Monday, September 2, 2013

Chowringhee - romantic nostalgia of 60s Calcutta

When I saw the English translation of Shankar’s Chowringhee for the first time, it reminded me of another book I had read long years back on the same topic – Arthur Hailey’s Hotel. However, many years later, in fact a few weeks back, when I started reading Shankar’s Chowringhee, I found it very different from Hailey’s Hotel – in fact, the two share almost nothing except a broad topicality in common: hotel. Hailey’s Hotel had a particular plot whose setting was a hotel. Shankar’s is about life in a hotel.

Chowringhee is the second book of Shankar and a linear sequel to his first novel, The Great Unknown (the English translation of Koto Ojana Re). The book starts where the previous one had got over and the plot progresses into its central setting – Shahajahan Hotel – as the narrator – the young boy who worked as a court clerk under a British barrister in TGU – finds an employment in the hotel (on Chowringhee Road where the book gets its title from) by a quirk of fate.

And a range of characters flits in and out of the novel, taking the reader through various sides of life in a hotel. I found some similarities as well as dissimilarities with his The Great Unknown. Like The Great Unknown, Chowringhee also is told through the eyes of a wonderstruck kid who has found himself in a world which is awe-inspiring and beyond the scope and span of anything he has seen so far, especially coming as he does from a small town of Bengal.

The other similarity is that it’s just recording of life and experience in a workplace. Still another one is sentimentality – and there is a lot of it. You will also find flat characters in both of them. But the difference I noticed is that in Chowringhee Shankar has successfully brought in strokes of humor – and some of them are really funny, unlike TGU which was arresting but dour.

But despite these apparent shortcomings – expect humor – why did I read Mani Shankar Mukherjee again? For various things. The first book had left me moved despite these deficiencies – its characters and settings and recreation of the Calcutta of yore had left me yearning for a similar experience again. And Chowringhee recreated that experience for me.

The characters and their travails everything coalesces to form a moving experience – that’s what kept me interested in the book. The book shot to success after its publication (in 1962, predating Hailey’s Hotel by three years) and was turned into a movie by the same name.

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