Armenian Connection

One would expect an Armenian College in the heart of Calcutta to stick out like a sore thumb. Yet, its presence (complete with a sign affirming the birth of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray within its ramparts) affords no great surprise to the teeming thousands passing its gates everyday. The famed rugby team of the Armenian College is considered as much a part of the city’s identity as Armenian Ghat on the Hooghly River.

Traces of Armenian influence are sprinkled all over the old city, including the popular Globe and New Empire theatres, established by Armenian families or khojas. The long stretch of Armenian Street in Central Calcutta offers a hint to the preferred haunts of this proud community of bankers and merchants who primarily came as economic migrants from Persia in the seventeenth century. Although the opulence of their thriving era is not readily visible, the city’s premier Grand Hotel traces its pedigree back to Arathoon Stephen, a refugee-turned-millionaire from Armenia, who also constructed Stephen Court, the luxury apartment building on Park Street that was ravaged by fire earlier this year.

It takes considerable more effort to locate the Armenian Church, which dates back to 1724, making it the oldest existing place of Christian worship in Calcutta today. It nestles amidst the serpentine sweep of Old Chinabazaar Street, a locale that has not seen sunlight in a hundred years giving an effect of being frozen in time: the narrow lane is home to wholesale stores specialising in pots and pans, and the cobblestoned path is jostled by coolies with impossible loads balanced precariously on their heads, and bheesties straight from the pages of Kipling’s Gunga Din carrying plastic containers of water (instead of goat-skin pouches) as the only concession to the passage of time. The dome of the Church suddenly appears as an incongruent apparition and its grounds form a haven of peace in the middle of bustling commerce. A tombstone in the churchyard marking the resting place of “Rezabeebeh, wife of the Late Charitable Sookias who departed from this world to life eternal on the 11th July 1630 A.D.” is symbolic of its antiquity.

Anglo-Saxon commentators who express surprise at an Armenian settlement prior to the East India Company’s self-proclaimed foundation of Calcutta in 1690 are willfully ignorant of the city’s history. After all, the firman (royal decree) issued by Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar in 1698 allowing the British to collect rent from the three villages that constituted Calcutta (in lieu of a paltry sixteen thousand rupees) was negotiated for the East India Company by Khojah Israel Sarhad, a childhood friend of the Emperor. It was this same Khojah Sarhad, along with another Armenian merchant Khojah Manur, who were instrumental in leading the Surman embassy in 1715 that laid the foundation of British rule in India.

Iris Macfarlane’s steady deconstruction of the Black Hole myth refers to Armenians as “tied by religion to the West, and by loyalty to nobody” because of their role in selling India to the British. While it is true that the conspiracy to betray the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey included Mir Jafar and his Armenian co-conspirator Khojah Wajid, it is not fair to point fingers at any single community. In the heady days of early trade with the British, the lure of the lucre superseded all other interests for the mercantile class, especially since the true designs of the East India Company had not yet become apparent. While the Armenian community in India flourished under British rule— running trading companies, shipping lines, coal mines, publishing houses, real estate developments and hotels— their numbers started dwindling after India’s independence.

Today only about a hundred Armenians live in Calcutta, leading private lives outside the glare of sensationalism and publicity. Faith is the social glue that binds them together, and according to the curator at the Church, the pews are filled with extended family members as well as visiting scholars during the Sunday service. Despite being descendants of the first Christian state (according to the Bible, Noah’s Ark came to rest in Armenia after the flood), the Armenian community in India have never indulged in proselytising efforts, an act that must be marvelled in an age when religion, that most personal covenant between Man and God, has been reduced to a commodity susceptible to barter and coercion.


If you ever want to lose some time
Just take off, there’s no risk
If you ever want to disappear
Just take off, and think of this:
Armenia, city in the sky
Armenia, city in the sky.
The sky is glass, the sea is brown
And everyone is upside-down.

