"Hope it's as exciting as it sounds!"
That was my neighbour's comment this morning when I said I was heading off to Bloomsbury to attend my very first ephemera fair.
He had his golf clubs on his shoulder, and was heading for Wanstead Flats to play a round or two in the rain. And I hope that was as exciting as it sounds, too!
So, what happens at an ephemera fair? Well, there were thirty or forty stalls selling postcards, pamphlets, prints, posters, itsy bits of paper, maps, books, all sorts of stuff - very well organised and convivial, and well attended too. It was mainly men of a certain age - but I can hardly complain about that.
And I suppose you want to know what I came away with? Well, I'm going to tell you anyway. I got a few books, all ridiculously cheap - so the 1885 Report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, with all 800 pages of minuted evidence, for £3! (OK, so it was disbound, and I guess a couple of pages of the index are missing - but still a bargain).
The pamphlet above was published by the National Council of Labour, apparently in 1935, both denouncing and mocking Oswald Mosley and his blackshirted British Union of Fascists. Mosley had visited Mussolini a few years earlier - and that's the subject of the biting Will Dyson cartoon on the cover.
But my favourite is this wonderful poster - slightly larger than foolscap - published by the CP in January 1943, when communist concern to support the war effort and so save Soviet Russia extended to speeding up production and making capitalism work more efficiently, whatever the drain it put on the workforce. This was the CP's 'Home Front' - and there's a freshness about the drawing and colouring which I find very beguiling. Richard Gold (from whom I bought this) tells me the artist was Elizabeth Shaw - there's an obituary of her here and a nice piece with photo from the Irish Times. According to her Wiki entry, she worked as a mechanic through much of the war ... so she practised what she preached.
So, that's what you come across at an ephemera fair!
'The Calcutta Key'
A gem from 1945 - a pocket-sized, 96 page guide for American troops about how to behave in Calcutta. It covers everything from getting post to getting condoms - and offers wise words about where to go in the city (and where's out of bounds - which seems to be most of the place), booze, dancing, Bengalis, girls, food - the lot.
There are of course part of this guide which make you wince. But for a booklet written seventy years ago, in a time of war, and for soldiers in the mighty American army who probably didn't rate Calcutta as their most favoured destination, it's a surprisingly engaging and at times sensitive document.
The tone of The Calcutta Key is folksy, at times rather patronising, but a lot better than the over formal, hugely prescriptive regulations that many other armies would have resorted to. It breaks the news to GIs that in Calcutta they are 'Europeans' - so much for the war of independence!
Rather impressively, US soldiers are advised: '... after the war, in any permanent plan for peace that includes (and must include) Southest Asia, India must and will assume a prominent role. You are a practical person from a practical nation. You can see that it makes sense for anyone to cultivate a lasting friendship with India. Go to it, then. YOU - you're the one who is going to do it. It is a part of YOUR JOB.'
And the list of 'do's' (and so by implication 'don'ts') looks fairly sensible - no one imagines that all American soldiers heeded this advice, but they should have done:
Perhaps inevitably, it's the section about women and prostitutes which jars most: 'Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected [with VD] (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%.' Inaccurate, disrespectful, and very probably ineffective in dissuading the troops from paying for sex.
The guide contains a map of Calcutta which demonstrates that most of the city was out-of-bounds for US soldiers - though it would have been quite a task policing that restriction.
The entire text, along with illustrations, has been posted online. It is one of my better eBay purchases. And of course you wonder about whose copy this was, and what use they made of the advice - whether they survived the war and took this home as a keepsake.
Loosely folded into the pages of the booklet was this slip - the cyclostyled words of a wartime drinking song. I can't imagine this was official US Army issue - but who knows. It does, though, personalise the booklet and those who made use of it, and give a sense of the human experience of war and its privations.
Of course, for many Bengalis, the privations of war were much more intense - the province succumbed to a dreadful famine in which huge numbers perished. The guide makes reference to that in such a matter-of-fact way that it comes across as distinctly callous.Not inaccurate, not impersonal, but simply descriptive about an immense tragedy for which the colonial authorities (Brits not Americans, of course) were widely held to be culpable.
LATER: many thanks for all the interest in this posting. Suchetana in Calcutta has been in touch to mention an online album of photographs taken in Calcutta in 1945-46 by an American military photographer, Clyde Waddell. I am sure it will be of much wider interest - and here's the link. Thanks, Suchetana!
This isn't a good novel - it's a great novel.
The Lowland revisits some of the ground of Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent The Namesake (the film is good too). It's about Calcuttans who head to the US and immerse themselves in the academic world.
But this has a much stronger feel of Calcutta, and a much more powerful story line - about Naxalism, the narodnik-style Maoist-tinged revolutionary movement which gripped many of Calcutta's middle class youngsters in the late 60s and early 70s. Naxalism and the response to it brought the city to its knees, and destroyed a generation - killed, or badly damaged one way or another. The Lowland is a searing, tragic, troubling story - wonderfully told.
Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is shortlisted for the Booker, but not greatly fancied by the cognoscenti. By my reading, she must be in with a good chance.
Naxalism has had other powerful literary chroniclers, other great novels which have sought to explain its attraction, and the whirlwind reaped by those who were won over to it. Among them are the books below: Mahasweta Devi's Mother of 1084 - bleak, unsettling, unforgettable - was first published in Bengali in 1974 and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting for Rain appeared, again initially in Bengali, in 1985.
I've also been reading another fine book set in Calcutta - just published, it's the debut novel of a friend and colleague, Sanjay Dasgupta.
