To Maurice from Bob

THERE WERE AT LEAST 3 JEWISH girls in my wife’s school class in Calcutta during the mid 1960s. Then, the city had a sizeable Jewish community, many of its members and their ancestors having migrated from Iraq, especially Baghdad.

Recently, a friend gave me an old book about the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta. Inside it, there is an undated handwritten inscription: “To Maurice, with love from Bob”.
My friend did not know who Bob is or was, but told me that the book was part of a collection once owned by Dr Maurice Shellim.

Maurice Shellim, a was born in a Baghdadi Jewish family in Shanghai (China) in 1915 and died in London (UK) in 2009 (see: http://www.jewishcalcutta.in/exhibits/show/notable_members/maurice-shellim).

By profession, Maurice was a medical doctor. According to Dalia Ray, writing in her book “The Jews of India”, he was a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians (London), having studied medicine at London’s Guys Hospital. Ray also records that he took part in the functioning of a free medical clinic set up by his coreligionist Dr E Musleah.

After buying a painting by Thomas Daniell (19th century painter of Indian scenes), Maurice Shellim became very interested in Daniell and other British painters in India. Eventually, he published a book about Daniell and his nephew William Daniell: “India and the Daniells: Oil Paintings of India and the East”.

Maurice also published a book about the historic Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. He had devoted much time and energy to conserving this picturesque resting place for the remains of British families.

In his later years, Maurice and his immediate family moved to London, but he often visited Calcutta.

Most of Calcutta’s Jewish people have left the city to settle abroad. Although anti-Semitism has never been a problem in India, many of Calcutta’s Jewish folk chose to leave in the decades following 1947. Probably, many of them left to improve their economic prospects, but Dalia Ray suggests that because most Indian Jews had been pro British they began to feel that they might begin to feel uneasy in independent India. She also wrote that after the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, many Jews wanted to fulfil their centuries old desire to reach the Promised Land.

Today, there are very few Jewish people left living in Calcutta.

I would not have been likely to have discovered the story of the remarkable, highly cultured Dr Shellim had I not seen that scribbled inscription in an old book.

PS: ‘Bob’ was most probably Bob Wright, a Britisher who lived in Calcutta for over 30 years. He worked for a large company and was involved in the management of the Tolleygunge Club.

MARBLE PALACE

THINK OF ANY MAJOR CITY and its most famous land mark will spring to mind: Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome, the Golden Gate in San Francisco, and so on. Calcutta evokes thoughts of the Victoria Memorial and, maybe, the Howrah Bridge.

Yet, Calcutta contains something far more remarkable: The Marble Palace. It was built in 1835 in a European neoclassical style to the plans of an architect from Italy for a prosperous Bengali merchant Raja Ragendra Mullick Bahadur. Set in extensive gardens filled with marble statues mostly imported from Europe, the palace alone is remarkable to look at.

However, step inside and a treasure house awaits you. Mullick and his descendants are avid collectors of artworks. Mullick, who had the house constructed, never visited Europe but employed agents to buy precious works of art for him. The collection of paintings in the Marble Palace make it the first ever art gallery in India. Treasures amongst the large numbers of canvases include paintings by Rubens, Murillo, Reynolds, and Ravi Varma.

Rooms on the palace are filled with antique furniture, marble and other statuary, valuable ancient Chinese porcelain, and much else.

The elaborate wooden ceilings differ in design from room to room. Looking downwards, the floors are made of marble of varying colour arranged in patterns typically found in Italian renaissance buildings. They were created by Indian workers using Italian marble and designed by Italian artists.

There is a large open coutyard in the middle of the palace. One end is occupied by a covered stage-like podium, where Hindu ceremonies are performed for the Mullick family, many of whom still live in the palace. The courtyard is filled with interesting bird calls because at one end of it, facing the podium, there are several large cages each containg a large parrot.

There is a small zoo or menagerie on one side of the gardens. Apparently, it is one of the oldest zoos in India. When we visited it, we saw various types of deer and some waterfowl.

If you do no other sight seeing in Calcutta, the Marble Palace, but not the Victoria Memorial, is a ‘must’.

Note: photography is forbidden in the palace but a small book in Bengali is available for 100 Rupees and it contains a few photos.

Page or screen

Many readers are moving from the printed book format to the ebook format, where text is read on a screen instead of on a paper page.

Recently, we visited the small but magnificent book shop, Modern Book Depot, next to New Market in Calcutta. We passed a pleasant hour chatting with its charming and erudite owner, Mr Prakash. One of the topics we discussed was ebooks versus old fashioned paper books. Mr Prakash suggested that ebooks were a useful backup for paper books, but that they were no substitute for the latter. I agree with him.

Paper books engage more of the reader’s senses than ebooks. A ‘real’ book has its own smell. I am not alone in sniffing the books that I read. Each book has its own odour whether its the smell of the paper and printer’s ink or of where it has been stored. Books differ in their tactile properties. Different kinds of paper vary in how they feel. The weight of a book and its degree of flexibility (if it is a paperback) add to the reader’s enjoyment or experience. None of these secondary characteristics associated with paper books can be experienced while reading a text on a screen. Although they do not affect the primary property of the text, its content, they do affect the reader’s whole reading experience, albeit subliminally.

So, give me a paper book any day, rather than an ebook.

Misunderstood

The coffee lounge at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel on Chowringee was closed for cleaning. So, we were advised that we could get coffee at the nearby ‘P.L.S’ café.

We walked in the direction of P.L.S but could not find it. We asked someone, who pointed at a large hotel called ‘Peerless Inn’. This, the locals pronounce ‘P.L.S’!

Pilots

I associate the word ‘pilot’ mainly with aeroplanes. Also, I think of small boats that help larger ones enter and leave ports. There is also, I believe, a creature called a ‘pilot fish’.

On arrival in Calcutta (now ‘Kolkata’) in West Bengal (India), I noticed that the local city buses have the word ‘pilot’ written on the doors that the bus drivers (i.e. pilots) use to enter their buses.

I am certain that I have never seen the word pilot used to describe a bus driver anywhere else I have visited.

I wonder if you know…

I do not know how many millions of people live in Calcutta, but I know it is well in excess of 14 million.

One day, a friend, M, met us in London. He told us that a mutual friend, D, was married to a woman born in Calcutta. As my wife went to school in that city, M said to her: ” You might know D’s wife.”

My wife replied: “Do you realise how many people live in Calcutta, M?”

Then after a moment, she asked; “What is her name?”

M mentioned a name. Hearing this, my wife answered: “She was a year junior to me at school.”

I thought it was amazing how small the world can seem even when a city as huge as Calcutta is being discussed.