The Who, Armenia City in the Sky

Current Wars

The 2006 mystery thriller, The Prestige, had an unlikely protagonist: David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. He is portrayed as a passionate, if eccentric, scientist leading a monastic life in Colorado Springs surrounded by an advanced model of his magnifying transmitter. While the film depicts this as a teleportation device; in reality, his experiments dealt with the wireless transmission of electrical power. In the course of his experiments, like Jagadish Bose in Calcutta, Tesla successfully transmitted radio waves over the ether, well before Guglielmo Marconi did.

However, Tesla’s everlasting contribution to modern life was the development of alternating current (AC) to replace the then-prevalent system of direct current (DC). As an employee of the Edison Machine Works in West Orange, New Jersey, his blueprints were not received very kindly by Thomas Edison who had invested heavily in DC power. Edison was a self-taught man and brute-force experimenter (hence his memorable quote about genius being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration) who had a brilliant mind for envisioning mechanical tools like the typewriter, gramophone and kinetograph for recording motion. However, the intricacies of alternating current required a more intimate understanding of the properties of electromagnetic waves, and to his lasting regret, he allowed Tesla to walk out of his company.

George Westinghouse, another American entrepreneur, was more willing to consider Tesla’s idea of effectively transmitting high voltage AC over long distances and using step-down transformers near a customer’s premises. Edison’s General Electric (GE), on the other hand, faced a nineteenth century version of the last-mile-problem, and had to install DC generating plants within a mile of the customer load to compensate for line losses. Thus began the War of Currents between Westinghouse Electric and General Electric.

Edison personally participated in a negative publicity campaign to badmouth AC; this included spreading disinformation on safety, and publicly electrocuting farm animals. He also funded the development of a primitive electric chair that employed AC, and tried to popularize the term “Westinghoused” for being electrocuted to death (predating the practice of using a trademark, like Google, as a verb by a century!). This episode cast a dark pall on the life of Edison, who was otherwise an outstanding humanitarian promoting the employment of women, and was considerate enough to install a piano in the servants’ dining room in his estate at Glenmont.

The battle was finally decided during the Chicago World Fair in 1893, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. The organizers (who had previously designed New York’s Central Park and the iconic Flatiron Building) wanted to dazzle attendees with an exhibit that would reflect the flamboyance of the age. General Electric put forward a bid to power all electric exhibits and light up Edison’s incandescent light-bulbs at a cost of $1.8 million. Westinghouse’s counteroffer using three-phase AC for induction motors, primitive fluorescent lamps and power for the world’s first Ferris Wheel came in under $400,000. Even though GE attempted to reduce their bid, they could not match the efficiencies of Tesla’s transmission, thereby conceding to the public that AC would be the wave of the future.

Chicago in 1893 did “bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus”, and Swami Vivekananda’s eloquent speech at the Parliament of World Religions had an electrifying effect on the people of that era. Tesla himself was so influenced by Vedic philosophy that he used Sanskrit names for some of his subsequent inventions. Sadly, neither Tesla nor Edison was awarded a Nobel Prize for their contributions to science. Such was the animosity and antagonism between these two pioneers that they both refused to accept the award if the other received it first, and also rejected the possibility of ever sharing the prize. However, the precursor to today’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) honoured Tesla with the highest award it offered in the field of electrical engineering: ironically, it was called the Edison Medal.


In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep; this was due to a malfunction at the Lots Road Power Station.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light, but Eastern Electricity Board said that He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.

And God saw the light and it was good; He saw the quarterly bill and that was not good.

Spike Milligan, The Bible According to Spike Milligan

Melody to Malady

Scientists’ recent analysis of Tutankhamen’s blood and DNA is likely to cast a pall on Egyptian tour-guides at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. For decades they have conjured up conspiracy theories involving accident, betrayal and deceit that led to the boy-king’s untimely death at the tender age of nineteen. Unfortunately, the results released this month suggest a more mundane cause—the onset of malaria on the Pharaoh’s already weak constitution.

