Chandak Sengoopta - A Passion for Diphthongs - History Workshop Journal 57 History Workshop Journal 57 (2004) 263-270

A Passion for Diphthongs

Edwige Feuillère and Pierre Richard-Willm in 'La dame de Malacca' by Marc Allegret, France, 1937.
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Figure 1
Satyajit Ray (in striped shirt) shooting his searing portrait of Calcutta, 'The Adversary' (1971). Siddhartha, the introspective hero, looks down from the parapet on a city in turmoil - it refuses him employment, confounds him at every point and eventually forces him out. Photo: Nemai Ghosh.
Courtesy of BFI Film Collections (British Film Institute), Contemporary Films and the Ray Family.

I wish this piece could begin like Orhan Pamuk's novel The New Life: 'I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace'. My historic passion (such as it is) did not, alas, announce itself with any grandeur. I was pushed, to be sure, into 'an existence I had yet to know and embrace' but by numerous unpredictable encounter263s with books and bookmen, rather than by one magnificent epiphany. [End Page 263]

I grew up in Calcutta in the 1970s. Calcutta - now called Kolkata - had, of course, been the capital of British India until the early twentieth century and considered itself to be the second city of the Empire. (Nobody in the city knew of Glasgow's claim to that title and would have treated it with disdain if they did.) By my time, those colonial glories had long vanished, except for a few buildings and an occasional street name that the municipal nationalists had forgotten to rename. In the seventies, the economy of India as a whole was closed to foreign investment and Bengal (the province of which Calcutta was the capital) was particularly moribund in economic terms. The economic malaise was accompanied by an absurd level of political turbulence. Plagued by strikes, lockouts and an incredible shortage of electricity, the local factories did not seem to produce anything. Public transport was dismal, the hospitals were overcrowded hell-holes, there was no television except for two hours in the evening (with which the daily power cuts would often coincide), food was usually adulterated and the general air of prosperous bustle that one now notices in any Indian city was completely absent from the Calcutta of my youth. Lenin, one was often reminded in those days, had predicted that communism would go to London from Moscow via Calcutta. Whether or not Lenin had actually said such a thing, the city certainly pullulated with Marxist sects of every variety - each hating the others with a venom that it wouldn't dream of wasting on the mere bourgeoisie - and the state government was run by a strange entity that believed in democratic elections but was the last openly-Stalinist party in the world.

And yet, Calcutta was a vibrant place in cultural terms - we couldn't get a decent biro but produced more worthwhile literature than today's prosperous Calcuttans can manage. We couldn't generate enough electricity to watch television for a few hours every evening but some of us made films that have yet to be surpassed, artistically as well as technically. 'If one has a camera that takes film and the film registers images, then all one needs to make a masterpiece is imagination', our greatest film-maker used to say. He was being glib, of course, but he was also revealing an important secret of his own (and the city's) spirit. For despite all its poverty and lack of infrastructure and resources, Calcutta always had a thriving bourgeois culture. Of course, the middle-classes were tiny in comparison to the teeming masses of the poor - which Third World city is any different? - and they had minuscule resources but they achieved feats that were little short of amazing. The Calcutta of Mother Teresa has eclipsed that other city from the Western consciousness. When - if - average Americans or Germans or Britons think of Calcutta, they think only of poverty, and poverty of the most grinding, humiliating sort. When I think of Calcutta, I, too, think of poverty and hopelessness - because there really was and is so much of it. But unlike typical Westerners, I also know that for those lucky enough to be born above the poverty line - note that I am not talking of a few rich people here but of a much larger group - the city could offer phenomenal food, wonderful [End Page 264] poetry, great novels, superb films and, above all, an eclectic, cosmopolitan culture in which East and West intermingled to a degree that remains matchless in my own experience.

But exciting as life could be in that old Calcutta, it was no fairy tale. I was luckier than many, since my father had a decent job as an executive at the Indian incarnation of ICI and although by no means wealthy, we were always comfortably off. Life at home was deliciously bookish, although not academic in any way. I grew up reading voraciously in the local language (Bengali) as well as in English, although I must confess that I had the most awful literary taste, preferring Agatha Christie to Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse to Emerson. Although my father had done well in life, he had not risen high enough in the corporate world to feel very secure; in any case, he had never wanted to do that kind of work. He had always yearned to be a doctor but his parents had been too poor to send him to medical school. It was his fervent wish, therefore, to make a doctor out of his son. This was not just a personal issue. Jobs were hard to find in the city and only big businessmen and independent professionals could hope for total financial security. Business, in the eyes of my parents, was dirty and the law was a profession for crooks; an engineer's career would be acceptable but it was medicine and medicine alone that could ensure a high-status life for the son and fulfil the father's own frustrated ambition.

