Marriages, affairs, death, madness, and second chances all live within the walls of Rajmahal, an unusual Bengali house that has stood through a century of turbulent changes. Within the walls of this stately home, now divided into six apartments, the melting pot of tenants include Sikhs, Muslims, Brits, Russian-Bengalis, zamindari Bengalis, and Roman Catholics. As different as they are, all face the same struggle to come to grips with the social, economic, and intellectual forces working in India as it moves from the British Raj to independence.
In this beautifully crafted tale, the intertwined fortunes and personal battles of these characters become a mirror of the country’s struggle for possession of its future. “The encompassing achievement of the novel is its penetration . . . of the life of the post-colonialist and post-colonized living on, somehow together” (Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature).
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THE RAJMAHAL ROSE IN 1910, NEW, CREAMY WHITE AND CRYSTALLINE ON a prime site on Chowringhee. The clear green of the Maidan opposite and the Palladian mansions juxtaposing it served as its setting.
Chowringhee metamorphoses from residential Tollygunge and Alipur at the southern end and breaks into noisy thoroughfares of commerce further north. Across the maidan and out of sight runs the Hooghly, passing first under the partly visible Howrah bridge, and then under the newer bridge, Vivekananda Setu. Today it seems astonishing that the northern end of town, the commercial sector and river front, with what was then a pontoon bridge, was the fashionable hub of early British Calcutta, the lawns of the sahibs' mansions sloping down to the water's edge. But Lal Dighi, the Dalhousie Square tank, was the chief source of water and it was natural that the small British population chose to live near it. The quarter must have been exclusive to the sahibs, with the exception of the scores of local retainers and tradesmen needed to make life tolerable for them as indicated by contemporary accounts and pictures. It would have been quiet, with spaced out buildings and sparse traffic, though there would have been frequent flurries when crowds of bhistees carried dripping waterskins from the tank to the mansion of a sahib, or palanquin bearers resting under the shade of a tree rose up with cries and commotion to take up their tasks. As for the maidan, it had been a marshy jungle infested with crocodile, snake, and tiger. When the British swanned about uneasily thus, it is said Warren Hastings went out on elephant back to hunt tiger in the vicinity of the Rajmahal. But things changed as the city expanded and only a few residential buildings, including the Government House, continue to exist in the old quarter of the city. The prime locations have, for the major part of Calcutta's history, encroached on the marshes and jungles, shifting further south, over and beyond the Rajmahal. The area around the Dalhousie Square tank has been left to crowd in upon itself and foster the great commercial houses and exchanges, fanning out toward the congested old " black quarter," while the river front, apart from the burning ground at Neemtolla, has turned into a series of ghats for light craft and, further up in Khiddirpur, for major shipping, most of it ineligible for genteel residential purposes.
The clamor of that part of town was partly buffered by distance from the Rajmahal and reduced to a quiet roar on the maidan where Victoria Memorial and the gothic spires of St Paul's Cathedral stood serenely amidst trees, watercourses, and green. But the residents had to contend with the noisy Chowringhee traffic, and they often retreated inside to hear themselves think.
The Rajmahal, which was upset at losing its pristine quality after its sale and transformation into a block of apartments, had a history replete with the tales of ghosts. It had four floors connected by a vast, soaring stairway, and the heavy wrought iron balustrades trailed down with festoons of dusty sunlight and pigeon droppings. The iron beams which held up the roof formed convenient roosts for the pigeons and there was a constant bustle, sometimes music, raised voices, a dog's bark, mingling with the pigeon coos and hinting at the life inside the apartments. The lobby, at the foot of the stairs, had a graciously proportioned black and white marble flagged floor, barely visible and seductive from the top floor. Within two curved embrasures, naked marble women tilted urns toward basins once awash with water, and a green light filtered through the fan-palms ranged behind them. The stairway landings between each floor were brightened by strips of light filtering through jalousies, glass panes, and pillars holding up high windows. In all this great space, the stairs took up only the central area. On either distant side were interior verandas, looking out at each other between narrow pillars with the stairs sweeping by in between.
