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The night owl’s view of Calcutta

Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
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A new translation of the iconic piece of Bengali literature by Kaliprasanna Sinha is as much a revelation as the original. Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

Move back the clock to the time when Calcutta was a city like no other. On its fringes were miles and miles of hamlets and rivulets. A massive vitalised city of endless possibilities. Brimming with people, offering new scopes and opportunities; where risks could be taken and not be mistaken for brazenness.

In the early 1800’s when the British regime became a reality, the port city saw the emergence of zamindars and a new urban professional class. The culture of subordination of a subject race was giving way to the assertion of a new state of mind. While the first steam-driven locomotive started doing rounds of the city, the Mangal Pandey-led Sepoy Mutiny broke out in Barrackpore. Several canons of society like widow remarriage, inter-caste marriage and tensions within joint families were causing tension. At the same time, sea voyages and inter-dining within the society brought in new dimensions and outlooks. And the much loved Bengali “adda” itself, was practically institutionalised around this time.

Those were the times that seemed on most occasions, a chaotic merger of too many eras; old and new, ever-changing, yet custom bound. Calcutta, in those times, cradled a world of its own and it needed to be understood.

And then, in a quotidian contradiction, Kaliprassana Sinha, a 21-year-old newspaper owner, philanthropist and social critic, donned the guise of a night owl aka Hootum, casting his acerbic eye on the city while penning down sketches of the dark underbelly, creating a ribald eyewitness account of a city caught in a tumultuous change.

Sinha’s Hootum Pyanchar Naksha (Sketches of Hootum, the Owl) has always occupied a distinctive place in Bengali literature; and it continues to be read for its clever sketches of people and places in Calcutta, for its use of the lively rudimentary “chalet” language was once spoken in the city, misplaced too soon from print once a more austere prose, “the sadhu bhasha”, came into use in the latter half of 19{+t}{+h}century.

Laughter can be as rebellious and empowering as fury, shows Sinha, and he does so deliberately. “It was a bit like sports coverage on electronic media today, one got to see the action and subsequent repartees ‘deferred live’,” says Chitralekha Basu, in her introduction to the translation. And some of the harshest criticism, in the form of mocking, is directed towards his own community of elitists. Hootum borrows the language of the lower orders — the sort he seems to look down upon — adds his own spin to it, and re-packages it to get back at his own people.

Hootum’s chronicles, of course, do more than make the periphery the centre; they make the periphery a place of vivid charms, rendered with idiomatic energy. Sundry carpenters are all “kitted up from head to toe”. They wear “anklets, caps embroidered with gold” and a “layered encrusted jewel around the middle”. Mendicants wander about “singing, playing their ektaras and tambourines”, migrant Brahmins go around begging for alms, “there are opium addicts, sweepers in their grog shops buying rum after work is over”. The writing is so colourful that there is within these pages a sense of walking through a city of debauched Dickensian characters as fisherwomen urge people to buy their wares — “O bloke-with-a-bristly-moustache, like to buy some nice fish” — and carriages creak through slush and rotting banana peel, carting passengers high on ganja .

There are plentiful editions of  Hootum Pyanchar Naksha  in Bengali, but the English translations have had to wait a while. Perhaps it was because of its vulgar, cheeky language, which even Bankim Chandra Chatterjee frowned upon. In his review of the book, he wrote, “The follies and peculiarities of all classes, and not seldom of men actually living, are described in racy vigorous language, not seldom disfigured by obscenity”, comparing Sinha’s work to Dickens’ Sketches by Boz

In raking the dirt, Sinha reveals no fondness for fanatics, is sometimes disparaging towards women and lip-servicing national leaders, and heaps scorn on courtesans. For instance, here is a description of sprightly “khemtawallis” who performed until the wee hours of the morning. “Many savour this fantastic nautch along with their sons, nephews, and sons-in-law. Some babus even strip the khemtawallis before the dance begins! In some places the khemtawallis aren’t given tips till they kiss! You can’t mention these things aloud anywhere.”

Part of the patrician establishment of the city, born with a silver spoon, Sinha took advantage of being an insider in the inner cavity of Calcutta’s babudom as well as of his presence on the frenzied city streets. He spared none — the babus , prostitutes, pimps or pundits, opium dealers and bribe-takers, clerks and clerics, lawyers and lowbrows — in his graphic vision of seamy urban living.

Hootum was a riot act that ran breathless through the city, describing it for the chaotic circus that it was, narratives that at the same time came with parables attached. In Chitralekha Basu’s translation of Sinha’s novel, S ketches by Hootum the Owl : A Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta , the vibrancy of indigenous words and phrases is perhaps lost in translation, but the sketches continue to be contemptuous of the new vulgarity, even as they make fun of old ways of life, unable to adjust to new ways.

With this book, Hootum perches on the high branches of Kolkata, eyeballing its communities through Kaliprasanna’s old lenses. It looks at these changes in Calcutta, at how the old and the new live in adjacency.

The decadent babu -like characters, the moral infection that plagued the society and the Indigo revolt of 1860 mentioned in the book find an eerie resonance in today’s times. In the Government buildings being painted white and blue, in freedom of speech being abused, and in the common man becoming an easy stepping stone for vote bank politics. Just that it was Calcutta then. It is Kolkata now.



Part of the patrician establishment, born with a silver spoon, Sinha took advantage of being an insider

in the inner cavity of Calcutta’s babudom 

as well as of his presence on the frenzied city streets.


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