Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Canasta in Bombay

An attorney and an architect walked into the Jockey Club. In fact, it appears one of them lived half his life there for a while. Philip E. Orbanes writes that the Uruguayan  attorney, Segundo Santos, had become addicted to Bridge some time in 1939. He decided to switch to something lighter and with his friend, Alberto Serrato went on to invent a game called "Canasta" -- "a combination of the best elements of Bridge, Rummy, and a Rummy variant called 'cooncan.'" Canasta is the Spanish word for "basket", and the origin of the name is attributed by Orbanes to an act of whimsy.

The Illustrated Weekly of India reported on 18 March 1951, that the game had hit Bombay, and it like in many other great cities before it, had swept through the city's card-playing community.

As a non-card-player, I have often wondered at these phases that the communities of players seem to go through. Is it possible that the game-fatigue is perhaps not realized until something fresh suddenly appears on the horizon behind the hands they hold? I like thinking of how games travel -- of the figure of this magician, who cannot suggest something too unfamiliar to the players for then they may be taken for an outsider. Yet they know how to defamiliarize the familiar, how to make the shapes and numbers dance to a subtly different tune.

"Jayee," who wrote the Sportfolio column(bad puns are as old as language), reported that the "card game which began in an Uruguayan roadside cafe a couple of years ago, and soon swept the United States like a forest fire" has a "large portion of card-playing its thrall." It seems s/he had taken the trouble of learning that game, declaring it as a reasonably easy process. Among the game's most famous devotees, Jayee lists Dwight Eisenhower and Clifton Webb.

Is the game still played widely in Mumbai? Canasta seems to have reached Houston, via a few India exponents of the game.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bridges of Calcutta #2: Alipore or Zeerut Bridge

Detail from map produced by the Society
for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
In this post we look South West at a bridge that crosses Tolly's Nullah at Alipore. W.H. Carey describes it as connecting "Calcutta and Alipore", the latter evidently not being considered within the strict municipal limits.

The nullah or creek-bed was completed in 1777, and was meant to facilitate passage of ships from Hooghly to the delta region by making use of the Khidirpur creek. It was the work of Colonel William Tolly.

On 27 August 1795 the old Alipore bridge, "which had been in a ruinous condition gave way and fell into the nullah." Calcutta, it appears, is not new to the phenomenon of collapsing bridges. Thankfully it happened at night and there were no casualties.

It nearly took another forty years for a bridge to be put in place. Once again, Captain John Thomson was assigned the task, and at the expense of rupees 26,430, he built the shortest iron bridge in Calcutta at the time, with a single curve of 89 feet and a roadway that was 24 feet wide.

William Wood, Alipore Bridge (1833), British Library collection
Sir Charles D'Oyly, The Suspension Bridge at Alipore (1848), British Library collection
Frederick Fiebig, Alipore Bridge (1851), British Library collection

H.E. Busteed recalls two trees that stood opposite the bridge. They were called 'The Trees of Destruction', "notorious for duels fought under their shade." This is where the fateful duel between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis took place in 1780.

The suspension bridge built in 1833 appears to have served a short span of time, being reconstructed in 1854. It underwent some alteration around 1904, which "rendered it a bridge worthy of Calcutta", but it is unclear what these were. H.E.A. Cotton felt that the modifications were made with "complete disregard for the picturesque." A new bridge was put in place in 1929, which serves the city to this day. We'll come to that later.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Bridges of Calcutta #1: Chitpur Bridge

The Maratha Ditch was dug by the citizens of Calcutta in the mid-1700s to guard against a possible Maratha attack. The canal at Chitpur was revitalized in 1824, when the municipal authorities decided to use the waterway for transport.
From the British Library collection. Photograph by Frederick Fiebig (1851-52)
Map produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
A bridge was built in 1843 by Captain John Thomson, Superintendent of Canals, and Agent for Iron Suspension Bridges. We learn from W.H. Carey's The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company (1882) that it was valued at Rs. 39,344. Spanning 99 feet, the roadway was 22 feet wide. It was popular referred to as the Baghbazar Bridge.

