Caretaker Vincent Isaac and his little daughter Agnes guided me through the knee-high tangle of grass and weeds into the heart of the Scottish Cemetery at 3 Karaya Road. Beyond this point the jungle of parasites, shrubs and trees in the embrace of creepers was impregnable.
The Scottish Cemetery map in the custody of Isaac shows that almost every inch of this sprawling ground was covered with masonry (pucca) graves, but when it comes to grandeur, these are no match for the lofty monuments which line South Park Street Cemetery. The ones here are of humble dimensions and in spite of an occasional ornamental cross, tablet or marble flowers rising above the shrubbery, most are just plain slabs of unembellished stone.
There is another possibility. Since this cemetery has been lying neglected for so long, they could have been stripped of richer material by vandals.
The Scots once dominated business and industry in Calcutta but like many hardworking people they were known for their parsimony. Which perhaps explained the lack of marble or any impressive structures in this necropolis.
As I discovered from the legends on the headstones and the entries in the ancient register with pages that will crumble into dust in a few years’ time, those interred here —including many Indians, mostly Bengalis, besides Scots and Brits — were on the staff of the mills and factories which had come up in and around Calcutta and Howrah in the 19th century and early 20th century.
The Church of Scotland cemetery is the property of St Andrew’s church in Dalhousie Square and is under the management of the kirk session. The Scottish Cemetery at 3 Karaya Road is encircled by open-air anywhere-everywhere kerb-side car repair “garages” which create impediments both for pedestrians and the traffic.
A high wall runs around the ground but this too is not in good repair and is unable to ward off unwanted elements and vandals.
The arched portal is a brick-and-mortar structure and the name of the cemetery is written in bold letters on it.
There is no mention anywhere of the date on which it opened to public. A small plaque on the outer wall of the caretaker’s humble quarters declared that some “historical tombstones” had been removed to South Park Street cemetery in 1987. But the caretaker did not have the list of graves removed, as the plaque declared.
The kutcha pathway leading to the graveyard is neat but the tombs look as if they had been dug up for some nefarious purpose. Stone slabs lie scattered all over with clumps of grass and weeds growing in between.
I tried to decipher some of the indistinct letters on the tombstones in the hope of discovering the identity of those interred. I could read “Apcar” (but aren’t they Armenians, I wondered) and quite understandably, a sprinkling of surnames beginning with either “Mac” or “Mc” dating mostly back to mid- or late 19th century.
To the left of the pathway was a clearing where I found the memorials to two men buried in Ilford cemetery and at Richmond, Surrey. Close to that was the marble headstone of Niroj Nolini Pyne who died in 1937.
The greenery washed by the occasional spells of rain and under the glaring sun had turned into a wall of glowing, translucent jade exuding a strong smell of chlorophyll.
The only grave that seemed well looked after was that of Rev Thomas Jones, who had created the Khasi alphabet and literature. He died in 1849.
The ancient register yielded “the quality of trade or profession” of those buried — manager of jute and flour mills, foreman, engineer, tea planter, mechanic, ship carpenter, port commissioner employees, evangelist, stockbroker and to my surprise, “Kiron Shoshi Banerjee, lady doctor,1922” and “Muriel Webb, telephone operator, 1923.”
I could not find the name of Rev Kalicharan Banerjee, who was Pradesh Congress sabhapati and first registrar of Calcutta University. He was buried here. Neither could I find out the exact date on which the cemetery opened. A good guess is some time in the 1830s.
Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta