The Tail End of the British Raj

As we’ve had a number of visitors in the 2 weeks that I’ve been in Cali (Bangla E. Coast where you at?!!) I’ve been able to peruse guest lists for events we’ve thrown and been thrown into.  The other day I came across the name of Dr. Sugata Bose.  A common surname in this part of India, sure enough, but also the name of my professor for Modern South Asian History at Tufts.  So one of the staff called him up and I went to meet with him for an hour at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Research Bureau.

Which lead to a nice crash course on W. Bengal politics, and an invite to a lecture and dinner at the Bengal Club the next week.  Rebecca and I and our CG attended the lecture, and I was struck again at how useful an accent can be.  As a professed mumbler and speed-talker (once when I was 8 my mother’s best friend looked right at me and said, “Does he have a speech problem?”), it’s tremendously pleasant to listen to people who can expound on any topic with coherence and with a good sense of meter.  Prof. Bose is one of these and so was the guest lecturer, Manishanker Iyer.  Of course, there’s a tendency toward long-windedness that accompanies this sort of thing, but one must persevere.

Afterwards, at the Bengal Club — founded 1827, non-Indians only until 1962 — we had drinks and dinner with Prof. Bose’s family and friends in his circle.  The Bengal Club is the oldest social club in Calcutta, and in an impressive building that is 1/2 the size it once was after a notorius real estate deal resulted in the removal of the front of the building on Chowringhee Street.  We passed a great bird-cage elevator, a few nice prints of Calcutta in the olden days, and some frankly horrific, modern portraits of Bengals historical figures.  Lord Clive and RamMohan Roy were placed right next to each other… that makes sense. 

Many of Prof. Bose’s friends reminisced about days at Cambridge and Oxford, though Dr. Sumantra Bose, Prof. Bose’s younger brother, was refreshingly insolent about some of the guests (he went to Columbia and is now at LSE).  It was a fascinating look into what I suspect is the last glimmer of the British-educated, old money, political and intellectual elite in Calcutta.  Krishna Bose, the Boses’ 4’9″ mother, was a leading figure in the Trinamul Congress during the late 1990s, and was really kind to us, giving the entire dinner a cozy atmosphere.  Most bemoaned the “decay” that has set in in the last 30 years under Communist Party rule.  It’s easy to feel nostalgic in this city.

On the way out, I realized that one of the guests that I hadn’t had a chance to speak to was Amitav Ghosh, author of one of my favorite books, The Shadow Lines.  Next time.

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