The Calcutta Correspondent’s Club
Callum Ruddock
Long read

1947 – The Club
T he Calcutta Correspondent’s Club, next to a ditch, near a marsh, just past the railway tracks, was not the sort of place where a person might die peacefully. Humble in its design and purpose–meant for work - and especially fitful since the 15th of August. An arangement of men whose membership was drawn from the hordes of journalists that littered Calcutta’s grand Corinthian ‘General Post Office’. Wormy types waiting impatiently for their turn on the ageing imperial telephone exchange, to meticulously recite handwritten reports meant for London’s breakfast tables.
    It was the sort of club with a half-decent chef, having spent at least 30 minutes with someone trained in France, and with a doorman who however bent, rickety and old, would rise to his feet to scold young journalists for money owed on their tabs. It too drew the Kipling lot, who like pieces of firm Georgian furniture sat untouched in its well-lit day room, only vacating up the hill from the heat of the plains, to Shimla.

By the dust of late summer, the club was left sleepy with a few hangers-on to cover the rest of India’s busy news.  Its drawing room was kept company by the club’s principal centrepiece, a worn parlour piano, dutifully dusted by underpaid staff and played only on New Year’s. Other than that, there were drafting tables, various sources of coffee and a decent stationary cupboard, as well as a Dutch built radio that no one much liked.
    The CCC was not down on its luck, but assuredly no longer at its best. An adequate old beast and a place to get writing done; the world’s best and worst reporters free to come and go as their editorial schedules asked.

For those who remained, lunch was served with copies of most papers (or as a gin with bar snacks). One could suppose the nationality of each diner from the tint of their lunchtime digest. The French journals used rich blueish sheets, the Brits opted for cream, and the American heavyweights with their brash and scandalous op-eds, were a crisp tooth white; though a week out of date and therefore flavourless.
    The club, unlike its publications, had never discriminated on terms of race, class, or caste. Doing so would have meant gossip worthy of the colonial magazines, and that was bad for business. The newspapers did not like ‘bad for business’; certainly not in Calcutta. 

Its grand entrance carried a door within a door; a small hatch propped open to let in the breeze, part of a much bigger onion shaped gate meant for elephants and above. It was well guarded by Khushwant–a Punjabi, a proud Sikh, a loving father, a man with strong convictions and a distaste for all things English; as well as by his Enfield rifle, which conversely was English, non-religious, without family, lacking in conviction, and capable of punching a .303 round through a man’s chest.
    The rifle, nor the gate mind you, had not been opened by Khushwant since 1942, when members thought it fitting to donate an Afghan cannon to the war effort. Of gleaming brass, it had been gifted to them in 1801 by the then Emir Mohammed Khan. Ten junior copywriters, doing the most physical work of their petty careers had wheeled it across the courtyard and onto the street, only for it to collide with an armoured Bren gun carrier, commanded by the now highly demoted Captain Alfred. R. Stapleton. With that the cannon disappeared into the distance, found 100 yards off dipped like a trumpet beneath a chaiwallah’s cart. The clang had jumped Khushwant. He shot up and his Enfield, slipping down from parade rest struck the ground and fired off in celebration.

The members then were a scandalous assortment, excited by change in their own lives, but entirely disinterested in India’s prospects. All but one, Arjun. Who as he crossed the street, kept an eye out for anything cutting past that might replace him.

11.00am Indian Standard Time – Arjun’s triumph.
The morning’s dust washed into the courtyard. It was the only thing that Arjun disliked about Calcutta - coughing into his sleeve like a human talc bottle. Through the persistent traffic, he picked up pace, powering past Khushwant.

        “शुभ प्रभात (Shubh Prabhaat),” an acknowledgement given and received with stunned silence by the half-dozing guard.

Across the courtyard, onto and through an alpana, Harry, the porter, rose to attention and saluted the empty space, Arjun long gone. An unstoppable object, put to rest by an immovable globe shaped drinks trolly, as he entered the day room.

        “Some cannon that was,” reminisced Rupert, looking up from his book at the disturbance.
        “What sort of thing bends in half? Imagine if we’d actually tried shooting something from of it”.
         “I have an announcement,” Arjun exclaimed having already interrupted the room “I’m leaving”.

          “What’s that? You find your spine?”

