Calcutta Nights: Hemendra Kumar Roy translated by Rajat Chaudhuri

Calcutta is beautiful. Wherever you place a camera, you get a vision. – Pradeep Sarkar

While Kolkata has long transformed into the city of Coloured stills; one cannot dismiss that Calcutta Nights still has a large part of it residing in the Black and White era of the past. Written originally by Hemendra Kumar Roy under the pseudonym of Meghnad Gupta, and translated by Rajat Chaudhuri decades later, Calcutta Nights explores the dark underbelly of the city which existed time immemorial untouched by the development of the society. ‘From Chitpur bordellos to Chinese opium dens, the darkest secrets of the city of palaces’ have been exposed by the writer-translator.

From the lives of prostitutes to the trafficking rackets as depicted by modern-day Crime Shows all find a mention in the pages of the book. It is interesting to note that the book was written way back in 1923, however, incidents, instances, and mindsets of the people have hardly changed from back then. Women have been acutely objectified with the use of words like ‘dish’, ‘merchandise’, ‘goods’  with a recurring usage of the phrase ‘fallen women’ to denote sex-workers. Standing on the other side of the journey many have accepted this profession as fate, many rebel day and night to leave the web of sexual abuse, and many enter willingly and have a zeal to thrive. But most often than not ‘Her laughter is the veil for sorrow’.

Chinatown today is quite well-known for Chinese restaurants, Chinese New Year celebrations, Dragon Dance, Chinese Temples; but do people remember the once-thriving opium dens of the Chinese neighbourhood -an addiction bred by many gentlemen to relieve themselves of their burdens through opium and more.

The narrative takes the readers through the Nimtala Ghats, the famous burial grounds in the city known for its sacredness and ritualistic importance. But do the residents of the ghats acknowledge it thus? Or is it a monotonous job that they have long stopped to care about except smiling profusely and telling the history of the place to tourists to earn a few extra notes?  These and much more seemingly ‘normal’ and ‘historic’ places are dwelling houses of the sins. Stories and instances narrated by the author tell the readers how intriguing the underbelly of the city actually is and how this whole new world has been created by the people of the city themselves – or rather their desires!

A chapter on the playhouses – theatre- of Calcutta truly illustrates how theatres played with the emotions of the people. Whether it be the start of an illicit affair; or keeping a mistress; whether it be a man or a woman running away with the actors; or starting a lustful relation; these became the natural backstage nuances at a playhouse. Remember Tagore’s Manbhanjan? Not everything is fiction!

Calcutta Nights takes the readers on a journey through the seasons, the festivities, the social hierarchy, and the economic classes keeping in mind always the psyche of the situation or the person in question. The description of every chapter is like a scene unfolding in front of one’s eyes; similar to the old photographs/hand-drawn scenes one sees in a museum. From the baijis singing in the goondas den to the silent sneaking away of preys to a dark corner on a moonless night; to the loud glamour of the deprived to find a prey and earn a penny, to the unraised brows of the workers on seeing women in places of significance, alone and searching . . . . . . . Calcutta Nights is a collection and depiction of the emotions of the night. But what was written decades ago holds true for society even today. The narrow lanes of the sex-workers’ gully or the plush hotels outside which one would find ladies waiting till midnight; the modern Babus in suits visiting opium dens or ghats to relieve their stress; the entwined web of  willingness, unwillingness, fate and above all the emerging crime from the darkest nights of all times.  . . . . . the story of Calcutta Nights that is here to remain . . . . . . .

Publisher: Paper Missile, Niyogi Books

No. of pages: 131

Available on: Flipkart/ Amazon 


Story Slam Marks the eve of city’s first Storytelling Day

Poster for Story Slam made by Squares and Circles

Are we not fond of stories? Story telling has come a long way out of our grandmother’s kitties in our childhood to becoming a  prominent part of mainstream art , with storytelling groups, professional storytellers, workshops, lectures, theatres , start-ups and the lot coming into existence. Interestingly, each year India celebrates various ‘Days’ but never until 2017 has it celebrated World Storytelling Day on the 20th of March. Thus, Priyanka Chatterjee of Wild Strawberry came up with the concept of having a week-long celebration of this grand event which was to be celebrated in the City of Joy for the first time.

