India was filled with myriad dangers for its settlers and would be invaders: tropical disease was a great killer in the early days; soldiers died in small battles; and many ancient mariners were lost in shipwrecks. As I walked among the tombs, I felt nostalgia for a time I will never know. A few tightly spaced, crumbling graves lay to the side, and it was hard not to feel a bit of retrospective pity for the inhabitants of those cramped tenements. I imagine they found little solace in India. The vigil of a small community, dependent for news of the outside world on three or four shipments a year and given to deadly boredom in the heat of a tropical summer. If the fates dealt harshly with them in life, they have made no amends to their memory in death.
Sir William Jones. Photo: Wikipedia/Commons.
One of the better maintained tombs is that of Sir William Jones, who first came to India in 1783 as a Supreme Court Judge, but soon found that his passions lay elsewhere. Within a few months of his arrival in Calcutta, as the city was then known, he established the Asiatic Society, which still has its headquarters on Park Street. Jones is said to have possessed such linguistic genius that he not only claimed mastery over every major European tongue, but also Sanskrit and various other Oriental languages. At the time of his death in 1794, at what was then considered the ripe old age of 47, Jones had translated important Sanskrit scriptures such as the Bhagwad Gita into English. He believed that for the mind to truly develop, it must absorb the knowledge of other civilizations.
Tomb of Sir William Jones. Photo: Wikipedia/Commons
A few decades before William Jones, another Englishman buried here sought to understand the mysteries of Hinduism. Colonel Charles “Hindoo” Stuart started off as a cadet in the Bengal Army in 1777, eventually rising to the rank of colonel despite lacking any significant battle experience. He was considered an eccentric by the mores of the time was said to have “gone native” after he constructed a temple and acquired an Indian wife. In 1778, he wrote an article that urged the military to start wearing Indian attire, and tried to persuade the “memsahibs”—upper class white women—of Calcutta to throw off their heavy corsets and wear the sari. “The Sari,” Stuart wrote, is “the most alluring dress in the world and the women of Hindustan are enchanting in their beauty.”
He was determined to understand the vagaries of Hinduism, a faith that seemed to advocate both asceticism and scandalous physical pleasure; he sought to reconcile why the Christian God endured unbearable suffering, whereas the Hindu deities seemed to rejoice in love. Many colonists found Hinduism disconcerting and strange; not so Hindoo Stuart. He writes in his book The Vindication of the Hindoo that, “Wherever I look around me, in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology, I discover Piety… Morality… and as far as I can rely on my judgment, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory the world has ever produced.” His tomb is shaped in the form of a Hindu temple, and the lotus motifs are an interesting touch to what is an overwhelmingly Gothic cemetery.
Tomb of Charles “Hindoo” Stuart. Photo: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y
There is an oft-quoted phrase in Bengal that “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,” characteristic of the cultural and intellectual one-upmanship in which Bengal once engaged. Curiously, the seeds of a Bengal cultural awakening were sown by a young man by the name of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, who is buried nearby. Though considered an Anglo-Indian due to his mixed Portuguese descent, Derozio considered himself an Indian and was filled with patriotic enthusiasm for his native Bengal.
He is best known as the pioneer of the “Young Bengal” movement, a group of radical Bengali thinkers based in the Hindu College in Calcutta. In 1826, Derozio was appointed as an English professor at at the tender age of 17. His brilliant lectures inspired students; he was renowned for presenting closely reasoned arguments based on extensive reading. He encouraged his students to read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and rejected superstition as well as some Hindu customs, including the shunning of widows, which he considered regressive. Derozio took great pride in his interactions with students, writing in his notes, “Expanding like the petals of young flowers, I watch the gentle opening of your minds…”