Monday, January 16, 2012


Berhampore is an old town and as all old towns, it has its share of old ghosts. There’s the ghost (bhooth) of the langra Saheb (one legged Englishman) who used to live in a red house by the river and was involved in the infamous disarming of Indian sepoys in the run up to the Mutiny. They say he still surprises bathers when they go back home on a lonely afternoon and chases them threatening  `disciplinary action'.

There’s the ghost of Ashu babu who lived down the road from Kalpana Talkies and loves quizzing late night cinema goers about the show they watched. There's  also the `bakery ghost’ of  Sheikh Ali who died in a fire in the bakery down the side-lane which you take to go to the river from my Grandma’s house. He still often comes over with fresh baked Pau-rutis (pound loafs), before the morning light has appeared and melts away as you spread Polson butter on the sweet smelling bread!

Then there are the many ghosts of the Sen family itself who used to live in the old, broken-down `Sen Bari’, which had seven ponds attached to a mammoth house at one end of the Khagra bazaar, on way to the Collectorate. That house has now been replaced by monstrous matchbox constructions. God knows where the poor ghosts have retired to.

Bishambar Sen was one such fabled ghost in the `Purono’ (Old) bari. Bishambar babu, was a foodie and fastidious enough to the point of being a food fanatic, when he was alive. They say, he would ask his cook to make chana bora (sweetmeat) in the morning and if the dish did not come up to expectations, order the whole Karhai (cooking utensil) load to be flushed down the drain.  

Even now, if at any Sen family get together, the food is not up to the mark,  people glance around fearfully. They claim if Bishambar babu gets wind of this lack of taste - much could go wrong at the gathering.

Legend has it, my mother’s grandfather Radhika Charan, had left this house after incessant spats with others in the family to settle down first in Badalpur-er Bagan bari (the Garden house at Badalpur) and then at the house in Khagra Bazaar where my Grandma lived. But I do suspect, that his ancestors’ ghosts may have played a role in Radhika babu moving out.

On any moonless night, if you had visited the Old Sen bari, they used to say, you ccould still have ended up meeting some of them. Rattling pots and pans, or calling out for the Kochwan (coachmen) to bring their `ghora gari’ (horse carriage) or scolding Naibs (deputies who managed estates) for not managing to up rents, or demanding Pilao with Dai macher kalia (rich fish dish cooked in curd, a favourite of the Sens), they were a boisterous lot. Not unfriendly, but definitely not people to be crossed with at night. I unfortunately, never had the occasion to meet them, despite several mid-night vigils at the old house, with my two childhood pals – Buncha and Ponku.

My grand uncle Brojendra Kishore or Brojo babu for short, was always convinced the locked up room above the equally dis-used guard room in my Grandmother’s house was haunted by Bhooth-Master, the ghost of the house tutor who used to teach him `O, Aa, Ko, Kha’ (Bengali script) as a kid.

On rainy evenings, when electric lights flickered out to be replaced by oil lanterns,  Brojo babu would relate with glee how this spirit still chased him around with a cane on lonely nights and lonelier afternoons. Ghosts in Berampore apparently loved playing around after a sumptious lunch or a gluttonous dinner.

Master Moshai had, had an unhappy life. A case of unrequited love, you see. He had come to town in search of a living, a simple good looking, village boy from a decent but not so well off Brahmin family. A recommendatory note from some village noteable had got him his job as home tutor to the Sens. The room above the guard house had been allotted to him as he had bronchial problems and couldn’t stand the damp in ground floor rooms, normally allotted to distant relatives and visiting Naibs who stayed with the family.   

They say he went about his duties with diligence and quickly brought the Sen boys and girls to heel. The three Rs were stuffed down their gullets, till they were looking for ways to cut out of his class. That, of course, was a difficult thing to do, for my mother’s grandma, a terror, in her own right, sat stitching lace patterns into cloth in a nearby room, with one ear cocked to listen in to what her children were learning.

What undid him was Ms Suzanna O'Hara, the Anglo-Indian lady hired by my Grandfather Gaur babu to tutor his sisters in English and in playing the Piano. Those were the days when educated young men from good Bengali families insisted their would be wives should be able to converse in English, play musical instruments and yet follow all the orthodox rules which Caste hindu ladies were expected to follow at home. Degrees were not important, and in fact were frowned upon, but `education' was a must. My Grandfather naturally wished his sisters all success in catching the right groom and hence did not cringe in spending money on imparting them necessary `Ingraji' graces.