Arpita Nag, giving a performance at the Story Slam Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
SanjuktaSarkar Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
ShubhashisGhosh Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas

As a prelude to the World Storytelling Day on the 20th, Wild Strawberry organised the Story Slam on the 19th of March from 5pm to 7pm in Au Bon Pain, Park Street. The concept of the program was very simple with 14 registered participants telling stories in front of an audience. The narration of these stories were of different types from puppetry to dance drama to simple narration. Each participant enthralled the audience with their storytelling skills.  Shubhashis Ghosh , a story teller for the evening says,  “When a storyteller by heart, gets an opportunity to tell a story and listen to a wide range of stories too on the occasion of World Storytelling Day, then you can understand how glad that person will be. Thank you Wild Strawberry for providing such a platform. I’m ready with lot more interesting stories for upcoming events like this” Another performer, Sanjukta Sarkar went on to say, “The process of telling stories adhered to the theme of ‘Transformation’, because it was a transforming experience in itself. With so many story tellers reading out their souls, we were part of an inspiring session, where we traded magical words.” Paroma Sengupta also commented, “I loved the concept of the Story Slam and think it is a wonderful way of celebrating World Storytelling Day. I enjoyed participating in the event and hope there will be many more such events in the city!” 

The participants for the evening were: Biyas Dutta, Priyanka Chatterjee, Arpita Nag, Somolekha Sur, Pragya Goel Gupta, Sanjukta Sarkar, Shubhashish Ghosh, Paroma Sengupta, Sriradha Paul, Kamala Kanta Mistri, Shesadri Shekhar Das, Indrajit Lahiri, Swapna Sen and  Sougoto Sarkar.

A Sanskrit Story in progress Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
A dance recital by Sriradha Paul Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
Somolekha Sur Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas

Apart from the story telling sessions by fourteen participants, there was also the newly introduced concept of book tasting. Here, people could browse through some of the best-sellers and read their reviews written by readers. The audience had appreciated the performances and the concept very much.  Raymond Rozario , who attended such an event for the first time said, “Being my first time at a storytelling event, it was a wonderful experience. Enjoyed the unique forms of storytelling through dance, recital and puppetry. Perhaps simple, low-key events such as this will spread the love for & interest for art forms for many years to come.Shilpa Bhaskaran, another spectator also commented that, “The Storytelling Slam was an event to celebrate the storyteller in each one of us. Every story shared was unique, beautifully narrated, and had a touch of innocence that added to the hues of the canvas called Life. I look forward to similar events, which would bring out the creative genius in each one of us.

A Glimpse of Book Tasting Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
Puppeteers in actions Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
A performance by Biyas Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas

What interested the audience in general were the different forms of art- oratory, voice modulation, acting, puppetry , dance  and even the use of Sanskrit language to narrate stories – that were used while performing. This created an interesting atmosphere in the event and captured the attention of the audience with a wide array of performances. The event was open to everyone, from all walks of life to come, share, listen, participate or just watch. In fact our tiniest storyteller Biyas was only seven years old.

This event gave a platform and an impetus to all to display their skills of story-telling in front of an audience. Certificates and gifts were given to not only the participants but also to the audience to encourage them into the field of story-telling and also be supportive and attend such events in the future .

Pragya Goel Gupta Photo Courtesy: SamitBiswas
Priyanka Chatterjee in action Photo Courtesy: Samit Biswas

To conclude, it would have been impossible to host such a successful event without the partners –Squares and Circles , the Design partner; Au Bon Pain , the Venue Partner and Mesh, the Gift Partner. Assitej India and Assitej International have always been a boosting factor for events such as these. They have always supported and helped in the implementation of artistic events for the city and the country as a whole. In fact, with their support, it has become possible to continue the celebrations for almost over a week throughout the City of Joy.