Read more below

  • Published 11.02.11

Calcutta: A city lived in and remembered By Samir Mukherjee, Sampark, Rs 399

In the foreword of the book, the author likens himself to a relentless alchemist. However, he does not create gold from base metal — he summons up his characters in their several moods, revisits the places they once occupied in his life, remembers the lessons learned over such a lifetime and then “relentlessly” gives everything a black and white identity, an inertness that makes him feel like a modern Paracelsus. But why he goes through this process remains unclear.

Samir Mukherjee is a bhadralok, a term usually used to mean a gentleman, though it is more than that. Among other things, a bhadralok — I imagine, would be someone who, without excelling in any particular activity, recognizes and appreciates such talent in others. He will not discount the experience of others only because it does not match his. He does not always understand youth, but understands their need to be different. He is tolerant, but will not put up with a value system that is bereft of grace and civility. After lamenting the crumbling of a culture time and again in the book, Mukherjee quotes Jibanananda: “Jara andho shobcheye beshi aaj/ Chokhey dekhey tara/ Jader hridayey kono prem nei, preeti nei, karunar aloron nei/ Prithibi achal aaj tader shu-paramorsho chara...”

True, he is a Renaissance man, but more important, he is what a bhadralok is — l’homme engage, the engaged man.

Mukherjee’s book is full of names, places and events. The gardener and sweeper rub shoulders with the Peer’s wife, albeit metaphorically; poets and playwrights share space with pastry chefs; there are teachers and tailors, babus and bureaucrats, the cakewallah and the communist. The author not only recalls 400 odd names from memory but writes about each of them with precision. But he is so caught up in this swirl of names and events sometimes that he suddenly feels the need to get on with his chronicle and so ends things abruptly. For instance, he writes at length of his friendship with the beauteous and extraordinarily gifted Ranjabati Sarkar, but abruptly ends the reference with “Her suicide caught us all unawares as we had no inkling of any depression or profound sadness that she could have been afflicted with.” The reader is caught unawares, too.

Mukherjee had said that the book is a collection of feature pieces that his friend and actor, Nandita Das, had made him write for The Telegraph. However, the newspaper would have published the pieces over a period of time; in the book it is one long, staccato read. The absence of a narrative link detracts from its value, something which a good editor could have set right.

The author belongs to Sir R.N. Mookerjee’s family. Therefore, when he finished studying at Trinity College and dawdling by the river Cam with Amartya Sen, he joined Martin Burn Limited — the company, founded by Sir R.N. Mookherjee, that built the Victoria Memorial. His co-workers included a cousin and confidant of Swami Yogananda, four men from the Tagore clan “tucked in the hidden corners of our office”, a man in the sales tax department who introduced him to Bengali fiction, and a firebrand Gana Natya Sangha promoter. There were accomplished folk musicians in the clerical cadre — in the cash department was an authority on Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Then there were the fabled Anglo-Indian secretaries, with their flashing eyes and quick laughter. With such a varied work environment, I wonder how any engineering work got done.

I had wondered why and for whom Mukherjee wrote this book. He surely understands that the reader, like his characters, has changed. Perhaps memories were weighing down on him too heavily, or were getting dimmer. True, many things have disappeared. One of them is the bhadralok.