Scots Beneath the Banyan Tree: Stories of Scots in Bengal
by Bashabi Fraser
Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
In his Introduction to this book, Charles Bruce lays down a challenging statement. It can be said, he asserts, 'that many of the external influences on the development of an Indian national identity had Scottish origins, starting with the translocation of Scottish Enlightenment thinking from Edinburgh to Calcutta by pupils of the philosopher David Hume and their subsequent impact on the Bengal Renaissance.' This argument is not without merit and well worth developing into a longer article. Perhaps there was something about the two formerly autonomous areas, each with their own distinctive culture and language, but each subsumed by stronger neighbours, that led to a bond of sympathy and understanding between Scots and Bengalis. For the present, this unusual small book reinforces both the receptiveness of the Bengali mind to new ideas, and the dedication of Scots like Ronald Ross who identified the malarial mosquito and Sir David Hamilton, who chose to retire in India and alleviate poverty in the Sunderbans. It includes narrative poems, translated from the Bengali, that outline eight Scottish lives. Much of the book's charm lies in its fold-out coloured illustrations called pata, an ancient narrative art-form currently being revived by the Crafts Council of West Bengal. Story-tellers would visit villages and unroll their painted pata, relating the events shown in cartoon-like form. This would make a handsome present for anyone new to the subject.