A house in the Sundarbans

Amitav Ghosh | May 7, 2011 in Snapshots | Comments (7)

 

 

This being the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth, it feels propitious to have chanced upon this photograph now. The picture is of the little house that Tagore stayed in when he went to visit Gosaba, in the Sundarbans, in December 1932. The house was built especially for him by Sir Daniel Hamilton, the Scottish shipping magnate who founded the settlement. Note the little stilts: Sir Daniel’s own house in Gosaba was also built on stilts, and there are many who believe that this feature is responsible for the preservation of these structures. The Sundarbans are a famously cyclone-prone area and Gosaba has been hit many times by storms of extreme violence: while many, apparently more solid, buildings were swept away, these fragile wooden structures somehow withstood the winds. The theory goes that the gap between the earth and the floor allows the winds to pass through without causing serious structural damage.

 

 

 

Sir Daniel had many odd and interesting ideas  (some might call him a visionary crackpot).  He envisaged Gosaba as an agricultural (and educational) co-operative and Tagore was influenced by his ideas. In a 1930 letter to Sir Daniel, Tagore wrote: ‘I have not much faith in politicians when the problem is vast needing a complete vision of the future of a country like India entangled in difficulties that are enormous. These specialists have the habit of isolating politics from the large context of national life and the psychology of the people and of the period. They put all their emphasis upon law and order, something which is external and superficial and ignore the vital needs of the spirit of the nation…’ [from Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, p. 382 – by an interesting co-incidence the letter is addressed to Sir Daniel Hamilton at Dartington Hall in Devon, England, where a huge Tagore Festival is being held this year].

 

My father’s ‘middle-elder-brother’ (my ‘mejojethamoshai’) was the last manager of the Hamilton estate in Gosaba – thus arose my own connection with the Sundarbans. I was especially close to one of my uncle’s sons, Subroto Ghosh. ‘Kajolda’, as we called him, was much older than me: he grew up in Gosaba in the 1940s and ‘50s, and was radicalized by the extreme poverty of the area. He became a political activist and broke with his father. After getting into trouble with the authorities, he somehow ended up in Berlin, in the 1960s – he used to tell wonderful stories about marching in demonstrations with Daniel Cohn-Bendit (known as ‘Danny the Red’ to people of my vintage – he has since become ‘Danny the Green’ and is a leader of the Green Party).

 

For many years Kajolda ran a little souvenir shop in Berlin. But he wasn’t much of a businessman and people sometimes took advantage of his generosity. The shop failed, but Kajolda lived on in Berlin, in a little room in Charlottenburg. When the weather permitted he would walk down to a little park where retired migrants gathered, mainly Turkish, and tell stories in German about the Sundarbans and the Sixties. He was eccentric in the way of solitary men, but he was also kind-hearted and good-natured: what’s more, he was a wonderful story-teller. When book tours took me to Germany I spent a lot of time with him: I think this picture was taken when the German translation of The Glass Palace was released.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some years ago Kajolda came to Kolkata on a visit and we went to Gosaba together: he had not been back in some fifty years. It was a moving occasion, and I remember vividly that he especially wanted to visit the house that Tagore had lived in. That was when I took the picture above.

 

Kajolda died in 2009.


7 Responses to “A house in the Sundarbans”

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  1. Comment by Oindrilla — June 7, 2012 at 6:33 am   Reply

    Dear Sir

    I understand that this is one of those zillion mails that you get inundated with everyday but I just have to say that I am an ardent fan of yours. Each time I read any of your books I keep wondering how one man can know so much. And its not like there’s just one area that you do an in-depth research on for one book. Its as if you devour some 100 odd books and journals to write one work of fiction. On top of that you are gifted with a writing skill that is so unique, so different. In every book of yours it is your voice that adds to the character of the book. Sometimes I feel that it is unfair for one man to be so talented but then again such is life! Also please do not think I am a crack-pot. Its just that I have read five of your books earlier and reading the sixth one now, and I am absolutely fascinated by your work.

  2. Comment by Swapan Mukhopadhyay — July 27, 2012 at 11:46 am   Reply

    27.07.2012
    Dear Ghosh,
    I am interested about Tagore’s contributions in the field of village reconstructions and I find that he started the work from 1890 and relentlessly continued the job till his death.Sir Hamilton bought 9000 acres land at Gosaba only in 1903 and founded credit society in1915. No doubt Togore was very much appreciative of Sir Hamilton’s efforts but I think Sir Hamilton was influenced by Tagore who established Patisar Krisi Gamin Bank in 1903 or 1904.We know that Tagore deposited the money of his Nobel Prize in the Bank in 1914. He established more than 300 Credit Cooperative Societies within 1930.
    Your photograph of Tagore’s house in Gosaba is excellent. May I use this photograph for my book “Rabindranather Pally Bhabana ebong Grameen Arthaneeti” to be published shortly?
    With high regards,
    Sincerely yours
    Swapan Mukhopadhyay

  3. Comment by debojyoti das — February 7, 2014 at 1:04 pm   Reply

    Dear Amitav Ghosh,

    I admire your writing that has a historical and ethnographic context. I lived in Gosaba for a year (2012-13) while conducting my ethnographic fieldwork for a European Research Council funded project, which I am still pursuing in Birkbeck with Dr Sunil Amrith. I liked the Bacon Bungalow you have featured in this blog. Its a pity that the state government is not at all bothered to conserve such a site of national importance. We must all pressurise the administration to take positive action.

    With regards
    Dr. Debojyoti Das

  4. Comment by Abhijit Bhattacharjee — April 15, 2015 at 6:53 am   Reply

    Dear sir,
    I am writing a short story about my grandfather and the time he spent working temporarily at Hamilton estate as a teacher post-partition, after failing to get a job at Calcutta. He had some fascinating as well as dreadful experiences there which I should like to lay down on paper. And Since he is 93 years old, I prefer not to bother him much as far as recalling facts is concerned. I Wish to include some facts which I gathered from your article, and which, I must confess, I didn’t know hitherto, like the ones about Tagore, in my narrative. I study English at a University and this piece of narrative is a part of my assignment.

    Much thanks.

  5. Comment by NanditaChaudhuri — September 3, 2016 at 1:25 pm   Reply

    DearMr.Ghosh, Though ,sadly, I have not yet read The hungry tide, I have heard that there is no mention of Mohesh Chandra Chaudhuri in the book. The Chaudhuris were the erstwhile zamindars of Basanti and Masjidbati in the Sundarbans and Mohesh Dada,our venerable ancestor , one of the most famous lawyers of the time . There are many interesting anecdotes about his legal bouts with the British govt. He was a polyglot scholar and till today is revered asone of the most illustrious sons of the soil.I shall apprecite it if you get back on this

  6. Comment by Debolina banerjeeNovember 8, 2016 at 8:23 am   Reply

    Dear Sir,

    Thank you for this blog and for your book Hungry Tide, which forever changed my view of Sunderbans. You almost made me fall in love with the place. I live in Kolkata, only a few hours from Sunderban and yet I had never thought of visiting the land. After reading Hungry Tide I could not stop myself from being carried away to the wilderness and strangeness that Sunderbans is. I was fortunate to be on the water in a boat on a Full moon night. I was almost hoping to see the rainbow you wrote about in the novel. I cannot explain enough how indebted I am to you for the emotion your novel aroused inside of me. ‘Thank you’ does not say enough.

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