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Gopal Lahiri
‘Calcutta Nights’ – along with translator interview
Gopal Lahiri

Calcutta Nights | Translation/Culture/Non-Fiction |
Hemendra Kumar Roy (Original writer in Bengali) | Trans. Rajat Chaudhuri |

Title of the original: Raater Kolkata |
Niyogi Books. 2020 | ISBN-13: 978-9389136456 | pp 140 | 295


Attention: For interview of the translator Rajat Chaudhuri by Gopal Lahiri click here:

Gopal Lahiri: In conversation with Rajat Chaudhury, the translator of Calcutta Nights


An Engrossing Account of City Night Life

Calcutta Nights offers an engrossing account of the nights of erstwhile Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is an immersive memoir, excavating the night life of the city, the ways of means of survival under exigent circumstances, and characters caught between various cultures, while reconciling their desires with their expectations. For this, we need to understand the troubled colonial history, cultural concern and social diversity in that period and the inevitable impulse for the days that follow.

Hemendra Kumar Roy’s vividly written and unerringly resonant book is translated by Rajat Chaudhuri into English from the original Bengali Raater Kolkata published almost one hundred years ago. Armed with a focussed, scholarly intent, he has produced a translation that explores the divergences and colours of the early twentieth century politically turbulent Calcutta, the capital of the erstwhile British Empire, reaching far into our lives.

A few things happened in this turbulent times, like, the first Partition of Bengal in 1905 with Curzon as Viceroy, the Alipore Bomb Case trials commencing near the end of that decade, and the shifting of capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. Given this backdrop, each small fragment of the narrative is an answer hard-won. Still, piece by piece they come, until we’re hovering on the edge of understanding, with the feeling that there’s a door to revelation up ahead just starting to crack open. The memoir contains stray thoughts and images that distil the filth and dust of the city but the tiny sparks are always there. 

The book depicts nine scenes, namely, Everyday Picture of the City, Calcutta Streets, Chinatown, Prostitutes’ Quarters, Nimtala Burning Ghat, Hotels and Restaurants, Festive Nights in Calcutta, Inhabitants of the Underworld,   Playhouse.

Rajat Chaudhury in his introduction has correctly points out –

Hemendra Kumar Roy was undoubtedly an accomplished stylist and in my translation of his work, I have tried my best to retain the flavour of the original. In my own reading of this little dynamite of a volume, I have encountered Dickensian darkness under the gaslights of Calcutta’s streets, I have enjoyed gothic interludes in scenes of winter nights that would remind you of Edgar Allan Poe and I have also sensed a writer’s keen interest in backstory and character.

Calcutta Nights is a real-life story by the enigmatic ‘Meghnad Gupta,’ pen name of the well-known Bengali fiction writer Hemendra Kumar Roy. He catalogues his experiences of ‘Calcutta Nights’ with nine scenes and creates a diaristic record of the city under gas lights. This catalogue is perhaps the most enduring contribution to its success. His work is bound by idiosyncratic references and quasi-dreamed connections while roving about in the darkness of Calcutta’s narrow alleys, alone every night.

Evening ushers in the mysteries—especially Saturday evenings. Gas lamps light up every street, flocks of owls flutter away overhead etching inky black marks across the grim sky, and from the darkness at the bends and corners of alleyways, swarthy ugly faces begin to peep and snoop. Now it’s time for the saint’s rest and the hour for Satan’s wakefulness (Calcutta Streets).

Roaming in the blistered triangles and rectangles and coils and knots of streets and alleys below greasy bare light bulbs, and sidestepping the luscious women standing on the lanes and bye-lanes, the author has a feeling that in those days Calcutta was always steamy and mesmerising.

The author wanders through the city, meeting with strange people and delivering a monologue about night life, its lust and lustre, its anxiety and neurotic compulsions while not cossetting in its sins but to understand, experience and tell true accounts.

The front windows of many restaurants in the city glimmered and rolled inside while ‘Babus’ were ordering one of everything and watching as those loud women behind the counter dropped the ice cubes into the shining glasses and exchanged dream and desires. In the course of a booze-fuelled evening, bittersweet memories come to the surface, reflecting on their lives in a city that is on the edge of absolute chaos.

Calcutta Nights is a story of survival and hope, forgiveness and connection, crime and abyss, it’s about the beauty of Meghnad Gupta’s heart and the hearts of the people around him, no matter how lonely or scared they are. His sharp investigations of the cracks and fissures in the society lay bare the ‘Satan’s wakefulness,’ showcasing the living among the poor, the criminal, the prostitute and the outcast on the street.

