Sketches by Hootum the Owl | Kaliprasanna Sinha
Perhaps it was not serendipitous after all, writes Chitralekha Basu in the introduction to Sketches by Hootum the Owl: A Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta, “that the publication of two milestone works in Bengali literature, Hootum Pyanchar Naksha (Sketches By Hootum, which Basu just translated), by Kaliprasanna Sinha, Meghnad Badh Kabya, an epic poem by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and the birth of Bengal’s most influential literary figure, Rabindranath Tagore, should happen the same year, 1861”.
Sketches by Hootum the Owl, published by Samya in Kolkata and launched on 16 October in New Delhi, seems indicative of renewed interest in a book that for close to a century remained in the isolation cell of Bengali literature. After Arun Nag’s Sateek Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, an essential Bengali compendium that expounded on the original, was published by Ananda in 1990, there came an English translation by Swarup Roy, The Observant Owl: Hootum’s Vignettes of Nineteenth-century Calcutta (Permanent Black, 2008). Graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee too reportedly took inspiration to create The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Penguin, 2007).
Shortly after its publication, Sinha’s book was rejected by Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay as ugly and lifeless, and other critics ticked off its coarse street language and ethos as obscene. But much later, author Buddhadeva Bose would speak up for Hootum as having “first brought literary grace to the spoken tongue” in Bengali literature.
In her introduction, Basu further adds the names of the freethinking contemporary Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya and the acerbic newspaper columnist and Chandrabindoo band member Chandril Bhattacharya to the list of those who have reintroduced Hootum—or its literary constructs—in the reader’s domain.
It is almost like Hootum, the smart-assed voyeur of an owl in Hootum Pyanchar Naksha who depicted Calcutta life from the 1850s by casting a caustic eye and creating ribald eyewitness sketches, is slowly finding its perch back in the Kolkata of the 21st century.
Sinha, in the guise of Hootum the owl, dealt in the scum and the scams of then Calcutta society. Part of the aristocratic establishment of the city, born into inherited riches, Sinha took advantage of being an insider in the inner chambers of Calcutta’s babudom as well as of his presence on the chaotic city streets. He spared none—prostitutes, pimps or pundits, opium dealers and bribe-takers, clerks and clerics, lawyers and low-borns—in his graphic vision of urban seedy living.
In raking the muck, Sinha often betrayed his own failings. The chronicler reveals no fondness for the Muslim community, is sometimes derogatory towards women and smooth-talking nationalist leaders, heaps scorn on lower-caste people attempting to organize Durga Puja, and the destitute gathered for a free meal outside the babu’s palace gate.
Yet Sinha was also a nationalist. “One can see how much he really cared for the city and the people. Of course, his character had its share of drawbacks, but he was passionate about improving the lot of the people,” says Basu, a former journalist with The Statesman and China Daily.
Born in 1840, Kaliprasanna Sinha had a short but mercurial life. By the time he died in 1870, aged only 30, he had already put his mark on the cultural and political life of the city. His Bengali translation of the Mahabharat in 18 volumes is still highly rated for its scholarliness, but sometimes held against him for being dedicated to Britain’s Queen-Empress Victoria and thanking the British in the citation “for liberating India from the terrible jaws of the Mughal emperors...”.
Nevertheless, the young Sinha had vehemently opposed the oppression inflicted on indigo planters by European planters. When Harish Chandra Mukherjee, editor of The Hindoo Patriot, which effectively protested against indigo abuse on its pages, was murdered, Sinha took over the reins of the newspaper. A prolific playwright, he took another bold step when he paid for the Rs.1,000 fine imposed on Reverend James Long for translating and circulating the provoking Nil Darpan, a dramatization of the indigo revolt.
It was possibly the spunk of his youth which finally made Sinha write Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, employing the common and sometimes loutish Bengali of the street at a time when the norm was the use of the Sanskritized sadhu bhasa (language) popularized by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
By broadly alluding to the decadent routine of some of the well-known babu characters of the city, Sinha ensured early popularity for Hootum Pyanchar Naksha. “Of course, scandal sheets have their shelf life,” says Basu. “But this one stands out not only for the use of language but also because the text can be interpreted in many ways.”
“We have only lived in the city, not loved it enough,” she says. Streets remain as strewn, hawkers hawk as loudly, senior officers solicit as much for graft, newspapers carry the same gossip. Through past incidents at Singur and Nandigram, Basu finds “uncanny resonance” with the indigo revolt—old habits carried over from Hootum’s Calcutta. “These days, we find public property being painted blue and white, cartoonists getting arrested and a clampdown on dissent.” And now the city’s called Kolkata.
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