“They all died so young!”
So exclaimed the most recent comment in the South Park Street Cemetery Visitors’ Book – just before I added my own comment to it at the end of an hour’s exploration of the place one Saturday afternoon in Kolkata.
The cemetery took its name from the Kolkata road it’s located on, which was known as South Park Street before it got rechristened Teresa Sarani in honour of the city’s most famous 20th-century inhabitant. According to www.findagrave.com, it was “opened August 25th, 1767” and “closed around 1831, but burials of relatives of those already interred were permitted well into the 1840s… In all, 1624 graves are numbered and registered in this cemetery, some of them commemorating more than one person.”
Actually ‘grave’ – in its simple definition of being a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin and marked by a headstone – isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe the contents of South Park Street Cemetery. ‘Monument’ seems more appropriate, as everywhere there are plinths with tapering obelisks or stone cones or cupolas on top. Also, there are columns, stele, sarcophagi and square or circular sepulchres with mock-Grecian pillars. This is definitely a cemetery with architecture.
Many of those monuments, unfortunately, are no longer in good nick. Their stone surfaces are cracked and crumbling and their inscriptions have faded to illegibility. I also saw a few disfigured by graffiti that’d been scratched out with a nail or sharp stone, mostly of the Moron loves Eejit variety. Some, though, have been restored by the descendants of those interred beneath them or by interested societies and organisations.
And yes, when you find an inscription that’s readable, you do get the impression that many of the cemetery’s inhabitants, men and women who left the British Isles in the 18th and 19th centuries and ended up in India as part of Britain’s south-Asian empire-building operations, died young. They succumbed, no doubt, to a barrage of foreign diseases, ailments and hazards that an upbringing in temperate Western Europe had singularly failed to prepare them for.
There was, for example, Elisa Forsyth of Elgin, Scotland, who survived only to the age of 19, and Captain Denis Bodkin, Lieutenant John Briscoe and Mrs Anne Jones, who expired at the ages of 26, 27 and 29 respectively. Some inscriptions are particularly sad, for example, that of Dorothy Smith, who died aged 28, and of two of her offspring, David (died at seven months) and Amelia (died at three years and four months). Probably the saddest one that I encountered, though, was that of Mrs M. Dennison, who died aged 26 and was buried at the same time as an unnamed infant daughter. They were soon joined by Captain E.S. Dennison, who apparently “survived his wife and child but a few days, for on the 16th of October following their decease he was united to them in death and buried in the same grave.”
No wonder the messages on those tombs tend towards the fatalistic. “ALL IS VANITY”, proclaims one. “What tho’ we now lament and mourn / Her mortal frame shall ne’er return / That’s gone alas for evermore… / Let us, my son, in God put our trust / And know that in His sight all flesh is dust.”
Another premature death recorded in South Park Street Cemetery is that of the Anglo-Indian poet and teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, who passed away at the age of 22. He’s commemorated by a gleaming white monument and bust that were erected by the Kolkata branch of the Anglo-Indian Association. Derozio achieved a great deal in his short life. As well as being a poet, he was assistant headmaster at the city’s Hindu College and he was such a star there that his student-disciples became known as ‘Derozians’. His accomplishments are eloquently summed up by an inscription: “Pioneer of the 18th century Indian Renaissance, greatest teacher of the era… and first of the patriot-poets who like ancient Socrates inspired a generation of students to be rational, international and great lovers of the muse.” At the time I assumed that Derozio’s remains were buried beneath the monument, but I’ve read subsequently that because of his ethnicity he was denied burial in the cemetery and had to be interred outside it So that’s all the monument is – a monument.
The cemetery has a few occupants who did reach a ripe (or comparatively ripe) old age. For example, it contains Major General Charles Stuart, who made it to 70 and was known by the nickname of Hindoo Stuart. He acquired the nickname after embracing Indian culture and converting to Hinduism. He collected effigies of Indian deities, encouraged British womenfolk to wear the sari and supposedly bathed every day in the Ganges. Appropriately, his tomb is in the form of a miniature Indian temple and his formidable collection of effigies is buried there with him. Also enjoying a relatively decent innings was Captain W. Mackay, who reached the age of 64. Mackay was evidently a captain of the seafaring kind because the tapering white obelisk that commemorates him has a ship’s anchor sculpted on its side.
Another white obelisk, a bigger one, makes for one of the most imposing monuments in the cemetery. It’s that of Sir William Jones, 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 written and historical 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.
South Park Street Cemetery is a place of contrasts. Parts of it have been reasonably well looked after and have the air of a presentable – well, perhaps slightly scruffy – British park or country-house garden, especially along the central thoroughfare that runs from its gate and in the general area that borders on its southern wall. But in other parts the undergrowth has taken over. Bushes, branches and shrubs crowd around the monuments and the spaces between them are clogged with fallen leaves. Indeed, there were moments when I felt I was exploring an only slightly less jungle-ridden version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This was despite the presence of several gardeners and workmen. They were fighting a continual battle against the encroaching foliage and weren’t necessarily winning it.
And while the cemetery has places where you can wander amid the sombre monuments and rampant vegetation and feel isolated from the outside world – although you’re never quite alone, thanks to the crows and stripy-backed squirrels that hop and scurry about the plinths, obelisks and sepulchres like kids in a playground – there are other places where you’re conscious that modern-day Kolkata is just a few yards away. The view of the cemetery’s western side is ruined by a long, cliff-like and monotonously-ugly surface of corrugated iron that rises above the wall there and forms the back of some building on the neighbouring street. Similarly, just beyond the cemetery’s southern wall, you get the jarring sight of a weird and ultra-modern glass building whose sides slant both upwards and outwards.
But the oddest juxtaposition between the old cemetery and the surrounding modern city is found at the two corners beside Mother Teresa Sarani. One cemetery-corner nestles in the junction where the street is bisected by Sarajini Naidu Sarani, and the other nestles in the intersection between it and AJC Bose Road. Billboards have been erected there to take advantage of the corners’ visibility to passing motorists and they advertise things like cars, coffee and mobile-phone shops. The pylon-like columns of iron that support the billboards rise out of the cemetery itself, from among its monuments and tombs. Their scaffolding is planted in the same soil as South Park Street Cemetery’s 1624+ inhabitants.
Actually, the sight of a graveyard with advertising-hoardings reminded me of the old adage that no matter what material goods you acquire during your life, you can’t in the end take any of them with you.