Conrad in Calcutta

01 May, 2014

ABOUT THE STORY Mankind has never known as much about its own past as it does today. But intriguing gaps persist everywhere in the stories of nations, groups and individual human beings. When it comes to thinking about what we do not know about the lives of the great, to the educated speculation of biographers we should sometimes add the educated imagination of fiction writers.

We know, for instance, that before Joseph Conrad attained fame as a writer, he spent many years in ports around the world as a sailor. One of his stops in the 1880s was in Calcutta, coming off a ship called the Tilkhurst. Who did he meet there? How did his experience inform his political outlook and his style? In Tanuj Solanki’s intriguing and often ingenious story, the young Conrad walks through the streets of this strange oriental city, seeking connections and insights that his more complacent English colleagues disdain. He knows, already, that he wants to be a writer; more confusingly, even to himself, he wants to write in English. On his walks, he runs into another man who seems to be wrestling with similar dilemmas, both as a colonial subject and as an aspiring writer in the language of the coloniser. His name? Rabindranath Thakur.

What do these two men think of each other’s situations in life, language and literature? Solanki is not afraid of showing up either man as slightly pretentious (“Józef wanted to include all the heavy words he had acquired from poring over heavy English dictionaries”), but their shared insecurities seem to form an advance map of postcolonial literature, illuminating not just their respective characters but that of the very civilisations to which they belong.

Tanuj Solanki

FROM THE SHORES OF HALDIA the Tilkhurst could have looked like anything, with lanterns perched at various heights conveying only a meagre outline. But there was no one to see it from the shore. Inside the ship, in a dank cabin beneath the deck, there was a sailor’s feast in progress.

Both the party and the ship’s overnight anchoring off Haldia had been Captain Edwin John Blake’s orders. He believed it better to spend another night at sea before taking the river towards Calcutta. Right now, he was addressing an audience of sailors seated on the floor. Few in the audience were paying heed to the captain’s words about Calcutta and its culture, and those few were amazed in witnessing a complete reversal in their captain’s usually calm demeanour. Józef, the only Pole on the ship, was in this lot, and although he could not entirely comprehend what the captain said in his perfect English, he was nevertheless fascinated, possibly because of the liquor he had had, by the way this complex language, this English, always seemed to open the world—unpacked it, so to say. To Józef, who aspired to one day be called a writer, the choice between English and French was becoming somewhat clearer in the head, though only part of it was due to the unpacking quality of English. He could not really hope to write as well as the Frenchmen did, competition in French would be way tougher, already he knew that Flaubert was inimitable, and so on. To write in Polish was unthinkable anyway. Who wanted to read Polish other than a few Poles?

But the bigger problem that Józef faced on long sea voyages such as this one was that none of his epiphanies, no detail in the progress of his education, could be shared with those around him. The personalities of some in this cabin would be essential to his stories, could be heroes or villains or even minor characters devoid of the notions of good and bad, but none could participate in the process of doubt and resolution. That remained a solitary voyage.

“And gentlemen,” Captain Blake’s voice became louder, “just as in every great city in the world, the ladies here are most generous. Not far from the dockyard is a chateau that hosts some fine Armenian specimens, blessed in talents necessary for quenching sailors’ thirsts…”

A handful were listening to the captain now. In one corner of the cabin, there was a little riot underway. Józef spilled some wine on his already grimy shirt. It left a stain, and looking at it he saw that the stain’s shapelessness was not all shapelessness.

A sudden fear. A fear that jeopardised his notions of who or what he could write about. A fear that told him that neither English nor French may do. A fear both ephemeral and borrowed from an antiquity that he did not comprehend but felt the weight of.

The stain on his shirt scared him even more.

Meanwhile, on the Haldia shore, a mile or so away from the Tilkhurst, four fishermen had arrived on a little dinghy from Calcutta. The fishermen could make out the distant ship as a vague shape anchored neither at the port nor at sea. They did not give it much thought and slowly cast their net into the waters.

THE LEGACY, run by an obsequious Indian not much different from the obsequious hoteliers of other ports of the world, had rooms that were sparse and clean. Inside Józef’s room there was a square desk for letter writing, a bed with a little headrest of very confused arabesques, and a couple of chairs that were straight and upright like stiff English gentlemen, but also of an unappealing carpentry that one could find only in the colonies.

