connie or Rosie….

A little bit about Chowringhee. This is a locality or neighborhood in Central Calcutta, also termed the Regent’s park of Calcutta. It is a business district, a shoppers place and home to many hotels today. In the British days they had magnificent houses in that area. In those days leading to independence, there used to be a Spencer hotel located in Chowringhee. It was considered by many, including Jules Verne (Jules Verne mentions the Spencers hotel in his book the Demon of Crawnpore (The steamboat – Nana Sahib) as the best in Calcutta.

David Martin states in his ‘Changing face of Calcutta’ - Fame and fortune have attended Chowringhee Road for nearly three centuries. One of Kolkata’s principal arteries, throughout the length of its history it has carried an aura of prestige and importance. Fashionableness and colour have always been its handmaidens. To countless Indians, and for most people familiar with India, the singularly unique name Chowringhee immediately identifies with Kolkata. It represents the nearest equation in India to what Piccadilly is to London, Fifth Avenue to New York and the Champs Elysees to Paris. Nostalgic Londoners like to regard their Circus as the centre of the universe. Kolkatans are more reserved in their acclaim, although the fervour they display for their city is perhaps unmatched. Although dowdier these days than its more illustrious worldlier partners, Chowringhee no less exudes similar allure and magnetism in its eastern setting. Yet another book that explains Chowringhee of the early part of the century is ‘The Underworld of the East - By James S. Lee’ where the steamy underbelly of old Calcutta comes to light. In that real life account of his visit to the city, Lee lives on the rooftop rooms of the Spencer Hotel and talks of ‘Punkha’s’ in these (Hotels had no electric fans during those years) rooms which were pulled through a hole in the wall by the Punkah wallah. Humorus accounts of the ‘punkah wallah’ nodding off to sleep prepare the reader to the hotel stay at Spencers during the early part of the 20th century.

The author of ‘Chowringhee’ is Mani Shankar Mukherjee a.k.a. Shankar. As the book blurb puts it - The book set in the Kolkata of 1950s is a saga of the intimate lives of managers, employees and guests in one of its largest hotels, called Shajahan in the novel. Shankar, the newest and the youngest recruit, recounts the stories of several people whose lives come together in the suites, backrooms and restaurants of the hotels. This book predates Arthur Hailey's "Hotel" by three years and has been translated into Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi, Russian and now English. It’s larger than life characters - the enigmatic hotel manager Marco Polo, debonair receptionist Sata Bose, the tragic hostess Karabi Guha - attained almost cult status. And the novel became a classic.

A fascinating study of human character, Shankar takes you into the workings of newly liberated Calcutta, the babu’s, the gora’s and what not. The camaraderie between the staff of the hotel, the dark secrets, all of them are retold in a style with a singular purpose of entertaining you. It makes you feel that you have just stepped out of the hotel, as you finish the book and it is then you feel the warm glow and contentment of having read a masterpiece and the sun on your back as you step onto Chowringhee road.

From Telegraph India article - It took Vikram Seth’s recommendation, who read the novel in Hindi, to spur Penguin into translating Chowringhee. Arunava Sinha’s translation in 1992 was fished out. “There is nothing dated about Chowringhee. It is so much about people that the story carries well ahead of its background and period,” says the translator, who is now on the verge of finishing Sankar’s other celebrated work, Jana Aranya.

Excerpts from a Samachar article

Shankar revealed the inside stories of the book only recently (Jul/Aug 08). He goes on

"I will reveal some inside stories about 'Chowringhee' that I could not tell for fear of a British barrister. I began my career as a clerk after my father passed away when I was barely in my teens. I had to drop out of studies in search of a job. The book was loosely based on him - more as a tribute because he introduced me to the world of good writing. Now that he is no more, I can share the inside stories," the writer said with his trademark wit.

According to Shankar, the idea for the book took off when he was still in the service of Noel Barwell, the last British barrister in the Kolkata High Court. "Barwell stayed for a long time at the Spencer's Hotel in Kolkata and I was a frequent visitor to the hotel. It was through common friends at Spencer's that I came to know what was happening at the Great Eastern Hotel, one of the biggest hotels in the metropolis then.

"So, there was this notion that the book was inspired by Great Eastern Hotel. Actually, the muse was the Spencer's Hotel. It was from there that my love affair with hotels began," Shankar disclosed.

The author, who was unusually expansive, also gave away the real identity of the charismatic receptionist of the Shahjahan hotel in the novel. "I got the idea to create the debonair Sata Bose, the receptionist, from a railway employee I chanced across. His name was Satya Sadhan Bose and since he had many sahib friends, he refused to be identified by anything but Sata Bose," he divulged.

Shankar, whose books stormed into Bengali homes with the marketing slogan "A bagful of Shankar (Ek Bag Shankar)", is a household name in West Bengal. Collections of his books were sold in blue packets that readers were proud to possess. Shankar wears many hats. A street food expert with two books to his credit, the writer is an also an adept marketing man associated with a leading industrial house.

The book also became a popular movie in the 60’s acted by Utpal Dutt, Uttam Kumar, Subhendu Chatterjee, Biswajeet etc..I have not seen it, but have recently acquired a VCD. Now I need to find time to enjoy the movie even though I do not have the faintest inkling of the Bengali language. But I will manage, surely.
For those who can find the book - read it, You will see a different India, set around the times of the movie Parineeta and yes, without doubt you will enjoy it ...

Further reading
A Hindu Article
Pics - Sankar - Telegraph, Book cover from the net

Comments

Sunita said…
If you're in search of a great read, try http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page
Their compilation of books in multiple languages is truly mindboggling. And, if you're feeling benevolent, you could also volunteer to proof-read new additions to their collection.
Anonymous said…
Very nice. A comprehensive piece answering all the questions the reader would like to ask. I am surely goinggn to get a copy and read it.

And Maddy, it is true, I never get the same pleasure from reading ebooks that I do from a 'real' book, held in my hands, sometimes in bed, where I can occasionally peep into the next chapter and look at the last page to make sure it has a happy ending (my weakness).

Raji
Maddy said…
thanks sunitha - i have seen a couple of books at proj gutenburg.i have to really check them out

ah Raji - how can you continue with the book after sneaking up to see the ending? don't do it with this book, the end is a classic.
Rinkly Rimes said…
I only had time to skim your writing but even so I could tell that the style was wonderfully fluid. I'll return.
cris said…
Will see if I can get this book. Thanks :-)
Indrani said…
This kindled an interest in the book, and wow so much about Shankar!
Maddy, Every good article is a revealation. Yours was one.I must now look out to get a copy of Chowringee! Thank you for bringing out the nuances.
kallu said…
Maddy, a very interesting post. And makes me think I have to read this book. You haven't read it in Malayalam?
BTW, what about the movie 36, Chowringhee Lane? I can still remember scenes from it, tho I saw it decades ago.
Maddy said…
Thanks a ton Rinkly Rimes, cris, Indrani and murali - hope u get to read the book. it is truly enjoyable.
No Kallu, i read the engligh book. other than reading that there is a malayalam translation, i have never heard of one, it must have been published decades ago.
36 Chowringhee lane - well, Jen kendall did a mighty good job in it!! I have the DVD!!
kallu said…
"This book predates Arthur Hailey's "Hotel" by three years and has been translated into Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi, Russian and now English. It’s larger than life characters - the enigmatic hotel"

Did I get that wrong Maddy?

You have such a collection of the best of the old... and new!
Maddy said…
thanks kallu - looks like i did not clarify properly - the original bengali version was published in 1962. the english translation came out only in 2007. I read this english version. somewhere in between, the other translations came out.