Bengali Baboo

Deborah Baker
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Hatibagan, 139 Cornwallis Street, Calcutta
Early Twentieth Century

Calcutta, the capital of the province of Bengal, was once known as the Second City of Empire. Like London, the First City of Empire, it sat astride a river, the Hooghly, that carried traffic rivaling the Thames. For most up-and-coming Bengali youth of the city, and the handsome and quick-witted Sudhindranath Datta most certainly was one, attendance at Oxford or Cambridge, combined with access to unlimited credit, entitled them on their return to full membership in the high echelons of the Anglo-Bengali elite, otherwise known as the Set. Perhaps because World War I had prevented Sudhin from attending Oxford, he tended to cast a gimlet eye on his milieu.

Following British traders with imperial pretensions, members of the Set built homes that mixed classical motifs with abandon. Whimsical palaces and stately homes were crowded with Empire sofas, gilded clocks, and candelabras. The walls displayed copies of sentimental paintings by Landseer and Leighton. In Sudhin’s maternal grandfather’s home, after-dinner music recitals were held in a Paris-style salon, accessorized with nymphs made of alabaster, porcelain from Sèvres and Dresden, and a billiard table. Family libraries of the Set boasted calf-bound copies of Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, illustrated folios of Shakespeare, and the entire run of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, reflecting the Set’s boundless respect for the worthies of English literature. Many also acquired a taste for English mustard, marmalade, cheese, and roast beef. They kept exotic birds, bred dogs and racehorses, and dressed their bearers in whiter liveries and larger turbans than the English had theirs wear. Prodigal sons returning to Calcutta after a ruinous fling at Oxford introduced themselves loftily as “England returned.” Deprived of cutlery, they ate their rice with ladles in run-down mansions mortgaged to pay for their English airs.

Though Bengalis relished their halcyon days at Cambridge or Oxford as much as anyone, they were destined to always fall short of that exemplar, the English gentleman himself. For Calcutta’s English residents, the Bengalis’ cultivation of English habits was more evidence, should more be needed, that their rule was the destined natural order. They granted Bengalis a kind of imitative intelligence as well as a capacity for breeding more and more Bengalis. But unlike the manly warrior races of the North-West Frontier, the Bengali was believed to lack the spirit, physique, and sense of honor required of a ruling race. Consequently, the Anglicized Bengali was reviled and ridiculed.

“By his legs you should know the Bengali,” Winston Churchill’s favorite globe-trotting journalist wrote. Whereas an Englishman’s legs were straight with a tapered calf and a flat thigh, the Bengali had the skin-and-bone leg of a slave. “Except by grace of his natural masters,” this writer concluded, “a slave he always has been and always must be.” Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, another author whose violent prose style Churchill did his best to emulate, agreed. The Bengali was “thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke.” A British resident once pointed out the perfidy of hymning the praises of liberty and democracy to Bengalis when everyone knew their realization was unlikely. Think of the bitterness, hatred, and resentment that will eventually arise, he warned. “If the baboo had a soul, it might well demand a reckoning.”

Bengalis had met the arriving waves of eighteenth-century Englishmen with little of the hostility or indifference the East India Company would encounter elsewhere. Initially, baboo or babu simply referred to an English-speaking Bengali clerk. Yet while Bengalis may have begun as clerks, they quickly progressed to revenue agents, solicitors, and High Court judges. As Bengalis ascended these rungs, English mockery of the baboo’s facility with the English language became as unrelenting as the contempt for the figure he cut. “What milk was to the cocoa-nut,” Lord Macaulay quipped, “Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary is to the polysyllabic baboo.” Similarly, Bengalis were “quick to discern the fire of ideas behind the smoke of guns,” whether that was Darwin’s theory of evolution or the rights of widows to remarry. That the conquered should so quickly embrace the language and notions of the conqueror was curious, but that is what happened, and Bengalis could argue all night as to why this was. The simplest answer was the most obvious. They were poets and philosophers. They had minds that liked to roam where their lives could not.

