A 'paranormal' parting gift

Outgoing French consul-general Fabrice Etienne is leaving a farewell gift for the city. Under the nom de plume Sebastien Ortiz, he has penned a book, Ghosts of Calcutta. Here life and lore weave a mesh of memory and myth in which the past unfolds through his own encounters with the city as a young visa officer in the mid-1990s and through the spirits of the British who died here in the Raj era.

By Sudeshna Banerjee
  • Published 26.07.15
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Outgoing French consul-general Fabrice Etienne is leaving a farewell gift for the city. Under the nom de plume Sebastien Ortiz, he has penned a book, Ghosts of Calcutta. Here life and lore weave a mesh of memory and myth in which the past unfolds through his own encounters with the city as a young visa officer in the mid-1990s and through the spirits of the British who died here in the Raj era.

A day before the launch of the English translation of his French original, Fantomes a Calcutta, in Delhi by French ambassador Francois Richier, Etienne said: "The book happened because of my decision to return to Calcutta 10 years after I had worked here in Park Mansion. In those three months in 2004-05, I took notes and then did the work back home over two years."

The ghost, he says, is a metaphor of his relationship with his own past and with the city. "When I returned, the city had changed just as I had. Yet the ghost of my past while I was here was speaking to me. The ghosts of the city were telling me their stories."

An autobiographical travelogue-like non-fiction section runs parallel to the fictional part, in which British soldiers and civil servants inhabit colonial Calcutta - in life and in death - and tell their own tales. Historical figures, monuments and moments are used as part of the recreation.

"Finding old Calcutta nowadays is difficult, with old buildings getting destroyed. I used the documentation I found to imaginatively recreate the lives of fictional characters in the 18th and 19th centuries - the soldier who supposedly died in the Black Hole tragedy, the boy in the Botanical Gardens who got hit by a stray bullet during the duel between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis, the British policeman who died in the riots of 1946.... I had heard the story of a policeman who appears next to you inside the car near the Maidan and disappears near Taj Bengal. I invented his life story."

The book, published in 2009, was aimed at the French who knew little of Calcutta.

"I did not attempt to take the point of view of Bengalis, since like my French readers, I am more likely to understand the lives of the British expatriates and colonial officers. France also had colonies. Like in all colonies, here two civilisations lived next to each other but hardly mixed," he said.

As a consul-general, he admits, he likes to see Calcutta as a city of the future. "But to be honest, this past makes for the city's unique charm. And as an author, that is the approach I wanted to take."