When I last visited the Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, a cyclone had felled many trees. They lay in a tangle of roots, fallen deities, in the immense trunks of which insects had made their home, and out of which wild orchids and parasites were growing, surrounded by a dancing halo of sulphur-coloured butterflies. The grass, grown high in the rain, exhaled a warm earthy breath. It was being scythed by men in lungis and ragged vests, who might have stepped out of a 19th century Bengali village. Here and there, clumps of daisies had been left to run wild, splashing with gold the sombre undergrowth of bark and foliage. Lakes of stagnant green water, surface ruffled by a low flight of ducks, the blue flash of a kingfisher and the ubiquitous Kolkata crows, dark emissaries of fate, uttering their shrill monitory chorus. The tapers of waterlilies open into white and crimson chalices, while their leaves form lime-green bassinets, cradles for gods.
I went to the Gardens with an old friend, widowed ten years earlier; an elegant woman, then almost eighty, who had been a lecturer on knowledge-systems. Her own life was turned upside down by the Partition. She lived with her family in Lahore, and was then on holiday in Nainital. It was impossible to return to Pakistan, so they went to relatives in Lucknow, where she finished her education. Her aunts had been among the first women to attend university in Lucknow. ‘They travelled in a closed carriage through the streets, with the blinds drawn. All you could see of them was their fingertips holding on to the frame of the window. The young men gathered to gaze on this mysterious carriage with its freight of beautiful clever women; and fell in love with them from the sight of their elegant fingertips.’
Planning the excursion
It was only a modest excursion to the Gardens from Ballygunge, but she hired a car for the occasion; despite the fact that she has a car, reputed to be one of the most ancient still functioning in this city of historical relics. It is a 1967 Ambassador, which she regards with a mixture of distrust and pride. Her driver, whose duties are light, spends much of his time with the scores of servants in the apartment block, talking perhaps about the idiosyncrasies of employers, their generosity or meanness, their humanity or their indifference to those who dance attendance upon them.
The distance to the Gardens from the apartment is less than fifteen kilometres. She will not use her own car, for fear of breaking down in some isolated spot, although where any such location might be on the crowded road to Howrah is hard to imagine. We would take a modest picnic – some oranges and biscuits, water and snacks indispensable for so formal an outing.
Renu, the cook, asked if she might join the excursion. Of course. My friend is dependent upon her servant, who anchors her in a daily routine and draws her back from the vagueness of ageing into the stern business of maintaining the household.
Renu’s story is poignant. She was married young to a man who soon deserted her because she was not pretty enough. She was left with a daughter and elderly parents to care for; and her years of work for my friend have enabled her family to survive. Her village is about 50 kilometres from the city. Renu sleeps on a mat in the kitchen. I was shocked by this, but was assured that she has never slept in a bed and feels more comfortable in contact with the ground. Was this one of the myths about poor people with which the well off comfort themselves? I couldn’t ask.
A foreigner sans the tourist’s privilege
It was a fine day in late October. The rain had passed, the heat receded. The car came before time, at 9.45, and my friend’s driver, watchful, an ironic smile on his face, waved as we left in the fragile Maruti, a vehicle probably far less dependable than the one we had scorned.
We arrived at the Gardens fifty minutes after leaving Ballygunge. A notice told us the Gardens are now known as the Jagdish Chandra Bose Botanical Gardens, named after a Kolkata botanist and polymath. A second notice said that foreigners may take their cars into the Gardens, but Indians may not. My friend, outraged by preferential treatment extended to foreigners, now far from robust, did not disdain to take advantage of my foreignness.
This, however, proved to be problematic. An official in the booth demanded to see my ‘papers.’ Where is your passport? I did not expect a passport to be required for entry into botanical gardens. This upset him, and he refused to let us take the car into the Gardens. I showed him my notebook which contained my address and passport number. No. he required ‘kagaz.’ I pleaded our seniority. It was impossible. We would have to go on foot unless I could prove I was not an Indian citizen. Do I look like an Indian citizen? He gave me to believe that more outlandish figures than I made just such claims. He took a vengeful delight in thwarting the very reason for his employment. Who could tell what story of humiliation lay beneath his triumph?
