Thursday, May 20, 2010

OF LOVE, LUST… AND DUST

In the heart of Kolkata, in bustling Park Street, there lies a magic portal. I had been looking for it since day-break and now, I’d finally found it. I walked towards the iron gates and pushed. Creaking on its hinges, it swung open to reveal a leafy boulevard. I looked up at the board, ‘South Park Street Cemetery’ it said. Yes, I had reached the right place!

Now graveyards aren’t meant to be the ‘right place’, unless of course it’s the ‘right time’. But these graves are unique, for they tell stories. If you go there with an open heart and look and listen carefully, just as much with that racing heart of yours as you do with your eyes and ears, you will hear the graves whisper. At first you’ll think it’s the birds in the trees or the ones on the palms. You’ll see the silver tipped grass rustling in the wind and you’ll think it is they who called out your name… but when you sit down under the tall Gulmohar in the centre of the graveyard, amidst little red flowers strewn at its foot, you realise it’s the graves that are talking, telling you tales of love and lust, of battles won and lives lost, of passions that blazed and withered in the humid heat of Calcutta under the Raj.

Outside the cemetery, Kolkata is a city in a rush, jogging and jostling with time and destiny, struggling to keep pace with millions of dreams, but inside the cemetery lies a different Calcutta. Here, the drone and chatter of the city are forgotten, for once you enter, a tranquil peace descends on the soul, where you hear nothing but the twitter of birds and the sound of the wind teasing the leaves. It is then that the graves start talking, first to each other, of good times and hard and then to you, painting pictures of a time long gone…

You see the yard dotted with graves of children, from a few months old to a few years, and you see a time where life was hard. You see little babies crying in their cots, struck by cholera or dysentery, rabies or fever, killers all. And you see the last light of life ebbing out of their sad blue eyes. You see the dust and the flies as they settle on parched lips and you hear the cry of distraught mothers.

Then you hear a voice, sweet and lilting, from that tall pyramid-like tomb and you walk up to it as it whispers its tale. Here lies Elizabeth Jane Barwell, a name that brought a smile to many a man’s lips, both brown and white. She was the most beautiful thing to have danced the balls in the halls of the Raj. She married the brave Richard Barwell, a man who took on the famous Lt. General Clavering in a duel. Barwell wanted to marry Clavering’s daughter but Clavering perhaps didn’t like the idea and the two faced-off with pistols. Fortunately, both missed. Following the duel, Barwell gave up his suit for Ms. Clavering and married the gorgeous Elizabeth instead. A lucky miss, twice over, some would say. Incidentally, Sir Clavering too lies in this very graveyard.

There was one voice that I was looking for, a quaint figure that I couldn’t find amongst the many that lay there… andsince the voices spoke of their own free will, there was no one I could call out to. I wandered amongst the tombs looking, and suddenly there it was… it had to be the one. With temple spires etched on its walls and a temple-dome on top, this had to be the tomb of the ‘Hindoo Stuart’. Maj. General Charles Stuart lured me when I met him on the pages of William Dalrymple’s “White Mughuls” and I had to say hello. He was born a Christian in faraway Ireland but fell in love with India when he came here as a soldier. He bathed in the Ganges and adorned his home with idols of Hindu deities. He extolled the virtues of Hinduism to all who’d care to listen and sang paeans in the praise of the sari and how it fl attered a woman’s form so much more than the western gown. He was an Indophile long before the idea of India. Hindoo Stuart’s tomb speaks as eloquently of his love for all things Indian today, as it did nearly 200 years ago.

As I walked away from the graves, I heard the murmurs fade and through the leafy branches, I turned to see the mausoleums and pavilions one last time. In the gathering gloom, along the perimeter wall, I saw one last picture taking shape… pall bearers carrying a coffin, with mourners following in their wake, with lanterns casting long shadows on the grounds. It was a sad lonely picture and yet so evocative of that time.

Obelisks, pavilions and urns reach out to the skies, speaking to the heavens of those they hold, while mausoleums and tombs sit coyly under bowers of flaming hibiscuses and mango trees, holding secrets of those that lie within, close to their stony breasts. As I left, I saw these words by Walter Savage Landor, the fiery English poet and writer, inscribed at the foot of a tall spire, the tomb of 20-year-old Rose Aylmer. “Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes/ May weep, but never see/ A night of memories and of sighs/ I consecrate to thee.” Rose Aylmer, Landor’s friend’s daughter and his beloved, died of cholera when she came to India, and their unrequited love still resonates in the winds that blow here.

If you come to Kolkata you might want to enter this portal to the past, for here history lives and wanders amongst the dead…

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