Master Moshai fell madly in love with the young lady tutor, hired to complement his work. Suzanna, did not discourage the poor master but nor did she exactly encourage him. From her side, there was coquetish flirtation. From his side, serious outpuring of young, one sided love.

She was quite a beauty and had many suitors of her own. An Anglo-Indian engineer from the town electric works, the English manager of an ice-cream factory on the outskirts of Berampore. How could a simple Brahmin home tutor hope to match up with such competition? Still he tried his best at a game he was untrained for.

The Sen kids had a gala time, for they guessed the cause of the many  glances their tutor threw at Suzanna, while she sat teaching the girls English. They grinned knowingly when Master Moshai stood waiting below the stairs for the lady to finish teaching, so that he could volunteer to escort her to her cottage near Lal dighi (Red Lake).
Rehman, the hackney rickshaw man whose carriage had been rented for Suzanna’s thrice a week tutorial appearance at the Sen household, reported on the children's intensive quizzing that Master babu spent the whole trip to her cottage in animated conversation with her. And on the way back, he whistled the latest Devika Rani airs, while smiling at no one in particular.
One day, Suzanna came to the Sen home with glad tidings. She was getting married. Brojo babu was never clear whom she ultimately married - it may have been the Englisman, for he was fairer or it may have been the engineer, for he was a better catch.  On the night the lady exchanged vows with her chosen husband, our house tutor became Bhooth-Master, a ghost of a Master, by hanging himself from the ceiling of the room where he slept.

We always tried to look around for this strange, sensitive tutor, but could never really find him. But then as Brojo babu would relate the story, leaning forward to gesticulate how the ghost ran after him last Sunday afternoon, it all seemed very real. The swish of the rain, often accompanied the swish of the cane in our imagination. The distant shouts from the bazaar could be those of the Master coming back to teach his charges.

To top it all my Boro Maima (eldest Aunt) swore that whenever she walked through the Baithak khana (salon) she could hear unexplained coughs, wheezes and footsteps from the Master’s room. At this, Brojo babu would add excitedly “I told you this guy exists, he still haunts the house … he is our real resident ghost,” sending shivers down our spines.

Ponku would whisper to me “its all a big lie, my dad has told me there are no such things as ghosts.” Of course, that’s what my mother said too. But then the men who worked at Netaji Press, that brave little printing press which functioned out of the old Kutchery (estate office) next to the guard room and below the Baihtak khana, too claimed they heard noises in the Master's room late in the evening when they sometimes did overtime to clear the printing backlog. Netaji Press's owners often gave that as the reason why they never paid  rent for the place.

Many years later, after my Grandma died, the guard house was sold to a shopkeeper to be turned into yet another Khagra Bazaar store. They broke open the Master’s room as the keys to the room were lost to the wagaries of time. The room was dusty, filled with cobwebs, broken furniture and ancient brick-a-bracs. But there on the dust, they swore, were fresh signs of someone having paced up and down  and then there was the curious brass pik daan (spittoon) in one corner of the room which still had traces of cough mixed with blood.

Read also:   Ivory Chessman

Mutiny - Refers to the Sepoy Mutiny or as Indian historians call it, the first war of independence. Sepoys of the 19th Native Infantry Regiment then based in Behrampore were among the first to refuse to obey England's orders on 26th February,  1857, and were later disbanded.
Anglo-Indian - Of mixed European and Indian ancestary with European paternal lines.
Berhampore  - a trading town with a river port - Cossimbazar - on the river Bhagirathi which downstream becomes the Hooghly. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was a surprisingly cosmopolitan town with population pockets of Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Marwaris and Jews besides Bengali and Urdu speaking families.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Ivory Chessman

My mother’s `Choto Kaka’ (youngest uncle) Brojendra Kishore Sen, was the quintessential Bengali bhadralok bachelor. Rich, slightly eccentric with a glad eye for maids, but otherwise a perfect gent in his dealings with all, except those whom he wished to snub, for slights which they had done to him, real or imagined.  