Sudhin believed that Viceroy Curzon’s 1905 decision to partition Bengal was the result of confusing this Bengali embrace of English fashions, language, and ideas with an abandonment of Bengali ones. As the line Curzon drew divided the largely Muslim eastern half from its largely Hindu western half, Sudhin also understood that the viceroy wanted to empower Bengali Muslims, encourage their loyalty to and identification with the Raj, while sowing suspicion of their Hindu brethren. In this way the baboo, with his English pretensions and the mounting political aspirations that accompanied them, might be isolated. It was also true that the viceroy partitioned Bengal simply because he could.

It was a fantastic miscalculation. A boycott was called; bonfires of Manchester cotton and English goods burned at crossroads throughout Bengal. Swadeshi–self-sufficiency–was proclaimed. Prefiguring Gandhi’s later call for noncooperation, the well-heeled and powerful bhadralok class left government service, withdrew their children from educational institutions, and deprived the courts of solicitors. The Raj was paralyzed. Lastly, someone tried to assassinate the British governor of the new state of West Bengal. That and other acts of terrorism gave Bengalis a means to prove they could be fearless; they, too, had a sense of honor. In this way baboo ceased to denote a figure of ridicule and came instead to refer to an out-and-out traitor, soon encompassing any educated Indian with nationalist leanings.

The partition of Bengal proved the undoing of one of Sudhin Datta’s many uncles. In 1901, this uncle had led a ten-mile-long barefoot cortege mourning the death of Queen Victoria, and worshipped the liberal philosophies of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. For this uncle, however, the presumption that an attachment to things British trumped his love for Bengal was intolerable. His outrage over partition was such that he impetuously forked out twenty thousand rupees to an unlicensed barrister who promised to shoot the viceroy on his behalf. Of course the fellow disappeared with the money and Curzon returned to England unharmed.

It took a further six years of unceasing unrest before partition was reversed and Bengal was again made whole. To spite the triumphant baboos, the capital of British India was wrested from Calcutta and planted in more expansive style in Delhi. A surprise announcement was made at the 1911 durbar marking the coronation of George V. With the departure of the viceroy and thousands of his minions, Bengal lost its largest source of patronage. Calcutta remained an important center of British trade with an unsurpassed nightlife, but its metropolitan glow began to dim. The statues of long-forgotten British officials on horseback still held court on the Maidan–a flat open green that hosted a racecourse, a promenade for Calcutta society, and a memorial to Queen Victoria–but the park itself looked less and less like the Hyde Park it aspired to be.

The twilight of the Set had begun.

The knowledge that the Datta family fortune derived from an alliance with India’s occupiers was part of the complicated legacy Sudhin Datta’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, shared with Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather, also named Dwarkanath. Dwarkanath Tagore’s vast fortune had been made in Ranigunj. When he sailed to England in 1842 he traveled on his own steamship, the India, powered by his own coal. Tagore coal also powered jute mills, sawmills, and brick factories on the outskirts of Calcutta. It filled the tinderboxes of trains, tugboats, and steamships on eastern trade routes. In England Dwarkanath was graciously received by Queen Victoria and the duke of Wellington, but he was astonished to discover that while his English friends might decry the starving coolies of India, he found equal distress in the coal mines of Newcastle. He watched legions of unemployed in Glasgow be violently set upon by British troops.

Dwarkanath Tagore was a pillar of the Bengal Renaissance, a golden age born of the young marriage of England and Bengal. His fortune underwrote colleges and newspapers. His sons founded a Calcutta dynasty of poets, painters, dramatists, and composers. Dwarkanath Datta, too, spawned a dynasty of gifted offspring. The Dattas, as well, could trace their ancestry to one of the three fishing villages that formed the backbone of the settlement and trading post that became Calcutta. When plans for the new Fort William encroached upon family land, the East India Company deeded the family property in the city center. The two-hundred-year-old parchment deed might have been an ancient Vedic text, for all the family reverence bestowed upon it.

