Calcutta Notebook: the Scots are keen to emphasise their contribution to Calcutta, including the Scottish Church College and Duff College

The Independent

It could be a script for a Bollywood movie. The chance meeting of a Scot and a Bengali results in both recreating lost glories.

At a dinner for a visiting dignitary in Calcutta’s Bengal Club, a young Indian architect, Manish Chakrabortti, is complaining to Sugata Sen, the head of the local British Council, that only third-rate Britons visit the city these days. Sen says, “Have you not met James Simpson?” She points to a renowned conservation architect from Edinburgh who taught the young Indian architecture at York. Pupil takes the tutor on a tour of Calcutta.

“James went round Calcutta endlessly repeating: ‘But this is a Scottish city!'” Manish gurgles with delight as he narrates the story in Flurys, Calcutta’s delightful patisserie. Now, two years later, they are both involved in the Calcutta Scottish Heritage Trust. Its task is to restore the many decaying Scottish monuments, particularly the cemetery where 1,500 Scots lie buried and which, after decades of neglect, resembles the jungle it once was.

There is also a political dimension, with Michael Russell, the Scottish culture and external affairs minister, signing an agreement with the West Bengal government to catalogue the city’s Scottish architecture.

The Scots are keen to emphasise their contribution to Calcutta, including the Scottish Church College and Duff College. But, also eager to portray themselves as victims of an English empire, they do not dwell on their ancestors making a pile from the city’s jute, and tea companies fuelling the prosperity of places like Dundee. They completely forget Thomas Babington Macaulay: the entrance to the Bengal Club has a plaque honouring this son of a Scottish highlander who decided that Indians should be taught in English not their native tongues, largely because, as he put it, a “single shelf of good European literature” was worth the total “native literature of India and Arabia”.

Interestingly, Bengalis like Chakrabortti would also rather dwell on the shared heritage.

Scourge of the Communists

This curious Bengali-Scottish alliance has come just as the province is finally falling out of love with communism. For 32 years local communists have won power through the ballot box. The opposition has been led by Mamata Banerjee, pictured, who has successfully posed as the classic Bengali older sister coming to the rescue of the downtrodden. Unmarried, she dresses simply, lives with her mother in a modest house and has made much of the fact that the long communist rule has not abolished privilege, merely changed the people who have patronage.

Her victories in recent parliamentary and local elections have convinced experts the communists will be defeated in the 2011 state assembly elections. Ms Banerjee is widely referred to as the chief minister-in-waiting. In contrast, the incumbent chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, gives the impression of having lost the will to win. Unlike the Scottish edifices, he seems to be without the means to provide the party with the facelift it needs.


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