Looking backward

Books The works of the immensely popular Bengali author Sankar are finally starting to be translated into English. Neel Mukherjee reads his 1962 novel of day-to-day life in a storied Calcutta hotel.

The Grand Hotel, one of several Calcutta establishments on which Sankar based the fictitious Shahjahan
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The works of the immensely popular Bengali author Sankar are finally starting to be translated into English. Neel Mukherjee reads his 1962 novel of day-to-day life in a storied Calcutta hotel. Chowringhee Sankar Atlantic Books Dh96 Few writers anywhere become a household name in their lifetimes to the extent Sankar (real name: Mani Shankar Mukherjee) has done in his native Bengal. The term "household name" is used advisedly: it would be difficult to find an educated family in Bengal that does not possess at least one of the 77-year-old author's 70-plus books, which include 37 novels, five travelogues, children's stories, essay collections, devotional works, even two books on Bengali food and gastronomy. Two of his novels Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (literally "A Forest of People", translated as The Middleman) were made into acclaimed films by Satyajit Ray in the 1970s. Chowringhee, arguably his most popular book, published in Bengali in 1962, was his first to be translated into English, in 2007; this year it is available from British publishers for the first time.

Any reckoning with the novel should begin with its first-person narrator, "Shankar". (In the Bengali original, the author and narrator's names are spelt identically, allowing for play in the degrees of congruence between the two. The English translation attempts to preserve that somewhat by using variant spellings of what is effectively the same name.) Chowringhee opens with Shankar set adrift by the death of his boss, an unnamed English lawyer, to whom the narrator was clerk. He is rescued from penury by Byron, an Anglo-Indian private investigator, who finds him a job at the Shahjahan, one of Calcutta's biggest, oldest and most renowned hotels. There Shankar becomes a staff member and an observer of the life that passes daily through (and behind) its doors.

Sankar manipulates a huge cast of colourful characters. There's Nityahari, the hotel's garrulous live-in laundryman, who is afflicted by such a strong, puritanical sense of defilement that he washes his hands compulsively, and slips out before dawn every morning to bathe in the sacred river Ganga, just a few minutes' walk away. There's the larger-than-life manager, Marco Polo, a Greek orphan saved by Italian priests from the rubble of an earthquake in the Middle East, raised by them in a monastery, then sent off to study hotel management. There's Jimmy, the machinating steward, and Rosie, the manager's secretary, a descendant of the African slaves who, in the early 19th century, were "made to disembark at Chandpal Ghat, ropes around their waists, and sold at Murgighata for 25 rupees each". These individual histories are told in staggered, interrupted narratives, a technique that facilitates the creation of suspense, as in the story of Marco Polo and his failed marriage to the bar chanteuse Susan Munro, from which he actively seeks release, only to be constantly frustrated by various twists in the divorce drama; the conclusion of the story is withheld right until the end of the novel.

Other stories - and there's a virtual cornucopia of these in Chowringhee - are more neatly inset, such as that of Karabi Guha, resident hostess of suite number two in the hotel, or of a Scottish cabaret dancer, Connie, who appears for a few weeks' stint at the Shahjahan with a dwarf, Harry Lambreta, in tow. Overall, the fundamental structure is not unlike, say, the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales, where the framing device provides a loose structure to contain a multiplicity of tales. Within this approach, two kinds of narration, heavily overlapping, can be distinguished. In the first, Shankar plays the raconteur: he supplies the primary narration, but only to provide a structure within which the central characters voice their own stories; Shankar retreats as the stories unfold. The second mode of narration involves Shankar as a more active participant, a character, if you will, like the others. This technique is on display most clearly in the story of Sata Bose, the Shahjahan's head receptionist, and his relationship with the air-hostess Sujata Mitra. Over the course of the novel, Shankar and Sata become close friends; when Sujata Mitra shows up, Shankar observes the results firsthand.

Strung between these ways of telling, Chowringhee ends up having no plot, in the Forsterian or Jamesian sense of the term; what we have instead is a collection of stories - some discrete, some tumbling and interlinked, all mediated, in different degrees, by Shankar. On the surface, Chowringhee appears to be an impeccably cosmopolitan novel. Its setting and concerns are urban; its characters are a heterogeneous lot, culturally, racially, socially, economically; it is intensely anchored in a very real, and realistically evoked, Calcutta, the text replete with names of streets, shops, businesses, landmarks, parks, monuments and statues.

But as the novel progresses, it seems to undermine its own cosmopolitanism with a kind of narrative overdetermination. Many of the inset narratives end with a rather predictable twist in the tail. Take, for example, Rosie's story. Shankar initially presents her as an unsympathetic character with a vicious temper. Since Shankar first enters the Shahjahan as her replacement after she has unsuccessfully eloped with a married man, she is not disposed to treat him kindly. Within half an hour of their first meeting, she takes offence at something very flimsy, grabs hold of him by the wrist, pushes him into her room, locks the door, and announces: "If you try to get out, my lad, I'm going to scream that you tried to molest me. If necessary, I'll go further and say that you locked the door and tried to assault a defenceless girl."