A mansion was soon built, one that would grow to over one hundred rooms, seven courtyards, and two acres of private orchards. As guarantor of one of the city’s largest commercial houses, Dwarkanath became the family’s financial mainstay. But after a feud with his brothers over his allotment of rooms, he left to set up a less encumbered household in North Calcutta called Hatibagan. His grandson Sudhindranath was born there in 1901.

Sudhin’s childhood visits to the ancestral haunt took place during the annual holiday of Durga Puja. He and his brothers would be ushered into a great hall decorated with mottled Belgian mirrors and Venetian chandeliers wrapped in dusty sheets. Slowly, in ever increasing numbers, distant relations emerged from darkened cubbyholes to inspect his family. A goat was sacrificed, adding to the luridness of the memory.

The shabbier and more quarrelsome these relations grew, Sudhin noted ruefully, the more tightly they clung to the venerated parchment, the more fiercely they upheld their social pretensions. Such affectations were as unseemly to Sudhin as the profligacy of his contemporaries. After witnessing a debauched cousin charge down the street in a charabanc loaded with half-naked women, Sudhin concluded it was an obligation of wealth to behave like an idiot. One scion he knew boasted that he had spent fifty thousand rupees on the wedding of a cat belonging to his mistress, only to be reminded by his wife that her father had spent twice that on her marriage to a monkey. Yet Sudhin was as much a product of the marriage of England and Bengal as his more dissolute cousins.

At Hatibagan, Sudhin and his brothers grew up in the company of aunts, uncles, and cousins. While his uncles ran wild, his aunts were ruled by his querulous grandmother, a woman who worked her networks of spies to maintain family propriety. His mother could only leave the house in a shuttered palanquin. The women of the household spent long afternoons in toilettes with a hairdresser who carried gossip from house to house. Every evening was taken up with the worship of the household deities ensconced in Hatibagan’s central courtyard. Ghee lamps, bells, conch blowing, and gongs accompanied ceremonies that, on fast days, might last from sunrise to sunset.

After Sudhin came of age, he refused to attend the daily pujas and only reluctantly agreed to marry. Like his aunts, his wife had no formal education and spoke only Bengali. And when, a year into their marriage, Chhabi delivered a stillborn child, neither knew how to speak of the loss. After that Sudhin rarely saw her outside their bedroom. For Chhabi there was no escaping Hatibagan’s rigid caste prohibitions and its sequestered, nattering women, but when Sudhin was offered an opportunity to travel to the West, he abandoned his law studies without a second thought to accompany the sixty-eight-year-old Rabindranath Tagore on yet another of his world tours, traveling as his companion.

Sudhin went with the blessing of his father, a sober and upright High Court solicitor, renowned author, and contemporary of Rabindranath. His father shared the poet’s belief that European civilization had enriched Bengal and challenged the more backward notions of Hindu society. Though Sudhin differed with his father on many questions, on this he was inclined to agree, particularly in regard to English laws and English literature. Sudhin’s school friend Apurba Chanda accompanied them as the great poet’s secretary. The three men embarked in February 1929; Sudhin was just shy of thirty.

An immigration official had asked the 1913 Nobel laureate in literature if he could read. The insult was too grievous to overcome.

By 1929 Tagore’s fame had obscured his genius. Always something of a dandy, he dressed in flowing robes, wore his hair long, and sported a sage-like beard. Was it surprising, Sudhin began to wonder, that the West projected an oriental mysticism onto his work, one that existed only in their own woolly minds? With the impatience of youth, he blamed Tagore for doing little to discourage the admirers who mobbed him wherever they went. Then, a few days after they arrived in Los Angeles, Tagore abruptly returned to India with Apurba. An immigration official had asked the 1913 Nobel laureate in literature if he could read. The insult was too grievous to overcome.