My bookishness was not a problem - some well-known consultants of the city were successful writers and it was perfectly acceptable for a Calcutta doctor to be a man of letters in his spare time. What had to be avoided at all cost was the life of a college lecturer in the humanities. In economic terms, this was wise - a lecturer at a British university may be underpaid but a lecturer at a Calcutta college in those days lived barely above starvation level. But it was not entirely an economic question. The colleges and universities were crippled by the political chaos of Calcutta. Lectures would be disrupted by gangs of 'revolutionaries' (or 'nationalists'); college administrators and the vast army of clerks would strike whenever dissatisfied with their salaries or working conditions - which, understandably, was often; and the life of an academic was certainly nasty and brutish, if not solitary or short. No, no, no - that wouldn't do at all. It was going to be medical school, then more medical training and then (my father's dreams got very unclear at this point) some kind of cushy research post, or a thriving practice in some posh part of the city. Tragically, some of this actually happened, although not the thriving practice.

Long before qualifying as a doctor, however, I came to realize that medicine was not for me. I quite enjoyed the bonhomie of medical-student life but much preferred books to people and fictional murders to real death-defying operations. The passion for detective stories grew ever more intense but I also began to develop some rudimentary feeling for the arts, especially for the cinema. My great hero was Calcutta's biggest celebrity Satyajit Ray. Those who know his name in the West think of him only as a [End Page 265] film-maker but for us locals, he was the ultimate polymath. His films, of course, were captivating: we waited eagerly for a new Ray film every autumn and spent months discussing it, stopping only when he started shooting another film and we could speculate about that one. But he was also the most consistently interesting writer in Bengali, the most original graphic designer we had ever known, a superb lyricist and a brilliant composer. I can now see that what I especially liked about Ray was how he brought history to life in his work; it was Ray who first showed me that history was not a tedious series of dates and events to be memorized but an exhilarating voyage of discovery.

Ray made some forty films over forty-odd years and wrote countless stories; that huge corpus offers more examples of Ray's historical sensibility than I could even hope to list here. Let me, therefore, talk only of his 1978 film, The Chess Players, which was set in the city of Lucknow, the capital of the autonomous Northern Indian province of Awadh (Oude), in 1856, just before the great Mutiny which would tear the old world apart. The backdrop was Lord Dalhousie's machinations to annex Awadh, but in the foreground were two politically uninvolved noblemen, who spent their days and nights playing chess. Ray never brought the two strands of his plot together, placing them instead in counterpoint; the literal game of chess was reflected and finally, dwarfed by the larger contest between Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab [King] of Awadh and Lord Dalhousie's representative, General James Outram. (The role of Outram, incidentally, was played superbly by Richard Attenborough, who suffered badly in the stifling Calcutta studios and never understood how a film-maker of Ray's stature could work in such primitive conditions.)

Ray and his genius of an art director recreated the period faithfully and comprehensively: every piece of furniture, every sword, every chessman and every piece of costume was either a genuine antique from the period or a carefully-designed replica. The film also used bits of documentary-style commentary to establish the broader historical setting. All of this was beautifully accomplished but for Ray, documentary realism provided no more than the skeleton of his project. The historical flesh was added in numerous subtle ways. Mid nineteenth-century Lucknow was renowned, for example, for its somewhat decadent musical culture, epitomized by thumris, a distinctive genre of semi-classical vocal songs. In a Bollywood film, the characters might be shown bursting into perfectly-orchestrated song at every opportunity but Ray proceeded otherwise. He commissioned two long and authentic thumris and put them on the soundtrack during a virtually-silent nocturnal scene where nothing much happens on the screen except the movement of chess pieces. The thumris play softly, almost subliminally, in the background and no source is identified. The effect is magical: it's as if the very air of Lucknow vibrates with music, whilst the two obsessional noblemen, impervious to such levities, carry on with their interminable game of chess. The songs not only recreate the musical history [End Page 266] of Lucknow; they also underscore the singlemindedness of the chess players and infuse aural pleasure into a slow and potentially yawn-inducing sequence of a chess game.

Ray's ability to pack multiple shades of meaning into a minute's worth of film was especially evident at the end of The Chess Players, which intercut scenes of the British Army marching into Lucknow, with the chess players making their moves in the waning light of a winter afternoon. The air resounds with the evening call to prayer from a nearby mosque. (Awadh was a Muslim province.) Realizing that the light is going and eager to speed up their game, the two noblemen decide to switch to the faster, 'English' way of playing chess, which was uncommon in the leisurely world of nineteenth-century India. This was much more than another nugget of historical information: as they start playing in the 'English' way, the soundtrack combines the prayer-call with the slightly louder sound of the bugle playing the retreat; the camera pulls back slowly as the credits come up. The two Indians recede gradually from view, carrying on as they always have but at a different, self-consciously 'English' pace, whilst the quintessentially Oriental prayer call merges with but is not wholly swamped by the call of the bugle. If the cultural impact of Britain on India - or rather, the deeper significance of that impact - has ever been summed up more economically, more accurately or more beautifully, then I am not aware of it.

