Edward Lear’s nonsense verses have entered our collective consciousness via books of children’s verse. In elocution classes in school the story of the owl and the pussycat sailing to sea is a standard drill. Only a niche audience however, is aware that he worked as a brilliant natural history painter and his work on parrots is one of the most colourful and detailed explorations of the bird that zoological drawings can boast of. Lear’s health was fragile: he suffered from epilepsy ( which he referred to as the Demon), was depressive (the Morbids) and suffered from a weak respiratory system. Despite this Lear drew from an early age, worked as an illustrator for the London Zoological Society, took paid commissions to paint for wealthy patrons like Edward Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby and finally, in a natural transition from menagerie animals to surrounding form, took up landscape painting. He travelled extensively and from the 1830s onwards visited Italy, Germany, France, Egypt Turkey, Corfu, Greece, Crete and India – the last in the 1870s during the tenure of Lord Northbrook – one of his closest friends. Perhaps Lear’s travels, like his nonsense poems and the fantastic drawings that accompanied much of his verse, were a form of release or an escape for a man crippled by a morbid shyness.
Between 1873 and 1875 Lear travelled from Bombay, up to Cawnpore and Lucknow, to Benaras, Calcutta and Darjeeling, to Simla and Kasauli, to Golconda, Coonoor and Ceylon and finally, after two wonderful years went back home. On the way he kept a journal detailing his experiences and frequently embellished it with poems and sketches – some of them have entered the canon of nonsense parody such as the Puppy of Nurkunda, the Cummerband, the Akond of Swat. Reading Edward Lear’s Indian Journal one is struck by the uninhibited narrative, switching easily from a grumpiness about train delays and dak bungalow mishaps to excited commentary about the beauty of the natural scenery. Lear’s energy was boundless as was his curiosity and fascination for natural scenery alien to his own. Sky and grass, leaf and flower burst through his descriptions as only an artist’s astute gaze can represent and transform: “Came to the Taj Mahal; descriptions of this wonderfully lovely place are simply silly, as no words can describe it at all. What a garden! What flowers!…effects of colour absolutely astonishing, the great centre of the picture being ever the vast glittering ivory-white Taj Mahal, and the accompaniment and contrast of the dark green of cypresses, with the rich yellow green trees of all sorts! and then the effect of the innumerable flights of bright green parrots flitting across like live emeralds; and of the scarlet poinciannas and countless other flowers beaming bright off the dark green! the tinker or tinpot bird ever at work; pigeons, hoopoes and, I think, a new sort of mynah, pale dove colour and gray; also squirrels, and all tame, and endlessly numerous“.
Lear travelled across India in every available mode of transport. Accompanied by his friend-cum-valet Giorgio, a fifteen year old Italian, he swept across India by train, boat and two-horse garry, by jampan and tonga, on foot or scrambling up rocks, observing all, not from the fastidious point of view of a servant of Empire but by a frank delight in the colour and vitality of the country. His painting expeditions took him everywhere, from bazaar to village rock, from ghat to plain, from Calcutta’s hustle and fuss to the haunting river at Benaras. At one point, clearly overwhelmed by the scale of India he threw down his pencil and declared, “No tiffin; off again and drew till 3.45, then gave it up-cruel folly! nothing short of a moving opera scene, can give any idea of the intense and wonderful colour and detail of these Benaras river banks.”
An interesting but oft overlooked treat found in the pages of the journal is the description of daily meals that Lear provides. Each day’s painting expedition is detailed, the impediments of the climate discussed but ever so fascinating is the way in which the food he ate is discussed. No traveller’s diary can have such a scrupulous rendering of the day’s menu as Lear’s does! Benaras is beautiful but dinner is dismal: “soup good, and a boiled fowl with rice just tolerable. Nothing else, however, at all eatable, mutton quite raw, stewed ducks hard. I may except, though, a bread and butter pudding“. In Darjeeling there was an excellent meal of fried fowl cutlets and good roast potatoes, a cold roast teal and two bottles of soda water, but in Delhi the meal was paltry- “eggs, cold lamb, bread and cold sherry“. At Simla the Irish stew was marred by too much pepper but the potatoes were delicious;”heavenly potatoes have these people, the best of any out of old England“. At Mashobra Lear approved of ” a really good sweet omelette “mommolet” as these people call it. ” And so it continues, endless matter for a food historian, a catalogue of mediocre hotel and dak bungalow food, a long roll of bad breakfasts, pleasing lunches and fortifying dinners, lines and lines describing good roast mutton, cabbage and peas, wonderful curries, “cursed pudding pro custard“, bad Irish stews and mayonnaise but tolerable rolypoly jam pudding. Claret, beer, soda water or “bilayutee pawnee” and occasionally champagne was consumed to keep the spirits unflagging.
Humour enlivens every entry. Little escapes Lear, moreover he has the ability to laugh at the follies of mankind in the manner of the greatest humorists of all time- a tone that is one of gentle chiding rather than brutal satire. To read Lear’s Indian Journal is to go back in time and re-discover the India of the past in much the same way as other travel writings of the time do. With about 2000 sketches and water colours and the journal, Lear’s last trip abroad has left future generations with a new look at India through the eyes of England’s greatest humourist.
There is an anecdote describing how Nirad Chaudhuri celebrated his birthday in 1995 à la Jane Austen . Seized by yet another fancy, he decided to mark the day by a celebration which would re-enact a scene from Pride and Prejudice (where Darcy received his lady visitors and served them refreshments). Chaudhuri’s drawing room, decorated in a Victorian style was transformed into Regency England by the placement of a fruit bowl replete with apricots, nectarines, grapes. The guests were made to sit against the wall, ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other, provided with dainty fans with which they fanned themselves as Chaudhuri read the relevant passages from the novel. The celebration ended with jam tarts, game pie and champagne. Interestingly enough, Nirad Chaudhuri wore a dhoti and a panjabi while the invited ladies wore silk sarees—although what dress the other gentlemen wore is not detailed. (An Austen Afternoon, Shrabani Basu in Nirad C. Chaudhuri: The First Hundred Years: A Celebration ed. by Swapan Dasgupta).
Shrabani Basu’s anecdote sums up the essence of Nirad Chaudhuri. Here was a man who exemplified a kind of universal humanism, one who saw nothing surprising in evoking the world of Jane Austen wearing dhoti-panjabi and saree. Photographs of him that are available in books and magazines show him both immaculately dressed in Western attire but also in dhoti. One of them is unique: Nirad Chaudhuri, sitting on the floor of his Oxford house, wearing a dhoti and short punjabi, bent over a plate of rice, separating shingle from grain in a room pretty in chintz and polished glass.