My mother’s family in those days, lived in a sprawling house in Khagra Bazar in Berhampore, a small sleepy town on the broad river Bhagirathi as it meanders its way down from the Farakka barrage in North Bengal to become the muddy Hooghly, near Calcutta. The Sen family’s lifestyle was as easy going and indolent as the river itself.

Food was not something needed to merely keep body and soul together, but was often the raison d’etre for which many in the town and certainly Brojo babu existed. The rich aroma of the Mughal court of nearby Murshidabad had combined with the subtler cooking of Middle Bengal to produce its own intoxicating pakhwan, a very unique style to be found in the kitchens of but a few connoisseurs in Berhampore. Mangoes from the Sen orchards, rice from outlying rich farms, fish from family ponds and the Ganges itself were all to be marvelled at, in both the raw form, before they entered the kitchen and in cooked varieties, once it all came out in myriad dishes.

Bathing, sometimes twice a day in the holy river was of course a must. As much as an exercise as for the pure pleasure of battling a turbulent river, whose waves and whirlpools could often capsize huge country sailing boats. 

Music was another passion which took up much time and talent within the family. Brojo babu, himself was a talented Esraj (Indian stringed instrument) player and had dozens of shagirds (disciples) in towns and villages all around. They say, some of them still get together to play through the night at a memorial baithak  (musical soiree) in far away Calcutta.

Dalliances with favourite maids were a way of life for many in the town and Brojo babu too believed in playing by the `rules'. One favourite was ensconced in a lonely house by the river, to be visited late in the afternoons or even better after a Matinee show at Kalpana Talkies. Townsmen gossiped of this as they did about hundreds of other things but without malice, and Brojendra Kishore saw no sin in having his share of fun with saucy local lasses.

But if anything, truly could be called Brojendra’s real passion - it was chess (Daba). Reclining on a cushion with a Hookah pipe  in his hand, Brojo babu would hold court every evening with fellow townsmen as he had seen his ancestors – Radhika Charan and Jogesh Charan – and his eldest brother, the late Gaur Kishore, do years before.   

But while they used their evening chess parties to socialise and keep abreast of the affairs of the town, Brojo, used it with single minded determination to win glorious battles for his family, which claimed descent through a cadet branch from the ancient Kings of Gaud, ousted from their kingdom by Afghan ‘mountebanks’, a 1,000-year-old incident which still rankled the family.

Loud calls of `Ei Morlo (Slaughtered)’, `Gelo, gelo apnaar Oont kata gelo (Gone, gone your knight is being cut down)’, `kella fateh (castle breached)’ rent through the evening air daily at his mansion. Passing pedestrians and rickshaw pullers would grin and look at each other knowingly as they heard the din of this battle being enacted every night.

His two widowed boudis (elder sisters-in-laws) who lived in different wings of the sprawling house, separated by huge courtyards, often chided him for what they considered a sheer waste of time. His friends would advise him to invest in business to bring back the family’s lost wealth and pomp, others would advise him to get into public life like his eldest brother Gaur had, before he died an untimely death.

Yet others would advise him to take his music more seriously (`You can become Big like Pandit Ravi Shankar if you really get going,’ one slightly inebriated fan told him one night). His nephews and nieces, of whom he had many, would often woo him away to their houses in Calcutta (`Don’t you get bored of playing chess all the time, come and stay with us awhile’). Trips to Calcutta were welcome – it brought much feasting and feting as relatives competed with each other for the favours of the rich old bachelor.

However, an outing is an outing and can’t be the real thing. The `Real Thing’ in Brojo babu’s life remained chess. His baithak-khana (salon) had many chessboards, but the one which he played with had all ivory pieces, a rare, intricately carved set, bought from the Nabobs of Murshidabad for many pieces of silver by his grandfather Radhika Charan.

Every night, he would toy with chess pieces from this set. Feeling each piece with a practised hand, as he contemplated his opponent’s moves. His rival for the night, chosen from among those who turned up at his `club’, would be made to feel the honour of being up against him and his ivory pieces.

