First published in Bengali in 1962, the novel became a bestseller and was translated into a number of Indian languages and made into a film and a play. But it has taken until now for it to be published in English outside India. Below the radar when Salman Rushdie surveyed the scene for his 1997 anthology, The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, it did not surface even for Amit Chaudhuri's later Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, which begins with a large section on Bengali writing. Perhaps Sankar was too popular to be noted, even though two of his other books, Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) had the accolade of being filmed by the legendary Satyajit Ray.
In a recent interview Sankar explains how he discovered Chowringhee, Calcutta's glittering esplanade and the world of his novel. From being a street hawker and a typewriter cleaner, by luck he became a clerk to India's last British lawyer, Noel Barwell. "I was 17 and in constant awe of Noel. But he treated me like a friend and exposed me to the 'high life' of the rich and famous. I used to stay at [the hotel] Shahjahan's servants' quarters as his employee. I had a greenroom view of cabaret dancers, the private lives of celebrities ... " After Barwell died, Mani Sankar Mukherji became Sankar the writer.
The book is a banquet of stories served by a wide-eyed narrator, rather confusingly named Shankar and shaped by the hotel he comes to work in, the same Shahjahan. Although one of the characters tells us, "At least a dozen novels about hotels are written in this country every year," I am not aware of another. There ought to be hundreds of them. The Shahjahan has cousins scattered around the world: the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Raffles in Singapore, the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, Reid's Palace in Madeira - hotels that nurture history and the memories of their guests and slowly develop a character of their own. You would expect them to loom large in modern fiction, given the number of writers who have stayed in them, but Shahjahan does seem to be surprisingly alone. "It wasn't so much a hotel as a framed picture. In the alluring curves was not the arrogance of modern skyscrapers but the stamp of ancient aristocracy. Like a beautiful bride's bracelet, the neon light glinted in the darkness. It had three bands - green at the extremities and red in the middle; the flirtatious winking was limited to the green, while the red was like the unblinking eye ... "
Shankar is also refreshingly different. He begins as a babu who "revelled in the role ... the lawyer's clerk". He's happy to salute Curzon, "the English Lord, much maligned by history", on the first page and, at the end of the novel, quote Kipling in another ancient Calcutta hotel, railing against the sham of life. In between he quotes lines from other poets who are not identified but were perhaps obvious, as were the real-life models for some of the characters, to Calcutta readers in the 1960s. But other than a tendency to hyperbole in the early pages, Shankar does not inflict babu speech on the reader. Although many of the conversations take place in English there are none of the distractions of clever linguistics and forced humour with which babu characters so often burst the bubble of fiction and hurl us out of a story.
Perhaps this is an unexpected consequence of the book having been written in Bengali. The early history of modern Bengali literary writing is said to have been a negotiation between a formal high style and the liveliness of everyday speech. Buddhadeb Bose, writing in 1948 on the impact of Tagore and Pramatha Chaudhuri, identifies the "War of Words", a "battle that raged over the new style of prose". Everyday spoken Bengali, which both these writers promoted, was regarded as too lightweight by the establishment of the time. But by the mid-century, Bose writes, "The quality and quantity of our recent spoken-tongue prose indicate that though Pramatha Chaudhuri broke the ice, Rabindranath set the stream flowing." Chowringhee is perhaps a part of that flow. The writing is natural and uncluttered. The translation is transparent and one questions it only rarely over the odd phrase or image.
Shankar is despondent on the death of his English employer. Then he stumbles into a job behind the reception desk of the Shahjahan, thanks to the help of a magnanimous but failing detective, Byron, whose client is the hotel manager Marco Polo (first seen in a "sleeveless vest and tiny red briefs"). Immediately we get an inkling that we are stepping into a Calcutta that offers rather more than the standard dal and masala fare. As it turns out, dal barely gets a mention in 400 pages, and that's after tutti frutti ice-cream - a delight in itself.
Shankar's first task is to type out 50 breakfast menu cards. Jimmy, the steward, "a veritable Mount Vesuvius", barks out the list: "Strange words, some of which I had never heard before, assailed my ears: chilled pineapple juice, rice crisps, eggs - boiled, fried, poached, scrambled. The man stopped for a while, gulped, and then continued yelling in the manner of reciting a multiplication table: omelette - prawns, cheese, tomato ... and so on. Words came tumbling out of his mouth like gunfire as he came to a halt with 'coffee'."
Jimmy, like Marco Polo, is European, but in the cosmopolitan world of 1950s Calcutta, this is an unimportant detail that we discover late in the book, when the new Indian owners of the Shahjahan decide to keep the management foreign but modernise the hotel. In the end, the old Goan musician Gomez, with his love of Beethoven and Mozart, has to make way for a "more cheerful" band, and Shankar's contract is terminated because "they're going to have only girls at the counter". But between those first breakfast menu cards and the farewell banquet we waltz into a world of Moscow mules and Manhattans, honeymoon soup and sharkskin suits. We meet Connie, a stripper from Scotland via Persia, whose dance ends with her clothed only in bursting balloons; Karabi, a hostess who services suite number 2, permanently booked for corporate hospitality; Sutherland, the WHO expert with a secret past; as well as tycoons, politicians and conscience-stricken bartenders.
Karabi's dilemma of having to choose between old and new values is one that most of the characters face at some point in their time at Shahjahan, including Marco Polo and Bose-da, his right-hand man, the fount of Shahjahan lore and fixer of high-society liaisons. Shankar learns to become the trusted servant of them all.
The servant's tale, from Canterbury to Calcutta, Bangalore to Bath, often veers between anger and loss. Shankar's story in the end is one of loss: "When I had checked in here, it was filled with known and familiar faces. Some left after breakfast; a few disappeared after lunch; others went away after tea. Now it was time for dinner, and no one was left ... I, the patriarch, seemed to have sat down at an empty table."
Not quite true for his creator. Sankar, the writer, at the end, has Chowringhee: a lovely, charming book brimming with life and full of the unexpectedness of a closely observed world. Everything comes to the old hotel, either to the sumptuous guest rooms or to the terrace where the staff live. Love and death are never far away. Sankar writes of both simply and movingly. There will be many grateful readers at his table.