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Chasing ghosts in the City of Joy

Sebastian Ortiz’s book Ghosts of Calcutta will be released inKolkata on Thursday. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

Sebastian Ortiz’s book Ghosts of Calcutta will be released inKolkata on Thursday. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh  

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Diplomat’s ‘double life’ leads to novel on Raj-era apparitions

The French Consul-General here, Fabrice Etienne, has been leading a “double life” for years. In his working hours, Mr. Etienne meets his diplomatic deadlines, while at night, he visits the worn-out cemeteries and dilapidated government buildings of the city in search of the ghosts of the British era. The result is a novel, Ghosts of Calcutta.

To avoid controversies, Mr. Etienne, who has been visiting Kolkata since 1995, has written the book under his nom de guerre, Sebastian Ortiz. Ghosts of Calcutta, translated from French and published by the Kolkata-based Sampark, will be launched on Thursday by the French Ambassador in Delhi.

In 2005, Ortiz arrives in Calcutta to write a book on the city and its ghosts. He delves deep into books and archival materials in the Asiatic Society and the National Library, he meets local experts, wanders in the lanes and bylanes of the old parts of the city and goes back to his friends of the time, one of whom has lost his wife to cancer and has become a “ghost of the vibrant person” he used to be.

“The couple appeared in my novel as Sarbesh and Arati. Sarbesh still refers to his wife as if she is alive and I wonder if he is his self or a ghost from the past,” says Mr. Etienne, sitting in his Raj-era bungalow next to Kolkata’s charming old Calcutta Club.

Such characters — friends, associates, passers-by — have made their appearances frequently in the diplomat’s novel. “It is not about ghosts only, it is about the friends, the people around me,” the diplomat says. However, many appeared more silently from the pages of the library documents.

“Like the British Army officer’s wife, who actually lived in the city and had many servants which is listed in the papers … but then there are characters whom I invented.”

There was a police officer who was killed in the communal riots of 1946 and a friend told the diplomat about the officer. Apparently, he boards cabs with passengers in and around the Alipore area and disappears near the Race Course at night. “I could not locate this character in the archives or even while taking a few rides on the same route but told his story, he says.

Daring night visits

Mr. Etienne did many things which perhaps diplomats would never dare to in an alien land. He toured the cemeteries at night, bribed the gatekeeper to spend a night at the General Post Office and visited many archives in search of British ghosts.

“I’m an atheist; for me ghosts are an expression of passage of time … a metaphor,” he says and adds that he was “way more comfortable” narrating tales from the Raj than French colonies.

“It would have been sensitive if I was writing about the French presence in Vietnam, where my grand father fought. Perhaps, we did things which are ugly and do not want to confront our past. But while writing about the ghosts of Kolkata, I could maintain a certain distance and was way more comfortable,” he says.

It is not nom de guerre. It is under his nom de plume, Sebastian Ortiz, that the French Consul-General in Kolkata, Fabrice Etienne, has written the book, Ghosts of Calcutta. The error is regretted.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2018 10:49:59 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/french-consulgenerals-book-ghosts-of-calcutta/article7440807.ece