The first two decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of urbanism in sociology and philosophy: Georg Simmel wrote about the metropolis and mental life, and Walter Benjamin penned portraits of Western cities like Paris and discussed the work of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe in the context of the flâneur, the dandy who roamed the streets to observe the city and the people.
While any number of European and American cities received attention as centers of power, beauty and decadence in the first quarter of the century, Asian remained obscure. Hemendra Kumar Roy’s Bengali memoir Raater Kolkata, recently translated by Rajat Chaudhuri as Calcutta Nights, will address that gap.
Published in 1923, Raater Kolkata is an account of a young man’s nocturnal adventures in Calcutta, now Kolkata, a city in the eastern part of India, also the first capital city of British India. The book records what Roy saw in the city at night—the sex, the crime, the gambling, the cremation grounds—between 1901 and 1920. Because it spoke about these “dark” subjects, Roy, renowned and respected as a crime-fiction writer, published it under the name of Meghnad Gupta.
While translator Chaudhuri and the blurb locate the book in the context of the 1905 Partition of Bengal and World War I, Roy unperturbed by such major factors as the British Empire—does not invoke these events in his record of the times. In the Prologue, he declares that he writes the book for adult male readers to warn them to protect their children from the dark places at night. He is a classist and a misogynist who casts a gimlet eye at everything that is not genteel, or everything that needs the darkness of the night to unfold:
But without a sharp eye, no one would be able to decipher the extent of wrongs, the extent of vileness and brutality concealed beneath this outward shield of religiosity. Despite Chitreswari of Chitpur at one end and Kalikadebi of Kalighat at the other [two goddesses] keeping watch on the domain of Calcutta, everyday Satan and his sinful followers the city in hordes, pulling wool over their divine eyes.
Roy warns that he hasn’t been able to keep eroticism out of his writing but clarifies that he writes about certain risqué things to condemn sin:
The evening dresses of modern European beauties are dangerous indeed. First of all their complexion is beautiful like the juicy pink seeds of cracked pomegranates, their youthful busts are exposed by deep necklines, and many of them, with the amazing bare beauty of their ample milk-white cleavages, completely freeze the viewer’s eyes. Murderers kill the body but these fair beauties kill the minds of men. They should be punished according to law.
Kolkata has a Chinatown and it appears in the book too, not without an “Orientalist” gaze. There’s a Chinese beauty and a Chinaman looking at Roy so intensely that he thinks he is being hypnotised!
Chinatown is a ‘must-see’ Calcutta neighbourhood… go to Chinatown once, you will no longer feel, you are in Calcutta. At night the light and shade, the people, the conversations, the homes and houses will all evoke strangely variegated recollections and imaginations about faraway China in your mind.
Roy goes to the beggars’ quarters or the bhikiripara, a part of the “underworld” that the middle classes know nothing about. Ordinary people give alms to beggars but the latter use the money to buy drugs.
From time to time I have peeled into the life of bhikiripara. The narratives of their joys and suffering could have added a new dimension to Bengali literature but unlike Russia no Bengali Maxim Gorky has been born in this country. So we cannot find any mind-boggling depiction of this soviet of socially excluded people in our literary outpourings.
Before Roy wrote his, there were several “sketches” of Kolkata. Raater Kolkata is different for its conscious attempt to educate men about what (mostly) men do at night in the city. Roy indicates that he has more “uncounted store of material” about the fearsome aspects of the city. A positive reception would, he intimates, help him publish more.
It’s possible that while it must have been quite a sensation when it came out, Roy’s men readers did not appreciate the didacticism, and thus, there are no sequels to the book. But it’s an interesting piece for readers interested in history and Asian experience of transition to modernity.
Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.