The servants' quarters were tucked away on top of the roof, cordoned off from the skylights by a high wall. So they were well out of sight, and their access to the apartments was by spiraling iron stairways forming two delicate, lacy traceries at the back of the mansion and leading to the kitchens on each floor.
The Rajmahal got its name from the first owner, Raja Sheetanath. When Sardar Bahadur Ohri bought the property, razed the old building, and built this four-floor beauty, the name stuck, and the new Rajmahal inherited the soul of its predecessor.
Sardar Bahadur Ohri was given his title by the British for his dynamic building activities and his lack of disloyalty to the crown. At the end of his long life, he realized the Rajmahal would soon become an anachronism as a single unit, so he arranged for its sale to a Bengali Muslim family, the Malliks. The Ohris retained the ground floor, and the new landlord rented out the four intermediate apartments while he and his family chose to occupy the top floor, in spite of the loss of grace after the change of the stairs from marble to wood, and the proximity of the smelly pigeons.
The original Rajmahal, a Palladian garden house, had fallen to rack and ruin when Raja Sheetanath had retired to the dung beetles and rambling grounds of his estates in Purulia to administer them first hand and introduce reform to his peasant-tenants. He believed the British would never leave unless the people of India, each and every one of them, were made aware through education of their birthright and a revived Hindu pride.
"How can I possibly accept that we Indians are part of a degraded and barbarous society? Am I, as an Indian, to assume I am incapable of appreciating the finer elements of civilization? It's time we woke up!" he would exhort. When the Ohris bought over the site, therefore, they found the furniture, paintings, and artifacts decaying in the rundown old Rajmahal, for Raja Sheetanath found these too glaringly foreign. "I vow to wholeheartedly embrace swadeshi, our own heritage!" he declaimed. "And all such alien objects I abjure!"
When the new Rajmahal was built by the Sardar Bahadur, he was already sixty, successful and rich after fulfilling his many contracts in the developing cities of the country. His wife, Inderjeet Kaur, was deeply upset at having to move so far away from Punjab.
"Will he ever ask my opinion?" she complained to her confidante and maid Heera. "How does he think I can live in the midst of all those Bengalis? He could have improved our haveli right here in Saidabad instead, God knows how much it is needed! Or built something in Amritsar."
The Sardar Bahadur dismissed her by saying, "The sight of the house will make you change your mind at once! And Calcutta is the capital of India, after all!" A year later, when a royal proclamation said the capital was to move to Delhi, he kept away from his wife for some days. His chagrin showed only to his sons.
"It was a terrible error of judgment on my part! How easily I could have built a house in Delhi!" he said.
"It's all right, Bhapaji," was the complacent reply. "There is nothing to stop you from building another house in Delhi or any other place of your choice!" "But," they may have added, "the Rajmahal is so perfect and Calcutta is so much fun, that we, in any case, are staying put!"
The Sardar Bahadur couldn't tear himself away either. He didn't lose time, though, in bagging some of the prime contracts for the shift of the capital to Delhi.
Raja Sheetanath's family heirlooms graced the new Ohri household. Tables with gilt legs, stuffed sofas and chairs, hunting scenes in over-varnished oil paintings, marble busts, gilt-framed mirrors and velvet drapery cascading from elaborate pelmets, Persian carpets, old armor, tiered cabinets full of Staffordshire china, venetian glass, Chinese vases, candelabras ... from the stuccoed ceilings of the reception and banquet rooms hung chandeliers and fans.
The first floor, the favorite area of the Rajmahal itself, was the Sardar Bahadur's bachelor's retreat which included a conservatory, a Guru Granth Sahib room and a splendid mirrored bedroom. The main bedroom on the second floor, which Sardar Bahadur Ohri occupied with his faithful Inderjeet Kaur, was elevated and separated by a floor from this retreat. He shared the conservatory floor with his visitors and current mistress, of whom he had a succession of three throughout his years in the Rajmahal, apart from short-term fancy girls. They came up to this floor by the outer veranda stairway, and it was tacit they would never use the main lobby. This was so the two uppermost floors, the third and fourth, could be kept secluded for the women and members of the intimate family whose importance receded as they ascended. In this, the Sardar Bahadur was carrying on the ancient tradition of courtesans being allowed access to the master's chambers, while the honored wife was confined to the inner sanctum. It also echoed a tradition among some of the earlier British whose local keeps, while the wives stayed back in Britain, lived in private apartments in the very same building to which they retired coyly at dawn. The conservatory was partly south facing, looking out on to the maidan. It had plants of every exotic variety and its windows were lined with flounced silk curtains, which turned yellow and brittle in the sun and came off in flakes. Cane chairs and tables lay scattered on the floor, while a bar was cunningly camouflaged behind a bottle palm. The rest of the rooms were less elaborately, though expensively, furnished. After the sale, when the ground floor was all that remained with the Ohris, it was carefully altered and refurnished with the best of these treasures before the rest were scattered to other Ohri establishments countrywide.
