An Afternoon at the South Park Street Cemetery

Despite the fact that I am a hardcore Calcuttan, and that I have never been outside Calcutta for more than seven days; there are many places here that I am yet to see. South Park Street Cemetery was one of them, well until this Saturday when we finally made it to one of the greatest landmarks of what still remains of colonial Calcutta.
It is located at the AJC Bose Road end of the Park Street. Although the official name of Park Street has been changed into Mother Teresa Sarani, nobody calls it by the official name. Perhaps the general ambience of the area does not go with the name of someone like Mother. After all, Park Street is all about great food, drink and amazing nightlife. However, prior to that, Park Street used to be known as Burial Ground Road.

Opened in 1767, the South Park Street Cemetery was probably the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and America during the 19th century. The Europeans stopped using it soon after 1790; however it was still in use until 1840 when a new cemetery was opened to the east of the Lower Circular Road. It is now a heritage site and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The cemetery contains 1600 tombs among which the most notables tombs are of Sir William Jones, Henry Vivian Derozio, Sir Elijah Impey, Charles Stuart etc. Sir William Jones was the founder of Asiatic Society. India will forever be grateful to this great scholar without whose effort a vast chunk of Indian history might have remained undiscovered. It is a beautiful coincidence that the father of Asiatic Society rests in his final abode not far away from his brainchild itself.

Like any Bengali who has grown up reading Satyajit Ray and the adventures of his great sleuth Feluda, I could not help recalling the lines from Gorosthane Sabdhan (Beware in the Cemetery) while wandering about in the cemetery through the maze of ancient dilapidated obelisks, cairns, epitaphs and sarcophagus. A novel by Ray that revolves around this very cemetery and tomb of a particular person and the mystery surrounding it. Of course the tomb might have been fictitious but nothing written about the cemetery was imaginary.

Although Park Street is one of the busiest streets of Calcutta, the inside of the cemetery seems to be totally disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the city. After entering it, I felt like I had been deported back to a different era. An era when hundreds of Europeans would come to this city of unbearable heat, mosquitoes and epidemics in search of glory and fortune. Most of these people never made it back to their motherland which was evident from the tombstones there. All died young. Men, women, children. From 5 to 35. Only a few crossed the threshold of youth to middle age in this tropical city in a time when malaria and cholera were considered to be terminal disease.

The tomb of Henry Louise Vivian Derozio. Died in 1831 at the age of  22. One of the pioneers of Bengal renaissance. Founder of Young Bengal. A great teacher, a great leader from the time when leadership did not come with any hidden propaganda of power and politics. Due to his unorthodox, rebellious nature he was denied a proper burial in the cemetery by the conservatives and got a place just outside in the road. Later it became a part of the cemetery. 

The obelisk standing erect in the memory of the father of Asiatic Society, Sir William Jones.

This guy totally failed to earn our respect because he was an indigo planter. Just think of the farmers whose life he had turned into hell during his lifetime.
The tombs are a mixture of Gothic with Indo-Saracenic style where one can find a deep influence of Hindu temple structure representing an ode to Hindu faith. The reason behind the heavy masonry work on every tomb was in order to prevent the spreading of contagious disease from the dead bodies. Most of the people resting here died of malaria, cholera and other contagious tropical disease.

In the memory of a man who was deeply loved and respected by his family and friends.

Standing there amidst the tombs of those long forgotten souls under the vast canopy of the tall trees I couldn't help feeling the irony of human life. So this is how it ends. All those struggles, quest to find glory and fame ended here beneath a few square feet of earth. In an unknown country far away from home, from family. The writing on the tombstones faded away, the tomb became home for moss, the stone lost its sheen. The people who were once walking, talking, breathing on this very earth, while living a life of a kaleidoscope of love, hatred, joy, sorrow, faded into oblivion. And that is the ultimate truth in this whole universe.

Another not-so-famous William Jones

I could not explore the place properly as my companions were more interested in having lunch than watching me going berserk over every tomb and sarcophagus. Not to mention the pain in the ass person who was tailing me and poking me every now and then. I could not be able to locate the tomb of Major-General Charles Stuart, an army officer who was called Hindoo Stuart owing to his lifelong fascination towards Hinduism and its great mystical nature. I did not see the grave of David Drummond. I did not see the grave 363, an anonymous tomb that only reads, "A virtuous mother. Died 1825."

I took all the photographs before knowing that it was prohibited. I was too excited and engrossed in my own world I guess. However, I apologize for breaking the rule. Although no one could possibly have more respect and admiration for this place as I do. Sometimes I fall in love with my city of joy all over again and that afternoon spent amidst those long forgotten men and women of the era of Raj was probably one such moment.