Sudhin continued on alone, disillusioned. After Chicago and New York, he spent six months in London. In Germany he disarmed a band of young Hitlerites by courteously insisting in excellent German that as a true Aryan he was not required to return their Heils. He arrived back in late 1929, his education completed by a love affair with a German woman. Leaving behind the woman he loved for the one sitting in wait behind the curtains of his marital home filled him with a furious distress. The love poems he wrote on his return expressed this anguish, not with the sweet serenity of Tagore, but with bitterly controlled wrath. “The fury of the storm as it pressed upon the shutters,” he wrote, “echoed the useless rage of my ruined heart.” He would never see the German woman again.

Sudhin’s feelings about Calcutta had also undergone a sea change. “A more ill assorted metropolis you cannot imagine,” he wrote despairingly. Next to the great European capitals he had seen, he now saw all that Calcutta lacked. There were no buildings of grandeur or distinction or archaeological interest, though its climate was such, he noted acidly, that it generated its own ruins in record time. The city was not laid out with radiating avenues but had grown in an ungainly, higgledy-piggledy manner. Factories, godowns, and shipyards had gobbled up fishing villages as the city spread out along the Hooghly River. Tiny, smoke-black workshops were everywhere. Grocers slept among vegetables in elevated bamboo huts along crowded roadways. The turreted mansions of Alipore stood cheek by jowl with overcrowded shanties and desolate tenements whose windows rained garbage on the streets below. For every grand avenue like Chowringhee or Park Street, there were hundreds of dead-end lanes so narrow and twisted one had to walk sideways to get through their dark passages. Finally, because Calcutta was built upon a swamp, when the monsoons arrived its streets turned into fast-flowing rivers. As a child Sudhin would sit on the veranda and wait eagerly for unwary pedestrians gingerly navigating waterlogged streets to be swallowed by potholes. It had been one of his greatest delights. Now such sights filled him with anguish.

Sudhin soon embarked on two projects. Parichay, a literary journal modeled on T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, first appeared in 1931. Parichay’s essays, translations, and reviews quickly became required reading for Bengali men of letters, each issue showcasing a sampling of that expensive hobby of intellectuals, critical discernment. What gunfighters were to the Wild West, it was often said, the intellectual was to Calcutta. Among the subjects covered were the fine arts, science, philology, history, philosophy, and, of course, Bengali and European literature. Sudhin’s second undertaking grew naturally out of the Friday night meetings of Parichay’s editorial board. This gathering became known as the Parichay adda.

The adda was a Calcutta institution. It generally took place at a settled rendezvous at a fixed time. This might be a veranda, a rooftop, an office, or a street-corner tea stall. Adda participants could be unemployed graduates or middle-class men with bookish interests. Women and children were scarce. In its purest sense, the adda was an ongoing conversation among strong and sparring personalities. Bengalis were less apt to converse than declaim, even on such abstruse subjects as the best bus to take to Beliaghata. “Ask a Bengali a question and you will get an oration,” one Calcutta denizen noted. “He sees all the world as a stage on which he has the star role and even an audience of one is a full house for him. As he gets into his stride you can see him becoming mesmerized by the stirring cadences of his own eloquence.” At the center of an adda was the addadhari, the sun around which all members orbited. For the Parichay adda, Sudhindranath Datta was that sun.

In its first year the adda was held in the Light of Asia Insurance Company, where Sudhin worked as a clerk. In its second, it moved to Sudhin’s study. On the upper floors of Hatibagan one sat on mattresses covered with sheets. By the time the adda arrived in the large reception hall on Hatibagan’s ground floor, the hall was furnished in the manner of a London or Paris salon.