Other Lives, Other Fragments is an ambitious tale - a tragic family story which is woven alongside the most cathartic events in India's modern history: the terrible Bengal famine of the early 1940s; the acute Hindu-Muslim violence in Calcutta in 1946, and the upheavals which surrounded Partition a year later; the continuing turbulence in divided Bengal; the ripping apart of Pakistan in 1971 and birth of Bangladesh; the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi following Indira Gandhi's assassination; and such powerful themes as the increasing criminalisation of politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism. There's no Naxalism, but just about every other violent aspect of India's modern political landscape is there.
That's quite a lot to pack in to a novel - but it comes off well. And yes, umbrellas are very important to the plot. But I am not saying more - read it for yourself.
Twenty Years After
Twenty years ago this month, I set foot in India for the first time. A life changing trip.
I landed at Calcutta on Royal Jordanian airways - my luggage landed at Dharan in Saudi Arabia. It was mid June, sweltering. I took a taxi in from Dum Dum airport, and gagged with disbelief as we passed the stink of Tangra.
The Kenilworth hotel denied any knowledge of my room booking, but had a vacancy in the 'old' wing. A room as big as a ballroom, with lots of fauna - but the lights were so dim you couldn't see the cockroaches. Very thoughtful!
A great trip - met Jyoti Basu, then chief minister, and Mamata Banerjee, who's now in charge.
My task was to make a radio programme about Communism in West Bengal, which much to my amazement and delight attracted the most prestigious award I've ever won. (If you're curious, you can hear the programme on this page - it's the third in the series).
I fell in love with Cal - and I've never fallen out of love with the city.
The photo above is of a street scene in Calcutta, near the CPI(M) headquarters in Alimuddin Street - the flag is of the street hawkers' union. I managed to see a bit of Wet Bengal beyond Cal. The photo below was taken as I was interviewing villagers in Nadia region - I can't remember whether they were CPI(M) supporters, or people complaining about thuggery by party comrades.
I stopped at Delhi on the way back. A year later, I pitched up as BBC correspondent there. And the rest ...
The two Bengals
It's strange how Partition can disrupt political cultures so entirely - like twins being separated in adolescence, the same stock can have hugely different outcomes. Take Punjab - united prior to 1947 by a common language and a syncretic culture, Partition has cast the two halves if Punjab into hugely different political trajectories. Or Bengal on the other flank of the sub-continent. West Bengal turbulently pluralist - while Bangladesh has never quite found its feet, and much as in Pakistan, the army is the dominant institution.
All this is prompted by reading two pieces of journalism this weekend about the two Bengals. Ian Jack in the Guardian has been reading a revisionist history of Bangladesh - by an academic, a member of the Bose parivar, whose roots lie in West Bengal.
He lavishes praise on Sarmila Bose's Dead Reckoning. 'As all good history tends to do, it complicates and contradicts the heroic narrative of national struggle.' Her book - I've just started reading it and it is wonderfully well written - challenges the conventional Bangladeshi nationalist account of the killings amid which the nation was born. She suggests that the massacres by the Pakistani army and its sympathisers were nothing like as bloody as often recounted - and that the killing of Bengali Hindus and of Urdu-speaking Biharis by advocates of Bangladeshi independence were much more substantial that previously imagined.
The other article is Amit Chaudhuri's Diary in the London Review of Books - a chronicle of the final demise of 34 years of Communist-led state government in India's West Bengal. Communist dominance was an indirect consequence of Partition. Bengali Communists won the loyalty of East Bengali refugees - not their only 'vote bank', in Indian political parlance, but an important one. In the last few days, Communist croneyism has been voted out in favour of the shrill populism of Mamata Bannerjee, West Bengal's Joan of Arc (my analogy not Amit Chaudhuri's).
Reading it all, I pine for Alimuddin Street and Chowringhee and Calcutta's Maidan - and for that sight as you fly in to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport of 'the palm and plantain trees, low houses and ponds'. As they say in the west: 'Oh, Calcutta!'
Calcutta - that beguiling, maddening, beautiful city captured in all its complexity by the ever engaging Ian Jack in the Guardian
World Cup canvassing in Cal
Here's a clever piece of election canvassing! A candidate in the recent municipal elections in West Bengal - the state whose capital is mighty Calcutta - issued the election leaflet I've copied below (thanks Nazes!). Folded over with Bengali on the front and Englisn on the back - and inside, a World Cup match schedule.
You might not think that India is World Cup crazy. But it is! Especially its football capital, Calcutta. In thousands of homes, this election leaflet was given pride of place by the TV.
Which party alighted on this campaigning master stroke? A regional party, the Trinamool Congress. Which party came out on top in the elections? Correct!
The very first time I set foot in India was at Calcutta airport, back in 1992. I was making a radio documentary about the staying power of West Bengal's communists - you can hear it elsewhere on this site. Back then, Jyoti Basu's CPI(M) has been in power for fifteen unbroken years.
Fast forward another eighteen years to the present, and the Communists still govern West Bengal. Jyoti Basu, who at one stage came within a whisker of becoming India's Prime Minister, is now dead. But his party marches on.
Not for much longer, according to Jason Burke in today's Observer. He reports that the party is being outflanked by a populist split from Congress led by Mamata Banerjee - who I met on that first trip to Calcutta all those years ago. The party's epitaph has been written many times and they have proved remarkably resilient - but this time, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from Alimuddin Street (the CPI(M) headquarters).
Whatever, that first trip to India instilled in me a huge affection for Calcutta, which remains undimmed. A wonderful city with fantastic architecture and a vibrant culture.
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