India

Kolkata, my ancestors, and me

Kolkata artisan
Image caption A specialist idol maker sleeps among dozens of half-finished statues of the Goddess Durga

Author William Dalrymple has visited the Indian city of Kolkata, where he brought back some striking photos - and connected with his Bengali roots.

"Calcutta," wrote the British colonial general Clive, "is one of the most wicked places in the Universe... Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception."

In the late 18th Century, the British bridgehead in Bengal was the City of Palaces, littered with magnificent Palladian mansions, and already the jewel among England's overseas trading stations.

It was a city where great wealth could be accumulated in a matter of months, then lost in minutes in a wager or at the whist table.

Death, from disease or excess, was commonplace, and the constant presence of mortality made men callous: they would mourn briefly for some perished friend, then bid drunkenly for his effects.

Like many Scots trying to make ends meet in the past couple of centuries, generations of my family were born, lived and died in what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata), and their houses and graves still lie scattered all across the city.

The first out was Stair Dalrymple, who died in the Black Hole in 1756 and whose name can be found on the Memorial in St John's Church.

My great-grandfather Walter was born there as recently as a century ago, and was - so I've now discovered - part-Bengali.

No one in my family seemed to know about this, though it should not have been a surprise: we had all heard the stories of how our beautiful, dark-eyed, Calcutta-born great-great-grandmother, Sophia Pattle, with whom the painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones had fallen in love, used to speak Bengali with her sisters and was painted by Frederick Watts with a rakhi - a Hindu sacred thread - tied around her wrist.

But it was only when I poked around in the archives that I discovered that she and Walter were descended from a Hindu Bengali woman from Chandernagore (now spelled as Chandannagar), who had converted to Catholicism, taken the name Marie Monica and married a French officer.

I recently returned to Calcutta to see Durga Puja - the great annual festival of the city in honour of the great Goddess who is worshipped on this occasion as a symbol of familial love.

I watched statues of the Goddess be sculpted from mud and straw by specialist idol makers, then brought into worship for a week, before finally being immersed in the Ganges.

Image caption The idols are sculpted from mud and straw
Image caption A group of people take the deity for immersion
Image caption Bringing the deity to the river
Image caption Immersing the deity

"It breaks my heart to take this wonderful statue to the river and drop it in," said Abhoy Bhattacharjee, who was organising one of the pujas. "It is a moment beyond tears. Durga is our mother. The very day after the immersion we begin counting again until the next Durga Puja."

But I also went to rediscover some of my lost Bengali roots.

Over the course of the Durga Puja week, I toured what remained of the graves, monuments and houses and palaces that my ancestors must have known, ranging from the great Marble Palace of the Mullick family in north Calcutta, through the National Library, once the centre of the administration of Warren Hastings, to South Park Street Cemetery, St John's Church where my great grandfather was baptised, and the crumbling mansions of Garden Reach where he was brought up.

Image caption The National Library, once the Governor General's Lodge
Image caption The South Park Street cemetery
Image caption Belvedere House

Both worlds came together when I saw images of the Goddess immersed at Prinsep Ghat, which was named after my Orientalist great uncle, James Prinsep, who unlocked the secrets of Kharoshti and Ashoka Brahmi, the script of the Ashoka Pillars, so rediscovering a whole new chapter of forgotten ancient Indian history.

The effort cost him his life: he developed "an affectation of the brain, and by the time he was bundled aboard the Herefordshire to be sent home, "his mind was addled".

On the wall of St John's Church there I found a memorial to my favourite Calcutta ancestor, James Pattle, my great great grandfather.

Pattle became famous as "the biggest liar in India" after he allegedly claimed to have rowed across the Atlantic in a hen coop.

According to the memoir of another of his great-grandchildren, Virginia Woolf - who also shares my trickle of Bengali blood - Pattle eventually drank himself to death and was put in a casket of rum to preserve him during the voyage back to England.

Image caption The great Marble Palace of the Mullick family in north Calcutta
Image caption Inside the Marble Palace

His wife had the cask placed outside her bedroom door. In the middle of the night there was a violent explosion, and when the widow rushed out into the passage, she found the container had burst and her husband half in, half out of the barrel.

"The shock sent her off her head then and there, poor thing, and she died raving…" But the worst was yet to come. The cask was nailed down and put on board ship.

Image caption An old mansion in Bhanderhati
Image caption An old temple in the city

Sometime after the boat had set off, the sailors guessed it was full of liquor, bored a hole into the side of it and began to get drunk. The rum continued to run out, caught fire and set the ship ablaze.

While the drunken sailors were trying to extinguish the flames, the ship ran onto a rock and blew up. So it was that Pattle was cremated rather than buried in Britain, as he had wished.

William Dalrymple is a writer and historian. He is the author, most recently, of Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan

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