Thursday, April 3, 2008

Rendezvous with the Masters of a Bygone Era…

I was desperate to meet them before I leave the city they built and transformed from a small, dingy trading port to the biggest metropolis this side of London.But the time was against me. There are just few days in my hand and there are many important things to do. But last night when I was reading about Shillong , another city where presence of the colonial masters changed the fate of the place and its inhabitants forever ,I again thought of them. Mostly young men who came in search of their destiny. These were among the earliest Europeans who came to Calcutta from a different world, thousands of miles away, leaving their families and homes in search of money, fame, and power. Some with the missionary zeal of spreading the word of God as well. Most of them died young- many in early twenties. The climate was against them . The terrain was unfamiliar . The customs were uncivilized to their eyes . Only one out of three survived for more than one monsoon . Yet their spirit was triumphant. Some went ahead to subjugate the natives, some others busied themselves in collection of booty for a comfortable old age back home, few others ironically, fell in love with the culture of the ‘barbarians’ and here they are- still in the land they once ruled . Dead and buried in the soil they considered foreign and inferior . I could not stop myself any longer and today (finally!) I walked in the South Park Street Cemetery during my office lunch hour. The dead can usually be relied upon for glamour. It is further helpful of course if they are long dead . But the glamour factor for these gentleman and ladies was much more higher than the normal. In fact the entire cemetery complex has a romantic aura of its own(Or was it just the afternoon glow of the sun) . The complex is a monument of paradox – that of being dead and buried in a conquered country. The colonial cemetery in the postcolony is located in the irony of its previous glory, its past power, and its present powerlessness. It is a silent witness to an imperial regime amidst the chaotic environs of its now postcolonial subjects, who live, work, and ignore the dead remains of their earlier masters. The cemetery is rarely visited by any of its neighbors; just like the dead remains it houses, it is in a state of decay – slowly dying a sad death.
Very apt to the nature of the communist ruled state housing it, the cemetery, I found housed not only the dead remains of the colonial bureaucracy, military officials, mercantile elite and their families but also common and sundry citizenry. There were also those women, who came to India, some with their husbands, others, searching for husbands amongst the English officers. Many stayed on, married or otherwise, devoting their lives to the ‘women and children of India’ and whose service and devotion, is recounted for all time on their tombstones. Death interestingly came with many excuses, sometimes through wars or epidemics and on others by old age. Tropical illnesses and childbirth were the main causes. Battle wounds for soldiers and shipwrecks for mariners. Those were the days after all, when death was the chief occupational hazard, for the foreign community. Strangely, a surprising number were recorded as having been struck by lightning. They lived at the mercy of the inhospitable climate and the environment, and all too often passed away, when they and Calcutta were still young.
The cemetery houses more than 1000 dead – buried over a period of more than a century when the colonial power was at its zenith in India. The earliest grave dates to 1767 ( of a writer of Customs House named John Wood ) and the last memorial was erected around 1895. Each having an interesting tale to tell. I find some old acquaintances here . To begin with , my very favorite- Henry Vivian Louis Derozio. He was the youthful, Anglo-Indian poet, rational thinker and inspiration behind the Young Bengal Movement, of the early 19th century. He was influenced by the ideas thrown up by the French Revolution and as a 21 year old teacher, sought to transmit these, to his pupils at Hindu College, (Presidency College of today). His unconventional teaching methods, resulted in his being accused of promoting Atheism and led to his dismissal from the College. He died soon after at the age of 22, but he left a rich heritage of poetry and ideas that inspired generations of youngsters . Just imagine, dying at the age of 22 and leaving behind such a legacy! Every time I enter the Presidency college, I try imagining his face, his charisma , his lectures and his fascinated students …..he is most definitely the pole star of the galaxy of distinguished names associated with that college .
Next comes clean and whitewashed tomb of Sir William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic society of Bengal. Being a student of Sanskrit, I am familiar with his work. He arrived in India in September 1783 and was a judge in the Supreme Court, in Calcutta. He possessed outstanding literary genius and had mastered every European language, including many oriental languages. He wrote extensively about India, the local laws, music, literature, botany and geography, and made the first English translations, of several important works of Indian literature. I found on the grave that he passed away, at only 48 years, due to an inflammation of the liver. I am glad he did not live to see the decay of the institution he established- the death of his idea of knowledge beyond bounds . A very corrupt version of his dream, in the shape of Asiatic Society still marks the entrance of the Park Street .
Though I could not trace her grave , I am told that the accomplished (and ravishing) Elizabeth Sanderson also lies in the premises.Taking with her the memories of the Calcutta social life where she created a storm by her arrival in 1775. Memories of the men who danced to her tune- spellbound by her beauty. Memories of her famous pranks on her suitors and also memories of the pain she suffered as wife of her gambler and womanizer husband Richard Barwell. All of it in a brief life of 23 years.
Then there was Major-General Charles Stuart, an eccentric Irishman, who was nick-named “Hindu Stuart”, after he became a Hindu, within a year of his arrival, in Calcutta. Stuart adopted several Hindu customs, including bathing in the Ganges every morning, the habit of chewing paan, as well as wearing Indian clothes. He even encouraged European ladies in India, to adopt the sari. When he died on 31st March 1828, he was buried with his Hindu idols, in his coffin. His tomb takes the form of a Hindu temple, surmounted by an elaborate edifice, with stone carvings of the Goddess Ganga.His tomb was undergoing repairs and despite my pleadings the adamant security person did not allow me to click picture of it. (Perhaps in hope of a bribe I did not offer.)