The set itself was unique. Made to order, it had two kings and queens seated on elephant howdahs, camelmen instead of bishops, boats instead of rooks and horsemen instead of knights, besides the usual army of pawns. One side had figurines who looked like Indians, the other side looked like they were Europeans. They said it was made after the battle of Plassey and hence the unique representation of  `White’ pieces with Europeans and `Blacks’ by Indians.  Brojo babu always chose Indian `black’ to play with, perhaps to avenge Plassey, perhaps to avenge the Afghans who had ridden roughshod over his legacy.

Family history, the tale of how the chess set made its way from the Nabob’s Hazarduari Palace to the Sen home, the yarn of how his grandfather had taught him to carefully wrap each individual piece at the end of every evening game with pieces of a special muslin cloth, would all be related in between the games, steaming cups of tea, pakorahs and Hookah to newcomers. I too was ushered into the mysteries of chess and the special chess set by the big man himself. Fascinating story. Fascinating works of art, done painstakingly by mastercraftsmen on elephant tusks brought all the way from Assam and Burma, sometime in the late 18th century.  “You come back from your studies in Delhi, these will be here for you to play with and take away, when the time is ripe,” I can still hear his parting words to me on a winter 1970s evening, on the last of my till then regular annual visits to Berhampore. My grandmother and Brojo babu’s bara boudi (eldest sister in law) died of cancer soon afterwards and this severed my only real connection with that lovely little town.

Years later, Brojo babu too died in his bed, to be discovered by servants. Some say they looted his house before letting the world know of his passing away. Others say it was all a conspiracy by nephews who had an eye on his property. Nobody will ever know the truth as no one really bothered to investigate his death. Relatives who lived in the town and in Calcutta, quickly started an infamous spat over his possessions. Those who could lay their hands on the family jewellery hoarded in his trunks, took it away. Those who could find silver knick knacks tucked away in all kinds of nooks and crannies of the house, carted it out. Those who could find the silver tipped Hookahs and the ivory sets, or even his muslin coats, packed it away in their car boots.

Yet, there was more at stake – orchards, houses and farms. Nephews and townsmen came up with competing wills of the rich old man. One 50 year-old trader claimed he had been adopted by Brojo babu, days before his death, and produced papers with illegible squiggles on them, which were supposed to be the signature of the man, whose family had helped set up the town’s famous Krishnanath College.

Another nephew came up with a will which had his fingerprints on them and a ready explanation written into the will of how the old man’s hand used to shake towards the end, forcing him to sign away his wealth with his thumb! Yet others, impatient with India’s ever slow legal system simply took over his fields and sold them off, without batting an eyelid about legal niceties. My mother stayed away from the ugly family drama. I did think of the chessmen, and sometimes felt a tinge of regret at being unable to access what I saw as a gift promised to me.

Many more years later, I visited the South Calcutta home of one of my uncles. There, sure enough in his lovely Belgian glass showcase, was a quartet of horsemen and a solitary camelman, surrounded by forlorn Indian featured pawns. No Kings or Queens on elephant howdahs, nor European soldiery ready to do battle with the Indians. Just those few dusty pieces from the fabled set.

I started to ask him about the rest of the chess pieces. “No, no , its not what you think … I am the only one trying to save the family legacy. The others have carved up his collections and sold it off piecemeal in the antique market,” the man stammered out. The words tripping each other up. I looked aghast. Brojo babu’s Nabobi pieces sold piecemeal to some unknown junk hunter! Sacrilege!!

I heard myself lecturing him on the family history, the history of the chess pieces, of how the Nabobs had sold it to “us” … It was then that I realised. … I sounded too much like Brojo babu. Even the words which came gushing out were really his, repeated to me on many a foggy evening. Looks travel genetically. Memories too. Sometimes even traits follow. Maybe, I should start thanking God, I never got those ivory chessmen. I had no desire to become another Brojo babu, however much I liked this maverick Grand Uncle.