            “No … well, perhaps; but I wouldn’t expect you to mind”.

It was always going to be a hard sell, facing that stern jury of two.
    Charlie, lover of nonsense, keeper of secrets, drinker of brandy; a man who had once cared for pomp and character but had long let himself go to flatulence and into large dinners. An ex-columnist whose skin gave off the smell of maple smoke and looked as if he was two church warden pipes and a cigarette away from becoming a kipper.
     And Rupert, a tall slim bean, better suited to pettiness than financial reporting. Old but not wise, travelled but not worldly, part and parcel of the Raj. A bit like a boiled sweet, predictably he wrote for the Times of India

            “You Indians are an indecisive lot,” Rupert chimed in, turning towards the accused.

            “And you’ve ruined our silence. We spent a good two hours not talking to earn that,” added Charlie.

Arjun did not care for their protest. He was there to make his case. With Harry’s assistance he turned the two men to him, in their armchairs, to form a mock court. Their attention directed, at least for a moment, he disappeared into detail, describing a trip quite unlike anything that had come out of the club of late. Filled with opportunities of a life worth living, he was to sell his apartment, borrow three mules and set off in the morning for the lower signalman’s post at Kashipur Junction, Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He knew the place well. How the macaques, lightly steamed on the water tanks needed to feed the coal powered engines, rushed along wilting telegraph wires, onto railway signals, their weight tilting them from halt to pass, causing havoc for men up the line.

            “There is a temple near there, in the central seam of the Hailey National Park, amidst the density of the Sona Forest, by the Ramganga Reservoir. I will go as pilgrim and wait until he comes. I have no prospects here. I can longer accept rejection. I must write and wait. With loneliness as my only friend, I will wait.”

Arjun had made plans to camp, taking with him enough supplies to weather a month, counting on the nearby villages for help. His cause was high-minded. He would use the time and space to chronicle his life. Stop waiting for someone to prop him up and tell him he was “worthy”. This sufficiently roused Rupert and Charlie, pleasing Arjun who pushed firmly for their support.

            “I hope to find my father. It will renew me. You will both testify to my employer, won’t you? That I went with good intentions”. Arjun’s was an Indian story. The last of its kind. “Why is it now that to be Indian is to be waiting for the British to leave?”

            “Give off Arjun,” retorted Rupert. “You’ve just never got much farther than the club like the rest of us.”

            “Let us not play politics. A person ought to know where they come from, where they don’t, what should be made of them. You have that privilege. And I am no good here. No good at all. Not to anyone. I want you to know that and understand it is why I must leave”.

In their glaze of envy, they did not understand. Poor brave doomed Arjun. Given a life that should have made him callous, it brought him an uneasy optimism. Raised at the St. Andrew's Colonial Homes by Dr. J. A. Graham, the Church of Scotland missionary settled in Kalimpong, who cared for the unwanted ‘tea garden children’. A benevolent figure, but never a father, Arjun was a child with grazed knees needing one, a man he knew nothing about other than that he was an Imperial Tobacco ‘Boxwallah’ who had a fancy for the Nilgiri tea-picking girls.
    Arjun had settled in Kolkata in the hopes he would run into one or the other. A census revealed something of one side of his history, his mother died from smallpox in a village somewhere in India’s muggy south. Not that Arjun knew, he had come close to his father once, when he had visited the club in 1938 to give an interview on tea quotas for the Hindustan Times.

Some weeks earlier he had written to the assumed address of his father inviting up to the hills to make amends. The probability that the man had seen the letter, let alone intended to meet him was so small it did not bare considering. Arjun knew this, but seeing his life taper, he grasped at what he never had. Somewhere inside him there was fear, yes, but surrounded by the other two, Arjun exuded the same sanguine charge that had brought India so far. He had something to prove.