Whisper of ghosts
Defeated, we walked in the by now hot sunshine, along one of the broad avenues of teak. The Gardens were founded in 1785 by Colonel Robert Kyd, superintendent of the East India Company’s dockyard at Howrah, enthusiastically supported by the Court of Directors, and by Joseph Banks, originator of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1786, 273 acres of land below Kyd’s private garden were designated for the project. Known as ‘Company bagan’, when the East India Company was disbanded, the gardens reverted to the Crown and became ‘Royal’ after the uprising of 1857.
The economic argument convinced the Company’s Court of Directors of the desirability of planting trees and shrubs, indigenous and exotic, in a search for profitable crops. Many early efforts by Kyd to introduce nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon failed, because these required an equatorial climate. The same fate befell the temperate fruits imported from Britain. Kyd’s successor, William Roxburgh, collected plants from all over India and south-east Asia. He introduced mahogany from the West Indies, but teak was not successful. Roxburgh found Indian substitutes for hemp and flax. Subsequent superintendents brought plants from India’s northern and eastern frontiers and beyond. By 1890, the herbarium had over half a million specimens.
Here, quinine was introduced into India, rubber, ipecacuanha, exotic trees for timber, fibre and oil-producing plants. Tea, potatoes, coffee, sugarcane, rhea, singhal hemp, tobacco, cocoa and new fodder grasses, different strains of indigo were all first brought into India through these gardens, which remained a site for imperial scientific and economic experiment, particularly after the revenue-collecting powers had passed into the hands of the Company in 1765.
The gardens were almost deserted in the morning, strangely desolate, as though awaiting the carriage of Mrs Fenton or Emily Eden, the army of attendants with their picnic hampers and white napery, for an idyll beneath coloured parasols of flirtations between young men and women whose lives were stolen moments between plague, bereavement, duty and propriety. Kolkata is a constant whisper of ghosts in brief moments of quiet.
Trading Milton and Donne for cloves and indigo
We walked slowly, stepping in the shadows of the richest collection of palms in Asia. We found the Gardens’ most famous exhibit, the bodh gach, which covers 1.5 hectares, a tree at which imperial wives had marvelled more than two centuries ago. Its aerial roots form a cathedral-like structure of pillars, as though intended for the worship of other deities – a kind of Cordoba converted to animism. The fallen trees, the archaic economic function of the enclosure, the absence of other visitors contributed to the air of melancholy neglect.
My family – poor leather workers in a Midland town – had been distant beneficiaries of the work of these botanists and horticulturists: we, too, had sucked on cloves for toothache, had made our bland diet more palatable with black pepper, while ipecacuanha (taken to India from Brazil) served as emetic and ingredient for cough syrup; even the shabby clothes they wore had been dyed with some of the indigo from the 7,000 square kilometres planted in the mid 19th century. On the other side, my friend is also an inheritor of imperial culture: with her mixture of perfect English and the shelves of her mother’s books in a flat redolent of nineteen-sixties frugality – spines coming away from faded copies of Milton and John Donne, revealing drops of hardened glue like amber. She still conserves the writings of Marx, Engels, Gorki and Lukacs; a remnant of the bhadralok before the middle class discovered the sweetnesses of consumerism: furniture from the 1960s, dark bookcases, metal cupboards and antiquated desks with their ink-bottles and pencil-trays, stone paperweights and carafes of faintly stale drinking water. A scent from the past, tenacious, destabilising, waits to catch you unawares, whether you are the former victors or the no-longer vanquished of an imperialism that has mutated and taken on a different aspect since formal acts of decolonisation.
It gave us both a moment of sharp recognition of tenderness in a shared, tangled and contested experience in that apparently most innocent of excursions, an outing to a public garden.
(Jeremy Seabrook is an author and columnist who lives in London. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)