Outrage in Calcutta
THE MYTHICAL HISTORY of the British Empire in the East begins in a black hole. In the evolutionary history of stars, the black hole is a theoretical construct. Scientists tell us that most of the black hole's properties cannot be directly observed. When the core matter of a star cools, contracts, and collapses into a black hole, the space-time around it is so sharply curved that no light escapes, no matter is ejected, and all details of the imploding star are obliterated. An outside observer cannot associate any meaningful sense of time with the interior events, and hence, in the absence of any chronological equivalence, no communication could possibly take place with an inside observer, if there were one. Scientists do, of course, infer the existence of black holes from observing disks of dust or hot gas near the cores of stars, but no actual black hole has ever been observed so far.
The Black Hole of Calcutta has a somewhat similar status in the history of modern empires. Where exactly was it located, and what happened inside it? How do we know anything about the place or event? To answer these questions, we will need to excavate many layers of narrative and doctrine that lie buried under our currently fashionable postimperial edifice of the global community of nations.
Dalhousie Square is the heart of the administrative district of Calcutta, a city whose name is now officially spelled, in accordance with the Bengali colloquial form, Kolkata. Like many other colonial landmarks in the city, Dalhousie Square too was renamed in the 1960s. The new name is mostly used as an acronym on buses and traffic signs: Bi-ba-di Bag. In Bengali, it sounds as though the place has been named after parties in a legal dispute. But in its expanded form, the name is Binay-Badal-Dinesh Bag, which memorializes three daring young men who, on a winter's day in 1930, walked into the Writers’ Buildings and shot dead Lieutenant-Colonel Norman Skinner Simpson, the inspector general of prisons, while he was sitting at his desk in his office. The massive red-brick structure of the Writers’ Buildings in fact occupies and dominates the entire northern side of the square, throwing a vast crimson reflection on the