No Highland Fling

Soumitra Das reports

Calcutta Telegraph, India
Aug 10 2007

The Scottish Cemetery in Karaya is in need of immediate attention.

Caretaker Vincent Isaac and his little daughter Agnes guided me through
the knee-high tangle of grass and weeds into the heart of the Scottish
Cemetery at 3 Karaya Road. Beyond this point the jungle of parasites,
shrubs and trees in the embrace of creepers was impregnable.

The Scottish Cemetery map in the custody of Isaac shows that almost
every inch of this sprawling ground was covered with masonry (pucca)
graves, but when it comes to grandeur, these are no match for the lofty
monuments which line South Park Street Cemetery. The ones here are
of humble dimensions and in spite of an occasional ornamental cross,
tablet or marble flowers rising above the shrubbery, most are just
plain slabs of unembellished stone.

There is another possibility. Since this cemetery has been lying
neglected for so long, they could have been stripped of richer material
by vandals.

The Scots once dominated business and industry in Calcutta but like
many hardworking people they were known for their parsimony. Which
perhaps explained the lack of marble or any impressive structures in
this necropolis.

As I discovered from the legends on the headstones and the entries
in the ancient register with pages that will crumble into dust in a
few years’ time, those interred here -including many Indians, mostly
Bengalis, besides Scots and Brits – were on the staff of the mills
and factories which had come up in and around Calcutta and Howrah in
the 19th century and early 20th century.

The Church of Scotland cemetery is the property of St Andrew’s church
in Dalhousie Square and is under the management of the kirk session.

The Scottish Cemetery at 3 Karaya Road is encircled by open-air
anywhere-everywhere kerb-side car repair "garages" which create
impediments both for pedestrians and the traffic.

A high wall runs around the ground but this too is not in good repair
and is unable to ward off unwanted elements and vandals.

The arched portal is a brick-and-mortar structure and the name of
the cemetery is written in bold letters on it.

There is no mention anywhere of the date on which it opened to
public. A small plaque on the outer wall of the caretaker’s humble
quarters declared that some "historical tombstones" had been removed
to South Park Street cemetery in 1987. But the caretaker did not have
the list of graves removed, as the plaque declared.

The kutcha pathway leading to the graveyard is neat but the tombs look
as if they had been dug up for some nefarious purpose. Stone slabs lie
scattered all over with clumps of grass and weeds growing in between.

I tried to decipher some of the indistinct letters on the tombstones
in the hope of discovering the identity of those interred. I could
read "Apcar" (but aren’t they Armenians, I wondered) and quite
understandably, a sprinkling of surnames beginning with either "Mac"
or "Mc" dating mostly back to mid- or late 19th century.

To the left of the pathway was a clearing where I found the memorials
to two men buried in Ilford cemetery and at Richmond, Surrey. Close
to that was the marble headstone of Niroj Nolini Pyne who died in 1937.

The greenery washed by the occasional spells of rain and under the
glaring sun had turned into a wall of glowing, translucent jade
exuding a strong smell of chlorophyll.

The only grave that seemed well looked after was that of Rev Thomas
Jones, who had created the Khasi alphabet and literature. He died
in 1849.

The ancient register yielded "the quality of trade or profession"
of those buried – manager of jute and flour mills, foreman, engineer,
tea planter, mechanic, ship carpenter, port commissioner employees,
evangelist, stockbroker and to my surprise, "Kiron Shoshi Banerjee,
lady doctor,1922" and "Muriel Webb, telephone operator, 1923."

I could not find the name of Rev Kalicharan Banerjee, who was Pradesh
Congress sabhapati and first registrar of Calcutta University. He
was buried here. Neither could I find out the exact date on which
the cemetery opened. A good guess is some time in the 1830s.