Although this may be the first recorded instance of malaria, it is by no means the last. Today malaria accounts for between one and three million fatalities every year, a majority of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Health and aid agencies (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by the Washington wonder who may well be remembered by posterity for his philanthropy) have waged an incessant, but losing, battle against the humble mosquito that carries this disease.

Man’s sleeping hours are the most vulnerable for mosquito bites, and the simplest form of protection is the regular use of mosquito nets. My earliest memory of this “room within a room” is that of sheer bewilderment as one had to quickly slide into the safety of this white shroud— however, its practicality became almost immediately evident as the near-invisible gossamer layer allowed sleep to overpower the orchestral refrain of blood-thirsty mosquitoes who could be heard but not felt. Although mosquito nets are freely distributed to combat the disease in areas where it is most prevalent, poverty has often led the nylon nets to be used for other purposes like catching fish.

The word ‘malaria’ is derived from the Italian phrase for “bad air” as it was initially thought to be caused by breathing in the humid and polluted air of marshy tropical regions. The fact that malaria is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito was discovered by Sir Ronald Ross in Calcutta in 1898, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1902. This was however not the last time that malaria featured in the citation for the Nobel Prize for Medicine—the 1927 award celebrated the discovery that artificially induced malaria could cure syphilis in its advanced stages!

Amitav Ghosh’s early novel The Calcutta Chromosome is a gripping amalgam of historical facts and futuristic fiction that follows young Ronald Ross, a directionless officer of the Indian Medical Service with ambitions of becoming a writer, as he stumbles his way to the relationship between mosquitoes and malaria. The 20th of August is today celebrated as World Mosquito Day in honour of Ross’s dissection in 1897 of a mosquito that revealed malaria parasites growing inside the insect’s tissues.

Ross continued his experiments in a small laboratory created for him within the ramparts of Calcutta’s Presidency General Hospital. Although he left in 1899, having accepted an offer from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, his one-storeyed cottage continues to be used as an outpatient centre for inoculating local residents against malaria and dengue fever. A few feet away, a brass plaque commemorates Ross’s epic discovery with immortal lines from the part-time poet’s pen: “I know this little thing, A myriad men will save. O death where is thy sting? Thy victory O grave?”


Away with a pæan of derision,
You winged blood-drop.

Can I not overtake you ?
Are you one too many for me,
Winged Victory ?
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?

D H Lawrence, The Mosquito

Calcutta Kaleidoscope

The recent death of Patrick Swayze resulted in a predictable retrospective of his films on television, including the less well-known “City of Joy”. A monicker bestowed upon Calcutta by Dominique Lapierre to celebrate the optimism of the city, the label was reduced to a mockery in the movie, as Calcutta is portrayed as a cesspool of poverty, corruption and disease.

So engrained is this clichéd view in the minds of travellers that a majority of visitors from abroad are content to make a quick pilgrimage to the Missionaries of Charity en route to a connecting flight to more exotic destinations. When my friend recently invited some of her American colleagues to visit Calcutta, she was shocked not to find a detailed travel guide on the Internet to plan their holiday.

With the above objective in mind, this uncharacteristically long essay will endeavour to introduce the salient sights of this history-steeped city, once known as the second city of the British Empire, to the interested visitor with a day to spare.

The tour begins at Park Street, a major thoroughfare familiar to food and music aficionados. At its intersection with Lower Circular Road, formerly the site of the Maratha Ditch, stands the European Burial Ground (now called the South Park Street Cemetery) marking the very edge of the old White Town. A walk through the well-maintained grounds sheltered by mango trees is like a journey through time, as elaborate mausoleums and monuments dating back to the early eighteenth century bear silent testimony to centuries of change outside. Of particular interest are the tombs of Sir William Jones (scholar extraordinaire and founder of the Asiatic Society), Henry Derozio (firebrand teacher and founder of the Young Bengal movement), Robert Kyd (distinguished botanist and founder of the Botanical Gardens across the Hooghly river), Charles Stuart (whose sepulchre is a curious amalgamation of Christian and Hindu styles), and the young Rose Aylmer (whose untimely death from an excess of pineapples inspired his lover-poet, Walter Savage Landor, to pen his most famous lines).

