“Let’s go to Dalim’s house,” one of the babus suggests.

“No, that bint is too full of vanity – she has her nose up in the air. I am not prepared to tolerate such vanity after having paid out of my pocket!”

Another voices his protest saying, “No, no, Durga Pujo is close at hand, I am not going to cross her threshold now – she will suddenly come up with some capricious demand.”

“Let her! Where will you get such beautiful eyes and that wondrous smile?”

“Damn the eyes and the smile, money can even fetch tiger’s milk, and you are talking about the eyes and the smile?”

Dalim’s fan having lost the vote, sighed loudly and proceeded to fill his glass.

“Better to go to Chine-Chameli’s house; she will blow our minds away with song and dance!”

“And the rate is cheaper…”

“Knows the worth of gentlemen …”

“But Dalim …”

“You mention Dalim again and I will break this soda bottle on your head!”

“Boy, boy! Bill le aao!” – “get the bill…”

The babus then set out for the garden where Chine-Chameli had blossomed. In a while another thirsty and hungry group arrives and takes possession of another cabin of the “hotel’, actually a restaurant. In this group there are four men and two women.

The women are dressed like adherents of Brahmoism. They have a cloth tied over their heads which is a new fashion among the modern age ladies. These two women have picked this up from them. Both sport eyeglasses and have golden lapeta ­– the latest fashion, a cross between the “pump” shoe and the Mughal style nagra-shoes on their feet.

Prostitutes camouflage their identity so expertly that at first sight many of them might be mistaken for educated modern women. But in most cases their jewellery, nose rings and the golden shoes give away their true identity.

Everyone in the new group has already had enough to drink before arriving here. Still they are not satisfied, because surprisingly they are still able to move about and walk! Mawd, mawd – they cry out for liquor and promptly one of them takes out a small bottle of whisky from his pocket and puts it on the table.

Immediately three bottles of soda and a slab of ice arrive and the singing starts. The effect of double intoxication becomes apparent within half an hour.

One of them with drooping eyelids suddenly embraces a woman saying, “Angur, I love you so much.”

“Oh dear me, his passion brims over!” Angur says, twisting her shoulders playfully.

“So you don’t trust my words dear,” the first man says in a tone of hurt, “Okay then watch this, whether I can give my life for you at this moment or not!” And so saying he picks up the table knife in his hand.

Immediately the three other men join the chorus, echoing his words to proclaim their love, “Angur, I love you so much!”

“Enough, enough…do you want your wife to wipe off her streak of marital bliss – the vermilion from the parting of her hair – and have vegetarian food for the rest of her life, because of me? I don’t ask you dear to give your life, better buy me a collar of pearls! Then I will know the depth of this love of yours.”

The first lover, pretending not to hear her, pleads with the other woman, “Hena, please sing a song darling!”

“But how can I sing inside a hotel?” Hena retorts.

“Of course! You shall sing!”

Not bothering the drunks any further, Hena begins to hum –

Didi, lalpakhita amae dhore de na re.

“Didi, please catch that red bird for me.”

One of the men begins to keep the beat using the table like a tabla, another taking two glass tumblers begins striking them against each other mimicking the notes of cymbals and the babu who was about to sacrifice his life, rises to dance, only to topple over onto the floor where he keeps lying still. While making music, one of the glasses shatters to pieces, the bits raining all over the lover but the one who broke the glass, the one on whom the pieces landed, and the ones who watched, none feel the need to be least bothered about it.

Suddenly a loud wave of singing and laughter is heard from up the stairs. Voices of twelve or thirteen women float up at the same time!

The singer, musicians and listeners of this room quickly peep out to find a flock of dusky, fair and brown-skinned “fairies” climbing up the stairs but there is not a single man in this group of women!

“Matal Hari!” Angur said.

Matal Hari is a famous woman captain of Calcutta, similar to the captain-babus who are men. She is not at all good to look at, but she makes pots of money from singing and squanders it all away. She has a strange whimsicalness. As soon as she receives a payment, she shuts down her business for a few days and goes around town in a merry-making spree with a group of women known to her. The merry-making continues as long as the money lasts; she doesn’t usually invite male friends in this merriment.

Day and night she drinks and alongside that weed, opium and guli is also not left out. While our “Matal Hari” name is imaginary, there is a real person like her.

Matal Hari and her companions sit down ostentatiously in a big room. The entire hotel building rings with the din of feminine voices. The hotel owner looks very happy. With the arrival of a customer like Matal Hari, there is no doubt left in his mind that all the food would be consumed that day. He quickly goes upstairs and smiling widely says, “What would you like to have dear Hari, order it!”

“Brother! Why should I order, while you are here? You can order on our behalf and tell them what we like. Do come and join us…we are not letting you go!”

By and by the tables fill up with liquor and soda bottles, glasses, ice buckets and food plates; tuneless singing, peals of laughter, mad dancing, the smashing of plates and glasses, shouting in vulgar language, and obscene conversations – who dare keep their ears open amidst this! Some new customers quietly slip away seeing all this, but some of those who are not scared away are drawn in by Matal Hari to her group.

By then, Angur and Hena also join Matal Hari’s party, but their male friends escape, having never witnessed such things with their own eyes. Only the “lover” hasn’t given up on the opportunity to offer himself. After a while, he raises himself from his bed of glass shards and arrives on all fours to sit beside Angur, expressing his love for her from time to time.

This scene may be new for this restaurant but people like Angur and her lover are to be found in most hotels of Calcutta’s infamous Sonagachhi area.

Calcutta Nights

Excerpted from Calcutta Nights, Hemendra Kumar Roy, translated from the Bengali by Rajat Chaudhuri, Niyogi Books.