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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Chowringhee

by
Sankar


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Chowringhee



Title: Chowringhee
Author: Sankar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1962 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 403 pages
Original in: Bengali
Availability: Chowringhee - US
Chowringhee - UK
Chowringhee - Canada
Chowringhee - India
শংকর - India
Chowringhee - France
Hotel Calcutta - Italia
Chowringhee - España
  • Bengali title: চৌরঙ্গী
  • Translated by Arunava Sinha
  • Chowringhee was made into a film in 1968, directed by Pinaki Mukhopadhyay

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining, period-revealing hotel novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 25/3/2011 .
The Guardian . 17/4/2009 Romesh Gunesekera
The Hindu . 1/4/2007 Ranjita Biswas
The Independent . 15/5/2009 Boyd Tonkin
The National . 10/12/2009 Neel Mukherjee
The Sunday Times . 19/4/2009 Peter Parker
TLS . 22/5/2009 Andrew M. Brown
The Tribune . 25/3/2007 Aditi Garg


  Review Consensus:

  Maybe a bit dated in some respects, but generally think it's a wonderful evocation of time and place

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)n place of the novel's predictable contrivances and cardboard characters, I found myself yearning for the brilliant subtleties within the crumbling Majestic hotel in J. G. Farrell's Troubles. Chowringhee has similarly high aims, but is hamstrung by cloying sentimentality and hyperbole from the first page (...) and a familiar Victorian misogyny, where women are either pitiable whores or saintly mothers." - The Economist

  • "(A) lovely, charming book brimming with life and full of the unexpectedness of a closely observed world. Everything comes to the old hotel, either to the sumptuous guest rooms or to the terrace where the staff live. Love and death are never far away. Sankar writes of both simply and movingly. There will be many grateful readers at his table." - Romesh Gunesekera, The Guardian

  • "The style of writing is crisp and fast paced, sometimes even reportage-style, which makes for a gripping read. There is no flowery language, neither long philosophical discourses. The characters and situations speak for themselves." - Ranjita Biswas, The Hindu

  • "Brick by brick, tale by tale, Chowringhee builds up into a panoramic and utterly captivating picture of a workplace, a city and an era. (...) Like some late-arriving round of burra pegs after hours at the hotel bar, Arunava Sinha's translation, both fruity and spicy, tastes all the better for the wait. This old-fashioned feast of storytelling crawls with character, heaves with drama and bursts with flavour." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Sankar manipulates a huge cast of colourful characters. (...) Strung between these ways of telling, Chowringhee ends up having no plot, in the Forsterian or Jamesian sense of the term; what we have instead is a collection of stories -- some discrete, some tumbling and interlinked, all mediated, in different degrees, by Shankar. On the surface, Chowringhee appears to be an impeccably cosmopolitan novel. Its setting and concerns are urban; its characters are a heterogeneous lot, culturally, racially, socially, economically; it is intensely anchored in a very real, and realistically evoked, Calcutta, the text replete with names of streets, shops, businesses, landmarks, parks, monuments and statues. But as the novel progresses, it seems to undermine its own cosmopolitanism with a kind of narrative overdetermination." - Neel Mukherjee, The National

  • "Arunava Sinha’s Indian-accented English translation reads smoothly. (...) Sankar displays a strong moral sense shaped by his early grounding in the system of law and justice." - Andrew M. Brown, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In this beautifully translated book, the author illustrates the myriad shades of human nature. Be it deceit, treachery, love, lust, frustration, jealousy, this book has just about everything. But at the same time all these form a part of the narrative effortlessly, without drawing attention away from the story line, rather offsetting it." - Aditi Garg, The Tribune

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chowringhee is narrated by (the somewhat confusingly named) Shankar. He lost his promising job as the: "last clerk of the last English barrister of the Calcutta High Court" when his employer died, but a private detective he had come to know at the law-offices helps him out, getting him a position at the Shahjahan Hotel -- "a class apart" even among the city's finest establishments:

It was incomparable. It wasn't so much a building as a mini township., The width of the corridors would put many roads, streets and even avenues to shame.
       Hotels make great microcosms, with both a stable cast of characters of staff and management, and then the constantly changing cast of visitors. (Interestingly, Sankar ultimately chooses not to present the hotel as a true unchanging bastion: by the end the turnover has been almost complete, with everyone from the manager to Shankar having left the building.)
       Hotels have long been obvious settings for novelists: as someone notes, even in India: "At least a dozen novels about hotels are written in this country every year". A character here observes to Shankar:
Really, what an interesting job you have. You get to meet so many different kinds of people ... now I understand why English novels are so absorbing when they're set in hotels.
       Like Vicki Baum and Arthur Hailey, and many others before and after him, Sankar uses his setting to present a larger picture of a time and place -- here: Calcutta, around the late 1950s. Independence (1947) and partition are not too long past, but Chowringhee is set in a forward-looking present, with the focus kept on the personal and, to a lesser extent, social, and the political rarely intruding. So, for example, the mention of the communist takeover of China is presented only couched in terms of the country suddenly no longer being part of the hotel-entertainer-circuit:
     The world had become much smaller these days, an enormous mass of land named China having been wiped off the cabaret map.
       Under his manager, Marco Polo, and superior, Sata Bose, Shankar soon becomes an important cog in the hotel's well-oiled machinery. He chronicles his experiences, and this works quite well as both an account of day-to-day life behind the scenes in the hotel as well as in some of the more detailed personal stories he offers, of those he comes to know better, such as one of the headline entertainers (and her dwarf-companion). The personal stories tend to have a tragic touch to them -- occasionally close to melodrama -- but the advantage of the bustling setting is that there are so many distractions that Sankar (and Shankar) can't dwell too long on any single sad story.
       The hotel is, of course, a place of illicit rendezvous and more generally one where guests hope to be freer than elsewhere. When too much chaos breaks out and the police have to be called, they too have to be wined and dined -- for free --, a bribe to avoid the bad publicity of police reports. An issue that frequently comes up is the availability of alcohol, as there are 'dry days' that have to be kept to -- which few guests appreciate:
     Kurt had never heard of such a thing in his life. 'You mean to say you're completely dry for a whole day ?' he exclaimed. 'You deliberately cripple normal life in India for a day ? And you mean to tell me that your country is going to start an industrial revolution in this manner, with leftover ideas from the last century ?'
       Female figures do slightly worse in Sankar's world. He's not unsympathetic to their circumstances, but presents a world where, as Bose tells Shankar:
Don't you know the yardstick of modern civilization ? In today's world man is measured by his bank account and a woman by her figure: 36-22-34, 34-20-34
       Chowringhee is a fine panorama-novel of this time and place and circumstances. There's a good blend of passing characters and ones whose fate the reader becomes more invested in, with even the helpful private detective cropping up repeatedly in the story. It is a 'hotel-novel' that doesn't quite transcend the genre (as, for example, Vicki Baum's 1929 novel, later filmed as Grand Hotel, arguably does), but does offer an interesting picture of the Calcutta of that time -- and some quite well-told stories and asides along the way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 July 2014

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Links:

Chowringhee: Reviews: Chowringhee - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bengali author Sankar (শংকর) -- actually: Mani Shankar Mukherjee (মণিশংকর মুখোপাধ্যায়) -- was born in 1933.

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© 2014 the complete review

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