Although Ray showed me what history could be and even though I got the idea for my recent book on the history of fingerprinting from an incidental remark in his marvellously entertaining but entirely unhistorical film The Golden Fortress, I can't say that it was he who first triggered my desire to be a professional historian. That happened far more slowly. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life even after I had graduated from medical school. I enrolled on a postgraduate course in psychiatry in the vague hope that psychiatry was nicer than real medicine. It wasn't. By then, however, I had managed to find a tiny little retreat for myself. I had begun to send in unsolicited articles or book reviews to the literary pages of a local English-language newspaper called The Statesman. (I do not know why but I have always found English to be the easiest language to write in and Bengali the best language for speaking, thinking and daydreaming.) After a couple of such pieces were published, the editor Jug Suraiya began to commission me to do book reviews. He had an extraordinarily eclectic approach and never relied solely on review copies; I was always encouraged to find books on my own and Jug agreed to run reviews of virtually every one that I suggested. Thanks to him, I read far more than I normally would - and made some money with which I could buy even more books. It may sound like hack work, but it saved my life and sanity and today, I realize that virtually everything I value in my life was formed during those years when I reviewed books for The Statesman.

It was journalism that eventually stimulated my professional interest in history. Not initially, of course. But even in the early days, I was drawn [End Page 267] almost instinctively to historical works. One was Stephen Jay Gould's magnificent study, The Mismeasure of Man. Brought up as I had been to believe in science as the rational, value-neutral pursuit of truth, Gould's exploration of the social, racial and cultural dimensions of intelligence measurement was a revelation. 'Facts', declared Gould, 'are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable deductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts.' No historian of science needs to be told all this today; back then, however, and for an ignorant trainee psychiatrist, Gould's words were of incalculable import. Around that time, I also chanced upon Frank Sulloway's Freud, Biologist of the Mind. Today, I am not overly impressed by Sulloway's rather schematic iconoclasm or his patent allegiance to sociobiology, but I shall always admire the ways in which his book traced the roots of psychoanalysis in the biological and clinical theories of the time. I learnt more about such figures as Krafft-Ebing, Meynert and Fliess from Sulloway than about Freud himself - and wouldn't have dreamt of complaining about that. Sulloway, I felt, reconstructed the discursive universe that Freud had inhabited, drawn upon and reacted against but which was now virtually unknown and, for those Freudians who did remember some of it, somewhat repugnant. Here, I thought, was a superb illustration of the historian's task: to reveal how theories evolve within a matrix that might have little in common with the contexts in which those theories are eventually applied and debated. (It was wonderfully appropriate that some years later, I was to find the topic for my PhD in one of Sulloway's footnotes - the roots of Otto Weininger's bizarre misogyny in the biological theories of the time.)

Although by now, I was no longer thinking entirely like a doctor, I wasn't, of course, thinking like a real historian either. Nevertheless, my journalistic pieces became almost completely past-oriented and given the areas of my expertise, they were frequently concerned with medical or scientific history. Itching for more space than Jug Suraiya and The Statesman could provide me with, I was fortunate in finding Nirmalya Acharya, another editor of very catholic tastes. He encouraged me to write an enormous article in Bengali (the only substantial piece of writing I have ever inflicted on that language) on the lunatic asylums of old Calcutta for his magazine Ekshan; the whiggish tone of the article and its numerous errors now embarrass me profoundly but it was my first piece of real historical research and prepared me well for a lifetime in libraries and dusty archives. That was also when my new friend Punam Zutshi - a sociologist who was very familiar with the academic world of India as well as the United States - asked me whether I had ever considered becoming a professional historian of medicine. Of course I hadn't thought of any such thing - I didn't even know there was such a profession. But Punam's casual question resonated in my mind and since I was nearing the end of psychiatric training and getting no younger, it was, I [End Page 268] felt, now or never. If it was possible to switch to history full-time and for ever, then well and good. Otherwise, I would have to come to terms with medicine and psychiatry, also for ever.