Just before the novel's end, however, Rosie modulates into a creature deserving our sympathy: a lonely, victimised woman on the receiving end of racial prejudice, living in one of Calcutta's most squalid neighbourhoods, scrabbling to feed her siblings and mother. This was the trump card Sankar was hiding up his sleeve, and now he plays it. The technique is used so regularly that it becomes difficult to withhold the increasing suspicion that Sankar is cooking his books. Everything is either predictable or predictably unpredictable. When Karabi Guha, the hostess from suite number two, makes the mistake of falling in love with the scion of a wealthy family of industrialists, we know it is going to end badly, but nothing in Shankar's narration warrants her extremely abrupt suicide - nothing but sentimentality. Sentimental again is the story of Connie, the cabaret dancer. Once again, the way the cards are furiously stacked in the beginning - in this case, by the way readers are actively nudged to see something unsavoury in the relationship between comely young dancer and ugly clownish dwarf, most notably in a thre-page rant by Nityahar the laundryman - can only make the reader suspicious.

Nityahari thinks Connie plies her unsavoury trade for reasons other than money: "There's something else besides the stomach there, and that's habit. I don't like this lady of yours," he tells Shankar, then goes on to recount the experience of receiving the brunt of Connie's anger when he goes to ask her if she needs extra pillows. "Instead of giving me a straight answer, the lady in the cold room gets hot with anger and says that her assistant [Harry Lambreta, the dwarf] must also be given an air-conditioned room next to her. My eyes popped out... There have been so many dancing girls in Shahjahan, month after month, but I've never seen any of them worry about their assistants... Hasn't God given you an ounce of brain? Can't you see for yourself? Such a lovely lady, pretty as a picture, and that dwarf! But as they say, circumstances make strange bedfellows." The "surprise" at the end of Connie's tale leaves one feeling slightly manipulated, as if forced into complicity with the salacious audience of Connie's evening shows.

Underpinning all this is an undeniable misogyny, a polarisation of women as either mothers or whores. Tellingly, the only mother who actually appears, "at night in dark glasses", only does so to use the hotel for her adulterous trysts with her European lovers. This is Mrs Pakrashi: "By day she's a social worker - she gives speeches and worries for the country. And by night she comes over to the Shahjahan. During the day she's a Bengali to the hilt, but here she's completely international - I've never seen an Indian with her," says Sata Bose.

Consider Sankar's description of Connie visiting a fraud astrologer: "Arranging her skirt, Connie sat down on the floor. No one could tell from her rapt, devout expression that she didn't belong there. Had our mothers and aunts dressed in skirts, they would probably have presented themselves at temples in the same fashion." The binary terms couldn't be more explicit: mothers and aunts versus cabaret dancers, temples versus hotel bars and, most tellingly, us ("our mothers") versus them. Coming as it does after some semi-prurient descriptions of Connie's striptease performances, there is no question as to where Shankar's support lies in this fissure between the sacred and the profane, the old and the new, the home and the world. Women who have strayed from their realm are punished accordingly; the judgement seems inexorable. Of course, the profane makes for more interesting reading, hence the absent mothers and dutiful wives, hence also the loving yet judgemental descriptions of cabarets, drinking and adultery, as if the reproving narrator is hypnotically fascinated by that which repulses him.

The misogyny that permeates the book is just one element in a set created when Sankar crosses the boundary from the moral to the moralistic. One of the loci of this moralism, this unpalatable admonitory tone, is Nityahari, the laundryman. In keeping with the easy equations in which Chowringhee peddles, it is unsurprising to find the man in charge of cleaning dirty linen articulating its most extreme indictments of corruption, of pollution, of moral and spiritual degradation - all in galvanic rants reeking now of the pulpit, now of simple middle-class prudishness. "There's no way to fool Him [God], He's always ready to make us pay for all our mistakes," Nityahari rages. "Why else should a high-born person like me have to work as a laundryman, rummaging through the sins of the world? Why else should I have to clean up the transgressions of the night in every corner of the hotel, the sins that permeate every pillow and mattress and bed sheet? [...] The skin [of my hands] is peeling off from so much washing. I'd find peace only if this entire hotel were immersed in a huge tub of Dettol."

In a way, Nityahari short circuits the feelings of distaste and repulsion that torment Shankar as he goes about his duties at the hotel; whereas our narrator's moral judgements are arch, and what we would now call "passive-aggressive", often cloaked in the form of laments for lost innocence, Nityahari's at least have the honesty to announce themselves as what they are: unsheathed attacks on sin and decadence, on lust, immorality and filth, all of which he takes to be defining characteristics of the city around him.

Thus the novel's veneer of cosmopolitanism is progressively occluded by a patina of middle-class moralising. Here is the inevitable flipside to those lingeringly horrified-fascinated passages describing the cupidity and excesses of the Shahjahan's guests. In 1962, the infamous "flight of capital" from Bengal had begun; food riots, insurgency and militant Maoism were all lurking around the corner; social unrest was in the air; these hardly pit the surface of the studiedly and sentimentally nostalgic novel. Sankar went on to write novels that were tighter, more urgent, more morally truthful. But Chowringhee remains, above everything else, an unruffled photograph of a city, important only as a narrow record of its time.

Neel Mukherjee's first novel, Past Continuous, won this year's Vodafone-Crossword Award. In January, it will be released in the UK as A Life Apart.