Chaudhuri called himself “the last Englishman” and whether he was correct in his evaluation is a matter of debate, but it is certain that he was one of the last to embrace a cosmopolitanism that believed in the ideologies and cultural mores of the West, while at the same time being steeped in the sensibilities and mores of India. In this, Nirad Chaudhuri may be said to end what the Rambagan Dutts and Toru Dutt had begun—a perfect syncretic mixture of the Orient and the Occident that privileged England as the centre of the world but was moored towards one’s own tradition.
To read accounts of his boyhood years in Kishorganj, Banagram and Kalikutch is to move through a vanished world where time passed in the fruition of seasons, the coming of spring, summer, the monsoons and then winter, the cycle of Rathyatra, Charak and Durga Pujo, the world of vast gleaming rivers with fishing boats bobbing up and down like seeds, of skies sodden with dark grey rain clouds, of nights sharp with the fragrance of sewlee, champa and gandhoraj. Shut up in our box-like city apartments, Chaudhuri brings back the sense of village Bengal at the turn of the century in a style that is strikingly poetic in appeal. Bibhutibushan Bandopadhyay, the great Bengali writer who evoked this world as poignantly in his Bengali writings, was Chaudhuri’s mess-mate in Calcutta and one can only imagine the two figures lost in conversation about the world they had left behind.
But there in the mud huts of Kishorganj and Banagram, England touched the consciousness of the village world. Milton’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays stood alongside volumes by Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Michael Madhusudhan Dutt on bookshelves while on the walls there were framed prints of Raphael, of Christ, of British victories in the Boer War. Young boys would come running home from play, whooping and shouting “England expects every man to do his duty” because they had read about the Battle of Trafalgar, and the sensation of river touching the sky in the horizon quickened read memories of this battle gleaned from school textbooks.
It would be incorrect to posit Chaudhuri as a denationalised Anglophile as he is often vilified. The anglicised Bengali had often real contributions to make and to find marks of a slavish adherence in the stream of lawyers, educators and government officials who lived and worked in an aggressive Westernised milieu would be to over simplify things. One finds resemblances with the Dutts before him, and others in the 19th and 20th centuries including Manmohan Ghosh (the more famous Aurobindo’s brother) and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, all of whom could be patriotic and concerned Indian citizens while still having an abstract identification with England. Five centuries ago this would be seen as part of the Liberal Humanist tradition. In the 20th century, however, this was seen as being denationalised.
For Chaudhuri, the problem was compounded by the fact that he attacked certain aspects of 20th century nationalism. That he had the courage to do so shows him as a man of conviction, and despite his childish, often whimsical exaggerations of English-ness he stood up to contemporary Gandhian and Nehruvian models. What he disliked was their reading of Indian history as being one of continuous marauding and exploitation by the structures of British imperialism and their refusal to acknowledge that post-Enlightenment Europe had certain important contributions to make on the Indian mind. To view the colonial state as being completely destructive and evil, with no positive contribution at all was something Chaudhuri was unable to accept.
In a remarkable passage in Chapter Four of The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian, Chaudhuri writes —
“The servility and malice ingrained in every fibre of our being which made us indulge in grotesque antics of alternative genuflexion and defiance before the Englishman persist to this day, and a most striking proof of this persistence was furnished by Mahatma Gandhi himself only one day before the announcement of the final British plan for transferring power to Indians, that is to say, on 2nd June 1947. After bestowing fulsome praise on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the uncrowned kind of India and emphasizing with what appeared like a licking of lips that he was a ‘Harrow boy’, ‘Cambridge graduate’, and ‘barrister’, Mahatma Gandhi went on to declare that “our future presidents will not be required to know English.'”
For Nirad Chaudhuri “was savage in his dislike of the new class of Anglicised Indians who stepped into the shoes of the departing British in 1947” and “anticipated the moral fragility of the post-Independence order and its inability to take India forward.”(Introduction, Swapan Dasgupta in Nirad C. Chaudhuri: The First Hundred Years)
In Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri, I remember my grandfather. He was born in 1910 in Barishal, his father also a lawyer and many of the descriptions of provincial life supplied in Chapters One, Two and Three of The Autobiography remind me of my grandfather’s stories. Like Chaudhuri, my grandfather had faith in British systems, was an admirer of Matthew Arnold, described himself as having only one mistress who tempted him more than his wife and described this mistress as the glories of the English language and its literature. Was my grandfather de-nationalised? I think not. Immaculate in crisp dhoti–punjabi and jahar coat, he would sit regally at the Calcutta Club, declaiming on Tallulah Bankhead and Tagore, all in the same breath.
Nirad Chaudhuri has found his way back into our lives via, unexpectedly, a newly-constituted English Literature university syllabus. At a time when the world is caught in a strange bind between provincial nationalism and a cosmopolitan non-exhibitionist internationalism, it is time to re-read The Autobiograpghy of an Unknown Indian. Chaudhuri teaches us that it is folly to swagger and swear in the latest Paris fashion, shallow and supercilious as we make our way unthinkingly through a globalised internet-fired post-pandemic world order, passing judgement on this and that, unthinkingly, unknowingly, sans reading, knowledge, judgement, understanding. It is time to embrace new worlds but to stay rooted in our own.
“They were all Christians and highly respected by their townspeople. All spoke English well and were educated in European literature far above the average of other Bengalis of their generation. These Dutt families were the backbone and mainstay of the Christian Church and congregation, which was in Cornwallis Square. I am told by Mr. Joseph Welland that he learned from these educated Dutts, that they always, even among themselves, made use of the theological terms needed, in the English language, even when conversing in Bengali. Govin Chunder was a delightful man and most highly educated, he spoke excellent English, and was an earnest-minded and religious Christian in faith.”
Mrs. Barton, widow of C.M.S Missionary Rev. J. Barton, quoted in Harihar Das, Life and Letters of Toru Dutt.
Harihar Das’ biography of Toru Dutt, a heroic venture containing every available scrap of information about the poetess and her family, published in 1920 and enduring ever since as the standard text for details about the Rambagan Dutts, provides readers with an array of interesting facts. Out of the vast mass of material provided, including letters written to family during the time of her travels abroad, reminiscences from old friends and acquaintances, usually missionaries, as well as recollections of Govin Chunder — Toru’s father — published in the Bengal Magazine, an important mouthpiece of the Bengali Christians edited by the Rev Lalbehari Day, we are left with vignettes of a family emblematic of the turmoil that nineteenth century Bengal was subject to. The Westernization of the indigenous Bengali in the 19th century, caught amidst the interplay of tradition and the new thoughts of the West, had led to a series of changes in the social, cultural and religious spheres.