After only a little bit of research, however, it was clear that no institution in Calcutta was interested in history of medicine or, indeed, in giving a home to a discontented doctor dreaming of being a historian. Why not go abroad, then? I had always had a strong Western streak in my soul (all that Conan Doyle was bound to take its toll), I was deeply interested in the history of Western medicine, the elite doctors of Calcutta had long had a tradition of training abroad and, perhaps most crucially, I was convinced that I could never escape entirely from medicine if I didn't escape from Calcutta. But go where? Since many of my non-medical contemporaries went to America for higher study, I had come to think of American universities as the best (and best-funded) places to try one's luck. (So much for Conan Doyle's fog-shrouded London!) I really didn't expect my applications to succeed, however, and when the admission letters arrived, first from Cornell and then from Johns Hopkins, I almost fainted in excitement. Reassuring my father of the medical nature of the course - he really did seem to believe it at that point - I ran, almost literally, to the plane, a week after completing my psychiatry training.

The new intellectual and cultural stimuli that awaited me in the New World could fill volumes, but I must mention one particular book that I had to read in my very first semester at Cornell: Herbert Butterfield's scintillating essay, The Whig Interpretation of History. I had no idea what Butterfield was writing against but felt instinctively that he was right in his insistence that we should refrain from shoe-horning past people and theories into narratives culminating in our glorious selves. True history, I happily agreed, delved into the depths of the past not to seek continuities with the present, but only for the sake of understanding the past in its own terms. 'The twentieth century which has its own hairs to split may have little patience with Arius and Athanasius who burdened the world with a quarrel about a diphthong', remarked Butterfield, 'but the historian has not achieved historical understanding, has not reached that kind of understanding in which the mind can find rest, until he has seen that that diphthong was bound to be the most urgent matter in the universe to those people.' Touché! If an agnostic who was born a Hindu could have a tombstone, then those are the words I would have on it.

This is a tale of historic passions but passions, as Freud taught, need to be restrained by the voice of reason - weak and ineffective as that restraint might be. For me, reason has always spoken with the voice of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. I have often thought that some of Borges's tales - his austere 'games with time and infinity' - should be required reading for historians and, indeed, for scholars in general. His short essay 'Kafka and His Precursors' celebrates the art (and artifice) of intellectual history better than any historiographic disquisition that our [End Page 269] colleagues have ever penned and who could symbolize our profession more eloquently than the faceless, nameless drudges searching with unquestioning faith for the secret of the universe in row after infinite row of unintelligible books in 'The Library of Babel'?

For me, however, it is the less well-known story 'Averroes's Search', which really sums up the joys and frustrations of a historian's life. This short, dense tale concerns one episode in the life of the twelfth-century Islamic scholar, physician and philosopher Averroes. Borges, it seems in the beginning, is trying to give us a rounded, detailed recreation of life in the kind of exalted Moorish circle that Averroes moved in. As the story progresses, we realize, however, that it is really concerned with a conundrum of intellectual history: Averroes is writing a commentary on Aristotle's Poetics but cannot make sense of the terms 'tragedy' and 'comedy'. On the final page, Averroes looks into a mirror and suddenly disappears 'as if fulminated by an invisible fire'. An extraordinary paragraph follows in the author's own voice, explaining that just as the Muslim Averroes, whose culture had no concept of drama, had failed to comprehend what Aristotle had meant by 'tragedy' and 'comedy', so had Borges, immured within the twentieth century, failed to imagine Averroes himself. 'I felt that Averroes, wanting to imagine what a drama is without ever having suspected what a theatre is, was no more absurd than I, wanting to imagine Averroes with no other sources than a few fragments from Renan, Lane and Asin Palacios ...'

When I read it first, I thought Borges was showing us the underside of Butterfield's diphthong. We might find such diphthongs through patient research but, imprisoned as we are by our none-too-commodious paradigms (Borges's catalogue of authorities, of course, consists entirely of figures condemned as Orientalist by Edward Said), we might still fail to understand what they signified in their own time. I still think that is the primary message of the story but perhaps there is a more optimistic undercurrent. Averroes fails, of course, to understand Aristotle and Borges claims to have failed in imagining Averroes but the story - shimmering with lively, meticulous depictions of long Spanish afternoons, of Averroes's passionate absorption in Aristotle, of the witty conversations and debates of Averroes and his friends - is a virtual love-letter to the historian's art. Whilst all our efforts to reconstruct and explain the past may be doomed, the sheer delight of trying to do so, of attempting to interpret what we do not have the resources to understand, makes up, Borges seems to be hinting, for the failure that may attend our efforts. Or so, at any rate, I would like to imagine.

Chandak Sengoopta, formerly a physician and psychiatrist,is a senior lecturer in history at Birkbeck College, University of London. He works primarily on the intellectual history of modern European medicine but also has strong research interests in British imperial history. The author of Otto Weininger: Sex, Science and Self in Imperial Vienna (2000) and Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting was Born in Colonial India (2003), he is currently completing a study entitled The Glands of Life: Gonads, Body and Destiny, 1850-1950. Comments on his work are welcome, E-mail:

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