Though the Sardar Bahadur identified happily with Bengal and Bengalis, he had never thought of shaving his beard or cutting his hair. And it was natural his origins called as he lay dying.
"I must see the Golden Temple one last time," he told his doting family. "See that it is arranged for me to move to Amritsar."
"What do you mean, Bhapaji?" said an anxious seventy-year-old son. "What do you mean by 'last time'?"
"I refer to my impending death," said the Sardar Bahadur impatiently. "Please do not make a fuss!" he preempted, before anyone could protest at the mention of the unmentionable.
It was arranged he would spend his last days on the veranda of a cousin's home skirting the temple where he could gaze beatifically at the divine Harmandir Sahib afloat on its pool of nectar. His progeny, who kept the ownership of the ground floor apartment, left it in a watchman's care, while they took the air of Chandigarh, Delhi, Jaipur, and, when they could wangle a visa, Lahore. Here, drifting on the fringes of the polo set and driving their vintage Bentleys and Rolls Royces, they preferred to boast about their old palace in Calcutta rather than live in it.
The dejected Rajmahal's spirits had revived only partly with the arrival of the first of the fifth generation, Surjeet Shona, who was born just before its desertion by the Ohris. Her birth entitled the Sardar Bahadur to a fifth rung on the tiny golden ladder, prepared to give him an easier passage into the next life. Her parents left Calcutta, taking her with them after the Sardar Bahadur's demise and it was not until Surjeet Shona lost her husband and came back twenty-six years later, that an Ohri again lodged permanently in the Rajmahal. So she was destined to inherit at least some of the original artifacts of the mansion, as well as the genes of both Raja Sheetanath and the Sardur Bahadur, for her father, an Ohri, had done the unthinkable by marrying a Bengali woman, a direct descendant of the Raja. It was a mixed heritage of which Surjeet Shona was both proud and well aware.
The Sardar Bahadur's wife was just as upset when her husband decided to shift to Amritsar and sell the Rajmahal at the tail end of their lives as she had been decades earlier when she had been uprooted and shifted in exactly the opposite direction.
"Why does he have to move again at this age, when it's too late for any good to come from it?" she said despondently to her maid Heera.
"It is of no use to argue, Bi' ji," said Heera, perfectly familiar with the ways of her employers. "Think how auspicious it will be to move near Harmindar Sahib!"
"Well, at least he is keeping the lowest floor."
An elaborate process had to be set in motion. Not only did the ground floor have to be converted into a self-sufficient unit, but the Guru Granth Sahib room had to be moved down too. And the great man intended to see to this reverential task himself. To him, as to all believing Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib was more than just the holy book. It was the Guru incarnate. At the sukhasan every night, the Sardar Bahadur himself wrapped the book in its sheet so the Guru could have a comfortable sleep.
The stairway on the ground floor veranda, no longer needed, was broken down to make space for the new Granth Sahib room. No expense was spared and the ceiling and walls were decorated with gold embellished scenes from the lives of the gurus. Rugs were acquired directly from Persia through the Sardar Bahadur's friend, Isfahani, a tea merchant, and laid in the room. All was set for the installation.
The Sardar Bahadur had earlier shifted his wife down with him to the first floor once his near-static period had begun, to make going out easier. And Inderjeet Kaur had obediently moved her belongings down to the mirrored bedroom which she had managed to sneak into occasionally for a good pry in earlier times, and which had always upset her by its existence.