Carey further records that under the bridge was a lock for allowing boats to pass between the river Hooghly and the Circular Canal at all times of the tide. "This lock is 60 feet long and nearly 24 feet wide, with double gates; it was constructed by James Prinsep, Esq. in 1829-1833, at an expense of 61,000 sicca rupees."

A new bridge was built a little to the East of the original bridge in 1934. More on that later.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Run to Sumeru

Shoshee Chunder Dutt (1824-1885) was one of the most anthologized of Indians writing in English "back in the day". Apart from writing some mimic-poetry that is not altogether lacking in points of interest, as John Watson would say, he wrote The Reminiscences of a Kerani's Life. His prose essays, and his accounts of the 1857 war, offer insights into the times. Among Shoshee Chunder's best known poems is "A Vision of Sumeru", which narrates in classical form tales of the Hindu deities.

Recently I came across one of his more frivolous pieces, "A Run to Sumeru", where the author is whisked away by a Flibbertigibbet to Sumeru, where the Gods are acting in a most ungodly manner.
The Flibbertigibbet, or Imp of Satan, appears to be the personification (or impification) of the evils of Western culture. Not only does he quote Shakespeare, at the end of the story we find the author lying in a drain--the classic image of the Young Bengal wastrel--and looking for the mischievous influence.
The gods are consuming pork vindaloo, goose dumpoded, and Irish whiskey, in this drunken vision, as Saraswati flirts with Mahadeva. Bottles of Cordial Old Tom of the finest quality change hands, and Parvati ogles Vishnu.

The (clearly drunken) conversation about Shakespeare goes thus:
"Trust my wisdom once for all, and believe with old Will that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Well, really, this passes all bounds. You, Flib, have you the audacity to quote Will?"
"Audacity be hanged. I dined with him three hours ago in the groves of Chaitra-ratha; and were not we boon companions, both of us?"
"Now take care, Flib, or I shall break your head in earnest. You have been snarling over a bone with some dog, I suppose, named after the immortal bard of Avon."
"I have been drinking nectar (amrita) with the whole club of them, man; with Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Vyasa, and Valmiki. Just trust your precious self with me for sixty minutes, and see if I don't get you into better company."
While this is suitably scandalous and impressive in its inappropriateness for its time, what struck me most is the opening passage.

The exact date for "A Run to Sumeru" is not given, but it was published in a volume titled Bengaliana: A Dish of Rice and Curry, and Other Indigestible Ingredients, in 1878. Do the first few paragraphs ring a bell?
After a hard day's work I was taking my siesta at the foot of my favourite citron-tree, having liberated my mind to divert itself for a while by a sentimental ramble over the vanities of existence. A slight rustling of leaves betrayed an intruder, and turning myself in that direction I saw, peering through the leaves, the mischievous face and leering eyes of that little rogue, Fliberrtigibbet, who tried to hide himself the moment he was seen.
"Come out from the copse, you little devil. What are you doing there now?"
"A cowrie for your thoughts, nuncle!" said he, grinning. "You are moping over the vanities of life, and would like to have a run to Sumeru."
"To Sumeru, you stupid? What for there?"
"Why, to see how the gods dispose of themselves to be sure."
Just for easy reference and cheeky speculation:
বেজায় গরম। গাছতলায় দিব্যি ছায়ার মধ্যে চুপচাপ শুয়ে আছি, তবু ঘেমে অস্থির। ঘাসের উপর রুমালটা ছিল, ঘাম মুছবার জন্য যেই সেটা তুলতে গিয়েছি অমনি রুমালটা বলল “ম্যাও!” কি আপদ! রুমালটা ম্যাও করে কেন?
চেয়ে দেখি রুমাল তো আর রুমাল নেই, দিব্যি মোটা-সোটা লাল টক্‌টকে একটা বেড়াল গোঁফ ফুলিয়ে প্যাট্ প্যাট্ করে আমার দিকে তাকিয়ে আছে!
আমি বললাম, “কি মুশকিল! ছিল রুমাল, হয়ে গেল একটা বেড়াল।”
অমনি বেড়ালটা বলে উঠল, “মুশকিল অবার কি? ছিল একটা ডিম, হয়ে গেল দিব্যি একটা প্যাঁক্‌পেঁকে হাঁস। এ তো হামেশাই হচ্ছে।”
আমি কিছুই বুঝতে পারলাম না, কিন্তু পাছে বেড়ালটা আবার সেইরকম বিশ্রী করে হেসে ওঠে, তাই সঙ্গে সঙ্গে হুঁ-হুঁ করে গেলাম। তার পর বেড়ালটা খানিকক্ষণ আকাশের দিকে তাকিয়ে হঠাৎ বলে উঠল, “গরম লাগে তো তিব্বত গেলেই পার।”
আমি বললাম, “বলা ভারি সহজ, কিন্তু বললেই তো আর যাওয়া যায় না?”
বেড়াল বলল, “কেন, সে আর মুশকিল কি?”
আমি বললাম, “কি করে যেতে হয় তুমি জানো?”