12.30pm Indian Standard Time – Love on the Chunnambar.
Charlie did not move often, only as a last resort. He did not shift in his seat, as if always comfortable in that one position; did not rush, especially if asked; did not hustle. Arjun claimed he had seen him break into a scurry on VJ Day, but other than that Charlie really did not move for anyone. Some even questioned if he would run to escape a fire.
    Lunch, naturally, had to be served on a tray in situ. On this occasion shortening was served with the bread, instead of butter. He had never understood all the upset about the final spurts of rationing. Life now was far better than what he had known growing up in Bombay.
    During the War Kolkata had almost fallen to the Japanese. Charlie had panicked because he had lacked any means to help, resorting to complacency. With his nerves shot, his mind rotted resulting in regular bouts of lethargy - now proudly taken to snoozing. He had a go at it after lunch, best to keep up practice, woken soon enough by the smack of a rug being rid of dirt outside. Charlie chose to cough at the perpetrator. ‘That’ll learn em,’ he thought.

He sympathised with Arjun. His daughter had fallen for Akshiv, the paraffin seller’s son. A portly Tamil boy ever clad in a crisp white dhoti and a fine black moustache that hugged his cheeks tightly as if about to fall off. Charlotte had loved him; Charlie was sure of that.
    The couple that never was, having met in Puducherry all but six months before her return to England. At first Charlie missed what she had seen in him. A Dravidian and an Englishwoman just would not do. Moved to act, he reproached her in public to no avail. She would threaten to leave him and his money from time to time, but could not bring herself to do it. A stalemate, broken by Akshiv forced inland for want of work, up the Chunnambar, breaking Charlotte’s heart.

The way she clung to him, even as he left, tore at Charlie. He knew that even the purest love, in running its course, can be diverted, dammed, and condemned by the opinions of polite society. Given some time he began to placate her, telling her he could pull some strings at the paper and find out where the boy had got to, but alas too late. The war came and she was sent home.
    Akshiv had returned some weeks later to declare his love, off to enlist. All he had found was a porch swing and Charlie snoozing. The truth is Charlie was never really asleep, just resting. He hadn’t the heart to tell Charlotte Akshiv had come and so his telegram that day read ‘All well. Intend to buy new pair of jodhpurs. Love C’.
    Back in the club, Charlie made to speak. He wanted to tell Arjun what he thought but something stopped him. Dissatisfied, instead he turned in his chair and slept, properly this time.

14:00 pm Indian Standard Time – An awful inconvenience.
Tea arrived as it always did, on a silver tray in Harry’s hands.

            “Is Harry really your name old boy? I had not realised it was a Bengali denomination. Our countries must be more alike than I had previously thought,” probed Rupert.

Harry looked down his nose, “There is an American man in the lobby for you sir. He has been loitering for at least ten minutes and it’s unsettling. One of you ought to go receive him”.

Arjun shot up, cake crumbs rolling off his starched summer suit.

            “Here we go again,” Rupert said, rolling his eyes, before Arjun returned moments later, American in tow.
            “Nope. Not mine. This one’s for you Rupert”, Arjun stated in disgust.

The American smiled a tiny smile, “name’s Walter, Sprickfield, Auburn, Alabama”.

            “Barry, Eggnog, Sunset Beach, Blackpool,” replied Arjun, his eyes darting between his follow members, letting out a boyish smile of his own, “what brings you here?”

            “Apparently you folks make a decent Long Island iced tea”.

The men choked up with laughter.  

Walter was with the Boston Globe, straight off the boat from Suez. A vapid man, lacking experience, who did not take to Raj pastimes. He felt he was above them. The noble American opposed to Empire - still a racist.
    Walter was in fact there to report on the formation of two countries. Soon enough he would be in Islamabad, which felt even further away from home. He hated being abroad. Heck, he hated foreigners full stop. Especially Brits. They, he told himself, were arrogant.

Walter absorbed the Long Island iced tea served to him and asked for another.

            “That was horrible.”

            “Why did you drink it down then?” asked Arjun.

Walter stared right through him, got up, made for the door, turned on his feet, then headed right for the piano.
            “A song then, for all you miserable Limeys.”

Walter went on to do unmentionably exploitative things to the piano. It was not used to being played beyond New Year’s, Arjun imagined it weeping as Walter sang a rendition of ‘God Bless America’ that so disturbed the club, the walls refused to give their character echo, which in turn prompted its first noise complaint from the poultry seller next door, and that took some doing. It was not that Walter was American that did in Rupert, but that he was so unquestionably un-British.

When he finished, he stared at them again, stood up and left. The three men glared back as he walked out.

