AN IRISH DOCTOR, CANNABIS AND THE INDIAN TELEGRAPH SYSTEM

Telegraph Office, Calcutta (Kolkata) - 1878

If one reads Purnendu Pattrea’s Purono Kolkatar Kathachitra (Tales of Old Calcutta), there is a fascinating list of Calcutta’s wonders listed at the start of the book in an old song by Rupchand Pokkhi. Rupchand lived between 1815 and 1890. The song compares Calcutta rather grandly to the celestial court of Indra.

“ধন্য ধন্য কলিকাতা শহর স্বর্গের জ্যেষ্ঠ সহোদর
পশ্চিমে জানহবী দেবী দক্ষিণে গঙ্গাসাগর
(পূবে বাদা চিংড়ীহাটা পদ্মা নদী তদুত্তর)
হেস্টিংস ব্রীজ বাগবাজার, এই আয়তন তার
সারকিউলার রোড পোরমিট ধার, চতুঃসীমা সার”

Calcutta, you are elder brother (superior) to the very heavens
To your west flows the Janhabi and to your south is Gangasagar
To your east lies Chingrihata and the river Padma to the north
Hastings Bridge to Bagbazar, this far stretch your limits
Circular Road and the Permit zone, make up your four sides.

“অতুল্য মর্ত ভুবনে, বৈকুণ্ঠ যায় হার মেনে, হেরে টেলিগ্রাফ
বলে বাপ, লাজে লুকায় পুরন্দর
(তারেতে তার, বর্ণ বিস্তার, ধন্য শিল্পী কারিকর)
তার হেরে তাঁর লাগল দিশে, তারে তারে খপর এসে
ছয় মাসের পথ এক দিবসে, মেলে তত্ব অনাসে
ধন্য ডাক্তার ওসগনেসী, সকলকে করেছেন খুশী
ব্রিটন দেশী গুণরাশী, সুখে বসি হউন অমর
(রোগশোক তাপ নাশি হউক সরল অন্তর)”

Rupchand seems to have been especially awed by the telegraph as he devotes the next eight lines to that miracle of modern communication. He describes the telegraph as incomparable to anything on earth. The gods admit defeat and hide as wires carry news that once took six months in a matter of days. He then goes on to praise a doctor Oshognessy (Rupchand’s pronunciation) who has made everyone happy.

It took me a while to figure out that the doctor who is showered with blessings and ardent wishes for his continued good health was actually Doctor William O’Shaughnessy and a fascinating character. As a doctor in England he discovered that the blood of cholera victims was generally deficient in water and salts and became the first person to suggest intravenous saline and oral re-hydration therapy.
O’Shaughnessy went to India in 1833 like a lot of his contemporaries. This brain drain saw nearly 30% of Trinity graduates emigrate to India by 1860.
Two years later he was a professor at the newly created Calcutta Medical College. He worked across a range of disciplines and developed methods to detect specific poisons such as arsenic, first used zinc to prevent rusting and experimented with the use of colour in photography. He observed the use of cannabis in various folk remedies among his patients. This led to a study of its effects and his use of its extract as a painkiller and muscle relaxant in diseases such as arthritis, rabies and tetanus.

OShaughnessy

Outside his duties as a doctor, he conducted experiments in telegraphy at the Botanic Garden in Shibpore. The first telegraph line was laid between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour. He returned to England to present his various discoveries and inventions to the scientists of the time. Upon his return to India in 1844, Lord Dalhousie set O’Shaughnessy to work on telegraphy. 4000 miles of telegraph wires were laid in India between 1853 to 1856.

Rupchand Pokkhi and contemporary Indians were not the only people to thank O’Shaughnessy for his work on the telegraphs. He was knighted in 1856. As the British had realised, whoever controlled the telegraph wires, controlled the news; whoever controlled the news could also control the country.

Info: The web

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Aubergine affaire d’amour

Skin that shines, as though the finest oils of Morocco have been anointing each luscious inch since it was first revealed to this world.
Voluptuous curves that could make the beauties of Hindostan sigh in surrender.
Flesh, sweet and unmarked – made for worship – by all the senses.
A shawl of fine wool feels drab next to its glowing form.

