[Disclaimer: The following piece is a memoir of my experience and observation of the book Gorosthane Sabdhaan! by Satyajit Ray. Please note that, it includes some of the detailed plot discussions and spoilers regarding the mystery of the novel.]
A green second-hand Ambassador, a 125 years old diary, the world’s second oldest photo shop, the misprinted visiting cards and midnight…Midnight in the Graveyard…
Gorosthane Sabdhaan! was first published as a book in May, 1978. A Pheluda adventure in Satyajit Ray’s matchless writing style. I first read it somewhere in my early teens and from that day onwards I’ve been compelled to read it again and again. An enthralling book, written in the backdrop of Ray’s own city. Calcutta in the 70s had featured in Ray’s movies time and time again. Be it Mahanagar, be it Pratidwandi or be it Jana Aranya. But, amongst his novels Calcutta has a lone appearance in this book.
The story starts with Jatayu (the famous Bengali thriller writer Lal Mohan Ganguly) entering Rajani Sen Road in his new second-hand ambassador with a peculiar horn and colour, which reminds Pheluda of Tamil movies! They want to have a ride in the new car and what would be the more appropriate place than St John’s Church to see Job Charnock’s tomb, especially since the latest hobby of Pheluda is old Calcutta. And the journey begins for the reader as well. A roller coster ride of 80 odd pages, filled with mystery, unexpected turn of events and thrill.
I have always felt Ray was a big fan of history,especially that of the Nawbabs of Lucknow. That’s why they have been repeatedly referenced in his writing and films. How can one forget Badshahi Angti, Which announces the arrival of Bengali’s most favorite detective (My dear reader, I know what you are thinking but Byomkesh was Satyanweshi, not a detective), Shankutalar Kanthaha, Pheluda’s second visit to Awodh, Satranj ki Khilari, based on the life of Nawbab Wazir Ali Shah. Even Pheluda’s favorite Gajhal , 'Jab Chhod Chale Lakhnou Nagari’ is composed by a Lucknow Nawbab.
Although Gorosthane Sabdhaan! is completely based in Calcutta, the story of the Nawbabs forms a backdrop. In the early nineteenth century Sadat Ali was the Nawbab of Lucknow and Thomas Godwin was a young fellow from Great Britain and they met. Tom was the best chef in Sadat’s kitchen. Sadat was really impressed on Tom and rewarded him with one precious gift after another. But for Tom the most precious of them all was his first reward, which Charlotte Godwin, Thomas’s daughter had described in her dairy as “Father’s precious Perigal repeater “.
Now, if you are thinking what the hell this Perigal repeater is then for your information repeater can mean a watch or a gun, even Sidhujyatha is not sure!
This book is not only describes history of Nawabs, it is also a story of Calcutta, a story of Park St. a story of Blue Fox, a story of Oxford Book shop and last but not least the Park St. Graveyard, the Gorosthan. Park St. cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Calcutta, is described in such a lucid but detailed manner by Topshe that you always feel like you are with them. Whether it’s the description of the tombs in the daytime or the description of the graveyard in the night, Topshe is always in his narrative best. There is only one small flaw in this book. The French revolution started in 1789 and not 1791 as mentioned by Topshe. But I am sure; Topshe was trying to act smart and didn’t consult with Pheluda there.
And then come the characters. A very silky polished watch collector, who can go to any limit to add a new watch in his collection, a historian who keeps the cuttings of 150 years old newspaper in his purse, an aged Anglo Indian man, living in the small dark flats in Repon lane. Different Characters, different shades and different mysteries hidden in them. It’s an absorbing experience for the reader.
I will not tell you the story, but when all these history, all these places and all these characters come together they creates Gorosthane Sabdhaan! My favorite Pheluda adventure, full of suspense, uncertainty, surprises and the twist in the tale.
And Ray’s stories are never single dimensional, along with the history it has some subtle funny moments thanks to Jatayu .“U-up down gulie fellen naki?” is one of my most favorite Jatayu one liners.
One of the most interesting features of Ray’s writing is his ability to add trivia in between all the happenings of his story and you never feel bored or you never think that somebody is teaching you in the school. Here also he comes up with the discussion of how the words from other language have mixed with the Bengali language and that was pretty interesting.
Seems that, Ray was not very happy of rechristening of the roads and monuments of Calcutta, and so Feluda mentions the old names Suren Banerjee Road and Topshe starts writing Octur …before changing it to Shahid Meenar.
All in all a great adventure and an awesome book. A must read for all Pheluda fanatics. It’s very difficult to compare among different Pheluda books but I had the distinct feeling that this one was the best one of the lot. I guess that’s because of the most important character of this book, CALCUTTA, the city of life, the city of joy.
And I will still be reading this one again and again and again…