Chowringhee@60: The iconic book which defined popular Bengali fiction

The mobile phone that doubles as his landline kept ringing in novelist Mani Sankar Mukherjee aka Sankar’s first floor flat overlooking the busy Bondel Road, once an industrial suburb of the megacity and now a tony neighbourhood.

It’s just three days to go for the 60th-anniversary celebrations of his popular novel ‘Chowringhee’ and fans, fellow novelists and publishing executives have been calling up to ask about the iconic best-seller’s 122nd edition on the workings and intimate life behind the neon lights of a big city hotel in Kolkata, the quintessential cultural melting pot of the former British empire, which predated Arthur Hailey’s ‘Hotel’ by three years.

The book, his second, which he wrote some seven years after his debut novel, first came out as serialised fiction in the weekly Bengali magazine ‘Desh’ and was published on June 10, 1962 the day of his marriage, as a novel which over the decades has gripped the imagination of millions of readers not only in Bengali but also English, Hindi, Malayalam, French and Spanish.

‘Chowringhee’, Sankar told PTI was an “attempt to break the jinx and answer the taunt that I was just a one-book author”.

“I had for some time then been praying that the ‘one book author’ tag somehow be wiped off,” Sankar reminiscenced in an interview.

“Some said ‘one book authors’ are like potato plants nothing after the first harvest,” he said with a wry smile.

One day in the midst of a sudden shower as he stood in the awning of a book shop, Sankar kept looking at the bright neon signage of the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee Street and “it dawned upon me that I knew the workings and intimate life of big hotels having interacted with virtually everyone at Kolkata’s Spence’s Hotel and Wilson’s Hotel where my former and late boss, the barrister Noel Barlow used to stay as a permanent guest”.

A short poem in one of the books he had bought also caught his attention – ‘Our life is but a winter’s day; Some only breakfast and away; Others to dinner and are full fed; The oldest man but sups and goes to bed; He that goes soonest has the least to pay.’

“The ditty stared me in the face… I discovered my ‘Chowringhee’ in my own experiences,” the Sahitya Akademi award-winning author, who has used the little-known poem by AC Muffen as a starting point in his book, said.

Revolving around the larger-than-life Greek hotelier Marco Polo, debonair receptionist ‘Sata’ Bose, Scottish stripper Connie, the Goanese musician Gomez, Jimmy the steward, the author himself as a hotel clerk and hostess Kaberi at the fictional ‘Shahjahan’ hotel, it gave a peep into the lives and business intrigues of Kolkata’s top industrial families who stayed or entertained there, attaining cult status.

Ultimately the hotel where the rich and famous cut deals, had illicit affairs, met charlatans as they sipped Manhattans and watched cabaret artistes clothed only in balloons, changed hands with a business tycoon Aggarwala taking over the property. Sankar is among those who have to march out, replaced by an “attractive girl” at the front desk.

Meticulous research mixed with a flair for telling his tale carried the day. Among other things, Sankar, a teetotaller, spent weeks haunting the best bars in the city under the cover of a trainee in the state liquor department to learn the names of cocktails and how they are made. This eye for detail, earned him the sobriquet India’s Arthur Hailey among many discerning readers.

Said Samantak Das, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University and professor of comparative literature, “The book made a defining contribution to popular Bengali fiction and has an epochal, timeless appeal which captures the cosmopolitan character of its protagonists and the city.”

Agreed Arunava Sinha, well-known writer and translator who did the English version of Chowringhee, “The story is about a salad bowl of cosmopolitan characters who mix and yet retain their unique identity, that is what gives it a universal appeal across languages and across time. In one word it’s a modern classic.”

A score of editions later, the Chowringhee was turned into an Uttam Kumar-Supriya Devi blockbuster movie and both the book and the film were popularly acclaimed. Songs from the movie, such as Manna Dey’s classic ‘Boro Eka lagey’ and Hemanta Mukherjee’s romantic ‘Kache Robe’ remain popular with listeners even after more than five decades and are still played on radio and televisions in both India and Bangladesh, where his books — some legitimately imported and some pirated — remain equally popular.

“I watched the movie sitting next to Uttam Kumar in the premiere show at Ujwala Talkies. I told him, you look better than the ‘Sata’ Bose, I created,” Sankar said, diplomatically avoiding a discussion of how close the movie was to his book.

In a testimony to the novel’s continued popularity, director Srijit Mukherji made a film based on it just a year before the pandemic hit Indian shores titled ‘Shahjahan Regency’.

The iconic work keeps drawing new readers, drawing inspiration from another classic writer Rudyard Kipling, the bard of imperialism, whom Sankar quotes in ‘Chowringhee’s’ ending lines, “All good Calcutta has gone to bed, the last tram has passed… There is nothing clean or pure or wholesome under the stars, and we are all going to perdition together.

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