Conventional historiography has seen in this a vigorous intellectual revitalization under the influence of western cultures so akin to the fifteenth century Italian Renaissance that it has been labelled as the Bengal Renaissance. The focus of this piece is on a particular strand of the elite response to westernization in mid-nineteenth century Bengal symbolized by the highly anglicized and neo-Christian Dutt family of Rambagan. This was a family with a pronounced literary bend producing a veritable galaxy of literary talent. More importantly, the family symbolized the dualities and tensions confronting the elite sections of Bengali society at a time when political, historical and social motivations brewed fresh cross-cultural currents and experiences.
Modern evaluations of Toru Dutt’s literary merits focus on the themes and forms of her writing as well as the immense historical value they possess; such evaluations date from Toru’s own times. Some of the earliest reviews of her first published work A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields(1874) focus on the immensity of her achievement, not just as a poet but also as a fruitful product of the interaction between a supposedly ignorant, weak nation and the knowledge and enlightenment by the beneficial influence of Empire.
In a letter to Mary Martin from July 1876, Toru had copied out fragments from newspaper reviews of her volume of French translations; one such extract taken from the Friend of Indiastates, after a few introductory compliments, how “we might have dismissed the volume without further remark, had it been the work of an Englishwoman, as we could easily have believed it to be; but what would have been ordinary commendation, in the case of an Englishwoman, becomes very high praise, when we state that the lady who gathered this Sheaf is a native of this Country . . . The lady was, we understand, educated in Europe . . . we take the book as a good omen for the future of women in India”.
Most modern appreciations of Toru Dutt follow these early leads in analyzing Toru’s literary genius against the background of the age in which she lived. In terms of literary output Toru’s contribution is thus redoubtable enough, but she is remarkable not only for what she produced and did, but more so perhaps for what she was. To place Toru against a specific historical situation — that of nineteenth century colonial Bengal — and to see her as the central point of a wave of historical processes brings us to the question of Toru’s innate ideological and cultural dilemma, stemming always from her socio-religious background and being the product of distinct elitist perceptions and lifestyles. Toru’s literary flair and her creativity was a matter of her historical context and also a matter of her class and it was her class and her family that allowed her this prerogative of self-realization.
The extent to which Toru Dutt’s family influenced the creation of Toru Dutt, the author, can be gauged from biographical references as well as the letters she wrote to her English friend, Mary Martin, with whom she corresponded till days before her early death. The earliest records that are available about the Dutt family go back to Toru Dutt’s great-grandfather Nilmoni Dutt. We learn that the Dutts of Rambagan hailed originally from Ajapur in the district of Burdwan where Nilmoni was born on the 3rdof January 1757.
Sometime after he was born Nilmoni’s father separated from the original branch and migrated to Calcutta where he ultimately settled. Nilmoni grew up to be a distinguished resident of Calcutta during the latter part of the eighteenth century. A pious Hindu Kayasth, he greatly prided himself on his caste and religion and set about to perform the various duties expected of him with considerable enthusiasm and gusto. Brahmins “who went every day to perform their ablutions in the sacred stream of the Ganges gathered at Nilmoni’s house on their return” and were warmly received and liberally pampered by him. Most of Calcutta’s elite knew him and Maharaja Nabakrishna of Sobhabazar and Maharaja Nanda Kumar were constant visitors at his house. Nilmoni was a distinguished linguist knowing many languages, amongst which his knowledge of English was the best. He thus gifted to his sons an exposure to the new language and its thinking by being acquainted with it himself.
Nilmoni had three sons — Rasomoy, Harish and Pitambar. Rasomoy, Toru’s grandfather, was a well-known figure in Calcutta in the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century. In his various capacities in several commercial houses and ultimately as a judge in the Calcutta Small Causes Court, there are numerous references to him in historical records.
He had been appointed Honorary Secretary to the Hindu College Committee, was a Secretary of the Council of Management of the Sanskrit College, a member of the Calcutta School Book Society and the Calcutta School Society and an active member of most of the important public events of the day. At his death he left a property of six lakhs of rupees and ensured the measure of stability and economic security that would enable his successors to lead a life of contemplation and ease.
On the 14thof May, 1854, Rasomoy Dutt died, leaving behind five sons — Kishan Chunder, Kylash Chunder, Govin Chunder, Hur Chunder and Girish Chunder. While attending his father’s funeral, Kishan Chunder was taken ill and a few days later succumbed to his fever. Thereafter the remaining brothers sent for a Missionary, W. S. Mackay, who, being ill, sent Ewart and Ogilvy Temple, fellow Missionaries, as his representatives. Girish Chunder told the missionaries that Kishan had seen a vision of the other world before he died and had had himself baptized by Girish himself, enjoining upon him the task of converting the remaining members of the family to Christianity as soon as possible. The entire family, after a time of preparation and instruction, was baptized in Christ Church, Cornwallis Square in 1862.
The conversion at Christ Church was a natural corollary to the Dutt family’s innate predilection for western ideas and values. Nineteenth century Bengal had consistently been exposed to broad areas of westernization, while the rise of a service-oriented elite loyal to the British, in combination with the older landowning gentry, had given to high culture and elitism a distinctively western orientation. Following Macaulay’s brilliant rhetoric and Lord Bentinck’s official support to the extensive and exclusive dissemination of western education and the English language, the centrality of western knowledge patterns and institutions could no longer be disproved.
Westernisation was seen as liberalism and rationalism, a modernism which manifested itself in religious and social reform movements: in the modernisation of women, in the gaining of a University education and above all, in fluency in English. All the brothers of the Dutt family had been educated at the Hindu College and were steeped in the language and literatures of Europe. Old records frequently mention the Dutt brothers as reciting the poetry of Tennyson or the impassioned lines of Macbeth at annual college prize distribution functions.
Following the death of Derozio, the most influential teacher in that college was David Lester Richardson whose notes exerted a profound influence on his students. Richardson’s teaching and the polish and poetry of his style awakened the literary sensitivities of his pupils; in the case of the Rambagan Dutts, almost all showed a pronounced literary flourish. Hur Chunder, Girish Chunder and Omesh Chunder, Govin’s nephew, published individual volumes of poetry besides collaborating in the publication of a book called the Dutt Family Albumin 1870 — one of the first volumes of English verse by Bengalis. The Dutts clearly viewed English as a storehouse of literary excitement and a pathway to a rich intellectual ferment.
