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One of the best books I read in 2012 was 'Chowringhee' by the Bengali writer Sankar. This is a book which ought to be internationally famous and widely praised but stands only in 379,233rd position on the Amazon Bestsellers Rank. Undoubtedly in its native India, the book is a mega-blockbuster that you'll find on the muddled shelves of every book store and which is known to readers the length and breadth of the country and not just Bengali speakers. In this country you've probably got to be an obsessive collector of books set in India (like me) to have heard of it. This was on my wish list for over a year and I was so keen to get it that I think I accidentally bought two copies. Amazingly, I'm going to hang on to both because this is going to be a 'lender' - a book that gets foisted on friends and family with a loud cry of "You are going to LOVE this".
The Chowringhee of the title is the name of an upmarket district of Calcutta in which the Shahjahan hotel is located. The Shahjahan forms the setting for most of the book and introduces us to the people who work there and the people who stay there, their stories told through the eyes of a young man called Shankar.
When we meet Shankar at the start of the book he has just lost his job as 'the last clerk of the last English barrister of the Calcutta High Court' due to the death of his benevolent employer. Without his support, Shankar is thrown out of his job and forced to take a job selling waste paper baskets door to door. One day as he sits in Curzon Park, despairing of how to make a living, he meets an old contact called Byron. Byron is an Anglo-Indian private investigator and, as his business card shows, a self-styled 'FRIEND IN NEED'. Byron helps Shankar to get a job at the Shahjahan, exploiting contacts he has with the manager to get him a place on the staff. Many pages will pass before we finally learn why Byron has such influence on the manager, a European by the name of Marco Polo. Byron knows there will be an opening the next day because he's been investigating the person who's about to lose their job so Shankar starts out as secretary to the manager and soon finds himself working on the front desk of the hotel, a place he describes as a 'palace...and not one for small time rulers'.
Under the guidance of the marvellous head receptionist, Mr Bose, a quick thinking man who never forgets a customer and knows all the tricks of the trade, Shankar becomes an indispensible member of the hotel's team. He gets to meet an extraordinary range of hotel clients and an equally fascinating cast of colleagues, each of whom has a story for the author to tell us. I was reminded of more modern books like 'Hotel Babylon' by Imogen Edwards-Jones, in which every chapter brings a new character's story whilst the stories of some of the characters run on throughout the book. We have tales of love, tales of power and plenty of tales of corruption and hypocrisy, but in almost all cases, there's something very timeless about the stories. It's hard to remember that this book is set more than 60 years ago and it's only the absence of people making calls on mobile phones or tapping away on computers reminds us that this isn't set right now.
Shankar's role is primarily to observe and narrate and to be the character around whom the plot revolves but it's not really HIS story that we are learning. The focus is on others and he is just the mechanism by which they are introduced. Marco Polo the manager is fascinating, an earthquake orphan brought up by priests, who later marries a singer. She's out for what she can get and then runs off, leaving him unable to get a divorce. Sata Bose from the front desk falls in love with an air hostess who stays at the hotel and drops in and out through the book until eventually leaving the story under shocking circumstances. Rosie the secretary is up to no good with a married man, and then there's the extraordinarily touching story of Karabi, the 'courtesan' in suite number two who entertains wealthy 'clients' but falls in love with someone she can't have and who can't have her. As tragic love stories go, that one is a real tear jerker. Thinking about her, Shankar tells us "By God's grace I had been born as myself, and not as Karabi Guha. I felt that in his scheme of creation, God had made men the more fortunate species".
The hotel's clients are no less colourful than the staff. Kindly Dr Sutherland the epidemiologist is looking for news of a woman who worked on the bar many years earlier and gives us a chance to learn about the days when a new barmaid was news worthy of publishing in the local newspapers. But why is Dr Sutherland so interested? Mrs Pakrashi who is so demure when she visits the hotel with her husband is secretly having sex with young men in one of the hotel's rooms. She won't join her husband for all his engagements because he thinks she's "so busy with her prayers" when in fact she's with her young lovers whilst looking down her nose at those around her.
There's also an in-between world of neither staff nor client which includes the artistes who perform at the hotel. The most interesting inhabitants of that world are Connie, the exotic cabaret dancer and her strange dwarf assistant, Harry. Their relationship becomes the cause of much conjecture, many rumours and lots of sleazy talk but the truth turns out to be stranger than any of the lies that people tell about them. Also in this world are the call girls who ply their trade in the hotel's bar, paying tips to the staff to let them stay and earning their money in the most traditional of ancient trades.
Even sitting here pulling out brief examples of the characters from the Shahjahan, I can't help but reflect that despite the beautiful prose, this is a deeply sad book filled with people whose lives are filled with pain and anguish. I struggle to come up with a reason why I love the book so much when it's so unremittingly miserable for most of the protagonists. It's just so well written that I can't help myself. When I was reading this I was torn between wanting to drop everything else I was doing to keep reading and trying to stop myself from gobbling it up, knowing that in the words of the supermarkets 'When it's gone, it's gone'. I believe this is the only Sankar book that has been translated and I'm left bereft by the sadness that there's no more for me to read and a certainty that I'll read it again sometime soon
The author Sankar (the pen name of Mani Sankar Mukherji) drew on aspects of his own life and experience in writing Chowringhee. He was indeed the clerk to the last British lawyer and was able as part of his work with him to stay in the servants quarters of Calcutta's 'Grand Hotel' which inspired his fictional Shahjahan. Undoubtedly this gives the story a believability and insight that couldn't be found by someone who didn't know his setting and his characters.
The book was first published in 1962 in Bengali and was subsequently translated into numerous Indian languages, adapted as a film and presented on stage as a play. It was finally translated into English just a few years ago by Arunava Sinha. Unlike many great books that have been translated, it doesn't come with a long foreword or explanations from the translator, setting the book into its time and place and offering background information. None of these things are there and the book jumps right into the story with no preamble quite simply because it needs no explanation. It stands or falls on its own merits. Sankar is not the only famous and very worthy writer to come out of Bengal - indeed many of India's greatest writers are Bengalis - but he may well be the most readable of the great writers.
Chowringhee by Sankar
Published by Atlantic Books