Sunday, July 15, 2012

Chowringhee - Sankar

Few novels have the ability to captivate you. There are no major twist or turns like a thriller, the story is simple and normal, yet absorbing. The book could be noted as dated, for it is written and published in 1962, yet it has an aura of freshness around it. Set in the early 50s, in a Metropolitan hotel in Calcutta ( named Hotel Shahjahan ), this often anecdotal, mostly incident based narrative revolving around the hotel employees and the guests takes us to an entirely different world of existence. The worlds war II is ended and the Britishers are folded back to their country leaving India to the control of Indians. However, many Victorian lifestyle remain with the urban elite of India, with their evening parties and elite gathering.

Told in first person narrative by Shankar , who started his career under Calcuttan barrister Noel Barwell ( an overlap with the writer Sankar can be observed here) after his father passed away, before being employed at Hotel Shahjahan which boast its Victorian heritage. Young Sankar, a novice join the work group at the Shahjahan Hotel as a reception help, being recommended by his friend Byron an Anglo-Indian private detective. Under the fold of experienced and dashing Satyasundar Bose ( Sata Bose as he is called) , Shankar learns the primary lessons in managing the hotel. The functioning of various teams, the men behind these tasks and their own life beyond what is exhibited to the guests with a smile. Shankar realises the dual world that exists within the hotel and outside on every character he meet , be it the guests , the businessmen who frequent, the hotel staffs or the manager himself, to which he is a silent witness and often made to participate . Beyond the facade of the building, has a life which are hard and often sad. The manager Marco Polo, an Italian who moved in to take charge from a reputed hotel in Rangoon had his own past connected to the city. A story of love and treachery, so is the 'dhobi', a brahmin lament over his ill-luck of having to wash dirty linen. His mentor Sata Bose , the stenographer Rosie, the musician Gomez, various dancers who frequent Shahjahan to perform Cabaret are treasure trove of stories and experiences to tell.

It is this duality of life, I guess, makes this novel interesting to read. Forced to present themselves to the world demanded by their profession and an inner world which is suppressed to the small world of their own existence. Shankar does a marvellous job in getting these dual world to the best effect with sublime use of language and emotion. While the story moves through a predictable outcome at the end, the importance is not for the plot per se, but for the narration and narrative space. Shankar , writes some moving episodes of the lives of few individuals, in its richness and depth. One Dr.Sutherland, who comes in search of his ancestors, The Scottish Dancer and her dwarf brother, the Air hostess who falls in love with Sata Bose, the musician Gomez and his 17th century Mozzart, Brahms and other records, Rosie and her failed marriage, the hostess at the Suite number one employed to entertain the corporate guests for a business family who committed suicide, the filmstar who take refuge at the hotel running away from her husband... Sankar gives some memorable and characters to the readers,

The beauty of the book is in its mosaical narrative. The kaleidoscopic images of the interconnected members of the hotel and the guests. Those with long lasting involvement and interests in the hotel. Microcosm of the world revealed within the four walls of the empire of Shahjahan hotel. As one character says "every brick in this Hotel has a novel in it".

Interestingly, this book was written and published three years before Aurthur Haileys celebrated Hotel, which went on to become a best seller book as well as movie. Aurthur Hailey's book deals with the happening around the hotel and not much to do with the inner lives of its employees and its guests. I haven't read Joseph Roth's "Hotel Savoy", which I understand is a different class altogether. To me, despite its lack of wholesomeness, this book has some beautiful writing, remarkably translated by Arunava Sinha.
Chowringhee ( 1962 )

Sankar ( Mani Sankar Mukherji) - Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha ( 2007)

Penguin Books

403 Pages
Guardian, the Economics, Behind the scene, Neel Mukherjee

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