After setting his few things in the room, Józef, still tired by the revelries of the previous night, lay down on the bed and immediately fell asleep. In his dream he saw his uncle’s scrawny face, lovingly chastising him for being a spendthrift. Then the scene changed and he saw a vision of shadows flitting with great velocity. Slowly the vision became clearer. A flipping of pages, millions of pages from thousands of books. And the pages were not blank, although they were flipping with such rapidity that he could not focus on what was written on them, or whether it was in a language that he could decipher. And then he was on the deck of a schooner, with a book in his hand, a book of maritime stories. Now in English. The schooner tilted violently to the left. Then it straightened up and started sinking. Józef found himself hurrying about with the crew. All were faceless now. Everyone was hurrying about and the ship was sinking and sinking, and then Józef was in the water, unable to breathe, gasping, gasping to save himself and the book, keeping the book above the waves. Until he saw a big arm, an arm that was strong and muscular. Fate. The arm was reaching out to save him.

He woke up. An hour had passed. He wondered for a while if it was possible to really die in a dream. Convinced that he was too tired, he decided to sleep again, but before that he made up his mind to think of women, for he was sure that this would save his dreams and his sleep.

THE NEXT DAY, for a good three afternoon hours, the Armenian woman Kohar did well to drown all of Józef’s edginess in her voluptuous embrace. Thoroughly entertained, Józef decided to walk through the streets of this bustling city, a city that was more awake in the evenings than either Singapore or Madras had been. It was Józef’s first time in Calcutta. But he had been to this land, to British India, last year. He had even traversed it by train, from Madras to Bombay. What a journey that had been! Grisly May heat and the inscrutability of an entire continent. This month, November, was easier. The breeze had a nip to it. It reminded him of something familiar, though he could not pin this familiarity to his home or a location in the world.

Józef did not mind getting disoriented in the puzzling streets. He was sure that the friendly-looking people would offer to accompany him back to The Legacy in case he got too far away and lost his way. But would not his stilted English give him away? He wondered if their respect for him would diminish if he told them that he was from Poland, not England. Like India, Poland too had a mind of its own and a government of someone else. Though, unlike India, Poland’s rulers had the same skin colour as the Polish people. That made things both better and worse.

So Calcutta, the capital of British India. Józef turned into some narrow lanes flanked by diminutive two-storey houses. It was evening, and it smelled of fish and spices, a smell so piquant and appetising that it almost made him want to barge into a house and demand to be served. At tiny squares where two perpendicular lanes met, there were tea stalls thronged by men. Some of them carried books in their hands, and Józef wondered what these books contained, these books that were at times read collectively. What language were these books in: English? Farsi? Calcuttese? Just what? And how could natives show such a conspicuous interest in books? After crossing two or three such tea stalls, Józef decided to stop at the next one and have a cup of tea himself. A white man stopping at a native place would be something unheard of, but was he not already doing something unheard of? Till now, no one on the streets had found his presence strange. Maybe Calcutta was a different kind of city, Józef thought, a city that belonged to a time yet unseen, a time when newer things would matter.

Józef’s reception at the tea stall was dramatic. The men guessed that he was a British officer who had somehow lost his way, and many came to him to ask if this was so. The questions were put forth in the most gentlemanly English. In his own imitation of the British manner, Józef refuted the Calcuttans’ assumptions. But not without a tinge of embarrassment: No, it is not that I’ve lost my way. It is here I want to have a cup of tea. With you fine gentlemen.

The people welcomed him and an enthusiastic one among them even patted Józef on the back. He was granted a place on a tiny bench and was served, in an earthen cup, what everyone called cha. Two young men seated opposite him were engrossed in a book and failed to notice his arrival. The cha was very sweet, almost cloying, but Józef didn’t completely dislike it.