In his prologue, the author remarks –  

I have been witness to most of the things mentioned and written here. I could have written about many other things if I had depended on hearsay, but I didn’t do that. Like a detective, I have roamed the streets to gather these accounts.

The memoir takes us all the way back to the early part of twentieth century of Calcutta and balances the lingering effects and the full spectrum of the decadent Babu culture, bordellos and the trauma and violence under gas-lit nights with allusions and humour. His words are rooted in short vignettes that touch on nostalgia as a record of its own creation.

The babus hurry on while casting shameless and thirsty eyes at the verandahs on both sides. The clock will strike eight anytime now; by that hour one has to acquire the goddess of spirits from Mama’s booze shop. Probably these Abu Hussains in a single day will squander away a month’s hard-earned income in the streams of pleasure. When at night’s end or at dawn the next day, lolling with fatigue, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep and intoxication, they return home panting, then if one went through their pockets, they wouldn’t be able to find half a rupee on them (Calcutta Streets).

Meghnad Gupta aka Hemendra Kumar Ray’s work is loved especially by one and all for its conceptual rigour and literary slant. The popular author of detective novels, sci-fi and children’s books blazes a new trail in writing Calcutta Nights.

Through the power of his thoughts, the author takes hold of the world and invites reader to feel the effect that is, paradoxically, both strange and familiar. There is not a huge amount of incident but its theme of colonisation, identity and history subtly resonate with various night scenes of Calcutta. The streets and the underworld, the restaurants and hotels, the burning ghats and prostitute quarters, festive nights and playhouses – all roll into a largeness that expands in the mind of the reader, affecting a deeper level of feeling.

The interiors of the Bengali theatres come next. Here the distinguishing characteristics are dust, dirt, garbage, grime, filaments of soot, paan spittle and an unbearable stink. Everywhere one looks, above or below, this side or that, one is bound to notice signs of the owner’s negligence and at least one blemish or the other. There are frescoes on the ceiling, walls, and in front of the theatre stage (Playhouse).

The translator has rightly mentioned that the book being from another time, there are several words, turns of phrase and references which are not always clear on first reading. The speed of the unravelling from the surrounds has seemed almost unfathomable in crossing through denotations and certain historic orientations.

Some of us may argue that the author has kept his focus only on the dark side of the metropolis. The underground scene of shadowy circle of criminals, drinkers, drifters is quite common in many major cities.

Those who live within the premises of the crematorium surely become cold-hearted; their souls get hardened like calloused feet. You will find that the pyre, on which just a while ago a human body had turned to ashes, is being used by someone to cook a pot of rice. The pyre which has devoured the flesh of one becomes the means for providing nutrition to another. People will consume this rice unperturbed. I cannot imagine this—so much insensitivity towards the death of a fellow human! (Nimtala Burning Ghat)

However extraordinary the lower depth of the city has been, both the filth and the mystery have much deeper origins but that has not been explored in depth. Yet, this amazingly make-believe world is the most alluring feature of the book.

Calcutta Nights follows the author’s own journey towards a self-discovery and a strange kind of salvation. A brilliant collection of portraits of yesteryears of Calcutta showcases a decadent culture of the babus and the vivid summoning of dreams and dusts.

These are dealt with racy narratives and the tone is playful for the most part, though there are sudden sparks of tenderness and significance. Rajat Chowdhury’s translation is constantly alert to the nuances of the language. More evident is the writer’s ability in exploring the human leitmotifs – anguish, desolation, brittleness and inattention.

The end notes are useful while the sketches and photos are seamlessly integrated with the text. The cover design is beautiful. Darkness is never far from the exterior of this entertaining memoir. It should be embraced by all and surely is a must read.


Issue 92 (Jul-Aug 2020)

Book Reviews
  • Arpana Nath: ‘The Sixth River – A Journal from the Partition of India’
  • Gopal Lahiri: ‘Calcutta Nights’ – along with translator interview
  • Hema Ravi: ‘Of Cloudless Climes’
  • Patricia Prime: ‘Unwinding Self’
  • Revathy Sivasubramaniam: ‘Dangling Gandhi and Other Short Stories’
  • Sunaina Jain: ‘Coconut – How the Shy Fruit Shaped Our World’
  • Sutanuka Ghosh Roy: ‘Selected Songs – Rabindranath Tagore’
  • Usha Akella: ‘Poppies in the Post and Other Poems’