The City of Dreadful Night

by Rudyard Kipling


With the Calcutta Police

The City was of Night—perchance of Death,
But certainly of Night.

The City of Dreadful Night.


IN the beginning, the Police were responsible. They said in a patronising way that they would prefer to take a wanderer round the great city themselves, sooner than let him contract a broken head on his own account in the slums. They said that there were places and places where a white man, unsupported by the arm of the Law, would be robbed and mobbed; and that there were other places where drunken seamen would make it very unpleasant for him.

‘Come up to the fire look-out in the first place, and then you’ll be able to see the city.’ This was at No. 22 Lal Bazar, which is the headquarters of the Calcutta Police, the centre of the great web of telephone wires where justice sits all day and all night looking after one million people and a floating population of one hundred thousand. But her work shall be dealt with later on. The fire look-out is a little sentry-box on the top of the three-storied police offices. Here a native watchman waits to give warning to the brigade below if the smoke rises by day or the flames by night in any ward of the city. From this eyrie, in the warm night, one hears the heart of Calcutta beating. Northward, the city stretches away three long miles, with three more miles of suburbs beyond, to Dum-Dum and Barrackpore. The lamplit dusk on this side is full of noises and shouts and smells. Close to the Police Office, jovial mariners at the sailors’ coffee-shop are roaring hymns. Southerly, the city’s confused lights give place to the orderly lamp-rows of the maidân and Chowringhi, where the respectabilities live and the Police have very little to do. From the east goes up to the sky the clamour of Sealdah, the rumble of the trams, and the voices of all Bow Bazar chaffering and making merry. Westward are the business quarters, hushed now; the lamps of the shipping on the river; and the twinkling lights on the Howrah side. ‘Does the noise of traffic go on all through the hot weather?’ ‘Of course. The hot months are the busiest in the year and money’s tightest. You should see the brokers cutting about at that season. Calcutta can’t stop, my dear sir.’ ‘What happens then?’ ‘Nothing happens; the death-rate goes up a little. That’s all!’ Even in February, the weather would, up-country, be called muggy and stifling, but Calcutta is convinced that it is her cold season. The noises of the city grow perceptibly; it is the night side of Calcutta waking up and going abroad. Jack. in the sailors’ coffee-shop is singing joyously: ‘Shall we gather at the River—the beautiful, the beautiful, the River?’ There is a clatter of hoofs in the courtyard below. Some of the Mounted Police have come in from somewhere or other out of the great darkness. A clog-dance of iron hoofs follows, and an Englishman’s voice is heard soothing an agitated horse who seems to be standing on his hind-legs. Some of the Mounted Police are going out into the great darkness. ‘What’s on?’ ‘A dance at Government House. The Reserve men are being formed up below. They’re calling the roll.’ The Reserve men are all English, and big English at that. They form up and tramp out of the courtyard to line Government Place, and see that Mrs. Lollipop’s brougham does not get smashed up by Sirdar Chuckerbutty Bahadur’s lumbering C-spring barouche with the two raw Walers. Very military men are the Calcutta European Police in their setup, and he who knows their composition knows some startling stories of gentlemen-rankers and the like. They are, despite the wearing climate they work in and the wearing work they do, as fine a five-score of Englishmen as you shall find east of Suez.

Listen for a moment from the fire look-out to the voices of the night, and you will see why they must be so. Two thousand sailors of fifty nationalities are adrift in Calcutta every Sunday, and of these perhaps two hundred are distinctly the worse for liquor. There is a mild row going on, even now, somewhere at the back of Bow Bazar, which at, nightfall fills with sailormen who have a wonderful gift of falling foul of the native population. To keep the Queen’s peace is of course only a small portion of Police duty, but it is trying. The burly president of the lock-up for European drunks—Calcutta central lock-up is worth seeing—rejoices in a sprained thumb just now, and has to do his work left-handed in consequence. But his left hand is a marvellously persuasive one, and when on duty his sleeves are turned up to the shoulder that the jovial mariner may see that there is no deception. The president’s labours are handicapped in that the road of sin to the lock-up runs through a grimy little garden—the brick paths are worn deep with the tread of many drunken feet—where a man can give a great deal of trouble by sticking his toes into the ground and getting mixed up with the shrubs. A straight run-in would be much more convenient both for the president and the drunk. Generally speaking—and here Police experience is pretty much the same all over the civilised world—a woman-drunk is a good deal worse than a man-drunk. She scratches and bites like a Chinaman and swears like several fiends. Strange people may be unearthed in the lock ups. Here is a perfectly true story, not three weeks old. A visitor, an unofficial one, wandered into the native side of the spacious accommodation provided for those who have gone or done wrong. A wild-eyed Babu rose from the fixed charpoy and said in the best of English, ‘Good morning, sir.’ ‘Good morning. Who are you, and what are you in for?’ Then the Babu, in one breath: ‘I would have you know that I do not go to prison as a criminal but as a reformer. You’ve read the Vicar of Wakefield?’ ‘Ye-es.’ ‘Well, I am the Vicar of Bengal—at least that’s what I call myself.’ The visitor collapsed. He had not nerve enough to continue the conversation. Then said the voice of the authority: ‘He’s down in connection with a cheating case at Serampore. May be shamming insane, but he’ll be seen to in time.’

The best place to hear about the Police is the fire look-out. From that eyrie one can see how difficult must be the work of control over the great, growling beast of a city. By all means let us abuse the Police, but let us see what the poor wretches have to do with their three thousand natives and one hundred Englishmen. From Howrah and Bally and the other suburbs at least a hundred thousand people come in to Calcutta for the day and leave at night. Then, too, Chandernagore is handy for the fugitive law-breaker, who can enter in the evening and get away before the noon of the next day, having marked his house and broken into it.

‘But how can the prevalent offence be housebreaking in a place like this? ‘Easily enough. When you’ve seen a little of the city you’ll see. Natives sleep and lie about all over the place, and whole quarters are just so many rabbit-warrens. Wait till you see the Machua Bazar. Well, besides the petty theft and burglary, we have, heavy cases of forgery and fraud, that leave us with our wits pitted against a Bengali’s. When a Bengali criminal is working a fraud of the sort he loves, he is about the cleverest soul you could wish for. He gives us cases a year long to unravel. Then there are the murders in the low houses-very curious things they are. You’ll see the house where Sheikh Babu was murdered presently, and you’ll understand. The Burra Bazar and Jora Bagan sections are the two worst ones for heavy cases; but Colootollah is the most aggravating. There’s Colootollah over yonder—that patch of darkness beyond the lights. That section is full of tuppenny-ha’penny petty cases, that keep the men up all night and make ’em swear. You’ll see Colootollah, and then perhaps you’ll understand. Bamun Bustee is the quietest of all, and Lal Bazar and Bow Bazar, as you can see for yourself, are the rowdiest. You’ve no notion what the natives come to the police station for. A man will come in and want a summons against his master for refusing him half-an-hour’s leave. I suppose it does seem rather revolutionary to an up-country man, but they try to do it here. Now wait a minute, before we go down into the city and see the Fire Brigade turned out. Business is slack with them just now, but you time ’em and see.’ An order is given, and a bell strikes softly thrice. There is a rush of men, the click of a bolt, a red fire-engine, spitting and swearing with the sparks flying from the furnace, is dragged out of its shelter. A huge brake, which holds supplementary horses, men, and hatchets, follows, and a hose-cart is the third on the list. The men push the heavy things about as though they were pith toys. The men clamber up, some one says softly, ‘All ready there,’ and with an angry whistle the fire-engine, followed by the other two, flies out into Lal Bazar. Time—1 min. 40 secs. ‘They’ll find out it’s a false alarm, and come back again in five minutes.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because there will be no constables on the road to give ’em the direction of the fire, and because the driver wasn’t told the ward of the outbreak when he went out!’ ‘Do you mean to say that you can from this absurd pigeon-loft locate the wards in the night-time?’ ‘What would be the good of a look-out if the man couldn’t tell where the fire was?’ ‘But it’s all pitchy black, and the lights are so confusing.’

‘You’ll be more confused in ten minutes. You’ll have lost your way as you never lost it before. You’re going to go round Bow Bazar section.’

‘And the Lord have mercy on my soul!’ Calcutta, the darker portion of it, does not look an inviting place to dive into at night.