Vanishing Points and Urban Horizons

[An excerpt from my AAA 2013 paper.]

As the landscape measures urbanity in the flailing and rising rhythms and paces of movement, be that across the highway, or in the heightened flight into Bollywood dreamscapes through headsets, there are attempts to narrate and relocate the landscape in varies registers of time. These time-switches could be seen as flights of fantasy out of the clutches of the small-frame of time – the immediate, or as political acts of framing one’s ‘urban horizon’ across a wide tapestry of historical and political events.

Shibendu Manna, one of the foremost Howrah historians, has written books about the district and his hometurf - Jogotbollobhpur in north Howrah. I ask him how his historical inquiry about Jogotbollobhpur emerged. He says it went right back to when he was in Class VIII in 1954. It emerged from a love for the area, a piece of land, in which one may have grown up or may have struck roots in because of occupation. He was intrigued by the fact that a concentration of shipyard industries emerged in the Ghusuri area, on the westbank, and not on the Calcutta banks. This prodded his historical curiosity towards the geographic shaping of history. In 1872, Abanindranath Tagore writes about his travels in a kheya boat on the Hooghly and watching this frenzied transition. The limitation of the historical point of view, he says, is that what you can see is supplemented by many things you cannot see. Many things from the Mughal time - in terms of land records and territorial jurisdiction, persists to date, in the form of language used in land transfer deeds – for example, in the demarcation of pergunnnahs even in Kolkata areas, where there are no pergunnahs any longer. It comes from Todar Mal’s Jummah-Ikhtiyar of the Akbar era. You may leave the Mughal era behind, but it will not leave you.

He had studied geography in school, but he asked himself - where in this geography does my surrounding piece of land fit. That question haunted him. During the desilting of a river, an artefact was unearthed. This became a sensation. It pulled him. He did not go to college. First, he got involved in the Library movement in 1960, traveling from place to place, raising funds and trying to get people to read. What was the significance of this? I ask. See in those days, there weren't so many schools and colleges. For many people the world of books was far removed. We wanted to create a space where working people could come at night and read and be exposed to the world of thinking.

Archaeological evidence – paathure promaan[1] – is important in the nation-building project. He talks of an incident where an artefact was found in someone’s house, and the family started worshipping it. The police intervened and they resisted. Then the police called the District Magistrate, and with his assistance the deity was salvaged for greater archaeological archiving and research. I ask if this is ethically justifiable. He says the Treasure Trove Act of the British era mandates that things of archaeological significance are national assets, not private ones. Like mines and minerals, I say. What is its use? – I ask. He says, when Swami Vivekananda went to Alwar and he was asked about idol worship he said, why don’t you pull down the portrait of one the Raja’s ancestors, and spit on it. The people were aghast. Swami Vivekananda said – why, it is not the Raja or ancestor himself, only a photo. Why not desecrate it? Manna was keenly aware of the presence of the ‘sacred’ in the makings of nation and history. People, he lamented, think that Howrah has no history as a landscape. But I say, he said, things have never just come to be, there has to be history to make sense of the way it has come to be in the present. It was Manna’s attention to geography in reading history that sharpened my awareness of the role of landscape in the nature of historical present in Howrah. In his book Howrah - Itihash o Otiijhhyo (Howrah – History and Heritage), he traces the identity of the landscape to the dead river Saraswati (2011: 44-48). The Saraswati – a mediator of longtime is a key ingredient for Manna to conceptualize the history of a village.

Manna draws historical authority from the most diverse range of sources – the dead river Saraswati, the colonial map, the entry and presence of nationalist leaders. It appears that the archaeological relic ‘pulled’ him towards longtime, informing his subsequent historical enterprise of connecting dots between his home-village, Mughals, ancient relics and dead rivers. A range of links are used in Manna’s texts to link a cluster of villages, strung together administratively as a block within a district, to the larger map of things that enjoy the focus of historical luminosity. It’s the conversational (or confrontational) pose vis-à-vis state forces that helps Manna appropriate for his home-village some of the historical luminosity available to state agencies. Manna draws from multiple streams of time – the longtime of the triangle formed in land by the intersecting riverways of the Saraswati, Kana Damodar and Rupnarayan making the area a jolodurgo – water-fortress (2011: 63), as also colonial definition of landscape as spelt out in the Imperial Gazette.

The river is a key mediator of the energies of industrial capital, and associated historical scale. Charnock arrives at Uluberia, upstream along the river. The entry of outsiders such as Charnock is heavily laden with possibility and expectation. The recommendation to the Company appraising Uluberia’s merits as a potential factory-town made brought the exhilarating possibility of historical luminosity to the westbank, one that history finally bestowed upon Sutanuti on the eastbank.[2] A riverfront is addressed in a range of texts, as the key citation of this landscape and its appearance on the stage of history.

[1] Translates literally as rocky evidence, but implies archaeological relics.
[2] An anecdote that is found in C N Banerjei’s text (1872), and appropriated and rendered in varied ways in the recent Howrah histories written by Sampad Dhara, Hemendro Bandyopadhyay, Asit Bondyopadhyay.


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