I’ve always been fascinated by prisons. What happens inside? One can imagine the kind of people who live behind the high prison walls…but what intrigues me the most is how their past affect their present. Does it really change them?
Mani Sankar Mukherjee’s epical Chowringhee does exactly that. Except that the setting is not that of a prison, but of a sprawling hotel. A hotel that is majestic, regal and oppulent in every description…Shahjahan as it is aptly named is like an unattainable luxury, an exotic haven, a citadel that intrigues every man who stands outside its facade. The descriptions of the carpets, the rooms, the banquet hall, the lounge and even the bar throw up images of a world that are unseen to many. Even though he wrote it in the 60’s, Sankar chose the 50’s as a period to set his novel in. A decision that I think worked the magic like no other. The fifties was historically close to many events that affected the novel and its characters. The hangover of the British regime, the memory of the English life and an innate desire and repulsion of their lifestyle is what makes much of the plot. The characters can be easily divided between the two categories…one that have aped the English to the hilt, and the others who are carrying the burden of the inherited past with no taste but sheer sake of duty and habit. The location of this hotel and the name of the novel is inspirational in itself. The jewel of the crown literally, Chowringhee is where every Calcuttan wishes to be. One of the poshest and unreachable destinations in the city. Even today, Chowringhee has retained its charm.
When I was taught to read prose and understand the nuances of a well defined character, I was told that a character is well-etched if there is a defined graph of its personality in the work of fiction. Each character in Chowringhee (and there are a host of colourful ones) charts a course of its own, a journey that makes the reader assume a certain notion about him/her and one that changes at the end of the novel. Some shock you, some don’t! Take Sankar for instance. As the author and the narrator of the novel he begins his life and narrative seeped in penury. Almost at the verge of starvation he holds on to the meager thread of hope that Byron (the private detective) gives him. Byron uses his own connections and gets Sankar a job at the Shahjahan. Sankar begins his life at the hotel like any other outsider. Full of awe and humility he knows this is a new beginning. His curiosity and naivete as he goes about his initial days at the hotel are heart warming. Perhaps that’s what makes Sata Bose take him on an as an apprentice! The characters in the novel crisscross Sankar’s life at Shahjahan and by and by as events and lives unfold before him he moves out of his naivete self. He changes in a very sublime way that seems most natural and obvious to the reader. And it is the same with almost every character in the novel. Take Byron for instance, the passionate private sleuth who is instrumental in Sankar reaching Shahjahan has a story of his own. His friendship with the hotel manager Marco Polo has a story of its own. In fact Marco Polo himself has skeletons in the closet. As each character is introduced, his story is told in parts. Marco, a Greek orphan reared by Italian priests, studied in hotel management finds his place in Calcutta. It is here he falls in love with the enchanting Susan Munroe who has her own ambition in place. Marco Polo and his troubled marriage to Susan is what haunts him. To find her he needs a friend, a place that Byron takes effortlessly. The manager’s secretary Rosie, an African-American slave whose lot has toiled hard to find its own roots in Calcutta has a story of her own. Her feisty exterior is like a kernel…hard and impervious! By the end of the novel, as she is left alone you melt at her fate. Nityahari, the high-class Brahmin who plays the ‘lenin’ (linen) man in Shahjahan believes that he is reduced to a launderer only because he has sinned. His fetish for cleanliness, not of the hotel and his laundry, but of himself is obsessive. As a reader it almost put me off…but the story of his past let me forgive him.
Sata Bose, the enigmatic receptionist at the Shahjahan is a character that I found myself attracted to the most. It’s another thing that Uttam Kumar played the character in the film based on the novel. Almost like a father figure to Sankar, Sata knows the hotel and its mechanics better than anyone else. He is the one everyone trusts…the manager Marco Polo, offish guests like Phokla Chatterjee, the scandalous Mrs Pakrashi and the lovable air hostess Sujata Mitra. When I started the novel and was a few pages down, my mother asked me if Sata Bose had arrived. I didn’t understand what she meant then. But as I devoured the pages of Chowinghee I realised why. I couldn’t imagine Shahjahan without Satyasundar Bose! He was like the sprawling gateway through which countless guests walked into the hotel, the mirror that they checked themselves in, the hospitality that they savoured and the hearty feeling that they went back with! Sankar’s Bose-da knew no other existence than the one he lived inside the walls of Shahjahan…that of the receptionist. Sata Bose never said so, but if I had met him I would have asked if he ever felt like the furniture in the hotel? I somehow believe he would have answered in the affirmative. Sata’s life is nothing less than the tragic hero. A man who lives for his post and the ship that he mans, is reduced to a pitiful state when he walks out of the hotel.
The guests have remarkable stories to tell as well. The affluent business class that walks into Shahjahan as it is their own have their personal suites. Karabi Guha is hostess to Suite No 2, witness to several business meetings, a facilitator and it doesn’t take too long for the reader to know that she is indeed used as a ploy to ensure that the meetings bend in her employer’s way. A sophisticated, educated Bengali woman who meets her employer’s and his guests’ expectations to the hilt makes one mistake…she falls in love with the son of another rich businessman! Karabi’s story did not surprise me…in fact I expected it to end the way it did. But that didn’t take away the pain I felt for her. The Agarwallas, the Pakrashis, Phokla Chatterjee…all end of being characters that twirl the lives of the principle cast on their fingers. The privileged lot, the people for who Shahjahan is run…patrons to have to be pleased at any cost! I didn’t feel an iota of emotion for any of them. Written with a stereotypical hand these characters run amok in hotels like Shahjahan. With their faces painted in civility they hide the beasts inside. Let’s say, they are the pretty villains in Chowinghee who create the drama and action! On the other hand is a Sutherland…the WHO doctor who is in Shahjahan for another reason. The story that he trails…the story of a barmaid in the hotel took me to another lifetime. By the time it came back to the present I had my hair ruffled! Connie the woman, the cabaret girl who Sankar befriends has another sparkling story to tell…her midget brother and her tussle with her own fate left me thinking! Sujata Mitra came into the story like a breath of fresh air. The one woman character who seemed a lot like me and gave me hope for Sata Bose. And like a typical matriarch hoped that Sankar too would find a match for himself…Karabi had given me a glimmer of hope, but her life was headed elsewhere!
The characters in Chowinghee will haunt me for a while…it is not everyday that I finish a book that I am sad it came to an end.