(All characters in this story are true to the best of my knowledge, though all incidents are purely fictional and any resemblance to true events, merely an illusion)

Copyright © Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

Bhadralok: Gentleman of leisure.
Babu: A Bengali honorific, equivalent of Esquire; Also used to describe clerks in India. (In this case, the term has been used as an honorific).
Khagra Bazar: Marketplace in Berhampore, famed for its brass utensils, silks and crafts.  
Mughal court of Murshidabad : The court of the Mughal Governors of Bengal.
Battle of Plassey : The battle fought in 1757, between Lord Robert Clive and Nabob Siraj ud Dowlah of Bengal set in a mango grove not far from Berhampore, which saw the English East India Company winning after several of the Nabob’s Generals and noblemen changed sides.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Drive in Growth

Ratan Tata poses with the iconic Jaguar

Mercedes Benz Class

BMW brings the Mini Cooper  to India
Indians bought roughly 2.5 million cars in calendar year 2011, worth some Rs 150,000 crore or $ 30 billion. Another half a million were exported during the year.
In 2012, if car loan rates were to go down, this market could grow by 10-12 per cent. If rates remain static and annual economic growth drops below 7.5 per cent, analysts say the car market would still grow by 5-7 per cent.
Of course that's not much compared to the 30 per cent growth in sales which automakers clocked in 2010, when interest rates were still low and the economy was booming. Or for that matter the double digit annual car sales growth through the 2000s.
No wonder every auto-maker is scrambling to be at the Delhi Auto Expo now on at the sprawling Pragati Maidan (Progress Gardens) show-launching some 60 new glitzy models.
Japanese shipping line NYK, which among other things specialises in bulk transportation of cars, estimates India will  make about 5 million cars by 2015. It bases its projections on plant capacity being set up by various automobile giants.
Almost all cars and sold in India are `made in India’. Typically, as General Motors’ India chief Lowell Paddock, says most cars have between 70-98 per cent Indian components. The more `Indian’ the car is, the cheaper it is. Partly because it’s cheap to manufacture in India, partly because the tax structure is skewed in favour of domestic manufacture.
That’s a result of shrewd planning on the part of Indian policymakers who in the 1990s sought to lure global automakers to India with the bait of its huge market, but cleverly brought in a tax structure which discouraged imports of built up and knocked down car kits. What one industry secretary in those days had told me was “we don’t want to see screwdriver assemblies in India. We want full scale car manufacturing plants.” India has had full scale car plants since the 1950s. But without technological innovations, they kept churning out ‘50s and ‘60s era cars till Maruti, a joint venture with Japan’s Suzuki Motors brought out the M800, a simple 4-seater mini, in 1984.
The auto policy crafted in the 1990s, brought in global auto majors starting with the now defunct Daewoo to General Motors, Honda, Mercedes Benz and Audi and forced the global biggies to make huge investments through the 1990s and 2000s to set up factories, develop Indian vendors who could make quality spare parts. Most of them have still kept the most important or key elements of their cars, a `secret’ from their Indian engineers. For instance, Maruti-Suzuki, India’s largest carmaker, just wouldn’t trust Indians with gear box technology and had a running battle with the industry ministry on this issue through the 1990s.
Tatas and Mahindras have however broken that tech barrier by simply buying their way in. Tatas, who used to make horrible cars like the Indica, with gears which felt like they had been lifted out of trucks, have bought Jaguar-Land Rover (JLR) and now have access to some of the best car designs and engineering secrets in the world. Ratan Tata today told reporters he would be manufacturing the iconic JLR cars in the country. Besides, pepping up the civilian car market, versions of the Land Rover, an all terrain vehicle, could well try to be a replacement for Jonga, a 1960s design jeep-type vehicle, which the Indian Army still drives around in.   
Mahindras have bought Korean car-maker Ssangyong. Its cars are not considered great in terms of design but are grudgingly accepted as value for money, robust vehicles. BBC’s Top Gear says “This is not some Korean epiphany, it’s a bunch of very badly designed cars indeed. They’re cheap, but if you buy one, so are you,”   but also adds “This much SUV at these prices? Too good to be true? Well, yes, in the sense that it all feels cheap and a bit nasty, but you can’t escape the allure of a poor man’s M-Class.” Mahindras are now trying to buy up Saab, a Swedish-Dutch automaker, which at one time was owned by General Motors.
But before Indians can start bringing out the champagne in celebration, they should also note that the Chinese have taken a similar route to building up their own automotive industry and produce a mind boggling 17 cars million a year. The Brazilians who make about 3.5 million cars annually, are already ahead of the Indians, in many respects. My own guess is that by 2025, the battle royale in the autoworld will  be between Indo-European and Japanese-Indian firms on the one hand, Sino-American and Sino-Euoropean firms on the other and US-Latino firms at the third corner of the global car Triad.