Fantômes à Calcutta (Ghosts in Calcutta)

Fantômes à Calcutta
[Ghosts in Calcutta]

Fiction, with photographies by the author

Arléa, 520 pages,
 2009

Ten years after he lived there, a man returns to Calcutta to write a book on ghosts. He meets up with old friends. He is confronted with the time that has passed and with his first ghost: the ghost of the man he once was and is no more, the ghosts of vanished things. He wanders through the oldest places of the decayed city, he rediscovers old colonial architectures, he visits cemeteries. He collects some data in the libraries, he meets people who tell him ghost stories, he reads fantastic short stories by Tagore or Satyajit Ray : he becomes impregnated with the principle of spectrality which is everywhere in the city as the nagging echo of the past in the present.
He attends a hindustani musical festival, the Dover Lane Festival, focussed on raga Malkauns, a midnight raga which supposedly attracts spirits when played perfectly during seven consecutive nights. The unbelievable happens and the narrator slightly slips into a spectral dimension and ends up in a pandemonium where all the ghost inhabitating the city (mainly British) start speaking up and telling their story, as if the British had left the city in 1947 but left their ghosts behind : the ghost of the spouse of a British officer in the 1820’s ; the ghost of a witness at the duel between Governor Hastings & Philip Francis in 1780 ; the ghost of a former intendant of the Botanical Garden caught in the lianas of the giant banyan tree etc.
The narrator is literally overwhelmed by all these faded slices of life which mix in his conscience with his own memories, pounding like the beat of the tablas in raga Malkauns; which will give its structure and tonality to the novel (alap, jod, jhala etc.)

What the press wrote about the book

« Ghosts in Calcutta is superbly written, unclassifiable, magic. India, past and present, beats at every page. »
Jean-Claude Perrier, Le Figaro literary supplement.

« Sébastien Ortiz typifies wonderfully this city which never stopped to bring the contraries together. »
Guy Boyer, Connaissance des arts.

« There is no lack of avatars in India, the hindu pantheon consisting of 330 million gods. But the ectoplasms Sébastien Ortiz is dealing with are British and were discovered among the archives of the Asiatic Society where he finds enough stories to relate Kolkata from the 18th century until the times of decolonization. Ortiz finds his narrative path in giving his literary voice, alternately soft, pathetic and humorous, to the often candid inhabitants of the city whose main occupation was to adapt themselves to the context before departing this life, often from a violent death. (…) The book is presented as a novel. However, we would not have appreciated to find what is comically branded as paranormal. We by far prefer the final climax, moving in its failure: the author was looking for spectres and will go back to France without having found them. He has written a book about a city long gone that will never come back, about his youth. Unless the city eventually wrote about him, he wonders. Did you say normal? »
Joël Raffier, Sud Ouest Dimanche.

Extract

« My name is Calcutta. I am ageless. I was born from the grief of Shiva mourning for his wife Sati, avatar of Kali. I was born out of his rage and his pain: Shiva put the body of the deceased on his shoulders and started to whirl round, to swirl round, wild with fever and power. The other gods decided that Shiva should be stopped since his dance of fury was threatening to destroy the world. Vishnu – He Who Protects – was assigned this mission. Vishnu threw his chakra across the space. The sharp disk severed Kali’s body into fifty two pieces and scattered them at the four corners of the Earth. Unburden from his suffering, Shiva ended his dance of madness and the world was saved. Kali’s toe fell in Bengal, at the bank of the huge river known under the name of Hoogly which flows from the very holy Ganga. A temple was built there and dedicated to goddess Kali. A village grew around it which was named “Kalikata”, which literally means: “a piece of Kali”, and which is myself. My name is Calcutta and I was born out of a grief.

My name is Calcutta. I will soon be four hundred years old. I was born from the Ganga which passes through me and irrigates me and presses his madness of mud against my palaces. My sons and my daughters converge towards the sloppy banks of the river: from dawn to dusk the newly born are baptized in its water, the women bath to gain fertility, the ascetics and the eunuchs dip their silent wisdom, the dying purify themselves before the Great Passage et the mud statues disappear in its flows in the jubilation of the autumn pujas. Clippers and steamers filled with opium and tea once made me rich but they come no more. Only the muddy waters are flowing from the mountains and pass successively through Bhatpara, Chandernagor, Serampur, Konnagar, Chitpur, and each time they pull out a little bit more of my rust, they scrape a little bit more my dykes and my walls, and a day will come when they will sweep me along towards the mouth of the river where the jungle is, and then I will return to the swamp I came from. My name in Calcutta and I was born from the Ganga.

My name is Calcutta and I was born from the disease and the infection. Some British doctors gave birth to me by healing the emperors. In the year 1636, a Dr Boughton cured the daughter of the great Shah Jahan and obtained for his people some privileges allowing him to establish the first factories upon the land of Bengal. A century later, a Dr Hamilton found the remedy to cure Emperor Farrukhsiyar from a dolorous disorder and obtained for his people a little bit more of land and more exorbitant privileges. With the toothaches of our sovereigns the British built up an empire from what was once a pestilential marsh. I paid them back in the same and sent back to their Creator all the sons and daughters of those occupants, too weak and to puny to bear my putrid and sweltering heat. My name is Calcutta and I was born from the disease and the infection.

I am Calcutta the pimp. MALKAUNS!

I am Calcutta the ogress, the blood drinker. MALKAUNS!

I am Calcutta the consoling mother. MALKAUNS! »
© Arléa, 2009.

Covers of the translations into foreign languages : english

Upcoming translation : bengali