A westward drive down Park Street will allow fleeting glimpses of the Archbishop’s House, St Xavier’s School, the majestic Queen’s Mansion, The Bengal Club (one-time residence of Lord Macaulay) and The Asiatic Society, until the Chowringhee intersection brings to sight the vast and sprawling Maidan (referred to as Calcutta’s lungs).  Driving past it into Cathedral Road juxtaposes budding photographers in an enviable position between the Victoria Memorial on the right and the St Paul’s Cathedral on the left. Completed in 1921, the Victoria Memorial is a virtual obituary to the British Empire with a veritable treasure-house of Victorian memorabilia inside the museum, and a graveyard of viceregal statues in the garden outside.

Turning right beyond the Academy of Fine Arts and Rabindra Sadan places one beside the Presidency General Hospital where Roland Ross conducted his malaria research that landed him the 1902 Nobel Prize for Medicine. An alcove in the wall on the left commemorates his contribution, a stone’s throw away from his research laboratory. Passing by the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, one can take a quick glance at the National Library through Belvedere Road on the left, the former residence of Warren Hastings. Turning right before the ramp to Vidyasagar Setu (the ultra-modern Second Hooghly Bridge), one reaches Strand Road and the beautiful Prinsep Memorial. Dedicated to the assay-master and Indologist who decoded the Brahmi script, the Parthenon-like structure overlooks the circular rail and Prinsep Ghat that offers splendid views of both bridges on a clear day.

Continuing north on Strand Road along the expansive grounds of the new Fort William on the right, one passes the Gwalior Memorial (mockingly called the Pepperpot) on the left. In the distant east across the Maidan is visible the city’s colonial skyline that earned her the sobriquet City of Palaces. In the middle, proudly stands the Ochterlony Monument, a minaret that borrows elements from Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish architecture. A right turn on Auckland Road takes one around the Eden Gardens stadium, the Mecca of Indian cricket, towards the grounds of the Governor House and the beginning of the commercial centre of the city. Esplanade Row West separates the State Legislative House from the Town Hall, the latter being the venue of several public coronations (including Tagore’s Nobel Prize felicitation) and site of Jagadish Bose’s pathbreaking demonstration of wireless microwave communications. Further ahead is the grand Gothic architecture of the Calcutta High Court.

A quick walk through Old Post Office Street brings one to St John’s Church, standing on the former site of Calcutta’s oldest cemetery. While visitors marvel at the ancient pipe organ, stained glass windows and Johann Zoffani’s “The Last Supper”, the real draw is the graveyard that houses the mausoleum of Job Charnock, the East India Company trader credited with founding the city of Calcutta in 1690 from the three villages of Sutanuti, Kolikata and Gobindapur. Also tucked away in a corner is Lord Curzon’s replica of Holwell’s Memorial to the Black Hole victims.

Continuing north on Council House Street allows the General Post Office to be visible on the left, the site of the original Fort William, while north of the Red Tank stands the daunting red-bricked Writers’ Building, the heart of the West Bengal Government’s administrative branch. Turning right on Dalhousie North offers a closer view of this Corinthian façade that hides the Kafkaesque bureaucracy within, as well as the rebuilt St Andrew’s Church that was damaged in the Calcutta siege of 1756. As Dalhousie morphs into Bowbazar Street, the buildings appear to loom a little taller as the streets become narrower, marking the entrance to the original Black Town of Calcutta.