17:00 Indian Standard Time – That’s enough now Rupert.
            Rupert would have liked to have known a Maharajah. ‘I could have dined with kings,’ he lamented.
            “To think you both would have rather had me follow those lunatics up to that grim façade Viceroy Lodge. It might as well be an asylum,” said Rupert, this time aloud.

            “It’s the quinine that gives the bay its tint,” replied Charlie, in abstraction.

            “Were you even listening to what I just said?” returned Rupert.

            “You asked why Calcutta Bay keeps that certain hue. I think it’s because they pour the tonic they don’t use into the river. I’ve seen them do it by Golabari dock”. 

            “I asked you that two hours ago”.

            “And you have your answer. Tonic water,” growled Charlie.

Both men knew what was driving their confusion, a particularly wild afternoon heatwave. Arjun’s English side was fairing the worst. He had given up on any residual intellectual sanity, turning to Pilot Light Weekly for entertainment and light musings.

            “Do you ever get the sense that time runs slower in the day room? I had a three-hour supper with the Asia editor at the New York Times in the dining room last week and that went like a flash, yet I’ve been reading this magazine for what feels like three-hours, just thirty minutes have passed,” said Arjun.

It was the kind of comment that made Rupert fester. He didn’t like silly questions, life should be matter of fact or not bother with itself. Drawing Arjun away from one, he changed the topic. “We paid a coolie in the 20s and 30s to hand pull our punkah you know? People said it was somehow immoral, but it was far more reliable than those electric fans everyone now employs.”

        “Yes Rupert. I was there,” said Charlie.

        “You were there. You were there. Of course, you were bloody there. I was talking to Arjun,” shrieked Rupert.

        “That’s enough now Rupert,” said Arjun and Charlie simultaneously.

18:00 Indian Standard Time – Calcutta and its once neglected garden.
Outside the club’s high walls, little England became India and all its swirling cultural might. And Calcutta, baked by day, cooled by night like soft sun burnt cheeks kissed by shade. The backdrop to these men’s lives often went unnoticed, their attention given to the happenings and politics of the Raj as it slipped by. They certainly had not noticed Captain Alfred. R. Stapleton at 40mph, but equally, they had never noticed Khushwant, having secured his rifle and washed the dust from his face in an upstairs basin, crossed the road, into the ditch and through the marsh, past the railway track to the small house he called home. There, his wife squatting near a small fire, washed rice for him in a stainless-steel bowl given to her as army surplus, mixing it with pickles, relishes, and big lumps of cauliflower. He would smile at the young boy slicing ripe ridge gourds with great focus and intensity, legs wrapped around a sharp boti, his only son.
    The men in the club, even Arjun, had never thought and never asked how much, or how little he was paid, to protect them no less. He was Khushwant, as old as the gate, drawn from banyan sap and as sturdy as a bullock. They brought him chai, gave him pieces of apple, and greeted him as they came and went.

As guard he kept the pigment of life out. He had heard Britain was a grey country and pitied them for it. He thought perhaps if they saw his garden, they would see past the conflict in the Punjab. On weekends, Khushwant would take a small boat loaded with saplings and plants from Gandheswaree Temple across to Bansberia’s Island in the middle of the mighty Hooghly River. There he tended to a garden which had been laid down by the Governor General in honour of the Empress of India (a good while before the Victoria Memorial), long since withered and abandoned. This was of not surprising to Khushwant. Its flora was native to England, not Bengal. The plants did not like the soil, could not stand the heat, unlike those now planted by Khushwant’s hand and the money put his pocket by those who had neglected it.

Remembering how Radha and Krishna stood poised in classical paintings, locked in an eternal embrace under the golden kadamba tree at the heart of a vast undulating garden, Khushwant had sought to build his own in miniature. Surrounding a significant bindu he erected plaster walls, planted shrubs, dug marble lined ponds, and grew flowers. He mixed palash and mango trees to provide shade and nourish native insect populations. Green champa and clerodendrons to climb stone-built benches and dried wood pergolas. Khushwant had built a paradise.
    Sitting late one evening, with his wife underneath a cork tree, his mind turned to the men in the club. Khushwant chuckled. If they asked about his garden, he would have told them, but they never did. Freer than them, wanting for less than them, Khushwant knew who and where he was, sure that for all the come and go of the Calcutta’s Correspondent’s Club, he was lucky to have a life besides it.

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