Monday, February 20, 2017

কল্‌কাতার দুপুর [A Calcutta Afternoon]

কল্‌কাতার দুপুর
কাঁশারিদের কাঁশির আওয়াজ ঝন্‌ঝনিয়ে বাজে,
ঘরের ভিতর একটা চড়ুই চেঁচায় কড়ির খাঁজে,
চিলের সরু কাঁপানো ডাক আকাশ হতে আশে,
একটা কাকে আল্‌শে-পাশে কেবল কলভাষে।
মাঝে মাঝে থাম্‌ছে ধ্বনি, নীরবতা জাগে,--
শব্দতীত কোন্‌ সে দেশের পরশ মোরে লাগে!
-শ্রীপ্যারীমোহন সেনগুপ্ত

Not the most inspired poem by this prolific writer perhaps, but these things tend to get lost.

Monday, December 19, 2016

All that is solid

In Jorasankor dhaare Abanindranath recorded one of the most evocative descriptions of the city of Calcutta. Towards the beginning in a short passage he describes the sounds he hears in the city from inside his house, may be even his room. We return to it either to remember some street cries that were familiar even some years back, or to read it as an archive of urban ephemera. Recently, while reading Khatanchir khata, published in 1921, I found another fantastic example of writing the city.

Those who are familiar with the story will know that it is a loose adaptation of Peter Pan. There is a young boy dressed in leaves and refusing to grow old. His name is Putu. Here are the kids describing and failing to describe who Putu is:
In Sona and Anguti-Panguti's maps of hidden lands, their mother began to notice the appearance of a half-bird half-human form, in adddition to Sonaton, Bohim, Ink-pot, the red notebook and the house-wife. They had written the word 'Putu' below. The pictures of Putu in Anguti-Panguti's notebooks were a little hazy but a much clearer picture could be seen in Sona's. Putu looked somewhat like a cross between rooster and human.
The children could never tell their mother who Putu was. She searched her memory hard but could find nothing of his kind in the stories they heard as children. What they did know for sure was that Putu would never grow up. He would remain exactly the size he was then. But then Putu starts leaving material traces in their house. They inform their mother that Putu plays the flute and enters the house through a window, dressed in leaves. One day she finds Putu's notebook. It contained everything--where he came from, why he remained ever young and how well he knew the city of Calcutta.

The city we find in Putu's books is one that functions exclusively in the realm of play. The cityscape changes continuously, but that does not prevent the author from presenting it in the form of a map. The map was drawn by one Sukumar Ray.
Maps that accompany literary works have interested me for a while now--you could extend that to spaces and literature more generally. I remember reading how R.L. Stevenson had first drawn a map of the Treasure Island story and only then written the book. But by the time he finished his novel he had lost the original map and had to reconstruct the place from his writing. I wonder what kind of exchanges Abanindranath and Sukumar Ray had while conceiving of this map of Calcutta.