After a minute or two Józef felt an urge to interrupt the young men. Excuse me, gentlemen, he said. Yes? the young man holding the book said, raising his eyebrows. His surprise at noticing a white man opposite him was never betrayed. Perhaps this man had seen me arrive, Józef thought. Yes sir, what may be your question? the young man said. Nothing in particular, Józef began to say, just that I wish to inquire what book it is that you are reading with such passion. L’Éducation sentimentale, by a gentleman called Gustave Flaubert, the young man replied. My friend here is translating it for me, he added. Józef was surprised. And what is it that you find interesting in this book, if I may so inquire? he said. I’ve read this fine book, he added. You’re not English, sir, the young man said. Józef did not reply for a while, and took a sip of the cha. No, I’m not, he said, I’m from Poland. Ah, the young man said, I would not know where that is. It is divided as we speak, between the Germanic state and the Russian one, Józef said. Ah, the young man said. So, the book? Józef asked. Oh yes, we were discussing if a book of such a theme could be written in an Indian setting, the young man said. And what do you mean by an Indian setting? Józef asked. Say Calcutta, the young man answered. The question is: Can this novel be rewritten with an Indian protagonist? I don’t think so, Józef replied. I think so, the young man said. The disagreement struck Józef as plain and final, and he noticed for the first time the young man’s visage, with the largest eyes and the sharpest nose he had ever seen. His hair was long and his beard young, and it would not be unnatural to presume that this man had a relationship with poetry. My name is Józef Konrad, Józef said. May I know yours? I’m Rabi Thakur, the young man said, and my friend here is Gurunath Thakur. Nice to meet you gentlemen, Józef said. His cha was finished by now. He arose from his seat to pay. The payment was politely refused, with an invitation to visit whenever Józef desired. Józef walked out of the stall, a bit bemused.

A MONTH OR SO LATER, Józef received a message in his room. An Indian, Mr Rabindranath Thakur, from the very eminent Calcutta family, was waiting for him downstairs. Józef dressed and went to the reception desk. He saw Rabi and immediately made the connection. I made enquiries, Rabi said, and understood you’d been staying here. Would you like to go on a ride, Mr Konrad? We could continue our conversation.

Józef agreed without hesitation, and on leaving the foyer he was impressed by the opulence of the horse carriage that awaited them. The horses were tall and sleek, and the curlicues on the carriage exterior were confident. In fact, so intricate was the woodwork that one could even call it art.

Once inside the carriage, there was an awkward silence. Then Rabi said something about the weather, about the amenable coolness of Bengali winters. Józef concurred, not adding much. The carriage moved towards the countryside, on a misty path alongside the sluggish river. Rabi then broached the subject of their conversation of the other day. He mentioned Poland. I must confess, Mr Konrad, that I lied to you the first time we met, Rabi said. About what? Józef asked. About me not knowing where Poland is, Rabi said. And why? Joseph said. I wanted to see you react to that, Rabi said. There was silence again. Józef broke it this time. Are you a poet, Mr Thakur? Józef asked. I believe so, Rabi said, I want to write all my life. And what do you want to write about? Józef asked. As I’ve said earlier, I want to explore the adaptation of Western literary norms in Bengali literature, Rabi said. Bengali literature? Józef asked. Yes, there is a very rich tradition here, Rabi said. Oh, Józef exclaimed. And do you write only in Bengali? he asked further. I write in English too, Rabi said. How do you decide which language to employ? Józef asked. I don’t know, Rabi said.

A silence then. Rabi broke it.

Would you like to listen to something I wrote recently? he asked. It is in English. Please go ahead, Józef said. Rabi took out a paper out from his coat pocket and read a poem. It was a poem about a garden full of birds. It was simple and beautiful, Józef thought, and said so. This seemed to encourage Rabi, who took out a small notebook from another pocket and read another poem. And then another. And then another. On and on and on, much to Józef’s liking. And so the carriage circled the entire city of Calcutta, carrying inside it a brown man and a white man indulging in something they only vaguely understood as important, and could not avoid.

Afterwards, Józef said that he was glad for an excellent afternoon, one that would otherwise have been thoroughly wasted in common lethargy. And with some confidence that I’ve acquired in our friendship, he added, I must tell you now that I fancy myself a novelist. I wish to write in English. The next time I have the pleasure of your company, I would like to share my meagre attempts with you.

The pleasure shall be all mine, Rabi said, and his carriage rolled away.

