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Finding inspiration at Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery

  • The oldest among this Raj-era collection of tombs, pyramids, and vaults dates to the 1760s
  • Writers like Rudyard Kipling, Paul Theroux, and William Dalrymple found material for their books here

Mausoleums and tombstones in Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery
Mausoleums and tombstones in Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery (Photo: Alamy)

Sitting in Olypub, my preferred Kolkata hangout, I come to think of Shovon Chowdhury’s Murder With Bengali Characteristics because, like the characters in it, I like to mull at this venerable Park Street bar (where an “ancient waiter tottered up to their table with a bottle of cheap whisky and a peg measure"). Thinking of detective stories sets me thinking that Satyajit Ray set one of his most famous—The Secret Of The Cemetery—in the old graveyard down the road (the tombs of which are dramatically described as “spooks in burkhas"). Since I love this aged town which seems completely made for fiction, I decide to head off on a deadly inspection tour.

Gone are the days when cabaret dancers tap-danced on tabletops, but Park Street remains a cynosure in the “City of Joy" (as Dominique Lapierre titled his blockbuster novel, set in Kolkata), with any number of bars serving heartily heart-attack-inducing kebabs. But it’s a curiously ignored fact that its original designation was Burial Ground Road, after the 8-acre cemetery at its far end. It’s hard to find anything comparable outside New Orleans’ voodoo walks that take one to horror-movie spooky cemeteries, or Paris, where everybody who is anybody, from Jim Morrison to Chopin, lies in Père Lachaise. On the global hit list of death, I would rank South Park Street Cemetery among the top three.

Its popularity with film buffs has grown since the 2010 Bengali movie Gorosthane Sabdhan, based on Ray’s aforementioned story, became a box-office hit, while the literati are keen on exploring the necropolis of which Rudyard Kipling wrote in The City Of Dreadful Night: “Men must have been afraid of their friends rising up before the due time that they weighted them with such cruel mounds of masonry."

As for myself, I chew on a clove of garlic as I enter the cemetery, well aware of the rumours of haunting, how visitors experience spells of breathlessness and dizziness, and spot weird shapes peeking over their shoulders in their selfies.

Pyramidical tombs are a feature of the South Park Cemetery
Pyramidical tombs are a feature of the South Park Cemetery (Photo: Alamy)

One tomb, it is claimed, occasionally bleeds—though sadly not while I am visiting. I am mesmerized instead by the eloquently inscribed tombstones, which read like poetry about British Calcutta. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by the plaque of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31), a charismatic poet who influenced a generation of Bengali writers with his passion for India:

My native land hath heavenliest bowers

Where Houris ruby-cheeked might dwell,

And they are gemmed with buds and flowers

Sweeter than lip or lute may tell.

The most monumental grave belongs to philologist William Jones (1746-94), the scholar who proposed a world-shattering theory about the relationship between the ancient tongues of India and Europe. This developed into the idea of Indo-European languages, meaning that whether one is a Hindi speaker or Englishman, our speech has a common source. Amongst his neighbours here are translators, printers and other professionals whose tombs stand like massive business cards from the past. All in all, there are more than 1,600 graves, the oldest dating to the 1760s: a phantasmagorical assemblage of towering obelisks and pyramids, cryptic cenotaphs and vaults, sarcophagi and catafalques, urns and cairns, occasionally bearing elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture’s distinct domes amidst Gothic and classic Greco-Roman designs. It says on an enthusiastic information board at the entrance that there’s “perhaps no other (non-church) exclusive colonial cemetery of this variety and dimension anywhere else in the world!"

Kipling was particularly attracted by the tomb of one Lucia Palk (“hot-blooded young writers did duel with smallswords in the Fort ditch for the honour of piloting her through a minuet at the Calcutta theatre or the Punch House"). Among other writers, Paul Theroux exploited the boneyard in his Orientalist detective pulp A Dead Hand, and William Dalrymple’s classic White Mughals drew on characters like “Hindoo Stuart", an Irishman who tried to convince memsahibs to don saris (“the most alluring dress in the world"), bathed every morning in the Ganga and was buried here in a Hindu temple-styled tomb. As a thriller writer myself, I am of course always looking for something to turn into a thrilling story—maybe a strange character from the past, a ghastly ghost or Anglo-Indian zombie.

But perhaps the saddest grave is that of Rose Aylmer (1780-1800), who came to India as an 18-year-old beauty queen and, legend has it, died from eating too many pineapples. One of her illustrious admirers was the cavalier littérateur Walter Savage Landor, a close friend of Charles Dickens, best remembered for an elegy to his great love:

Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes

May weep, but never see,

A night of memories and of sighs

I consecrate to thee.

Book lovers will recall how Amit and Lata, the lovebirds of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, initiate their infatuation during a stroll in the graveyard while quoting to each other lines from Landor: “Amit paused, ‘Ah, lovely poem, lovely poem,’ he said, looking delightedly at Lata."

Furthermore, Dickens’ son is buried nearby. Walter Dickens wanted to become a writer like dad, but Dickens senior insisted junior take up a military career in India, where he died young.

Another ode to an inmate, the shrewd East India Company magistrate Augustus Clevland (1754-84), has lines like:

And where the warrior’s arm in vain assail’d

His gentler skill o’er brutal force prevail’d

Interestingly, this was penned by Baron John Shore, governor general of India, who had apparently been excessively fond of his young cousin; Clevland’s short life also inspired Kipling’s The Tomb Of His Ancestors.

I spend a good hour reading inscriptions about many other prematurely dead colonials who would have been forgotten but for the memorials preserved here. I have heard it said that two monsoons used to be the lifetime for any foreigner in Calcutta, and if not killed by malarial illness, men often succumbed to addictions. The death of one gentleman, for instance, was brought about through “an inordinate use of the hokkah".

Eventually, I spot the tomb of someone who lived about as long as I have done, a woman by the name of Lady Monson, dead at the age of 49. Apparently, she was the great granddaughter of “Merry Monarch" Charles II, whose marriage to a Portuguese princess in 1662 resulted in England acquiring Bombay (now Mumbai) as dowry.

A chatty Anglo-Indian aunty stops to tell me of how her own ancestors “came out" back in the day and tore up their British passports when India gained independence. She believes Anglo-Indians are the finest race, and spawned the likes of pop star Cliff Richard (“Have you heard of him? His aunty was from here…we used to hear his singles before anybody else"), but that they have degenerated through intermarriage. “Few today have blue eyes and pale skin, and most don’t know proper English but make a livelihood begging outside churches," she laments. She counts herself as the last civilized person in town, because her children have moved abroad, and after she takes my leave, I wonder for a second if she was real or if I had just encountered a spectre.

Here, then, dwell the ghosts of what was a little Britain in Asia, and the gloomy necropolis remains a thought-provoking counterpoint to the glitzy highlife of jolly Park Street just outside its looming walls.

Zac O’Yeah is a detective novelist and travel writer.

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