In his eyes

A classic Bengali novel portraying the lives of the rich from the perspective of a common man

It is axiomatic that a work of fiction loses something in translation. It is also true that few stories survive beyond their time without being hobbled by the passing of the milieu of their setting. This translation may just be the exception. It has actually improved in trans-creation.

I remember that the original, which I read some 30 years ago, struck me as over-written. It had long, flowery sentimental passages there were great gobs of introspection sprinkled with Bengali neck-verse. It was nevertheless a good read because Sankar has always known how to tell a story.

Actually, in Chowringhee (Sankar, Trans. Arunava Sinha , Penguin India, Rs 295), a classic Bengali Novel he told a series of stories with a connecting narrator. These were vignettes from the lives of Calcutta&rsquos rich and famous seen through the eyes of a lower-middle-class boy from Howrah, who is an employee at Calcutta&rsquos premier hotel.

The time is the mid-1950s. The Second City of the (erstwhile) Empire still has a large contingent of European-Eurasian residents. Morarjee Desai is Chief Minister of Bombay where prohibition has been imposed. Calcutta is adjusting to the concept of the weekly dry day. The Licence Raj is in full swing&mdashindustrialists sweat to keep government purchase officers and excise inspectors happy.

A mixed grill at the hallowed Shahjahan Hotel on Central Avenue near the Chowringhee Crossing costs Rs 7, a peg of "Dimple Scotch" costs Rs 4.

The Shahjahan is the best, oldest hotel in Calcutta. It has the plushest carpets the manager is Greek-Italian, the chef French, the musicians Goan. There are foreigners passing through, and the cabaret girls are sourced from exotic climes. Sankar did a pastiche of several great Calcutta hotels with elements drawn from the Grand (where he once worked), the Great Eastern and Firpos.

Working there affords up-close-and-personal insights into the seamier side of Calcutta society&mdashthe staff must literally wash their dirty linen. There is the society lady who fixes her one-night stands for dry days when there is less chance of bumping into acquaintances. There is the Marwari industrialist who books a permanent suite with the resident call-girl. The alcoholic Cambridge boxing blue, who lives by fixing. The elderly teetotal Parsi barman and other members of the staff. And many guests, all with back-stories.

The narrator, &lsquoShankar Mukherjee&rsquo, has an interesting back-story of his own. But like Isherwood&rsquos narrator in the Berlin books, Shankar prefers to be a camera he watches and records.

In 1962, Chowringhee was scandalous because so many characters were thinly-disguised. But that was in a different time and besides, all the wenches are dead. The translation excises the mawkishness that marred the original. It is now a period-piece that illuminates a long-gone era.

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