Two enormous bookshelves that went all the way to the ceiling faced off at each end. Eliot, Joyce, and Pound were shelved alongside with the Romantics, Victorian doorstoppers, French, German, and Russian writers and philosophers, Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung, but also Bankim Chatterjee, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Ram Mohan Roy, and, of course, Tagore. A lamp of frosted glass hung in the ceiling’s center, reflecting light off the speckled green-marble floors. Waist-high wainscoting added to the atmosphere of intellectual gravity. When the adda was in session, Sudhin’s nieces and nephews were under strict instruction to be quiet, with the reward of leftover sweets if they were good.

Anyone was welcome to attend the adda. Even an Englishman whom Sudhin suspected was a Special Branch police informant was admitted, though he rarely contributed anything as he was too busy trying to keep track of who was saying what. Behind his back he was mocked as “De Sahib.” Though Sudhin secretly thought the man a jackass, he treated him with unfailing courtesy. Equally, no subject was off-limits. At ease on any number of topics, Sudhin tended to progress dialectically from an “alternately” to a “therefore” and then, on the cusp of a conclusion, swerve to a “yet.” He would consider each question carefully, holding it up to the light, so that he might look at it from every possible angle. He then presented his conclusions with unassailable confidence.

The more aggressive nationalists of the adda grumbled that Sudhin’s spoken English made him more sahib than baboo. That lasted until they read his Bengali. Then they had to admit he wrote like a man who had studied nothing but Sanskrit. Though fluent in French and German as well as Sanskrit and Bengali, Sudhin was well aware that Bengalis delighted in a vocabulary and syntax drawn from the more voluble Victorians. In reaction, he chose his words with a poet’s caution.

He took equally fastidious care of his clothes, which included as many beautifully tailored suits of English cut as blindingly white dhotis. Gandhi’s enthusiasm for handloom was alien to Sudhin’s more sybaritic sensibilities. And the Mahatma’s constant resort to a language of Christian repentance or the way he would lead his followers in a cracked version of “Lead Kindly Light” struck Sudhin as unutterably foolish. At the same time, Sudhin couldn’t help but be fascinated. Gandhi was the first to point out that in their willingness to submit to English rule, families like the Dattas had made a devil’s bargain. The rest of India had paid the price. However gently said, this truth, in tandem with Gandhi’s near nakedness, unsettled Sudhin the most. When he encountered khadi-clad Congressites on the tram, out of a sense of delicacy he would disembark before they could call him out on his tweeds.

In its early years the Parichay adda often began with local political gossip. Any mention of Calcutta’s proud son, the radical Congress youth Subhas Chandra Bose, always provoked debate. The waxing and waning of the Congress Party’s political fortunes were followed more dispassionately. And adda members generally paid about as much attention to European affairs as those in London or Paris literary salons paid to India’s–which is to say, not much. All assumed the silence of English writers on the subject of India’s subjugation merely illustrated how easily the ruling classes had kept the English intellect from meddling in English business interests. At the adda, it was the Soviet five-year plans that were the most hotly debated. Indeed, everything about Soviet Russia fascinated those who hoped India too might free itself from feudalism and foreign rule to become a force to be reckoned with.

Hassan Shahid Suhrawardy, one of Sudhin’s closest and most cosmopolitan friends, was both the adda’s resident Russophile and a ferocious anti-Bolshevist. After Oxford, Shahid taught English at the Imperial University of St. Petersburg: Alexander Kerensky had been his student. He took shelter from the revolution in Moscow, working at Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre alongside Maxim Gorky and the young Igor Stravinsky. Living for years in a ménage à trois with a Russian actress and her husband, he ignored family letters pleading with him to come home. On his reluctant return to Calcutta, he wrote on theater for Parichay, styling himself as a long-haired libertine and waxing voluble on French women, wine, and food. Both Scotland Yard and the Special Branch of police followed Shahid closely, finding it impossible to believe that a man with such a villainous appearance was not a Bolshevik.

