Today was a day when Calcutta walked me one large chapter in her story. I walked for over four hours under a cooperative winter sun, to seek and find what I never knew.
I had often wondered why would these explorers in the garb of sailors, missionaries, traders, colonizers and discoverers leave the safety and familiarity of their native climes, to set sail, walk or even fly, to lands that exist as geographical labels. But it has been a while since Life has answered my query very simply- not in words but in the most impactful way possible.
The answer came to me in the copious amounts of ‘aha’ moments that in turn, subside into the headiness of the thrill of discovery.
The association of this city with an eventful past has made her a living exhibit in the museum of Man’s journey through time. She boasts of many firsts in her incredibly crowded timeline. But what pulls at the strings of my heart is her soul, a stained glass mosaic of myriad memories.
Walking on the cemented path of the South Park Street cemetery, tilting the head back to stare at an impressive tomb, and silently reading the gravestones, I ponder upon the life stories buried deep within the heart of my city. The physical remains are traceless, having mingled with the city eons ago. However, their memories now stand transfigured by a powerful spell into ornate urn-like tombs, or Hindu style temple structures. Each one has so many stories to tell if only we stopped to listen. A young wife who died prematurely; little children taken away much before they understood of the world; respected civil servants; radical poets; pioneering scholars all speak through the silences of the spaces that lie marked in their names. One reflects on Man’s quest to immortalise the ones he cherishes through stone and structure, inscribed upon by forlorn poetry or bombastic epithets.
The Goethals library in the St. Xavier’s Collegiate School is a humble treasure trove of tales from our past. It stores manuscripts, artefacts and paintings from early eighteenth century, collected by the Jesuits who found the time and inclination to keep the story of Calcutta alive. It boasts of a collection of Tibetan ritual knives, a Copernican styled large globe with archaic markings and a compass at the base, and detailed sketches of old city life. I believe one can order digital prints of certain old paintings for a fee.
The ‘show stopper’ story teller was the Asiatic Society, founded in 1784 by Oxfordian scholar Sir William Jones, who made Indology fashionable before India had been exported to the West through her classical music and yogic godmen. To be walking through the narrow aisles between 1,49,000 tomes penned by the best intellects of East and West, with the intermittent whiffs of preservative chemicals, is an exploration in itself. Otherwise complacent staff, who go through their work days among the relics of history, were sprightly and eager to explain how crumbling manuscripts and maps are restored to health in the sunlit room of their ‘Conservation Laboratory’. These are the unsung artisans of our culture, who make it their job to resuscitate the dying remains of the bygone days.
I found a rather intriguing gentleman whose work room still remains marked and locked in his name. He is Csoma De Koros, once the esteemed librarian of the Society, who pioneered Tibetan studies in his time. Through the slightest of gaps in the door, I caught a glimpse of this man’s profile as he poured over some thought provoking sample. I reckon, he still does even today…
The museum or rather room that houses the exhibits of the Asiatic Society was the climax of our Mile. Where on earth would you get to touch an Asokan edict from over a thousand years ago or see Shah Jahan’s calligraphic autograph on a gold lined Mughal era manuscript, or a version of the Koran in which every line begins miraculously with the ‘Alif’ the first alphabet of the Arabic script or 17th century Italian artiste Guido Gagnacci’s painting ‘Cleopatra’? Pouring over the glass topped shelves within which lay these rarities, it was definitely an awe inspiring moment.
Here I must indulge myself and stop to tell you more about the ‘edict experience’. The stone itself is a large chunk, placed without glass cover on one side of the room. I savoured its cold touch, and repeatedly ran my fingers over the inscriptions coaxing its message into recollection. I was touching history- it was a connection between some lifeless words in a book studied a long time ago, and tangible reality. I remembered touching a rock from the Moon at the Smithsonian Institute many years ago. This relic from the third rock from the Sun, gave me similar delight. My Calcutta, home to this mother ship of the Indian Museum, the world’s largest, showed herself as teller of tales in the best tradition of story-tellers.
Curiously, though I rued the fact that photography was not permitted in the museum, now I think it is better that way. I will always remember the touch of history rather than a selfie with an edict
The world’s largest museum established in 1814 to house the unmanageable quantities of collections of the Asiatic Society, is a grand colonial structure, stretching itself like a leviathan across acres.
With a central courtyard that allows sun and rest to the visitors, it offers a grand view of Man’s story. The building is suggestive of an opulence of vision and scale that characterise many of my city’s colonial buildings. This was the last stop of the heritage walk, but the story does not conclude there…
Calcutta told me many stories yesterday etched on her by unrelenting Time.
I have come away more starry eyed and in love with my city. This inebriation is addictive and extremely inspiring I must caution you!
We live in an environment rich with legacy and heritage, but the city is a tease. She will reveal herself to the ones who come to her- to the unseeing eye there is only squalor and neglect.
Come to this city- she will make you wonder at her wealth and poverty; her glory days and her dog days; her then and her now. But do come, to walk a story with Calcutta.
all photographs have been taken by the writer 🙂