Yet while much of the nineteenth century elite had been exposed to western ideas via English education and had used these to bring about certain attitudinal transformations in their thinking and lifestyles, the one sub-strand of the intelligentsia that was affected most by these influences were the Bengali Christians. The breaking away from tradition that the Bengali Christian community encases had been preceded by the rebelliousness of the Derozians. Unlike other elements of the Bengali intelligentsia the Derozians, in a determined break with the past, had believed in a complete adoption of western modes and thought processes under the rather overwhelming response of their charismatic anti-establishment Eurasian teacher of English at the Hindu College — Henry Vivian Derozio.
Derozio’s example of extreme westernization was continued, after his untimely death, by a kind of graded and inevitable alienation from their own culture by the act of conversion and men like Krishnamohun Bannerji and Mahesh Chandra Ghosh passed naturally from being Derozians to being Christians. Religion was an important motif in nineteenth century Bengal and many of the great leaders of society were set apart by their religions affiliations — such as Radhakanta Deb, K.M. Bannerji or Keshub Chunder Sen.
The conversion of Govin Dutt and his brothers was important for the missionaries, not the least because they were from the privileged sections of society; as the century progressed the targets of conversion had changed from the days of the Serampore trio when Krishna Paul, carpenter, joined the Christian fold. In 1832-33 the conversion of Krishna Mohun Banerjee and his friends had been hailed by the Missionaries as the first serious inroads into the upper echelons of society.
“It was wholly new — no longer to see orphan children picked up anywhere to see outcastes, beggars and cripples becoming members of the Christian Church”. These elite converts were qualitatively different from those in the villages, for while the village Christians had to be laboriously educated in sanitation, hygiene, manners, cleanliness and food, the upper class Bengali Christians spoke English, wore western dresses and were an important symbol of enlightened and successful acculturation that offset the more naïve and unconvincing conversions of the lower classes.
Into such a wealthy, urbanized and educated Christian family was born Toru Dutt on the 4thof March, 1856. She had been preceded by Abju, born 18thOctober 1851 and Aru born on the 13thof September 1854. The three children were privately educated at home, under the tutorship of Babu Shib Chunder Banerjee, himself a Bengali Christian. Along with their studies the children learnt to play the piano and sing under the guidance of an English teacher called Mrs. Sinaes. Abju died in 1865 but the death was met with appropriate Christian fortitude: years later a sonnet in the Dutt Family Album would touchingly recall Govin Chunder’s loss at the death of his only son. For the time being, however, life continued in a gentle easy tenor: in reading, piano lessons, singing and roaming among the fruit trees of Baugmaree, the family garden house.
In 1869 the family left for Europe. Toru and Aru, crossing the “Black Waters” became the first Bengali girls to do so. The European visit had been prompted by Govin Chunder’s earnest desire “to give their two clever girls the best possible education and presumably expose them to the westernized lifestyle that was so assiduously internalized by the Dutts. The family landed at Marseilles and went onto Nice where they stayed till the spring of 1870. Here the sisters attended a pensionnet and studied French. Over the course of the next year the family was to move again, this time to England, spending a short time in Italy and Paris on their way. They stayed in England for three years, continuing their studies, attending the recently-established lectures for women at Cambridge and, afterwards, attending lectures and classes at St. Leonard’s.
Govin Chunder sailed back to Calcutta with his family in 1873, probably on account of the increasing ill health of Aru. On their return the two Dutt sisters plunged into hectic literary activity in sharp contrast to their gradually worsening health. French poems were translated and published in the Bengal Magazine. These were later collected and published, after the death of Aru in 1874, as ASheaf Gleaned In French Fields. In the last three years of her life, Toru seemed to have burst into a flurry of creative activity as if to compensate for increasing ill health and the perceptible symptoms of early death, producing, in quick succession, a collection of verses on subjects from Indian mythology (Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindusthan), a series of articles and translations which were published in the Bengali Magazine, an unfinished English novel (Bianca)and a French novel (Le Journal de Mademoiselle D’Arvers).
The literary and historical importance of Toru Dutt’s works have been the subject of much advanced research; modern critical evaluations of these have increasingly focused on the questions of gender as well as the veiled autobiographical, often rebellious anti-patriarchal elements that an analysis of Toru’s works uncover. Her poems, especially those centering around Indian myth and legend are seen as a synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions, much in the manner of other nineteenth century Indian writers in English.
The astonishing versatility of the writer who could create texts of such range and subtlety, given her age, is however the product both of inborn genius and the manner of her upbringing. To understand the making of a Toru Dutt is to explore the variegated and layered cultural aspect of the encounter between the Bengali intelligentsia and western ideas and processes. The abiding relevance of British rule lay in its unprecedented exposure to a new kind of civilization. In most cases western thought processes provided possible paradigms of superiority that buttressed the alienation growing within Indians.
The clash of the East and the West that followed led to tremendous turbulence, principally because as political confrontation with the West increased, so did intellectual proximity with them. The lifestyle and emotional temper of Toru and her family, caught in a mesh of cultural hybridism, leading a life of extreme Anglicization resulted inevitably in an identity crisis. The letters of Toru Dutt acquire significant overtones in this context.
Harihar Das’ biographical study reprints all the letters written by Toru to her English friend Mary Martin — a lasting friendship born out of an acquaintance of a mere two years when the Dutts were living at Cambridge (1872-1873) but continuing till Toru’s death in 1877. Along with these are printed some miscellaneous letters written from her stay abroad to relatives in India. These serve as valuable sources for the kind of life led by the family in England. From the start it is clear that the West had begun to overwhelm this impressionable girl of twelve and indeed was to symbolise a mode of possible perfection that the constricted Indian lifestyle she knew could never hope to match. In a letter to a young cousin Toru collects together all that she has drunk her senses in — dining at the “table d’ hote and having musicians play on a harp and violin to give us bon appetite . . . [seeing] a carnival full of noise and trumpets, of fancy dress and bonbons and taking long walks on the ‘Promenade des Anglais’”.
In London, the sisters had visited the theatres at Drury Lane, the Queens, Covent Garden and had seen performances of Scott’s Amy Robsartand Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Days were spent in taking long walks along secluded London avenues among the bare trees, of seeing the robins hopping on the square or roosting on winter branches. Afterwards there was dinner with “mutton cutlets and roly-poly” with which “comes up hot kuchoree or cabbage churchuree or Ambole of eels”.When dinner was over there was music to be learnt and while Toru played Schmetterling, Aru perfected a sonata by Mozart. Cambridge, London, Paris, Nice — each golden glittering worlds of fine living and sophistication imprinted themselves permanently on Toru’s mind, providing, tragically, a sense of irretrievable beauty inaccessible to Toru on her return to India.