Will the nawab of Hyderabad win with a Bagara baingan or will the Greeks prevail with a Moussaka? Will the Mandarin conquer all with Salt and Pepper eggplant or will a simple peasant leave them all behind with smokey bharta?

I really need to get a handle on this craving, this one is going to be bartered for figs. Figs, silky and soft to the touch…….begun

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The Writer’s Buildings of Calcutta

Young man, go East …………..but at your own peril!

Considering that a large number of the East India Company clerks or writers were younger sons who had little or no claim to the family fortunes and the rest had hardly any fortunes to speak of, it was only natural for a young writer to turn reckless once they were aboard the ship taking them to India and the untold riches they hoped to find on the subcontinent.

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The writer was fitted out in a manner suitable for a representative of one of the richest companies of England at the time

George Annesley, Viscount Valentia described the young clerks or writers brought out to Calcutta by the East India Company to keep records and accounts thus:

“There are few of these young men who do not keep their horses, commonly their curricles, and, in many instances, their race-horses, which, together with the extravagant parties and entertainments frequent among them, generally involve them in difficulties and embarrassments at an early period of their lives.”

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A young writer smoking his hookah while his servant waits with a refill.
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Writer’s Building in the 1800s
Today the Writer’s Building still houses a few government ministers, clerks and their files.

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A rainbow cone at IKEA

For someone like me who has been in Australia for most of her life, it can sometimes be easy to forget about the things that bring a large number of people to these shores. When I came here, I was not forced to leave my previous home by war or upheaval. I came to start a new life of course, but it was not accompanied by anything greater than the usual sense of being separated from her parents that a newly married Indian woman might experience.

Now of course, the news is full of photos of asylum seekers and refugees on creaky boats trying to make the short trip between Indonesia and Australia undetected, there are waiting lists to Indonesia and back for humanitarian visas and even my own parents waited for seven years to get their permanent residence visas. For once you do get in, a world opens up that brings security, employment, peace, the best healthcare in the world and a hundred other benefits with it.

But yesterday at the shops, while we figured out how to get past the fifteen items or less rule at the self checkout aisle (it is easy, just stop after every 15 and pay for them before starting again), I noticed a group of about twelve young people, possibly in their twenties. They hadn’t bought much and yet they did not seem ready to leave. They each carried the free pencils and paper tape measures the store has for customers. Most noticeable of all was the fact that they came from at least four different places based on appearance alone; Africa, South east Asia, Afghanistan and Tibet or Mongolia. As I watched them move uncertainly as a group to the exit and back again, I realised they were part of a migrant education program, possibly being taught about shopping in Australia. I found myself thinking of the wonderful floor displays I had just seen minutes earlier and of the hundreds of Australian young people who cannot wait to start living away from their parents with things they have often grown up with; a childhood desk, a spare bed from the parents, an old dining table from the grandmother who might be giving her things away. I thought of how it feels like, to wake up each morning and not see a single familiar thing around you but not have to worry about being shot at or judged for your religion or your race. And just as I was getting very serious about the whole war and peace thing, I noticed the whole group move, very certain this time, to something to my left. I waited and wondered what it was that they were eventually buying. I did not have to wait too long; they soon appeared, each with a double scoop of soft serve in a cone, some covered in sprinkles, others with a Flake bar stuck on top jauntily.

At that moment, all that scholarly, grown up stuff about war and peace and boat people and population pressures on a rapidly drying continent flew right out of my head and I realised that what this country still offers to people who come here is this; the ability to have an ice cream when one feels like it, where one wants it and in the company of friends. No one bats an eye at the sight of men and women laughing at something or even nothing and most people do not mind if you wear a head scarf or if your head scarf slips a little to reveal a gorgeous head of curls. I am not saying that everything about this place is perfect, but for a good five minutes at IKEA yesterday, it seemed very close to heaven. It felt like home.