A left turn on College Street brings one to the academic hub of the city, with the renowned institutions of Calcutta Medical College, the University of Calcutta and Presidency College standing almost shoulder to shoulder. An obligatory stop at the famous Coffee House at Albert Hall chronicles the midpoint of the day tour. Despite attempts to renew its ambience, the Coffee House (which has played host to Bengali intellectuals ranging from Satyajit Ray to Amartya Sen) still retains the laissez-faire spirit of its past, with white-turbaned waiters serving non-descript food through a maze of cigarette smoke and chairs to groups of students and artists locked in ardent and animated adda. After a walk through the rows of book stalls hiding nuggets of old and rare documents, one would make their way to Central Avenue to the singular site of the Marble Palace, home of Raja Rajendra Mullick’s family.

Geoffrey Moorhouse’s description of the collection inside as “vast quantities of Victorian bric-a-brac that look as if they were scavenged in job lots from the Portobello Road on a series of damp Saturday afternoons in October” does grave injustice to the mystifying collection of gold clocks, Reubens masterpieces and floor-to-ceiling Belgian mirrors, but does offer a glimpse of Bengali babu culture during the height of the British Raj.

Emerging from the shadows of the claustrophobic collection into the open grounds housing a private zoo, the visitor can head westward towards Chitpore Road, Calcutta’s oldest and longest road, that was once the sole connector of Sutanuti with the Kali temple south of Gobindapur. Today Chitpore Road is one of the busiest arteries in the city, and probably just as narrow—each passing tram along the cobblestoned street throws the chaotic traffic into complete disarray. In the distance, the peaks of the Howrah Bridge  (the world’s longest cantilever) play hide-and-seek between the elegant roofs of nineteenth century manors that have seen better days. A few yards to the north is the entrance to Jorasanko Thakurbari, the family residence of Rabindranath Tagore. Maintained by the Rabindra Bharati University, the house evokes the time and traditions of the doyen of Bengal’s renaissance, with many of the rooms preserved the way it was during the poet’s lifetime. Parts of the mansion have been converted into an art museum, while family portraits and rare photographs adorn the walls of other halls.

Time and interest permitting, a quick walk through the houses of the landed gentry of yore in the Pathuriaghata area is a memorable experience, both as an indicator of the accumulated wealth of the past and as a pointer to its transience. Jadulal Mullick’s house on the corner of Pathuriaghata Street (where the mystic and philosopher Ramakrishna Paramhamsa once entered into a spiritual trance) stands as a stark reminder of the ravages of time and fate—the dilapidated garage filled with odds-and-ends once used to house twelve Rolls Royces, although the owner’s preferred mode of transport was a carriage drawn by a pair of zebras from his stable! The narrow lane yields one treasure after another, as huge mansions owned by the Mullicks and the Tagores and the Ghoshes with open courtyards and Ionic columns show up in the unlikeliest corners. But nothing prepares one for the sad sight of the remains of the Tagore Castle, an idiosyncratic tower with turrets inspired by the Windsor Castle—the once elegant building has been so altered and overbuilt in the last fifty years that the beautifully structured balustrades and clock-tower now stand out as oddities.

Venturing further north along Chitpore Road brings one to the famous potters’ colony of Kumartuli. A walk through the narrow lanes and marketplace reveals talented artisans working on rows of life-sized clay deities and busts of the cultural heroes of the day. Built on a foundation of straw and painted carefully by the aged hands of experience, these creations find pride of place in the Durga Puja every autumn when they are worshipped for four days before being immersed in the river in the metaphorical tradition of dust-to-dust.

A return to the heart of the city via Strand Bank Road passes the Nimtala Ghat crematorium, the imposing Old Silver Mint and the famed flower market at Armenian Ghat. The journey ends at the Millennium Park which offers a memorable view of the setting sun over the Hooghly, as the much-maligned city with a million disparate moving parts heals itself for another unpredictable day that would once again confound doomsayers and seem to violate all known laws of nature.