In letter after letter Toru, on her return, alludes to the intoxication of life in the West quite alien to her restricted surroundings in Calcutta, of the exposure to sophisticated modes of refined living, of the joyous freedom unknown to the majority of women in Calcutta; trapped in dreary lives of scanty education, early marriage and subsequent seclusion among the rigours of a joint family existence. The realisation of this paradox marks the anguished note in many of her letters, especially the early ones, where there is a hearkening back to the sights and sounds of England and a frequently returning desire to return there. “My uncle Girish often speaks of the sense of cosiness and comfort that one must feel when sitting beside a blazing fire, in the heart of the winter, in England, while the wind and snow beat and howl against the windows panes . . . we often talk about the places we shall stop at, the things we shall see and hear, the English fruits we shall eat, the English fishes and dishes we shall taste . . .”
Amidst the trials of the death of her beloved sister and the increased possibility of her own death, the shared memories of a united single-unit family, living amidst the freedom of the West, unspoilt by the restrictiveness of a large and chaotic Indian household is what Toru cannot forget. In many of the letters there is also the acknowledgement of the role of Govin Chunder in helping foster this intellectual and sophisticated outlook. “Without Papa I should never have known good poetry from bad, but he used to take such pains with us . . . I wonder what I should have been without my father, nothing very enviable or desirable, I know, without Papa we should never have learnt to appreciate good books and good poetry”.
The “good books” she read were wide ranging and included the novels of Thackeray and the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Tennyson, Victor Hugo or La Martine and a whole gamut of English and French authors. Apart from fiction and poetry Toru had a gathering interest in antiquarian and quasi-historical books. In 1876, only months before her death, Toru had been excited by the prospect of translating Clarisse Bader’s La Femme dans I’Inde Antiqueand had obtained permission from Bader for doing so. She died before even beginning the project and it was perhaps a fitting literary irony that the book should be translated, years later, by Mary Martin and dedicated to Toru.
The Dutt family’s lifestyle and religion provided Toru with both the impetus as well as the opportunity for self expression and this brought her the choice of an entirely novel career — that of the writer, translator, the poetess: “I got a rather amusing packet by the post today, containing a small poem of some thirty pages. The packet was directed thus. ‘A Toru Dutt, poet, Bhowanipore . . . Within the book on the title page was written Au Poete, Toru Dutt, homage”.Toru’s letters present us with intimate scenes of quiet scholarly pursuits by father and daughter, devouring books delivered by Hatchette and Company, tackling Sanskrit lessons from the Pundit and discovering the pleasures of Valmiki and Kalidasa, occasionally translating or copying out well loved pieces to share with friends through letters. Increasing sickness could not deter Toru from reading and in a poignant letter written in October 1876 Toru describes her evenings, of how “before I got my cough, we used to read aloud to each other, by turns, from any French book . . . now of evenings as we do not read much by candlelight, we repeat together pieces of poetry, English or French or else it is a stray Sanskrit line.”
In one letter to Mary Martin, dated September 10, 1875, Toru describes a typical day in her quiet and unvarying routine thus. “I get up at half past four, prepare two cups of chocolate, one for myself and one for Papa, then I go to dress, and by the time I come out from the dressing room, Papa and Mamma get up, and I find the former smoking his morning cigar. After that I give Baguette and Pinoo their morning pittance of fried fish . . . After breakfast we have prayers, after which Mamma goes to her household duties, I either take up a book . . . And Papa reads or writes or pores over the Indian Daily News. At twelve, we have our lunch, after which I read or write till three. At five, we dress, and go out, I generally for a drive, and Papa and Mamma to my uncle’s garden. At seven we have dinner . . . And at ten to bed”.
Toru’s quiet life in Calcutta — in the city house at Rambagan and the garden house at Baugmaree — was as much a matter of choice as it was enforced. The act of conversion often enjoined social ostracism and the general boycott by the Hindu sections of society caused them to fall back on members of their own community. In some of her letters Toru speaks plainly of this virtual excommunication as leading to loneliness and extreme isolation and also to a cutting off of family ties.
Toru’s creativity was an outlet for loneliness, accentuated by the widening of horizons that her journeys abroad had provided. Her correspondence with Mary Martin was another aspect of this enforced isolation: she had no friends in India and no sibling to share her thoughts with which increases the pathos of the lively chattiness of these letters.
Throughout the letters, too, the homely pleasantries are underlined by a consciousness of the deeper realities of life. Though not a strident questioner of wrongs and grievances in the way that many contemporary women were, she was certainly a sensitive observer of a fast-changing milieu and a questioner of contemporary events and sitting. What is interesting is the fact that in most of them Toru is critical of existing policies, including inequality in the services, covert racism and economic degradation of the Indians. Coming from someone who had little interaction with Indians and who was encouraged by her father to spend her life in the company of the British, both in India and England, such questioning reveals an advance awareness that is far ahead of her personal situation.
Toru is sensitive to the hidden fangs of racism (“You see how my country men are treated by Anglo Indian sahibs”)to the frustrations among educated Bengalis competing for a stagnant number of white collar jobs in the administrative and professional sectors, to the qualities in judicial and legal matters and to the economic predispositions of a government whose administrators “generally come out to India to make their fortunes, you see, and real gentlemen and ladies very rarely leave home and friends for the yellow gold”.There is here an intense awareness of the cultural superiority associated with imperialism as well as the exploitation dependent upon it. Such comments are sandwiched between a welter of personal and domestic information and are often missed. The ability to correlate such vast areas of consciousness to copious literary reading with awareness of contemporary political trends speaks of a multitude of tastes and perspectives with a maturity of outlook that is due to for peculiar upbringing.
Toru’s fictional output, especially her poems on Sanskrit themes, marks what has been acknowledged as a moment of equilibrium where acceptance of her identity as an Indian merges with her enthusiastic rediscovery of a rich past. There is a corresponding change in her last letters too. In a letter dated 25 December, 1876, Toru admits that the possibility of her long-awaited trip to England leaves her strangely unmoved “And then, as you say, it is always sad to leave home, where so many happy and sad days have been passed; and after all India is my patrie”.
In March, 1877, five months before her death Toru, now too ill to move, could only weakly comprehend the intended trip as a distant dream, too unreal for fulfillment and ends by saying “It is sad to think of learning home again and wandering in foreign lands.”
Toru finally rests in peace in a mellow coming to terms with her contemporary reality and an acceptance of the contradictory modes of living her family background and upbringing have given her. This is achieved by a cosmopolitanism rare in the nineteenth century, from her specific historical as well as personal situation where her lifestyle offered a range of experiences, a diversity of sources, both indigenous and international. As a person who had access to two very different worlds, Toru gathers within herself varying moods and experiences.
