Given that Kolkata or Calcutta has been on my mind for the past week what with my Durga Puja visit there, this book is a natural choice. It came to me as a gift along with several other wonderful books a few years ago when I addressed a humour club in Coimbatore. I had always meant to read it and then last week I took it to Calcutta and read much of it there. I enjoyed the book immensely and look forward to the rest of it in the remaining weeks.
I should classify it as a companion to the magnum opus on Madras – Vestiges of Old Madras by HD Love. But the Calcutta book by HE Busteed deals with a very limited period in that great city’s history – 1775 to 1785. It deals with Hastings’ tenure as Governor General and the immediate aftermath. His doings and those of his arch rival Sir Philip Francis form the bulk of the book. The latter began life as a muckraker, somewhat like Lakshmikanthan and wrote several exposes under the pseudonym of Junius in the 1760s. The then Prime Minister, Lord North, purchased his silence by sending him to India as a member of the Governor General’s council. There he was a thorn in Hastings’ flesh. The two hated each other most cordially with Francis thinking he could eventually oust Hastings and take his place. But that was never to be. Hastings, whose greatest quality was his sang froid, outwitted and outlasted them all.
Back in England Francis organised what he thought would be the end of Hastings. The impeachment by Parliament ended after seven years with Hastings being exonerated. Francis is said to have remarked that Hastings was acquitted while he, Francis was tried. He later fancied his chances of becoming Governor General when Lord Cornwallis died in 1806 but that was not to be. He was offered the same post at the Cape but he refused.
While in Calcutta, Francis made money like everyone else. He fought a duel with Hastings in which the latter wounded him. He wrote in a moralistic vein but at the same time observed quite a bit about social life in Calcutta.
The book also has a chapter on the trial of Nandakumar, who was Hastings’ arch enemy. Charged with forgery, he was tried by the Supreme Court of which the Chief Justice was Sir Elijah Impey, Hastings’ childhood friend. Nandakumar was hanged, the first man to be tried for forgery in India as per modern judicial norms. The book also has chapters on the Bengal Gazette, India’s first newspaper in English, Mme Talleyrand who was a girl from Calcutta who later became the hostess of the mostest in France, and Begum Johnson, the much-married girl from Cuddalore who was buried at 87 at St John’s, Calcutta.
The book was written by Busteed in the 1880s. It was republished several times, the 1908 edition coming out with a preface by Lord Curzon, that most superior person. My copy, by Rupa&Co, was printed in 2008. For some reason, the publishers do not give any of its earlier history and make it out as though Busteed wrote it specially for them a decade back. There are also several typos that could have been avoided.