I had heard bits and pieces about Chandernagore over the years. It was one of the first outposts of India’s colonial past, a French colony rather like Puducherry. The taxi driver we hired for the day from Kolkata stared blankly when we told him our destination. When realization dawned he said: “Oh…Chandonnogar. But there is nothing there,” advising us instead to go during the time of Jagadhatri Puja. My husband and daughter were ready to change plans, but though daunted, I stayed firm.
At first sight, it looked like any small town in India. There were people, cars, and signboards for mobile connections and bank loans everywhere. Small shops with colourful wares spilled onto streets. There must be a French Quarter I thought, with charming old homes and a French café, but no one had heard about any of these. All we were told was to “go straight.” Straight led to the Hooghly River, an important distributory of the Ganga. The river-side promenade was grandly named the Strand. We walked along it, looking for the Indo-French Cultural Centre and Museum.
The museum and French language school are housed in Dupleix House, a handsome cream-coloured building, once the home of the French Governor. With no one else at the museum, we wandered freely, gazing at the motley collection of maps, models, furniture, and household items. For those with patience and good eyesight, the maps offer stories of the town’s turbulent, eventful past. The French, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, Germans, and English, all coveted the prime lands along the banks of the Hooghly, the opening to the riches of the Indian subcontinent. The French received a firman from Emperor Aurangzeb in 1688 and established Fort d’Orleans at Chandernagore, which was later razed to the ground by the British. Chandernagore passed from the French to the British and back again until it became a part of the Indian Republic in 1952. From the condition of the museum, it seemed like no one really cares much about its history or current state. The old four-poster bed, the run-down sofas, the pretty crockery, and the odd statues and lithographs are scattered about the rooms in no particular order. They looked shabby, yet stolid and proud, all mute witnesses to another era. Behind the museum is a garden, still lovely in a wild unkempt way, where the governor may have held soirees on balmy summer evenings. (institutedechandernagor.gov.in; open 11 a.m.-5.30 p.m., closed Thu and Sat; adults Rs 5, children under ten free).
We left the museum and walked along the Strand towards a structure vaguely reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The peach-coloured arch combines eastern influences in the form of elephants and flowers along with slender columns and typical European stucco work. A marble slab high up on the facade says in French that the structure is a gift to the city, constructed by Shamachorone Roquitte. He built it in memory of his father Dourgachourone Roquitte, who was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1841. Who was this man, I wondered, who had rendered his name in French and now provides his countrymen with a place to relax on the banks of the river that flows through his birthplace? Few bother to read the slab, fewer still know that this is a memorial to Durgacharan Rakshit, a French Bengali who had lived here more than a hundred years ago.
Further along the promenade was yet another structure, a flash of white against the darkening sky, the Sacred Heart Church. Though the walls in the front had peeled to reveal a bare brown with bits of plaster sticking on like scabs, this is a living, thriving place. Inside, under the tall ceiling, are beautiful stained-glass windows, the colours glowing bright red, blue, and yellow. The parish priest showed us around. We saw a statue of St. Peter with a rooster at the entrance, a restored grave, altar lights which had been brought from France, just like the bell that still tolls three times a day to call the faithful to prayer. The church was built in the late 19th century to provide spiritual solace to French traders.
There was no French café anywhere in Chandernagore, but we found a tea stall and stood in the light rain sipping sweet milky tea. How do we deal with the past, I pondered. Chandernagore has moved on, shrugging off its history like an old coat. Yet, it is its unique past that makes this town special, that gives it a charm and identity different from any other town in West Bengal. And just for that I hoped whatever fragments were left of its past could still be preserved for the future.
Chandernagore is 35 km/1.5 hr north of Kolkata, in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. Trains ply frequently between Chandernagore and Kolkata’s Howrah railway station. Taxis from Kolkata charge Rs. 1,500 for a return trip.