The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Bengaliana and the evolution of the salaried middle class

During the momentous 1850s, not only did India’s governance change hands, but also several new innovations from the West found their way here — often only a few years after their discovery. The camera, postage stamp, telegraph, Morse code, the university and railway system were among the more significant. Expectedly, it was the three metropolises and their hinterlands that developed the fastest and soon needed a service sector. For instance, by the 1890s, Calcutta saw rapid rural-urban migration, changing modes of living, opening of new educational institutions and experiments in architectural and building styles. The introduction of horse-drawn trams in 1880, streets with gaslights and then electricity in 1891, early telephones and motor cars before the end of the 19th century — all helped make the city an important urban centre.

Its backbone was provided by the growing, though amorphous, category of the ‘middle class’. From the 1820s onwards, a distinct category of Bengalis working for their livelihood (as against living off the land) had emerged, and notions of a salaried middle class started evolving. After 1857, with the expansion of European business houses, rapid growth of education, and English education in particular, as well as the opening up of professional occupations such as various rungs of the civil service, medicine, law, journalism, and of course, teaching, the educated middle class (shikshita madhyabitta shreni) was firmly established. A growing urban bureaucracy required a cadre of dedicated minions — chaprasis, duftries, clerks and junior officers as well as the more blessed, the Heaven-born ICS-wallahs, the preserve of the rulers until 1864, when Satyendranath Tagore, older brother of Rabindranath, became the only Indian among 916 members.

However, the lower echelons of the system could not have worked without the babu. While there are available memoirs written by ICS officers, it is more difficult to get to know at first hand the life of the less privileged, the ubiquitous sarkari amla and kerani (bureaucrat and government clerk) of Calcutta. In re-discovering and publishing Selections from Bengaliana by Shoshee Chunder Dutt from his larger Bengaliana, A Dish of Curry and Rice and Other Indigestible Ingredients (first published by Thacker, Spink and Co., 1877-8, Calcutta), Portsmouth-based academic Alex Tickell allows us a look at that world.

One of the earliest Indian authors to publish fiction in English, Shoshee Chunder Dutt was a prolific essayist, poet, historian and novelist, and a perceptive — if satirical — social commentator. He used nom de plumes — J.A.G. Barton and the bizarre Horatio Bickerstaffe Rowney — for some of his works. Obviously he felt that such a masquerade was necessary for him to gain acceptability on subjects such as the ‘wild’ tribes of India. From the gifted and well-placed Rambagan Dutt family of Calcutta, it is strange that Shoshee should have settled for the job of a clerk — even though he was rewarded with the title of Rai Bahadur for his dedicated service. The accompanying photograph of him in later life exudes an air of distinct confidence; clad in an expensive chogha over a kurta-pyjama, he is every inch a well-heeled, highly educated bhadralok, patronizing one of the many exclusive studios in the city. His chogha — perhaps of Kashmiri silk or wool — that has rich embroidery (zardozi) around the seams, pockets, hem and neckline — was of the kind worn by the Indian elite in the north and west as well as in Bengal.

Shoshee is not merely photographed with books placed discreetly on the ornate table, but has grasped one rather unkindly by its spine — almost as though he was deeply engrossed in it — and had just got up pushing back his chair to greet the photographer. That the chair is placed much further back, and, in fact, somewhat out of the frame than would normally be the case with one getting up in a hurry, suggests that the photographic operators (as photographers were known) and studio staff knew that the focus had to be on the client. Props — however important to the image to be created — must not intrude. A not-unsurprising visual representation of a man known more for his writings than for his occupation.

“Reminiscences of a Kerani’s Life” is an amusing description of life behind a desk in the Government Treasury of the 1840s where the 18-year-old Shoshee observed men going about their business — the Jew in the opium trade with China, the salt merchant, “the sleek oily Baboo”, the cheeky lieutenant who wanted to queue-jump, were part of a day’s entertainment. When he reflected back thirty years later, he remembered chafing at the commonness of the average Englishman who was “apt to consider every man his inferior who does not establish by the incontrovertible logic of force that he is his equal”. And often such force included physical assault! Apart from the Burra Saheb of the Treasury, there were the Chhota Sahebs, who, as a rule, were short- tempered, arrogant and “expect[ed] the amlah to do everything for them”, as well as accord them the same deference as was reserved for the boss.

Their foolishness was amazing and though Shoshee tried to explain this in terms of their age and inexperience, in an amusing recounting of their follies, he could barely conceal his disdain. They could not understand why “a gold mohur, if equal to a rupee in weight, was so much smaller in size” nor did they look at what they signed: “every evening several blank papers and blotting sheets were to be found on his table signed in the usual way along with other papers.” Clearly, Shoshee thought not too much of what today would be regarded as a gateway to graft, the Indian trickster who lurks in every office had as yet many decades to go!

Shoshee continued to work for the new dispensation — and in fact had the courage to write a short story, “Shunker — A Tale of the Indian Mutiny of 1857”, in which two Indian women give shelter to British soldiers on the run. They are rewarded by the younger woman being raped by the soldiers, and the story is that of Shunker, her husband, searching for the rapists. A bold tale, indeed, to publish of troubled times when stories of outrages committed against the white woman had been the order of the day.

Later, Shoshee accepted disappointment at not being called for the post of deputy magistrateship with impatience, but still “with as much pride as I could call up”. Many years later, when the Secretary did send for him with the offer, Shoshee refused, as he had moved on. It gave him great delight to know that when the same man wished to meet a respectable and well-placed native gentleman, the latter refused to visit him.

If this sounds like petty one-up-manship, one has only to read the records of those times to know how hard it was for a self-respecting Indian to work under the British. Shoshee clearly enjoyed a certain equation with the Burra Saheb as he did not believe in taking off his shoes when he went into his room — nor was he asked to. That that was expected behaviour is evident in his altercation with a colleague who, he felt, was being unnecessarily obsequious. These were the days of small offices with constant interaction between the boss and his subordinates, and the performance of a range of tasks — from counting bank notes, chastening an unreasonable client who could not be called “a lady even out of courtesy”, to sorting out why an Englishman whipped the coachman of an Indian gentleman, resulting in a scene outside the Treasury. Bengaliana (incidentally, a clever bilingual pun) is testimony to an age when quibbles over obsequies, taking orders from those clearly from a very different social class, and the obsessive demands of the rulers alienated many. Few, however, narrated anecdotes with as much sardonic humour, a mock dueller’s glee, as did Shoshee Chunder Dutt.

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