Putu has known the city for many years and where we see offices and houses and tram-ways, he sees what used to be underneath the surface of what is.
In the day-time the buildings appear, but make no mistake, this does not mean the gardens are not there. You see that football field across the Gol-bagan? There is a giant pond with a banyan tree right below that. We used to go fishing in that pond. On some days I can still see the tree and the pond very clearly. How do you think that stork is surviving? Surely it doesn't feed on grass like a cow. At night when the pond comes back from its subterranean hideout, the stork hunts for fish there. That is how it has survived all these years.
As he plays with the vision of the city he must explain the changeability of forms. All that is solid in the city of Calcutta, which at that time was one of the most impressive models of western urbanity in the East, melts into air, giving way to visions of the past and the future. Abanindranath's manner of blending a keen interest in what exists--call it factual knowledge if you will--along with a sense of wonder is unparalleled (for me at least).
If you manage to stay up after two at night, you might take my word seriously. When the shiyals [foxes] of Sealdah start yelping in the dead of night, all the city's bricks turn into woods and gardens. As Putu starts playing her flute all the fairies come out with little lamps. You don't believe me? Wondering how stones and bricks can turn into plants, aren't you? Go to the museum some day. You will see trees that have turned to rocks and rocks that have become trees. You see the stars in the night sky, little specks of light? Once a star had fallen to the earth. They kept it in a glass box at the museum. It doesn't look like a radiant flower, but more like a lump of shiny iron.
 If you must explore the city, follow Putu, because he does not walk. Indeed the city is no more than the absolutely fantastical map and yet infinitely greater than the visible city.1
The road goes past Jorasanko and converges at the crossing. If you go south at the crossing, you cross Chowringhee and come to Raja-bagan. If you go north, you find Ray-bagan. Between these two great gardens lie two lakes, the size of the seas. In the Raja-bagan you find the rectangular Lal-dighi and at its heart the White Island. Inside the Ray-bagan is the Gol-dighi with the Jambu Island at its centre. The Great Raven with its many offsprings inhabits the Jambu Island, whereas the wingless fairies and faires live on White Island. Beyond the Lal-dighi is the king's fort, and on the banks of the Gol-dighi stand the living rooms of the babus. A picture of a cannon is drawn inside the fort, while a hookah denotes the living room of the babus.
Now let's take a look around Ray-bagan. It would take you fifty years to explore it on foot, but since this is a map we can cover it quicker.
 Not only do images and little symbols denote entire spaces in the city but also stand for the culture of a particular place (the hookah representing the living rooms of the babus), the letters in names of places become part of the map, including in themselves the very house where the reader of his book is.
What are you looking for? Our three-storeyed house? Look at the twin pools of Jorasanko. Notice the circle inside the loop of the 'R' of 'Pirbagan', which is written in the blank space between the pools. The house is right inside that. It's very small, but you can see it.
Sadly, you or I cannot look at the city quite in the same manner as Putu and must take his word about the real map of Calcutta. And why is that?
You see White Island and Jambu Island? No one who doesn't have wings can go there. To this day, I among all the children, have succeeded in visiting that place. You know why? It's because I never wanted to grow up.

1 Translations are mine. Quotations from Abanindranath Tagore, Khatanchir khata, in Abanindra Rachanabali Vol. 3, Kolkata: Prakash Bhavan, 1958.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Coming Back to Life: The Electric Solution

You can't bring someone back from the dead but with the "Electric Solution" imported from America you can give a new lease of life to those who are dead in life. Just write to D.D. Hazra in Garden Reach.

The advertisement for the Electric Solution appeared on 31st August 1930 in the sixth issue of the Chuchura Barttabaha, or the Chuchura Post (?). If you weren't dead but felt dead you could try the tonic. It can cure anything starting from gonorrhea, erectile disfunction, neurasthania, piles and constipation among men. But it worked also on younger people, the elderly and even on women, who could be suffering from leucorrhoea, amenorrhoea and hysteria. It is priced at Rs. 1.50.

The science behind it has been proven by the renowned Dr. Petal of America, who has shown that there are three essential powers that operate in the human form: strength, virility and electric energy. If either of the three is lacking you can revive yourself by giving yourself a dose of this electric solution, which will instantly restore you to full and energetic function.

The Chuchura Bartabaha was founded by one Dinananath Mukhopadhyay. This Dinanath may be the same as the one who wrote Zamindari Bigyan (1866), a notoriously detailed manual for the zamindars of Bengal (particularly of the Hugli district), who might be struggling to keep their underlings and accounts under their control. For interested zamindars, the book is available at

This rare newspaper has been digitized by the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and may be found at: