Raffles Hotel, Chowringhee and Death In Venice

Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and the Bengali writer Sankar (real name Mani Shankar Mukherjee) both feature in Brick Lane author Monica Ali’s excellent essay on hotels and writers. The essay in the British magazine Prospect follows the publication of her hotel-based novel, In The Kitchen, which I am dying to read.

Ali praises Sankar’s popular Bengali novel, Chowringhee, inspired by the famous Grand Hotel in Calcutta (Kolkata). This videoclip is from the 1968 Bengali hit film, Chowringhee, based on the novel. I loved both the movie and the novel. Seen singing here is the Bengali movie legend Uttam Kumar, who played the hotel receptionist Sata Bose. The song title Boro Eka Lage means “I feel very lonely”.

Another hotel-based story Ali discusses in her essay is Death In Venice by Thomas Mann. It was also made into a movie. This videoclip  is from the 1971 Dirk Bogarde starrer directed by Visconti. The slow art film is as beautiful as Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal of Venice.

Ali writes:

Writers have had a long and deep association with hotels. New York’s Algonquin and Chelsea hotels, the Savoy in London, Venice’s Hotel des Bains, the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, and the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental and Raffles in Singapore are just a few of the places in which literary history has been created. And, as witnessed by Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland (both written and partly set in the Chelsea Hotel in New York) and my new novel, In the Kitchen, which tells the story of Gabriel Lightfoot, executive head chef at the fictional Imperial Hotel in London, the hotel continues to exert a fascination for authors, not only as facilitator of the creative endeavour but also as a subject of that creativity.

I spent a year researching In the Kitchen. Most of this time was spent reading a mountain of non-fiction books about the restaurant and hotel trades, and delving firsthand into those worlds. I spent time in five large London hotels, on the understanding that I would not identify them. I talked to everyone from managers to receptionists, but mainly I hung out in the kitchens chatting to staff and absorbing the atmosphere.

She notes Death In Venice was set in Hotel des Bains but doesn’t mention any particular book connected with Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, whose guests have included writers like Kipling, Maugham and Noel Coward.

About Sankar’s novel’s Chowringhee, she writes:

The sense of the hotel as a stage, a set on which an ever rotating cast will play, affords the novelist many dramatic opportunities. As the receptionist in Sankar’s wonderful novel Chowringhee, located in a venerable Calcutta hotel, remarks: “This place should have been named Shahjahan Theatre instead of Shahjahan Hotel.”

Chowringhee, first published in Bengali in 1962 but recently available in English translation, exemplifies another reason why writers check into literary hotels. First and foremost it is a “social” novel, examining in luminous detail the iniquities of society through the poverty of many of the employees (some of the waiters even have to sleep on the streets) and the corruption and hypocrisy of the rich who frequent the Shahjahan. No other contemporary setting opens up the same opportunities for the haves and have-nots to intermingle on quite such intimate terms. When Nityahari, the God-fearing dhobi (washerman) has to change the bedclothes of the rich and adulterous Mrs Pakrashi, he asks for water to be poured on his hands: “I have to wash their sins off, haven’t I?”

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