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Red Browed Finches in the Garden

It took two years of planting, growing, flowering, seeding and not tidying the garden up to get the New Holland honey eaters to come to the garden. They came tentatively at first, one at a time, cautious about where they sat and with an eye on the nearest bit of sky. In those early days they never stayed long and they never visited while there was a human around. I only saw them from the kitchen window.
Then they came in twos and then in crowds. Like teenagers at the mall, they showed interest in nearly nothing but still had to be there. They squabbled a lot, mostly over imagined slights to rank and roost.

Today, afternoon visits to the garden can be cut short by plucky honey eaters with families on their minds, checking branches for stability and nest bearing capacity. No bigger than a hand span in length, they make up for lack of size with fierce stares from white rimmed eyes, sharp beaks and quick darting flights. They seem to love sitting side saddle on bamboo canes put in to support beans and peas. Needless to say, the canes are left in these days to provide seating, long after the beans have been pulled out. They leave the chubby sparrows to sit on the more sedate seating provided by the fences, showing off as they fly away leaving the bamboo vibrating in response.

Last year I noticed finches in the garden for the first time. They were there one minute and gone the next, chipping away at thistle heads left by a lazy gardener who knows all about one year’s seed being seven years of weeds and still does not get to them all in time. She figures a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Obviously, what is wrong for her is perfect as a finch snack. But the finches came only once that year. A little mob of four which looked so like our own Gouldian finches that I thought for a little while that ours had escaped. They weren’t Gouldians of course, but the much plainer red browed or even the zebra finches who are the poor Cinderellas of the finch world. They did not stay long enough for any kind of proper identification.

But suddenly today I see a little crowd of them, red about the face and plain beige in the body with little black bars across the tops of their wings, swinging among the bamboo canes like a group of retired clowns in too tight tuxedos, breathless with too much drink and too little practice whooping it up one last time under the big top. Even the sun came out briefly to shine a light on them. But this did not last for long. A solitary honey eater came out of nowhere and darted this way and that, causing a great deal of squeaking and chirping. Before the camera could be activated, it was all over. The honey eater even flew back and took a little swing on the cane itself, self important and smug. I put the camera away, quite annoyed with all the honey eaters in all the wide world. But more than a little pleased secretly that the bamboo appeals to more than one kind of bird. There will always be another chance to take a photo. Let’s hope they will not be put off by the reception and make the garden a regular stop.

Here is to more untidy bits and thistle heads!

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সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে/If I had learned to play the Sarod

সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে

আমার এমন কিছু দুঃখ আছে যার নাম তিলক কামোদ
এমন কিছু স্মৃতি যা সিন্ধুভৈরবী
জয়জয়ন্তীর মতো বহু ক্ষত রয়ে গেছে ভিতর দেয়ালে
কিছু কিছু অভিমান
ইমনকল্যাণ।
সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে বড় ভালো হতো।
পুরুষ কিভাবে কাঁদে সেই শুধু জানে।

কার্পেটে সাজানো প্রিয় অন্তঃপুরে ঢুকে গেছে জল।
মুহুর্মুহু নৌকাডুবি, ভেসে যায় বিরুদ্ধ নোঙর।
পৃথিবীর যাবতীয় প্রেমিকের সপ্তডিঙা ডুবেছে যেখানে
সেখানে নারীর মতো পদ্ম ফুটে থাকে।
জল হাসে, জল তার চুড়িপরা হাতে,
নর্তকীর মতো নেচে ঘুরে ঘুরে ঘাগরার ছোবলে
সব কিছু কেড়ে নেয়, কেড়ে নিয়ে ফের ভরে দেয়
বাসি হয়ে যাওয়া বুকে পদ্মগন্ধ, প্রকাশ্য উদ্যান।
এই অপরূপ ধ্বংস, মরচে-পড়া ঘরে দোরে চাঁপা এই চুনকাম
দরবারী কানাড়া এরই নাম?

সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে বড় ভালো হতো।
পুরুষ কীভাবে বাঁচে সেই শুধু জানে।

~ সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে
হে সময় অশ্বারোহী হও, পুর্ণেন্দু পত্রী

***

If I had learned to play the Sarod

Some of my regrets I have named Tilak Kamod
Some of my memories sing of Sindhu Bhairavi
Some of my deepest scars still live on like Jay Jayanti
Some of my injured pride, Yaman Kalyan.
It would have been wonderful if I had learned to play the sarod
Only it knows how a man weeps.