JóZEF HAD TWO PROBLEMS. He had promised that he would show Rabi his work. But he had nothing to show Rabi. The only sample of his writing in English that he possessed was a scrappily written letter to a Polish friend, which he had never posted and had utilised only as a document to work his English upon. Józef also did not know where to find Rabi. Four times in a fortnight he went to the tea stall they had first met in. But he never saw Rabi or his friends there.

Nevertheless, with an urgency and intent he had never before felt streaming through him, he worked on that letter. It was about a sailor’s life, about how the sea appears to a sailor’s tired eyes. Józef wanted to include all the heavy words he had acquired from poring over heavy English dictionaries. He wanted to impress Rabi.

And then, one fine January morning, Rabi’s carriage returned to The Legacy. Józef dressed in a hurry and put the latest version of the letter, which he had scribbled all over, inside his coat pocket.

Their talk began in the same English manner, talk of weather and mist and the toil of fishermen. Then Rabi talked about his latest poems and expressed his desire to read them to Józef. Józef intervened, though not with great conviction, and said that while he would love to listen to Rabi’s latest poems, he was wondering if they could start their literary ride with a reading of his work. Rabi agreed. And so Józef opened his document and began to read. But he was very bad at reading; he had difficulty pronouncing his own words. After the first paragraph or so, Rabi asked if he could read instead. Józef passed him the papers, but because of the multiple cross-outs on the document, Rabi could not read it either. The papers went back to Józef. This time he took to reading them with great effort, with a level of concentration that even the sometimes bumpy ride could not break. He read on. He read on as they traversed the city of Calcutta and reached the countryside. Rabi listened intently, and it helped that Józef had taken to reading very slowly. When Józef was done, Rabi asked for the carriage to proceed towards the Legacy, not talking about his poetry.

How did you find it? Józef asked after a few uneasy minutes. Rabi did not respond, and as Józef waited he felt his skin come alive and quiver. He waited and waited for Rabi to say something. The hotel arrived. Józef commenced to step down from the carriage, but just then Rabi held his hand.

“Nature is all that is left in this country of mine, this country of mine that is today ravaged by a kind of man whose greed I find bemusing. I turn to this man’s art because that is the only way I can reach his heart, and I wish to bring that art to my country, in a form relevant to my country. What allows me this bridge is the fact that I understand this man’s language, or have friends who know this man’s language. But you’re not this man, Mr Konrad. You’re neither me, nor this man that I talk of. You’re a Polish sailor, come on an English ship, come to an Indian city. I’m home. Even a British man is at home in Calcutta. You are not. By all means, write in English, but do not try so hard to supersede the British in being British. I myself am not immune to this tendency, but this tendency needs to be fought against with all the strength it demands. Mr Konrad, Józef, have you considered the possibility of a white man who will never be the captor, the master, the colonist? The white man who can see things from a third perspective, if there could be one. It is then that you may give the British folk something they’ve never had in their own language, something they can never have on their own.

“My friend, the British eye is sullied by the conquest of the world. Ask questions of this, of the notion of conquest. It is something I cannot do, but is your great privilege, one that I feel you are yet to discover and exercise.”

THAT NIGHT JÓZEF WENT to the Armenian charnel house and into Kohar’s chamber. But then he demanded that the neighbouring Alin also join them. And then he demanded Pari as well. He got drunk and lost his sense of self. He drowned in bodies, practised debaucheries again and again. He felt a queer vertigo when he was done. But as the vertigo subsided he began to be piqued by shards of the same unnameable fear that he had felt on the last night aboard the Tilkhurst. That fear had exploded, that fear had been shattered. But the shattering had created these shards. And it had made him bleed. He had bled and his blood was a black bile colouring his entire being.

That night, when in a drunken stupor he returned to his room at the Legacy, he sat down immediately at his desk and began to write. He wrote and wrote and wrote till dawn broke and the birds bustled about in confusion. What he had written was a single scene, of a brown man killing a white man with a dagger that had a handle with intricate curlicues, the scene having no introduction and no resolution, like a senseless dream. Something told Józef that he had written a dream that he had not dreamt yet. He was convinced it was the best thing he had ever written in his life, in any language.

It was then that the captain’s voice boomed through the Legacy. Gird your loins and pack your sacks, sailors!