The notice board informs me of other names also. Cemetery contains the tomb of Colonel Vansittart, whose wife was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell. Other graves of note, are those of Lt. Col. Robert Kyd, the distinguished botanist and founder of the East India Company’s Botanical Gardens, down the river; Lt. Col. James Lillyman, who supervised the building of Fort William; sons of Captain Cook and Charles Dickens; and many others.

These dead are commemorated with monumental tombs, some enormous in their size and sheer volume – huge canopies, supported by giant pillars, structures raised to about 100 ft above ground – providing a grandiose effect. The architectural feature of each tomb in the cemetery imitates the glory of the British Raj – its power, its ideological ubiquity.
Rudyard Kipling in his ‘City of dreadful Night ‘ comments about these tombs , rather sarcastically :
“It is as though we walked down the streets of a town, so tall are they and so closely do they stand – a town shrivelled by fire, and scarred by frost and siege. Men must have been afraid of their friends rising up before the due time that they weighted them with such cruel mounds of masonry.”
I look at it from a different point of view. It was again, to a large extent, a statement of Raj . The grandeur, even in death , symbolized - power .Not only the size of the tombs, even the epitaphs make a political statement . Take for example this one:
“Here lie the remains of Augustus Cleveland, Esquire, late Collector of the Revenue; Judge of the Dewanny Adawlat of the Districts of Bhaugulpore, Monghyr, Rajamahal, &c. &c. He departed this life 12th January 1784, at sea on board the ‘Atlas’ Indiaman, Captain Cooper, Proceeding to the Cape for the recovery of his health, aged 29 Years. His remains interred here on the 30th of the same month. The public and private virtues of this excellent young man, were singularly eminent in his public capacity; he accomplished by a system of conciliation what could never be effected by a system by Military coercion; he civilized a savage race of the mountaineers, who for ages had existed in a state of barbarism, and eluded every exertion that had been practiced against them to suppress their depredations, and reduced them to obedience; to his wise and beneficent conduct, the English East India Company were indebted for the subjecting to their Government, the numerous inhabitants of that wild and extensive country, the Jungleteterry.”
Isn’t it a funerary tomb transformed into a monument of power? Cleveland, as the epitaph declares, was a martyr who penetrated the heart of darkness and civilized the barbarians, assimilated them into the grace of the mighty empire.
But I decided not to go deep in the history and power equations written by these people of yesteryears' . As for me, I am glad I could visit them after all. It was an humbling experience – something that made me think for long. Hereditary titles, distinguished careers, valiant characters, imperial backing and money power- nothing could save them from the clutches of nature …or should we call it time . It was like the Yaksha Prashna of Mahabharata – we see people dying all the time and yet we crave for immortality.
The world outside the cemetery walls carried on its business as usual . Traders selling goods, householders collecting their shopping and traffic man busy in work- everyone blissfully oblivious of the history sleeping in the vicinity.

Find my other pics of the cemetery here

1 comment:

MARCH said...

Hi once again,

Your blogs are really interesting and thought provoking and prompt me to look at things in a new light.

Here goes one link to the photographs of Katasraj temple in Pakistan, the place where Yudhisthir is supposed to have answered the questions of Yaksha. Hope they would touch your heart as they have touched mine.