In the summer of May-June 2015, I had just enrolled for the M.Phil program under Calcutta University in South & South Asian Studies. It was then that I first heard about the “Heritage and People of Chandernagore” and the opportunity for citizen volunteers. As a student of political science and had a passion for history of Bengal and the politics of the French generals like Lalley, Dupleix, with Shiraz-ud-Daulah and the English excited me. Naturally I promptly took this opportunity to work with like minded students and scholars.
The first day we went to Chandernagore, we were welcomed at IDc by our team leader Udit Sarkar, we learnt that being a Citizen Volunteer meant we would be interviewing people living in the heritage buildings of Chandernagore.
One such place we visited was Kalpana press which was one of the oldest publishing house of Chandernagore. This press is now a binding shop and the owner didn’t have much clue about the history. We also visited the Sacred Heart Church of Chandernagore, the Father welcomed us and not only gave us a guided tour of the church but also the cemetery and shared with us interesting stories of how the Church came up and how it was the heart of the town in the French era.
Although the scorching May sun was beating us down physically the sheer excitement of the job was propping us up as we went on this journey. I particularly remember visiting the Mankundu Mental Hospital, a beautiful building in a large compound that was probably an old palace or house of the rich elite. As we were speaking to the caretaker a man who was confined in the hospital who was standing on the first floor window tightly clutching the bars of the windows suddenly began to shout at us. We were terrified and almost ran away!
I was part of the team that went to discover the Chandernagore sports club and discovered that wrestling was a very common sport in Chandernagore which now remains only in memory. We also visited Kalidas Chotush Pathi a indigenous Indian school for Sanskrit learning which in the past had a great popularity, even the French had adored it but with time it has turned into a skeleton. The only teacher present in the institution aging close to ninety told us that there was no student now, the young has lost interest in Sanskrit as the job prospect is very low and the government lacks interest in redeveloping it.
Chandernagore isn’t just a suburb to Calcutta, it had its own social and intellectual life and these institutions that once defined this life are now dying their slow death.
It is time we looked beyond the French romanticism to recognise Chandernagore’s heritage and more importantly it’s people who define that heritage.