The tide has entered my beloved home with its carpeted floors
Again and again my boat sinks, the contrary anchor floating away
There, where every lover’s seven masted fleet will sink
Blooms a lotus, fair as a woman
The currents smile, water spilling from her jewelled wrists
Insinuating, with each move like a dancer’s twirling skirts
It takes your all, it gives it all back, again and then again
Lotus scented air within the stale heart, in the open garden
This magnificent ruin, this gold varnishing of my rusted doors
Is this Darbari Kanara?

It would have been wonderful if I had learned to play the sarod
Only it knows how a man lives.

~If I had learned to play the Sarod
Time, the hour to ride is now
Purnendu Pattrea

Sarod: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKfItsXycHk&index=6&list=RDm0oX6dy76Vw

Posted in Modern Bengali Poetry, Poetry, Purnendu Pattrea, Translated Poetry | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

John Lang: From Botany Bay to Bombay

John Lang was born in Sydney, a second generation Australian whose grandfather had been sent to the fledgling penal colony at Botany Bay for stealing a pair of spoons. He was educated partly at Cambridge and partly at other less stuffy institutions after being thrown out of Cambridge for drunkenness and climbing onto a roof to tip a chamber pot over one of its spires.

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He went to Calcutta to practice law and ended up defending Indians against the corrupt East India Company. His clients ranged from Indian business men that the Company had conveniently forgotten to pay all the way to the fiery queen of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai. The Company was trying to confiscate her estates as she had no children!

While not practicing law and being a thorn in Britain’s well padded side, he learnt Hindi and Farsi and managed to write over twenty novels, poetry, essays and sketches. He was always typically Australian, a champion of the downtrodden and fiercely sarcastic in his observations of the British in India.

He also published a newspaper the Mofussolite, mofussil being a word that denotes provincial in India.

He died at 47 in 1864, his drinking and the heat being what killed him in the end. His grave can still be seen in Mussoorie.

***
“It behoves me, however, to inform the reader that, recently, the tone of Anglo-Indian society during the hot seasons is very much improved. Six or seven years ago there never was a season that did not end as unhappily as that which I have attempted to describe; but it is now four years since I heard of a duel in the Upper Provinces–upwards of four years since I heard of a victim to gambling, and nearly three since there was an elopement. It is true that the records of courts-martial still occasionally exhibit painful cases; but, if we compare the past with the present, we must admit that the change is very satisfactory. I do not attribute this altered state of things to the vigilance of commanding officers, or the determination of the commanders-in-chief to punish severely those who offend. It is due chiefly to the improved tone of society in England, from which country we get our habits and manners. The improvement in the tone of Indian society has been very gradual. Twenty years ago India was famous for its infamy. Ten years ago it was very bad. It is now tolerable. In ten years from this date, if not in less time, Indian society will be purged entirely of those evils which now prey upon it, and trials for drunkenness and other improper conduct will happen as rarely as in England. Year by year this communication between our fatherland and the upper part of India will become more speedy and less expensive; and thus will a greater number of officers be enabled to come home on furlough for a year or two. Nothing does an Indian officer so much good as a visit to Europe. When a man has once contracted bad habits in India, he cannot reform in India. To be cured he must be taken away for a while from the country. There have been instances of officers who have had strength of mind to alter their course of life without leaving the East; but those instances are very few.

The East India Company should do all in its power to encourage young officers to spend a certain time every seven years in Europe. Instead of six months’ leave to the hills–which six months are spent in utter idleness, and too frequently in dissipation–give them nine months’ leave to Europe. This would admit of their spending six months in England, or on the Continent, where they would improve their minds and mend their morals, as well as their constitutions.

The East India Company should also bring the Peninsular and Oriental Company to reasonable terms for the passage of officers to and from India. A lieutenant who wishes to come home, cannot at present get a passage from Calcutta to Southampton under one hundred and twenty pounds. So that he gives up more than four months’ pay for being “kept” thirty-six days on board of a steamer. Three pounds ten shillings per diem for food and transit!”

~ John Lang, Wanderings In India
1859

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