Calcutta’s Bizzare Professions
[Illustration by Aditi Chakraborty]
“Ajab sahar Kolketa.
Rahri, bari, juri gari, micche kathar ki keta“
(What a strange city is Kolkata, here whores, mansions and carriages abound and how fashionable it is to lie!)
Or consider this: “Jal, juochuri, mithye katha / Ei tin niye Kolikata”
(Forgery, swindling, lies – these three make-up Calcutta)
This was Calcutta of the 18 th Century – where thanks to a monopoly trade of salt and opium apart from fine cloth, the British merchants and nabobs made fortunes. Next came a section of the natives, the Bengali agents of the Company who worked under European masters and amassed great wealth though the means were seldom just. They were the new class of wealthy natives, the dewans and the banians who steadily climbed the social hierarchy with their new found riches. Finally, Calcutta was home to those who lived like predatory sharks – tricksters, embezzlers, swindlers and even extortionists who exploited people in the name of the society.
Another popular saying went as follows: “Company-r latgiri, porer dhane poddari” (company’s governors who lorded over with the wealth belonging to others) – of course this was a reference to the ways of the merchants of the Company who enjoyed the wealth usurped from others but was actually a telltale comment on the ways of a section of the denizens of the city who earned a livelihood by usurping money from others by hook or by crook. Truly, the city had become a paradise for such parasitical men who were always on the look out for making easy money. The list given below is by no means exhaustive but just provides a glimpse of the society and some interesting professions of the natives in post Plassey days.
In the households of many rich babus (native neo-rich Bengalis of 19th. century) of that era mosaheb (subordinate who flatters the patrons) were simply indispensable. They were sycophants who were actually on the payroll. Their task was to appease the babu with sweet words of flattery and nod vigorously in agreement to whatever their patron said. A typical duty of the mosaheb included keeping the gathering in the Babu’s baithakhana (drawing room) or drawing room amused in the afternoons and evenings till his patron made an appearance. When the babu yawned he would be the one snapping fingers; and if the babu required a journey to the privy he would go to the ridiculous extent of offering to pee to save him the trouble. If the babu ordered his servant to bring the hookah they would make their own voice hoarse while yelling for it. They even brought women if the babu required feminine company but in reality they ensured the utter financial ruin of their patrons, leaving the sinking ship like rats once the babu was in dire straits, without even the comforts of a roof over his head.
The city was home to intermediaries – agents, middlemen and pimps operating at different crusts of the society. One of the lowest ones were Gora-r Dalal (middlemen who acted on behalf of the white skinned people) a section of people, belonging either to Hindu or Muslim community who would be found waiting near the docks for the sailors to come ashore. It was common knowledge that the sailors, when they came ashore after a long stint in sea had their accumulated salaries of 4-5 months in their possession. These pimps and brokers would readily promise to take them around the city, to pubs or brothels till they were left high and dry. Their first attempt after befriending the sailors would be to lay their hands on the cash, leaving the seamen only with some petty cash of about Rs 2 or so on the pretext that the women in the brothels would bewitch them into parting with their money. They would mostly take the sailors to Chinabazar in the Brown town ( the intervening areas between the white European town and the black town of natives, where such illegal activities flourished) and if lucky, earn about Rs 50-60 a day. They spoke little English but would dress as cads with great care in order to impress the European sailors. They could hold their drink well and also possessed great strength to tackle the gora sailors (white skinned sailors) if they went wild. They would take the sailors to Chandni Market for shopping, settle the accounts at the pubs and even take them around to see the monument, the water pavillion at Bhabhanipur or the garden around seven tanks at Chiriamore.
When the victim was rendered penniless, with all his money finding way into the dalal’s pocket only then he could escape from the trickster’s dragnet.
Along with the dalal there was another set of people called shipsarkars or who worked under ship chandlers. The ship chandlers were dealers in supplies and equipment for ships and boats which came to the docks. Despite getting salaries from ship chandlers the sarkars would also collect commission from the ship captains. In addition they would pull a fast one on the captains charging him exorbitantly for even the cheapest commodity.
Coming back to the native town we encounter the bhatts. In the past Bhatts were actually employed by the kings to sing paeans glorifying their patrons and their aristocratic descent. Mostly, poor Brahmins became bhatts assuming the surname Bhattas. They would appear at the door for every ceremony or festival and sing verses glorifying the family genealogy and describing their past activities. But soon the practice degenerated to forcible extortion and the bhatts resorted to spreading canards in the presence of invitees on social occasions if they were not satisfied with the pay. The unfortunate victim would have to tolerate his vicious satire and curses. And if they were palms were well greased, they would sing praises of the babu, as a paragon of virtue even if he was found in an intoxicated state and enjoying the company of his mistress.
Another interesting set of people were the bhojpondos – In those days Calcutta natives were divided in various groups and bhojpondos were a section of people who specialised in ruining the feast on any social occasion. Bhojpondos would resort to vilifying the host after finding some fault during the feast, ruining it as most of the invitees would leave without eating. This would ruin the social prestige of the host as well. Mahendranath Dutta wrote that after a few such incidents people started recruiting Oriya cooks who though not very good when it came to culinary skills were adept in using abusive languages which they employed against the bhojpondos. After a while, the bhojpondos lost their vicious grip on the society but the practice of employing cooks and the women folk of the family no longer cooked for feasts.