Thus the midday halt of Charnock—more's the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread.
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built,
On the silt.
Palace, byre, hovel—poverty and pride—
Side by side.

Rudyard Kipling, Tale of Two Cities

Fall of the Mighty

Ford Motors’ Pinto lives on in automobile infamy not just because it was prone to fiery explosions upon rear-end collisions, but because a 1968 internal memorandum directed the company to live with the design defect as it would cost $121 million to modify the fuel tank, but only an estimated $49 million to compensate future victims.

The evolution of cars from the earliest horseless carriages to a modern vehicle with over 20,000 physical parts is one of wonder and respect. However, the industry has had its inevitable share of bad apples, with designs that have been arrogant, unstable or fragile. The latest to join the Hall of Shame is Toyota Motors who have been forced to recall 9 million vehicles worldwide in less than a year because of flaws with their accelerator pedal and braking system.

Although the gradual decline of General Motors in the last decade paved the path for Toyota to rise to the coveted position of the world’s largest auto-maker, its reign at the summit is likely to be short-lived. With the company having to suspend the sale of eight of its models, the impact is already being felt in the plummeting resale value of Toyota and Lexus models, while rival car companies are attempting to mask their schadenfreude by offering incentives to lure Toyota owners into their showrooms. More importantly, the damage to its brand (built on the twin ideals of quality and reliability) is likely to take longer to recover. A problematic car-part is forgivable in itself, but a company’s denial and obfuscation from a position of hubris is more difficult to forget.

The current unravelling of Toyota’s alleged cover-up is in sharp contrast to the contrition it displayed when defects surfaced with its Lexus 400 launch in 1989. Granted that there are instances when a problem lies with the operator of the vehicle (as in the manufactured scandal with the Audi 5000 in the 1980s), a company’s first line of defence should never be to blame the driver. Toyota’s incompetence in handling the recalls is a case study for what not to do in the face of crisis. It also invalidates Toyota’s kaizen (“continuous improvement”) philosophy, which empowers any worker to halt the assembly line if a flaw is detected, in a culture where loyalty, conformity and discipline are considered synonymous.

While Toyota will have its hands full in the coming months repairing vehicles and restoring its reputation, it will hopefully be a wake-up call for complacent companies who sacrifice innovation and imagination upon hitting a winning formula, and remind them not to take customers for granted.


Five stages of decline:
1. Hubris born of success,
2. Undisciplined pursuit of more,
3. Denial of risk and peril,
4. Grasping for salvation,
5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death.

Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall

Holwell’s Monumental Hoax

John Zephaniah Holwell was a learned but lonely man. A surgeon by training and a magistrate by profession, the 45-year old Irishman had increased the revenue of the British East India Company by rooting out corruption and abuse that the Company's merchants indulged in. This did not win him too many friends among his compatriots, and he lived in an isolated alcove beside the Burial Ground at the southern edge of Calcutta’s White Town.

A half-century after Job Charnock's discovery of the city, Calcutta was still going through growing pains. East Indiaman ships brought in droves of young enterprising Englishmen to this fabled land, attracted by promises of wealth and fortune, but their arrival was typically met with disappointment. With enthusiasm sacrificed to dreary book-keeping, energy dissipated by the burning sun, and movements restricted to the one-square mile area around Fort William (for fear of thugs and tigers), most succumbed to tropical diseases or the temptation to return to their homeland. The few who remained would rise by dint of perseverance to a more exalted position within the Company, operate a private business on the side, and be able to afford luxuries like servants on a scale that would be unimaginable in England.

Holwell's main source of frustration was Roger Drake, the young Acting Governor of Calcutta who was less qualified than himself in all respects. Having being promoted to this position simply because he was the seniormost Company official in the city, Drake's personality was not suited for any rank of leadership. Vain and irresolute, he would compensate for his shortcomings with a disdain for advice and an obstinate assertion of authority. This often led to catastrophic results, as when he offered political asylum to Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah's rival to the throne of Murshidabad. Not surprisingly, this invited the wrath of the Nawab who, already disturbed by the Company’s fortifications, was itching for a reason to rid his land of the “hatmen”.