Today Toru Dutt is the subject of meticulous research and study. She has found her way back into the canon and no English literature syllabus is complete without one of her poems. For someone who felt herself to be at the centre of a profound crisis in identity this is surely a fitting tribute.
Padmini Sen Gupta, Toru Dutt, New Delhi, 1968.
Kalyan Chunder Dutt, The Pindari Lover and other Writings, 2016
Barrackpore Park is today a forgotten piece of history.
The West Bengal Police Training Academy operates here, as does the State Armed Police and the Barrackpore Cantonment of the Indian Army. Its once rolling grounds have been divided and built upon by brutal-looking twenty- first century structures, many painted in an alarming shade of white and blue. Somewhere on the edge of the river stands a tomb built over the final resting place of Lady Canning, first Vicereine of India, while a statue of Lord Canning who passed away soon after returning to England stands guard at the foot of the tomb. It was brought here from the streets of Calcutta in the late 1960s as the city administrators went into an overdrive to remove colonial memories by erasing British era statues. Someone, somewhere, placed the magisterial figure of Lord Canning beside his wife’s grave, perhaps mindful both of the pathos of the situation as well as the silliness of defacing or removing statues to obliterate what can only be described as a definite moment in India’s past.
Other statues from colonial India are found on the lawns of the Flagstaff House, which was once the residence of the private secretary to the Viceroy and is today the Governor of Bengal’s riverside retreat.
Few Governors use it though.
The house stands empty and a little run down, with the sofas in the vast high-ceilinged hall sagging forlornly, the cinnamon tree in the garden looking sadly at the scrubby lawn. Only the statues of the great Governors General and Viceroys, the Mintos, a Curzon, a John Lawrence and a Mayo (there are twelve statues in all, of exquisite workmanship) and a semaphore looming out of the grass are reminders of what this house, this garden and this estate once was.
For Barrackpore Park had been begun by Lord Wellesley in 1801 to rival Government House in Calcutta, to function as a weekend retreat for the Governor General and to be a piece of England in a foreign land with its vast mansion — Government House — a rolling park styled and landscaped like an English garden, an aviary, a menagerie, and a cluster of bungalows for the guests and the officers.
In time the estate grew, became a point of leisure for the British administrators where they partied, danced, came on a honeymoon, played golf, rowed on the river, painted, hunted and had a grand time. There was Calcutta — stiff, formal and crowded, and there was Barrackpore, the Latbagan as the Indians called it, the place for pleasure and sport.
The photograph above is a picture taken by a Vicereine. Hariot Dufferin, wife of Lord Dufferin or Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood who ruled as Viceroy from 1884 to 1888 was an avid photographer and took many images of India during her stay here. Lady Dufferin’s photo is one of the many enthusiastic ones taken by other Vicereines or painted by earlier Ladysahibs in which the great Banyan Tree stands as the centre point of this country mansion. The tree stood outside on the lawn in the southern side of the mansion, hundred years old already when Wellesley began his mansion and was a beloved shaded spot under which meals were had, sore minds were rested, games were played and the stiff starched British upper lip could dissolve into merry-making and fun.
After India’s Independence in 1947 the British past began to fade, so much so that sometime in the 1980s a muddled Indian bureaucrat decided that the sepoy Mangal Pandey, whose defiance had flamed into the Sepoy Mutiny (or India’s First War of Independence, as we had been taught at school) had been hanged from the banyan tree outside the Governor General’s bedroom and not the tree in the Cantonment where the hanging had actually taken place. Thus began a completely inaccurate representation of the Government House banyan tree as the scene of India’s spirited defiance. Everybody we spoke to before our research believed it to be so, without pausing to think.
Why would you hang a man in chains at the spot where you had your breakfast and your children played catch!
But to return to Lady Dufferin. Her journal contains riveting accounts of her viceregal life in India, including scenes from her stays at Barrackpore and the picnics, charity balls, levees, dancing and music, Christmases and summers spent there.
No ominous note in her account. Perhaps she didn’t quite realise the full import of the fact that fifteen miles away, in the heart of Calcutta, the seeds of a tiny organisation called the Indian National Congress through the Indian Association had been planted, a flower that bloomed in Bombay in 1885. No one took any notice of it.
God was in his heaven, the British ruled the land, this land and many, many more and the sun would never set on them!
Gone are the days of cerebral discussions in conferences, workshops, graduate or post-graduate classrooms and columns of heavy reading in learned journals and literary magazines. History is now available through online streaming services and a vast cross section of non academics now sit down over dinner and make their way through the annals of British history (The Crown, Victoria, The Tudors), colonial history (Beecham House), the great monarchies of the world (Catherine the Great, The Last Tsars) or period dramas (Poldark, Downton Abbey). The more ‘modern’ a country becomes the more it looks back to the past, while the past itself is now a carefully cultivated mythology.
Self-identities, always a complex matter, are now being created by hearkening back to a golden period very different from a muddled chaotic present. History is now a meticulously staged event, recreated through lavish costumes, manor houses , palaces and rolling parklands. For serials set in the Orient, usually India, history is an exotic escapade with the usual props of the lotus and the tiger, the snake and nautch girls, bandits and fair damsels in distress.
Such are the economics of successful historical dramas that an entire ancillary industry develops. During our Downton Abbey phase we bought Downton Abbey calendars, mugs, and signed posters. The commercial puffery works quietly and one doesn’t really stop to consider what we are doing as we hit the pay now button on our screens. History is being commodified through the Poldark and the Downton Abbey tours but we don’t really worry about the money.
Salman Rushdie in his essay “Outside the Whale” had described movies based on Raj nostalgia (Gandhi, A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown) as being part of the refurbishment of the Empire’s tarnished image at a time when Britain stood beleaguered under the Thatcher era. Today, caught in the chaos of Brexit, all those who share the cosmos of the British cultural legacy return to bouts of nostalgia through a glut of return-to-the-past TV shows. Many of these shows rework the grand imperial theme albeit through a newly stylised, commercially profitable avatar.
Through continuous representation creeps in a subtle legitimisation, as if colonial history, though condemnable, nevertheless had an aura and grandeur about it.
Indians are complicit in this process. Most post-colonial writers living in the West choose to systematically highlight those concerns which can make a good Booker nomination. To read Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Neel Mukherjee and even Amit Chaudhuri (to name a few) is to return over and over again to the same themes: diasporic conflict, identity, displacement, disruption in the “margins” and the “centre” . Perhaps these novels, legitimised by their Booker shortlistings, conform to what the Booker still wants — Britain as the legitimising centre of cultural work. And so a re-hashing of the familiar themes!
