Mission Delhi – Bonisha Bhattacharyya, South Park Street Cemetery
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Wading through the warm, wet air of a humid May, she says, almost casually, “No, I will not say I ran away from my father’s home in Noida. That’s too romantic. I just left his house.”
The Delhi Walla meets Bonisha Bhattacharyya at South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. In her twenties, Ms Bhattacharyya is dressed in black. Pointing to a tomb, she says, “That’s like a bath tub.”
A short walk from Flurys, the famous tea room on Park Street, the generously-wooded Colonial-era cemetery is an archipelago of mausoleums, pyramids, cupolas and obelisks. These ruined structures are final addresses of British reverends, sergeants, and their wives and children — the early settlers of Calcutta.
The pathway on which Ms Bhattacharyaa is walking is covered with yellow and red flowers that fell from the trees above. Picking up a red floret, she says, “This is jabaphool (hibiscus). My grandmother uses it for puja.”
As we stroll amid the graves, Ms Bhattacharyya narrates a history of her recent life – compressing it to a couple of disjointed sentences.
“I grew up in Delhi… My twin sister… I moved to a women’s hostel in South Extension… At the college… The flat in Sant Nagar… shifted to Calcutta a year ago… want to understand my roots… stayed in a series of hotels… the rent went up and I asked the grandparents if they would take me in at their bungalow in Lake Town… ”
We come across a dog sitting at the base of a tall tomb. Ms Bhattacharyya takes out a slim book from her red bag. “I purchased it from the cemetery’s office,” she says. “Wait, I’ll read out a passage.”
She flips through the book and stops at a page.
“In 1978 when the first edition of this booklet was published the South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta was in a state of almost complete dilapidation. Tombs had been vandalized, walls were broken and the whole area overgrown with weeds, trees and shrubs. The grounds were used by thieves to store their loot, and vagrants lived in mausolea whose roofs were still intact. The main paths were knee-deep in tangles weeds and grass, and in the monsoons, slushy and muddy. The employees of the cemetery who were often descendants of those employed there a hundred and more years ago, and who lived in rooms on either side of the main entrance, cared little for cleanliness or hygiene. There was no running water. There lived in the cemetery too, about 40 or 50 dogs which bred continuously and most of the puppies died of starvation. The plaster on tombs still standing was often loose and every year disintegrated still further.”
Ms Bhattacharyya closes the book and takes a deep breath.
As we walk from one obelisk to another, she says she likes to walk on Calcutta’s streets.
“I started walking a few years ago when I was living in Delhi. I was obese and I thought that this exercise would make me fit. I often walked from my room in Sant Nagar to India Habitat Center. One day I walked from Delhi Gate to Red Fort. Gradually I began to feel a connection to Delhi. Now I feel the same for Calcutta. It is not unusual for me to walk from Tollygunge to Esplanade. Sometimes in the evening I walk to Howrah Bridge. I stand there and look down at the Hooghly (river).”
Ms Bhattacharyya stops at a tomb. It is a thick slab of stone and reaches to her neck. She rests her chin on the tomb and blows away the yellow flowers on the top.
We inspect more tombs.
After some time, Ms Bhattacharyya, looking at her mobile phone screen, says, “My grandfather is expecting me.”
On exiting the cemetery, Ms Bhattacharyya hails a yellow cab. An instant later, she is gone.
[This is the 73rd portrait of Mission Delhi project]
A girl in a graveyard