'Here, day and night were interchangeable. The immaculately dressed Chowringhee, radiant in her youth, had just stepped on to the floor at the nightclub.'
Written in the format of a hotel receptionist's memoirs, the novel contains anecdote after anecdote about what happens in a hotel, the smallest story being that about two young American girls who were accompanying their father on a world tour. They left him in Bombay to attend to some urgent business and went off by themselves to Delhi. Apparently, they put up at Maidens Hotel. They went on a buying spree as tourists usually do and spent all their money. Having no options left, they sent an express telegram to their father. He was foxed by the cable his daughters had sent: 'All money spent. Can stay maidens no longer.'
Set in 1950s Kolkata, then Calcutta, Chowringhee is a sprawling saga of the intimate lives of managers, employees and guests at one of Calcutta’s largest hotels, the Shahjahan. Shankar, the newest recruit, recounts the stories of several people whose lives come together in the suites, restaurants, bar and backrooms of the hotel. As both observer and participant in the events, he inadvertently peels off the layers of everyday existence to expose the seamy underbelly of unfulfilled desires, broken dreams, callous manipulation and unbidden tragedy. What unfolds is not just the story of individual lives but also the incredible chronicle of a metropolis.
Written by best-selling Bengali author Sankar, Chowringhee was published as a novel in 1962. Predating Arthur Hailey's Hotel by three years, it became an instant hit, spawning translations in major Indian languages, a film and a play. Its larger-than-life characters—the enigmatic manager Marco Polo, the debonair receptionist Sata Bose, the tragic hostess Karabi Guha, among others—soon attained cult status. With its thinly veiled accounts of the private lives of real-life celebrities, and its sympathetic narrative seamlessly weaving the past and the present, it immediately established itself as a popular classic. Available for the first time in English, Chowringhee is as much a dirge as it is a homage to a city and its people.
The novel, translated into English by Arunava Sinha, won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2007 for the best translation.
For Bengali original, see here.