"Only when he is past it," she thought bitterly, "am I to be allowed official ingress!"
She saw to it that the shameful mirror over their bed, which so clearly reproduced their gross, spreading bodies when they lay down, was screened and put out of action. But this didn't stop her from reflecting on fantasies of the old goings-on, based, after all, on her actual witnessing on one tragic occasion, a mind sport set in a time warp.
After moving into the Rajmahal in 1910, the Sardar Bahadur had arranged to receive his mistresses at home. His sex life was for him a must, and the best he could do was to keep up the charade for the sake of his wife's dignity. It was obvious he was more concerned with enjoying what he considered his right than protecting his wife's feelings. But in those days, wives also knew they had to keep their mouths shut and be aware of their good fortune in netting such fine, manly husbands. Besides, in a joint family household, infidelities by the womenfolk weren't uncommon either. But poor Inderjeet Kaur, though a handsome specimen before perpetual childbirth ruined her looks, had never strayed. The tragedy of her life started, therefore, when she allowed her youth to pass her by in a state of meaningless honor before she first woke up to her husband's philandering ways. The Sardar Bahadur played his role by telling her he needed to spend the night on the first floor whenever business became protracted. He also cautioned her not to enter this floor since she observed purdah, always screened from outsiders, and would be sullied by contact with undesirables. She accepted this almost unquestioningly, though she had her first prickle of suspicion. But this was forgotten in her happiness at having the Sardar Bahadur on the premises, promising surely, a larger share of his time. How was she to know he would straight away acquire a courtesan who danced for his visitors in the conservatory? Inderjeet Kaur heard the music and the jingling of the dancer's bells and decided momentously, when silence had descended one night, to go downstairs. She hadn't seen her husband for three days, no one, including sons and daughters-in-law, servants and other members of the household would divulge anything. And their sly looks and ambivalent attitudes were galling.
"All the visitors must have left," she fooled herself. "I have not set eyes on him for three whole days. Ei Heera," she called to her faithful ally, "have all the guests left him?"
"Why Bi'ji? You are not thinking of going down, are you?" said a frightened Heera.
Inderjeet Kaur, though a dutiful wife, was far from mousy. She imperiously brushed Heera aside and prepared herself for the descent. The sardarni had made other preparations too, coloring her long thick hair carefully with henna, reddening her fingers and toes with the same herb, and tenting her body with a particularly gorgeous shalwar-kameez of a shade of pink bordering on magenta, with silver work scattered over it.
She emerged onto the landing of her floor and, reluctant to direct her eyes downstairs, looked first up at the silent and dark landing of the top floor. Then fearfully down toward the ghostly marble ladies dimly spotlighted and blessing the house with the sound of tinkling water. "Almost like that dancer's bells," she thought with a sob. Then, clutching her veil to her bosom, she allowed her eyes to reach her husband's floor. Lights glowed behind the heavy curtains of the glassed doors. The ghosts whispered and the house stiffened with suspense. Inderjeet Kaur descended, quivering with each step. On the first floor landing she cautiously approached the veranda outside her husband's bedroom, reciting a prayer as a charm against the unknown. The silver on her clothes flashed on and off, turning her into an exotic traffic warning, and a lone pigeon set up a coo. "Shut up!" hissed Inderjeet Kaur.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rajmahal"
Copyright © 2010 Kamalini Sengupta.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - The Rajmahal,
Chapter 2 - The Book of Nets,
Chapter 3 - The Book of Inheritance,
Chapter 4 - The Book of Famine,
Chapter 5 - The Book of Hope,
Chapter 1 - Surjeet Shona Moves In,
Chapter 2 - Surjeet Shona Moves On,
Chapter 3 - The Landlord's Family,
Chapter 4 - Surjeet Shona Goes on a Journey,
Chapter 5 - Gurdeep Grows Up,
Chapter 6 - Ali Mallik's New Formula,
Chapter 7 - The Immanent Junior,
Chapter 8 - Twice Married, Twice Bereaved,
Chapter 9 - Heavenly Hetaerae,
Chapter 10 - A Love Story,
Chapter 11 - The Scarlet Net,
Chapter 12 - Memory,