Calcutta Nights (Raater Kolkata) is the real-life story of the enigmatic `Meghnad Gupta’—the pseudonym assumed by Bengali fiction writer Hemendra Kumar Roy. A 100 years later, his Bengali book shows today’s readers the dark secrets of another age, another time courtesy an excellent translation by Rajat Chaudhari.For those coming in late, it’s worthwhile remembering that the 1920s were turbulent times in the City of Joy—still the capital of British India. You would have found the place bursting at the seams, as it were, with people from all over the globe drawn to that great metropolis like moths to a flame.
In flocked hustlers, healers and wheeler-dealers and often staid businessmen too. All of them were bonded together with one common desire: the pursuit of sin and pleasure. Indians from the remote corners of the country arrived in droves. Some mingled with locals, settled down, picking up manners and carefree lifestyles of the Bengali.
Many struggled to keep their regional identities even as Calcutta ended being a kaleidoscope with its rainbow canvas splashed with more shades than one could bother to count. Remember that Calcutta Nights was written in times very different from ours. To the reader of today, some of the stances could be rather out of sync or jarring unless you see them as the potholes of history.
Suspend your disbelief. Leave it a while to rest, come meet Matal Hari, the legendary lady of Calcutta who we are told is ‘not at all good to look at, but she makes pots of money from singing and squanders it all away.’ She has a strange whimsicalness. As soon as she receives a payment, she shuts down her business for a few days and goes around town in a merry-making spree with a group of women known to her.
The merry-making continues as long as the money lasts; she doesn’t usually invite male friends in this merriment. The Ferris Wheel spins night and day. She drinks, and smokes weed and opium to settle down with her companions almost ostentatiously in a big room, as the hotel resounds to the racket of feminine voices.
The hotel owner is as pleased as punch with the arrival of a high-spending and low-maintenance customer like Matal Hari. He has no doubt that all the food would be consumed that day, as he quickly goes upstairs and smiling widely says, ‘What would you like to have dear Hari, order it!’This crisp read reveals the darkest secrets—warts and all—of the city of palaces as it was a 100 years ago.