For those of us who live and work in India without the comforting security of summer sabbaticals and writing retreats to Europe and America, our daily problems are very different from what these writers articulate.
Park Street in Calcutta is not the hallowed haven of partying and Flury’s cakes that diasporic Indians still remember fondly; it is a road chock full of traffic with jaywalkers, Uber cabs and a Kolkata Police sergeant looming up with traffic tickets as we struggle to reach a pathology for a blood test.
The old bungalows of the 50s and 60s mean nothing to us for we are caught up in the privations of daily life, paying hefty municipal taxes for living in them, trying to keep the road in front of our house free of street hawkers who are politically patronised, wondering whether the garbage vat will be cleaned, negotiating broken pavements and unruly cab drivers — an endless cycle of errands and duties in a city where civic systems have been eroded over the years.
Doubtless those who live in other Indian cities face the same.
And yet, like a Wes Anderson movie, such real lived experiences are never described in the works of these writers. Caught in the moment of rupture sometime in the 70s, 80s or 90s they create worlds of post-colonial exotic in much the same way as the makers of Victoria and Downton Abbey create mellow worlds of escape.
The table I am writing on is a solid Burma teak, plain, unadorned but just right to hold a cup of tea, a jar of pens, a jug of water, two paperweights, a desk calendar, a laptop, a tiny silver Ganesha urging me to soldier on, a mountain of books balanced near the edge, postcards of Melk monastery, my son’s old school photos and a Glasgow coat of arms with the bird that never flew and the tree that never grew. Outside the shadows are growing, the parakeets are screaming to one another to hurry up please it’s time, the squirrels clamorously clamber down my slatted windows and make a bed for the night and the hundred year old West End Watch Company (Bombay Calcutta) ticks ponderously on.
If I had to follow Marie Kondo’s advice I should have kept nothing of all this. The table and chair are my grandfather’s, purchased from another old zamindar in the nineteen forties who was selling off for money, in the quiet desperation of his understanding that nothing would ever be the same again in his world. The clock on the wall was rescued from a room filled with lumber, cement and other building debris in an abandoned office. The Ganesha is a gift from someone who fell to cancer. And my son is poised on the brink of flight, perhaps a year more, before my nest is empty.
Oh that empty nest! Memories crowd in thick and fast — the C Otto Berlin cottage piano which once rang out with John Thompson’s Whirlybird, the brass pussycat my seventy year-old grandfather had brazenly bought to present to his beloved till prudence prevailed and he gave it to me instead, the brass head my husband and I had wandered off into the lanes of Jama Masjid in Delhi to buy, before we lost ourselves in a tiny Mughal world of attar- and- hijab -wearing women where I was the only one in trousers. I stare at the million year -old -fossil presented to my parents in Paradip when I was five by the miners and look entranced, as I did thirty three years ago, at the faint traces of wispy something. A plant, embedded in stone from when time began!
And the books! The rows and rows of spines, a good many of which I have seen from the beginning of my time, totem and taboo, Omar Khayyam, police at the funeral, the fly leaves with spidery handwriting of owners long gone, their messages of cherished love and regard now forgotten, the recipients also turned to dust with nothing to show that they existed except the dates — Railway Station Nagpur 1975, Calcutta 1962 — oh what a world of joy and sorrow, boredom and excitement as each reader read, preserved, passed down or gave away! I have books belonging to my grandmothers as children, and their fathers before, faded ink, yellowed pages, four generations in one pile.
Each object has a story and all the stories are a count of a life that has lived, created, bought, stored, dusted and polished before cruel oblivion. I remember both my sets of grandparents but for my son they are nothing. When my bell is rung, no doubt my immediate family and friends will remember but soon they too will pass. And soon with the passage of time we will all be nothing, or less than nothing but dreams.
So why should we give up on our memories and the objects that shape our memories? Memories, said Daphne du Maurier, are precious things and whether good or ill are never sad. We must weave these memories into our lives and caress them while we can. All my books, book knives, brass bric-a-brac are not clutter but a source of great sustenance, as are the frayed doily and the faded coverlet.
I remember how wonderful I felt when I first saw snatches of Michael Crawford in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ There was a cursed sadness about him that was, well, haunting. The subterranean cave and the candles along with the coffin and the organ seemed to my seventeen year old mind a very pleasant Gothic and, like the heroine in Northanger Abbey, I felt a trembling pleasure.
Some years later I watched the 2004 film. It wasn’t well received critically but I found it elegantly shot and as the music of the night played out the colours shimmered over the opera, over the brilliant plumed headdresses, the white veiled faces, the crowded balconies with the swirling dancers. It was all so alive as if the spirit of the past was still here. Being a Crawford admirer I was prejudiced about Gerard Butler but somehow it all worked. The phantom’s deep tones of anguish and Christine’s voice, strong and sweet floated over the scenes. I felt I knew each emotion forever; the phantom’s wringing despair, the burning poignant love he bore for Christine and in the end, when the phantom was unmasked and made to appear ugly and menacing I saw in him a creature shy and absurd in his adoration.
With something of the same excitement I sat down to watch five gigantic blocks of further supernatural in ‘The Twilight Saga’. Here was an extended 331/3 RPM of dark creatures and their mysterious lives. Ugh! What a mess! Edward Cullen played a tall dark handsome vampire to Jacob Black’s tall dark handsome werewolf, both decorously fighting over the saintly Bella Swan. The torment was stretched over four sequels but it was difficult to get past one. Where I had hoped to discover the velvet richness of Goths and Vampires there were ultra-American voices of hero, antihero and the heroine, all ringing hard. The sequences were distressingly laboured and disappointing, everything was shining and orderly in their dull lives, the love scenes were stiff, the magic plebeian, the ghosts and werewolves looked like toys, the dark groves and forests looked suspiciously digital and there was a general air of small-town Netflix Original that was dampening.
Wherein lies the true trick of the ghostly and the mysterious? I suppose it is in the ordinary horrific. Hitchcock mastered it, in ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Psycho’- the Everyman caught in a critical moment. Writers like Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R James were good at it, as was Roald Dahl. The makers of the Twilight Saga knew who their target audience was and created one big soppy melodrama out of something that could have been so riveting. Funnily enough, the song that accompanied the final instalment rings in my head now and then as an exceptionally beautiful song in a lamentable tale.
Most teenagers listen to stuff I don’t understand. This is something I do. Number 21 kept me sane as I travelled to and fro college in Calcutta in the 90s, gritting my teeth against the diesel fumes of public buses and retreating to my private world on my Walkman. Three cheers for I’ll Tell You Later.
