Kolkata is now indelibly linked in my mind with chess.
One reason for this is because of the tomb of Sir William Jones – pictured above – which stands in the city’s crumbling but atmospheric South Park Street Cemetery and which I mentioned in a blog-post a few months ago. I described Jones then as “an 18th-century Anglo-Welsh polymath who was a scholar of all things Indian, a co-founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and a political radical who championed the American Revolution. In addition, he was both a philogist – i.e. someone who studied languages in their historical and written forms – and a hyperglot who, before he died at the age of 47, was reputed to speak 13 languages fluently and communicate reasonably well in 28 more.”
What’s more, Jones was – at least in his youth – something of a poet and at the age of 17 he wrote a poem, in Latin, called Caissa. This was about the mythological Thracian dryad of the same name and it helped to popularise her as being the patron goddess of the game of chess. (Come to think of it, Jones’s tomb looks like an eccentrically-shaped chess-piece itself.) So I’d like to imagine that, after winning a particularly arduous game at the chequered board, Garry Kasparov slumps back in his chair, wipes the sweat from his brow and whispers gratefully, “Thank you, Caissa!”
There’s even an online chess-game server at www.cassia.com. The site’s name is Caissa’s Web.
By a coincidence, during the last few days that I worked in the city, at its Rabindranath Tagore Centre, the floor below the one where I was based played host to the Kolkata International Grandmasters Chess Tournament. The training course I was involved in co-existed peacefully with the tournament downstairs until the course’s final day. Then a training activity that required all the course participants to get up, move around the room and talk volubly to other participants generated so much noise that someone soon came running up from the tournament to beg us to sit down and be quiet. The noise was putting the chess-players off their game. Evidently, on this occasion, divine help from Caissa was not forthcoming.
Anyway, just before I finish my series of Kolkata blog-posts, here are a few other snippets about the city.
One day I was wandering along an inauspicious street, full of inauspicious shops, a little way from New Market when I spotted this plinth and bust at the street’s side. An indication that Indira Gandhi might be long gone in India but she isn’t forgotten.
Meanwhile, on a road behind the restaurant-and-bar-populated Park Street, I happened across a building that’s home to the city’s branch of the Iran Society. Oddly, its presence in Kolkata seems to be a legacy of the British Empire, because the Iran Society was set up in 1935 “to spread knowledge and understanding of Persian culture in the UK and thus to contribute to Anglo-Iranian understanding and friendship.” The photo I took doesn’t do justice to the handsomeness of the society’s building, especially not to the fetching row of arched, multi-paned windows along the first floor of its façade, which are rimmed with green, blue, red and white glass.
Meanwhile, at an entrance leading off Park Street itself, I discovered a gatepost with the following sign attached to it: “Bengal Freemasons’ Trust Association, Freemasons’ Hall, 19 Park Street, District Grand Lodge of Bengal.” Yes! It’s the Masons! The bowler-hatted, apron-wearing, compass-wielding, funny-handshaking members of this fairly-secretive society get everywhere. And no doubt their presence in Kolkata is another legacy of the British Empire.
And finally, here’s a picture of a tree growing on top of a house. Not a treehouse, but a house-tree. Just one of many reasons why, by the end of my time in Kolkata, I think I had fallen in love with the place.