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.

Image credit: Dufferin Papers, Public Research Office of Northern Ireland

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.

Banyan Tree, Barrackpore inside the State Police Academy today.
Photo- Monotosh Paul

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!

If you would like to know more about Barrackpore Park and Government House, Barrackpore, do read Under the Banyan Tree: The Forgotten Story of Barrackpore Park co-written with my husband.

The Commerce of Remembrance

History has a new audience nowadays.

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.

Cabaret dancers in Calcutta 1960s