The time between January 1784 and December 1786 was arguably the most productive period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s career. He wrote an incalculable variety of music, from string quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn to no fewer than 12 piano concertos and of course his celebrated ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (‘The Marriage of Figaro’). On the 9th of March, 1785, he made an entry in his thematic catalogue, “A piano concerto”. A day later, he premiered his new piece at the Burgtheatre in Vienna himself, improvising on the cadenzas in the First and Third Movements to a riveted audience. More than two centuries later, his Piano Concerto No. 21 in C (K. 467) still draws spellbound audiences and delights them with its unique charm.
While Chopin wrote exclusively for the solo piano and Beethoven pioneered the symphony, it was the realm of the concerto in which Mozart blossomed, writing 23…
The violence and viciousness of a child’s world are well known. Samuel Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, the staple of English literature courses today, dealt firmly with this as he de-mythologised conventions of the helpless and tearful child and showed how monstrous they can be. The unpredictable world of children has been the subject of countless books. Dickens’ children are a useful point of reference here- leading terrible lives of quiet misery.
I remember watching Jack Clayton’s Our Mother’s House (1967) before I became a mother myself and being quite horrified by the unforgivingly cruel world the children chose for themselves. Burying their mother in the backyard and shutting themselves off from the outside world they established their own world within, with its chilling rules and rituals. More recently, The Karate Kid (2010) blends children’s savagery with issues of race, which I think are far more relevant in today’s world than Golding’s paradise-turned hellhole parable.
A black child in China, a brown child in small town white America, a Turkish migrant’s child in Sweden, a Hispanic in Korea: the mind boggles at what such children are going through as matters of race, community, ethnicity and gender are decided in playgrounds and schoolrooms.
A child’s world is hard work. The sudden quarrels that sunder familiar friendships, the bullying, the trials of strength, the taunts and mockeries that have to be faced each day from other children can sometimes be more dangerous than in an adult world.
Salman Khan, the Bollywood actor, produced a movie named Chillar Party (2011) in which a group of privileged children in a modern apartment complex torment Phatke, a poor village boy as he tries to eke out a precarious existence as a car-washer. The scene in which the boy’s pet mutt is locked up in a car and left to suffocate as Phatke, tears coursing down his cheeks, begs the rich children for mercy on his dog may be mawkish to some.
But it works! Phatke was a street-child himself in real life and may have brought to his role the understanding of felt experience. India has no official figures of its street children but there must be millions of them: grubby bodies, scarred faces, glue-sniffing, rag-picking multitudes who live precarious lives of beggary and crime.
My son, who at sixteen has changed schools and joined a new one, brings home terrible tales of teenage brutality. Not the fist-fighting, drug-taking violence of Hollywood movies, but the more insidious tales of identity and belonging, of a closed circle of insiders and the rejected outsiders; of the new boys who hang around on their own, packless, while the old boys have hardened their ranks and refused admittance.
As the schoolboy Goggles Ledwidge, a minor character who nevertheless makes an important point in Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza realised, it is hard to belong. Huxley’s novel was about the turbulences in sexual and class-politics in 1930s England. But Goggles, like so many others who had gone before and would come after, realised soon enough that childhood is the first point of entry into the bitter lessons of life.
The world of the kitchen is almost Dantesque in preoccupation. Re-reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a classic tale of sorrow and slavery in the kitchen pits of big hotels in Paris in the 1920s, I was struck by the references to fire and heat in the dark tunnelled world of a hotel basement kitchen.
“It was lighted by one dim electric bulb, and four or five gas-fires that sent out a fierce red breath.” Thehot steaming kitchen was a “stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans”.
Orwell’s analysis of poverty has always struck me as being peculiarly effective, perhaps because of his real lived experiences. Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter or Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying have the battered un-heroic poverty of the very middle-middle class, a world in which appearances have to be maintained and the dinner at an expensive restaurant has got to be paid for airily, languorously even, although the heart is racing at what this means for the rest of the week.
In Down and Out in Paris and London we take a step further and walk down into those mysterious caverns from which the fine food emerges only to find a sordid tale of poor wages, hours of drudgery, fights, drunkenness, cursing and every other kind of folly and knavery that the outside world has.
Hundreds of years before, Shakespeare had given us similar insights. In Twelfth Night Or What You Will—a play performed in 1602—the genteel world of the nobility in which the thwarted romance of Duke Orsino for Countess Olivia is played out, is balanced by the seamier sides of the kitchen world of Malvolio, Sir Andrew Agueheek and Sir Toby Belch.
The subplot traces the fooling of the steward Malvolio who is duped, confined to a dark room and driven half mad by a series of supposed acts of tomfoolery under the adroit planning of Maria, the lady’s maid. There is something sinister in the world of the steward and lady’s attendant and their childish acts of pure cruelty that approximates tragic overtones.
Even in the heightened world of period dramas like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, the lilting notes of Christmas cheer aired in the Christmas Special episodes are entirely at variance with the dark concerns in the downstairs world. Barrow’s homosexuality makes him particularly vulnerable, but so are the army of maids who get into ‘trouble’ because of their liaisons with the lord of the manor.
The kitchen frequently became a war zone where sex, class and prejudice combine. Briskly stirring a white sauce or decorating a roast, Daisy and Mrs Patmore had fierce arguments over literacy, propriety and hierarchy.
“Gastronomy is the science of pain” said Anthony Bourdain in his 1999 classic article in The New Yorker entitled Don’t Eat Before Reading This.
It most certainly is.
Not only in the systematic slaughter and decapitation that cooking involves, carving out head and heart and kidneys, skinning animals still warm with life, washing off bits of clotted blood but also in the appearances that have to be maintained: dressing stale food and passing it off as fresh, using the same ingredients in disguised ways to create a new-fangled soup, huge amounts of pretence in using the same old butter and garlic and cream in a hundred so called innovative ways.
And of course, the tiredness, the rudeness, the squalid lives of the men behind the glass door. Last month, at the Madras hotel in which I was staying, I saw a bitter looking man of twenty something send back his uneaten pasta thrice, complaining that it was tasteless.
Three times the waiters sent it back to the cook, and three times the cook sent it back again with new forms of pasta, garnishing, sauce and yet to no avail. The bitter young man had tasted pasta ambrosia somewhere and no earthly penne could soothe him.
“Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage” noted Orwell. Yes. From Paris in the 1920s to Madras in 2018, from the sham shouting of Gordon Ramsay to the real humiliation of the chef at our hotel, the world of the hotel kitchen is the world of the Inferno. Unknown battles with flesh and vegetables become the Roast Mutton with Brandy Sauce.
Hell’s Kitchens in hotels and restaurants prepare our meals and wait for the depressing business of eating to be got over with before the shift can be brought to an end. Till it begins next morning again.