Colonial Heritage in Post-colonial Setting: educating local community through heritage walk in Kolkata’s Colonial cemeteries

The argument about the nature of British colonialism was thrown open once again a couple of months back when a video of a speech delivered by Dr. Shashi Tharoor (an Indian MP) during a debate in Oxford went viral. In this speech, Dr. Tharoor claimed that Britain owed reparations to India for the “wrongs done” by British colonialism. Apart from generating heated debates and discussions in the academic and political circles, this also drew a spontaneous response from a large body of non-academic audience in India and the West, supporting one side or the other.

There are two major narratives on the nature of British colonialism in India. The older of the two posits that British colonialism was a blessing for India. It brought about the political unification of the country under the regime of the English East India Company at first, and then the British Crown. The armies of the East India Company succeeded in establishing law and order in a country characterized by general chaos and violence that followed the decline in Mughal authority in the early 18th century. Diverse regions of the country were incorporated under a single administrative network, which gave birth to the concept of a unified India. The British also brought about technological development of the country through industrialization, construction of railways and also instituted a modern western style education system in the country. The theory originated in the mid-19th century out of the need to justify the British to the Indians as well as to influence the public opinion back home in England.

The second narrative emerged as a counter-argument to the first one and can be traced back to the beginnings of a popular nationalist discourse in the last three decades of 18th century. According to this narrative, India was a rich and prosperous country in the pre-colonial period. Along with thriving trade and commerce, there were long periods of stability and cultural efflorescence in various Islamic and Hindu kingdoms throughout the country. Pugnacious establishment of the East India Company’s rule in India started a rapid degeneration in political and economic fortunes of the native elites and the general population, and led to a social and cultural decline. The East India Company monopolized trade in several lucrative products, conquered Indian kingdoms, plundered their wealth, massacred and coerced the native population. An unchecked drain of Indian wealth and resources to England crippled Indian economy. Britain prospered at the cost of India’s impoverishment. British rule also created strict ontological structures about race, caste, and religion and divided the people into these lines.

Both these narratives have been presented, discussed and expanded in various ways in academic and political discourses as well as in popular imaginations. Both narratives are true. But both of them are in denial. They deny the truth that is present in each other. Hidden behind these macro-level narratives, there is a third story. The story of the lives of those Britons and other Europeans, some of whom served the colonial authorities, and lived and died in India. What about them? How did they experience India? In what ways were they involved in maintaining the colonial machinery? They were neither angels nor demons, as these divergent narratives would have us believe. They were human beings, just like us, but in a different place and time. The story of their lives is the best means to weave these divergent narratives into a poised and critical popular understanding of colonialism.

Explorers at Job Charnock’s mausoleum in St. john’s Church and Cemetery

I decided to do this by conducting heritage walk in two major colonial cemeteries for the local community in my native city of Kolkata (Calcutta). Calcutta was a major riverine port and the capital of the British colonial government since the later half of the 18th century. It, therefore, had a vibrant cosmopolitan life as evidenced by the eclectic nature of the colonial architecture of the buildings in the older parts of the city. Being the capital, colonial Kolkata attracted European population from the various calling of life, each of whom experienced and contributed to the Empire-building in different ways consciously or unconsciously. Kolkata, therefore also has two of the early colonial cemeteries—the St. John’s Church and Cemetery; and the South Park Street Cemetery. While the former houses the grave of Job Charnock (the “founder” of Calcutta), the latter contains about 2000 graves of various styles built between the last half of 18th and the first half of 19th century. I have been visiting these cemeteries since my undergraduate days and have read up all writings on colonial Calcutta that I could lay my hands on.

Walk around South Park Street Cemetery, one of the largest non-church cemeteries in the world

In June 2015, an opportunity to host this kind of heritage walk was extended to me by Seek Sherpa, a company that organizes micro-tours in different Indian cities. I have been sporadically organizing the Kolkata Colonial Cemeteries walk on their behalf from that time. Since my target audience is the members of the local community, the first step was to make the trip affordable. I decided to charge a nominal fee of Rs. 500 (US$ 8), and accept a maximum of 8-10 bookings per trip. Having a small group makes it more personal, interactive and better to manage. The trip is scheduled on the weekend mornings or public holidays to ensure maximum public engagement. I start the walk from rendezvous point in front of the General Post Office in central Kolkata and walk along the road to the St. John’s Church and Cemetery. From there I take everyone on a taxi or two to South Park Street Cemetery. To ensure that the explorers do not incur any additional expense during the trip, the booking fee includes entry fees to St. John’s Church and taxi fares between there and South Park Street Cemetery. In order to provide the explorers with an insight of how the life for a European in Calcutta was in the 18th and 19th centuries, I narrate stories quoted from contemporary journals, memoirs and newspaper reports. As we walk along the footpath passed several colonial buildings, I narrate their history as well as show the available colonial paintings of these buildings to allow them to experience the colonial landscape and see how it stands at present. I always relish the moment when some of them bask in the glory of identifying surviving builds or features on the landscape from these paintings.

Once in the cemeteries, I tell the explorers about the lives of several individuals, whose graves or memorials we pass. But connected with these individual stories, I explain the social, cultural and political background in which these individuals lived and worked. They learn about the early days of the East India Company in Bengal, its misfortunes, and successes, its gradual expansion culminating into an imperial force. They learn equally about the good and bad aspects of colonialism through the lives of these individuals. Throughout the tour I refrain from taking a stand, I keep the debate open. It is for them to think and decide. I tell them that they do not have to take a side if they did not want to. After all, both narratives are true.

Post Script: I thank Seek Sherpa for providing me the platform to set up my first cemeteries walk.

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