On the occasion of the 200 birth anniversary of Charles Dickens, one threads one's way on Tuesday, side-stepping mausoleums shaded by trees at the South Park Street Cemetery here to arrive at a chipped-off epitaph bearing his name. A closer look reveals that the tombstone is that of his second son, Lieutenant Walter Landor Dickens, who died following an illness.
The original site of the grave of “Dickens's Soldier Son,” is located at the Bhowanipore Cemetery.
The world may have its different ways to observe the bicentennial of the birth of Dickens, but here, this rather personal connection that the city shares with the celebrated 19 century novelist, seems to be fraying.
Ironically, it was on his birthday in 1864 that Charles Dickens received news of the death of his son, Walter, who is believed to have arrived in India in 1857, the year of the Sepoy Mutiny.
Before his son had appeared for his “India examination,” Charles Dickens, in a letter on his impending travel to India, said: “Having a direct appointment he will probably be sent out soon after he has passed and so will fall into that strange life ‘up the country' before he well knows that he is alive, or what life is – which indeed seems to be rather an advanced state of knowledge.”
The grave itself has been rescued from obscurity. An article titled “Dickens' Soldier Son” that appeared in The New York Times on February 18, 1911 states that the grave was discovered near the entrance of the military cemetery. It describes how the tombstone marking the grave was embedded in a masonry platform and “hidden until now by grass.”
As a tribute to the much-loved author, in April 1987 a group of students of Jadavpur University collected funds to move the tombstone from the cemetery in Bhowanipore in the southern parts of the city to the South Park Street Cemetery, placing it among the columns, cupolas and obelisks that honour some of the notable Europeans who died here in the 18 century.
The fading words on the chipped and cracked tombstone epitomise the erasures that memory has fallen casualty to.
The epitaph reads: “In memory of Lieut. Walter Landor Dickens, Second Son of Charles Dickens,” but the legend trails off, “at the officers… on his way… December…” leaving the story incomplete.