Shahid could never be confused with his younger brother, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, though he, too, was a beautifully tailored Oxonian. A former deputy mayor of Calcutta with a gift for demagoguery, Shaheed was a rogue and a scoundrel, a “natural gangster, ready to dabble in strike politics and to make money and political capital out of the most exciting and disgraceful situations.” Political intrigue, often involving sexual blackmail, was the air he breathed. He had acquaintances from all walks of life and made good use of them. No sooner had he secured one political post than he schemed to find a better one. He once managed the feat of being vice chancellor of Calcutta University and chief medical officer of the East Indian Railway at the same time. On his rare visits to the Parichay adda, Shaheed was far less expansive than his brother Shahid, limiting himself to local politics. The Suhrawardy brothers agreed on only one thing: England had nothing to offer India. Nothing.

Sudhin liked to mix seriousness with silliness, the parochial with the urbane. A monologue on classical metaphysics might segue into one on the significance of the mustache in Indian politics. A debate over the genius of Charlie Chaplin might devolve into a meditation on empire. But Sudhin had no patience for the suggestion that the Indian mystic Nagarjuna had anticipated Einstein’s theory of relativity. And he cut off in midsentence the proposition that the leader of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion was hiding in the Himalayan foothills. While his interlocutor sat across the room puffing out clouds of smoke, a fixed expression on his face and a long silk chadder wound a bit too tightly round his neck, Sudhin would coolly take him apart, his long fingers tracing circles in the air, one eye closed, the other slightly open. Only the dreadful puns of a scholar of the swastika or the inanities of the adda’s resident Naziphile evoked Sudhin’s wide-eyed exasperation.

Basanta Kumar Mallik took the same spot every Friday, his beautifully tailored but squat form rooted to a sofa in close reach of a plate of samosas or a selection of sweets from Dwarik’s, a legendary North Calcutta confectionery. A Sphinxlike smile hovered around his lips, as if he was ready to pounce on the first appearance of cant. After his father lost the family fortune and died of drink, Mallik had been sent to Oxford by the maharaja of Nepal to be trained in law. When the Great War broke out, he was stranded there, taking further degrees in philosophy and anthropology and running his own adda out of Robert Graves’s house in Boars Hill. In Calcutta he had vowed never to work on behalf of the empire and was thus marking time until he could return to his beloved Oxford. Mallik-da had an elegant way of elaborating his theory of conflict. This theory had a near-universal application when it came to resolving differences. He never tired of using the adda to test its efficacy on warring intellects. Sudhin indulged him like a fond nephew.

Finally, there was the secret diarist, a clerk at an English firm that exported manganese and iron to Japan. The diarist regarded Sudhin with unfiltered respect. He rarely volunteered anything himself, and when he did it was merely to echo the general tenor of the conversation in progress. Otherwise, he made a great effort to follow its every twist and turn, both to avail himself of an opportunity for enlightenment and to immortalize Sudhin, the Suhrawardy brothers, the philosopher Mallik-da, and other luminaries in the pages of his diary when he returned home. Cartoons often accompanied his character sketches, with his subjects’ most distinctive features slightly exaggerated.

Between Parichay, the adda, and his poetry, Sudhin lived the life of a man of letters. To some Sudhin was an anekantavad, a believer in the many-faced nature of truth and reality. Yet whatever face he turned to his benighted city, he knew that though he was born in Calcutta, were he to appear on Park Street without some menial occupation to justify his presence, he risked being slapped or kicked. Though he could trace his lineage to a time before the arrival of the British, he was unable to enter a Calcutta club except through the door reserved for servants. And should a white traveler require a railway berth in the middle of the night, he would be obliged to give up his own.

This was another kind of nakedness, one that no beautifully tailored suit could completely hide. However well versed in European manners, literature, and laws, Sudhindranath Datta was forever marked by a melancholy truth: to the most philistine of Englishmen, he was yet another Bengali baboo.

Deborah Baker is a biographer and essayist. Her books include In Extremis: A Life of Laura Riding and A Blue Hand: The Beats in India. "Bengali Baboo" is excerpted from The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and The End of Empire.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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