Back in the 1980s, it was said that before the municipal corporation or utility providers started digging to repair Calcutta’s infrastructure, they called in P. Thankappan Nair. The matriculate from Manjapra, Kerala, had come to the city in 1955 and stayed on as its folk historian. A stenographer in the business district, which was once the heart of British Calcutta, he became the “barefoot chronicler” of the city, walking its streets, combing its archives and libraries, prowling amidst the ephemeral remains of the empire. I no longer remember if the story of the municipality relying upon him was legend or fact, but it’s credible, because Nair knew the precise location of the water, drainage, power and gas lines installed up to 200 years ago ― which the authorities often did not ― and how to dig without breaking them.
A lot of that infrastructure ― and the road layouts which they followed ― were installed by the fruitily named Committee to Superintend the Effective Use of the Lottery Funds, whose work towards establishing the grid upon which the city would grow for two centuries is the subject of Ranabir Ray Choudhury’s The Shaping of Modern Calcutta. Like Nair, he is not an academic, but served as an edit writer with The Statesman, in an era when schoolchildren were told to read the paper’s editorials to learn good English. In fact, almost all the memorable writers on Calcutta have no academic credentials. The most readable have been journalists like Desmond Doig, Geoffrey Moorhouse and Jug Suraiya. Going back a century, there was William Knighton, who described himself as an “Indian journalist” in Tropical Sketches (1855), and James Baillie Fraser, who drew and painted, apart from writing about his travels.
Ray Choudhury’s The Shaping of Modern Calcutta picks up the story of the city where his earlier volume, A City in the Making: Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (Niyogi Books, 2016), left off. Readers coming to the second volume directly may wish to read the introduction to the first, which offers a wider context. At the point in time where the first book gives way to the second, the nature of the British colonial project ― and that of the city it was building ― changed. The rain-sodden spot on the bank of the Hooghly where Job Charnock made his famous midday halt in 1686, from where the city of Calcutta would grow, was so wild and sodden that the English kept to their boats. Unsupervised by higher authority, Charnock was free to ‘go native’, to take an Indian wife (apparently off a sati pyre: Phileas Fogg plays Charnock’s role in Around the World in 80 Days, and rescued the widow Aouda), nurturing a taste for the hookah and arrack, and slumming it with the natives.
By the time Ray Choudhury’s second book begins, Calcutta was on its way to becoming the City of Palaces. Racial divisions had begun to matter, and the English were no longer comfortable about having Indians for neighbours. In the latter half of the 18th century, the Battle of Plassey was done and dusted, and the factors and managers of the East India Company, who were earlier expected to walk on eggshells if necessary to secure markets, were deploying troops in campaigns of conquest. The British empire was growing, and a little apartheid was needed to keep the rulers at ease and the ruled in their place. Ray Choudhury’s first volume had talked of early developments ― roads being pushed through the jungle, new estates and gardens being laid out for the English leadership, the banks of the Hooghly river being stabilised by the British with native expertise.
After that period, the development of the Maidan in front of Fort William isolated it from the ‘black town’ ― some maps of the period explicitly named the zone of Indian palaces and homes ‘civitas negra’. In his first volume, Ray Choudhury says that the population of that zone was allowed to grow without hindrance, and without regard for municipal considerations like public and fire safety, drainage and sewerage, in order to increase the consumption of the city. In the second volume, we see the administration of the city pass from the hands of pioneers to those of professionals with the long view. Calcutta was already seen as the second city of the British Empire, after London, and its commercial future was assured. But it needed a framework for development ― at least a grid of streets and neighbourhoods with proper infrastructure ― and the capital to make it possible. The lottery brought in the money and the committee looked to its budgeting.
Ray Choudhury says that before the Lottery Committee was founded to look after urban development, Lord Wellesley was much exercised about fire, a common feature of the city due to unplanned development. The new city of Calcutta was being rapidly populated by people coming in from the hinterland, in search of fresh opportunities and safety from a Maratha attack which never came. They built thatched homes wherever they could find space, and predictably, devastating fires became as commonplace in Calcutta as they were in the wood-built working class districts of Nero’s Rome. Wellesley left after battling a shortage of funds, and on the advice of the police chief, his successor Lord Minto proposed funding by lotteries to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. Despite their reservations, within a year (a very short period, considering the time taken for the mail boat to sail to London and back) a lottery for urban improvement was drawn on July 1, 1809.
However, it took another half-century for the planners to consider elementary conveniences. Calcutta’s footpaths are generally spacious, signalling the priority that the early city developers gave to pedestrians “peculiarly exposed to accidents from Horses and Carriages” (in India, most accident victims are still pedestrians). But Ray Choudhury notes that the first footpath was apparently built on Chowringhee 50 years later, in 1858. The year after the rising of 1857, when the British Crown took over the territories administered by the Company as a matter of caution, saw a flurry of imperial activity, and the footpath was perhaps one of its less grand but nevertheless significant achievements. But Ray Choudhury also points out that there was correspondence regarding footpaths as early as 1818. In India, new administrations have traditionally tried to deny the achievements of their predecessors. Could the newfangled Raj have tried to undercut the Company by playing up that Chowringhee footpath?
Urban development is not only about building, but also demolishing old landmarks which get in the way. Such was the fate of the monument to the Black Hole of Calcutta, which was erected by John Zephaniah Holwell, Company surgeon, briefly governor and anachronistic advocate of vegetarianism, immediately after Siraj-ud-Daulah was ejected from Calcutta. It was removed from its original location in 1821 because it impeded traffic to the new Customs House. No self-respecting empire can allow memorials to get in the way of commerce, but Ray Choudhury also offers The Calcutta Journal’s political reasoning: “We can see no benefit whatever likely to arise by keeping alive in the minds of everyone, but especially the Natives, the recollection of the horrors suffered by Englishmen, and the cruel tortures under which they then expired, as sacrifices to the caprice of a Mohameddan despot.” And so it was erased until Lord Curzon, who really enjoyed improving upon the past ― changes he made to the Taj Mahal gardens were simply disastrous ― had a replica installed a century later, and then it was relegated to a churchyard, where it still stands, and no one knows or cares, exactly as The Calcutta Journal had intended.
With almost 50 pages of endnotes and bibliography, including from criminal proceedings and those of the Lottery Committee, Ray Choudhury is taking a different tack from Thankappan Nair, who was a public historian gone walkabout. Though in his introduction he insists that he is “not a historian, trained or otherwise”, his focus is the archive. And while his work may not be as stirring as that of the folk historian, who coruscates when he ventures into all that is unknown and storied, it is reliable, being very firmly rooted in what is on the record. Two volumes of his account are now out, excellent guides to the history of Calcutta from the time when the inhabitants of fashionable Park Street complained about being kept awake all night by the roaring of tigers, to the late 19th century capital of the Raj, when no doubt remained that it was the second city of the British Empire.