The 200 kilometre distance between Murshidabad and Calcutta ordinarily took the best part of a month to travel, and progress was considerably slower when accompanied by 30,000 soldiers, 18,000 horses, 2,000 camels, 400 elephants and 80 pieces of cannon. Yet despite adequate warnings of the advance and news of a quick capitulation of the Company's outpost at Cossimbazar, Drake continued to believe that the Nawab would never have the courage to assault Fort William. In reality, the Old Fort was in a state of severe disrepair— the cannons were unused and rusted, the ammunition supply was damp and the Maratha Ditch surrounding Calcutta was shallow and incomplete.

In combination with Drake's dependence on two civilian cronies for military strategy, this ensured that the siege of Calcutta lasted only a couple of days, and in a shameful show of cowardice, Drake abandoned his men and escaped in a ship meant for the evacuation of European women and children. Holwell had no choice but to step into the shoes of the Governor, an opportunity he had long been thirsting for, but quickly realised that the Fort was indefensible. By the morning of 20th June 1756, the white flag of surrender had been hoisted, and Holwell's dreams of an honourable career appeared to have come to an ignoble end.

Siraj-ud-Daulah may have been intensely disliked by both his countrymen and his enemies, but he believed in following strict protocols of battle. That included respect for the defeated, and his only interest in the handful of captured Englishmen was to locate the Company’s treasure that he believed was hidden in the Fort. According to Holwell, the guards decided to take no chances with the prisoners overnight and locked them in the Black Hole room, a makeshift military prison within the Fort’s ramparts. The low-ceilinged cell with two barred windows did not provide sufficient ventilation for a roomful of soldiers, and the heat and humidity of a sultry pre-monsoon night conspired against a number of them as they dropped dead from their injuries and exhaustion.

This unfortunate episode wound up earning a position of mythology to generations of British students who learnt to rely on Holwell’s account of the Black Hole tragedy as an act of barbarism that could only be avenged by establishing an Empire in India. However, as research continues to show, Holwell fabricated much of the details related to the incident— including the number of Englishmen he claimed were enclosed (the Black Hole prison cannot physically fit 146 soldiers). Not only was this killing not reported in any other contemporary account, but Holwell’s testimony to the Company completely glossed over this apparent fact. It was only later in 1758, prior to his return to Calcutta as Governor of Bengal, that he chronicled these events as a “Genuine Narrative”, conferring heroic status on himself, and paid for the creation of an obelisk in memory of those killed on the infamous night. Holwell’s Monument listed only 48 names.

A lot of water has flowed down the Hooghly since then and Holwell’s Monument has long since been destroyed by a combination of the elements, lightning and neglect. During his tenure as Viceroy in the early twentieth century, Lord Curzon built a marble replica of the original obelisk and also marked the precise location of the Black Hole (a narrow alley between today’s General Post Office and the Calcutta Collectorate) with a black memorial tablet. Indian nationalist leaders lobbied for the removal of what they called imperialistic propaganda during the country’s freedom movement, and the damaged tablet was transferred to the neighbouring Postal Museum where it lies out of view in the curator’s office since the facts are still in dispute. Holwell’s Monument now stands in the graveyard of St John’s Church, overlooking the very spot where Holwell’s house once stood, ironically ensuring that his name has attained an immortality that he always craved.


The third July, 1940, is going to be observed in Bengal as Sirajuddowla Day—in honour of the last independent King of Bengal. The Holwell Monument is not merely an unwarranted stain on the memory of the Nawab, but has stood in the heart of Calcutta for the last 150 years or more as the symbol of our slavery and humiliation. That monument must now go.

Subhas Chandra Bose, Forward Bloc Journal