M3 Features

Calcutta - Past and Present

January 1, 2014

In the beginning, when the Europeans began to settle down in India, they had no choice but to shack up with the dark-skinned ladies, as it was too early in the day for the white ones to set foot on these alien shores. But once they did, shipfuls of Becky Sharps would sail across the seven seas, undaunted by the endless and often risky journey in search of prospective husbands. By the end of the 19th century, however, many white women had made India their second home.

Batteries of servants and maids waited on them hand and foot, food was cheap, and heat, notwithstanding, they polished off prodigious quantities of victuals. Many white women of those days have left behind accounts of life in India, and many of them recorded their circumstances with crayons, colours and paintbrushes, and later with cameras, when photography came to India. Kathleen Blechynden was one such memsahib, whose charming and highly informative Calcutta Past and Present was first published in 1905.

She made her intention quite clear in the preface. “My aim has not been to give any account of the great deeds by which the men of old Calcutta laid the foundations of the British Empire in the East, but rather to try and depict the lives they led, their daily cares and amusements, the wives and daughters who lightened their exile, the houses in which they dwelt, the servants who waited on them, the food they ate, the wines they drank, the scenes amid which they moved, the graves in which they laid their loved ones or sank themselves to rest.”

Blechynden covered the history of Calcutta from the days of Job Charnock and later Hastings, followed up by vivid descriptions of the social life and streets and houses of the colonial city, whose white quarters were tolerably clean and ordered, and the darkies were a necessary evil. Nisith Ranjan Ray, who was then secretary and curator of the Victoria Memorial, had published an edition of Blechynden’s book in 1978. The book was out of print for years. Now Aruna Prakashan has reprinted N.R. Ray’s edition. Highly recommended for education and entertainment.


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