Wednesday 23 December 2020

South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata is an English cemetery and I could see plenty of those at home. I almost didn’t bother to go. I am glad I did or I would have missed seeing the splendid tomb of Major General Charles Stuart, better known as ‘Hindoo Stuart’.

South Park Street has been renamed. The pink stone entrance now leads off raucous Mother Theresa Street (that’s the street that’s raucous, not the nun) into a quiet and dilapidated graveyard romantically overrun by fig and palm trees. It looks and feels nothing like an English cemetery. It is oriental and exotic. The cemetery was opened in 1767 fell out of use by 1790. The English people buried here belonged not to the Raj but to the East India Company. They preceded the Victorians and their memorials are more in sympathy with Mughal and Hindu cultures than with imperial Britain.

The monuments were huge compared with English gravestones. I could not place the style. There were miniature Greek temples, columns, arches, obelisks, domes and cupolas. Some of the obelisks were pyramid-shaped, others conical and carved in spirals. There was a Greek classical influence and it did not feel the least bit Christian. I should have thought myself in a Mughal burial ground. I learned later that the tombs are a mixture of Gothic and Indo-Saracenic style. Some of the carvings show a Hindu influence. It was a strange and wonderful place of calm surrounded by the hectic rush of modern Kolkata. Indeed, the cemetery is only a remnant of a much larger plot that has been built over. Taxis, buses and bicycles now stream over the forgotten remains of the men and women of the East India Company.

I met three young men, all technical students from the city.  They knew little of the cemetery’s history and its British connection but they were grateful to find a place of peace and calm.

I walked around this marvel reading the inscriptions. The people here died young. Many of the men died in their forties. There were enormous monuments to young women. A huge pyramid shaped obelisk marks the grave of Elizabeth Barwell, who died in 1778 aged 23. Rose Aylmer lies, dead at 20, under a vast inverted ice cream cone of a tomb. It was said that the life expectancy of a European in Calcutta in the 18th century was two monsoons. Many of the young women died in childbirth and the men, if not of disease, in war or accident. The people buried here were not fainthearted.

I saw very few crucifixes. Biblical references were rare. Rather, the epitaphs celebrated people’s civic and secular virtues.  The Honorable (sic) John Hyde; a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court died aged 59 in 1796.  He was, I read, ‘a firm and zealous friend’. His hospitality had been enjoyed a wide extended circle. ‘His advice, protection and munificence to unfortunate persons were his noblest eulogium’. It went on at some length; it was a big memorial. It ended eventually with a tribute to the generosity of his mind.

Beating the odds of an early death, Major General Charles (Hindoo) Stuart served in India for 50 years. He wore Indian clothes off duty, became a Hindu and bathed in the Ganges each day. He attempted to persuade the British ladies of Calcutta, the memsahibs, to discard their whalebone corsets and iron skirt hoops and take to wearing the sari. Did he have in mind their comfort, respect for local culture or more lascivious motives?  The answer is buried with him

The epitaph to Robert Gardiner reports that ‘unfortunately’ he died in the ship Ganges on the Barabuller Sand in the river Ganges aged 46 in 1787. The Barabuller Sand lies in wait for ships approaching the river from the Bay of Bengal. His affectionate son Andrew erected the stone from a ‘motive of filial regard’. 

A tattered advertisement informed me that I had missed the first concert ever to be held in the cemetery by a few weeks. I should have liked to have been there.

The Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India and the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia care for the South Park Street Cemetery, evidently on a shoestring. They publish a guidebook.  The young woman who sold it to me explained that her father was the keeper of the plot.  He was off sick and she was standing in for him.  I was touched that she should take such family pride in looking after this wonderful place.

Friday 4 December 2020

Learning to Read and Write in New York City


The Strand Bookstore in New York City is in trouble.  The Pandemic has hit its business badly. When news of this much-loved institution’s problem reached the press, many of its legions of devotees placed orders to save it. It reminded me of a piece I wrote about a visit to New York a few years ago.


Learning to Read and Write in New York City


Back in Manhattan after 5 years, I made my usual pilgrimage to the Strand Bookstore.  From Union Square subway I walked south on Broadway and soon saw the shop’s maroon and yellow awning.  It has been there since 1923 and it is the last remaining independent bookstore in what had been a whole street of bookshops.  It boasts that it has 18 miles of books.  In its labyrinth of stacks on four floors, I could believe it.  Fortunately, expert staff can lead you to almost any book in a New York minute. 

It is the only bookshop I know that provides shopping trolleys.  An American friend told me she is not allowed in there without a keeper.  I was lucky; I bought just two books, neither of which I knew existed before I went in. I lingered in the stationery section.  I cannot resist a new notebook or pencil.  I could have bought a Moleskine notebook to turn me into Bruce Chatwin or a Palamino Blackwing, John Steinbeck’s preferred writing instrument. 

Pilgrimage over; I paused to pick up a copy of Gotham City Writers’ News from a sidewalk newsstand.  Gotham Writers is another fine Manhattan institution.  Among other things, it runs online courses for writers and competitions.

Then I went to an exhibition of Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts at the Morgan Library.  What especially appealed was that Hemingway wrote a lot about how he wrote.  I read his letter to Mary Welsh written from the Normandy Invasion.  He wrote 'I am ashamed I know too few adjectives.' 

'That makes two of us, Ernest', I muttered.

He enjoyed editing his own work.  He could do it first in pencil as he wrote, again when he typed it out and finally when reviewing the proofs. Editing is good for all of us whether we like it or not.  I guess we need to be as good as Hemingway before we can fight back against editors.  There in the margin of an edited typescript, Hemingway's own handwriting declared, 'who b******d this up like this?'

He wrote in French School exercise books and I could study the physical process of his writing.  He re-wrote the last page of 'A Farewell to Arms' 39 times before he was satisfied.  He had also consulted F Scott Fitzgerald about the manuscript.  After they had worked on a particular page together, Fitzgerald told Hemingway that page 226 was 'one of the most beautiful pages in English literature'.  Well that is certainly something to aspire to.

Evidently, Hemingway was not too proud to take advice.  Gertrude Stein told him of an early manuscript, 'begin over again and concentrate'.  Thanks, Gert.

I saw his notes for the title of a short story.  He used to write the story first then create as many as a hundred potential titles before selecting exactly the right one.

If writing was that hard for Hemingway, how are the rest of us to manage?

I drafted this piece with a Palomino Blackwing pencil but I am still not Steinbeck.  I used a school exercise book but I am still not Hemingway.  What can I be doing wrong?

Strand Bookstore

Gotham Writers