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 .
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