In the 1870s, Calcutta was growing at an exponential rate. Yet it remained surrounded by small fishing villages reminding the grand metropolis of its own humble beginnings. Late in June 1870, a group of fishermen from one such nondescript village set out as usual to fish in the stream that ran along their hamlet. They had been working the river for sometime when one of them suddenly raised an alarm.
The others flocked to his aid, but were awestruck by what they saw. From the water there arose a strange beast, described as an animal approximately 8 cubits in length, with a head, proboscis, and tusks like those of an elephant. It rose four or five times out of the water before vanishing forever. Over the next few days, eager spectators kept gathering by the riverside without luck.
The incident caused enough of a stir to make it to the front page of the Amrita Bazar Patrika on June 30th 1870. The editors, Sisirkumar Ghosh and his younger brother Motilal Ghosh, pondered about whether the mystery creature might have been a walrus!
Perhaps more tantalizingly the descriptions bear a striking resemblance to the mythical beast called makara that is believed to be the animal familiar of the river goddess, Ganga. By the 1870s, a burgeoning print culture had already begun to standardize a visual image of the makara, and the description given by the witnesses seems much closer to that than the walrus. Could the fishermen have actually beheld a makara? Was that even possible? Could the makara have ever been a creature of this world, rather than one of myth and lore?
More importantly, why did the Ghosh brothers think of a walrus before thinking of a makara? Had the naturalistic, or “zoologistic” to be more accurate, way of seeing the world already disenchanted their imagination? Lest we judge the Ghoshes too hastily, it is worth recalling that the first family of Bengali journalism had also been foremost in bringing the spiritualist movement to Calcutta. The entire family practiced seances, hosted spirit mediums both foreign and local, and claimed to have regularly conversed with dead relatives. Surely the world the Ghosh brothers inhabited, despite the shrinking space it had for the makara, was not yet an overly naturalistic one.
Whatever may have driven Ghosh to link the sighting to a walrus, it cannot be denied that as the Victorian Age trundled on and on and into successively the Edwardian, the Gandhian and the Nehruvian eras, the plausibility of a world that could include the makara shrunk rapidly. As the yellow gaslights in Calcutta gradually dimmed and faded away in all-too-clear and obscene glare of blue-white neon lights, so too did the alterity of the makara. Gradually, the visual images of the makara have come to resemble tame theme-park crocodiles. The mystery, mythology and enchantment of the makara have been replaced by the banality of mass-produced zoological imagery. Finally rid of the enchanted distortions, our modern eyes can now only see crocodiles where our forebears saw makaras. Even the tantalizing thought of a walrus in the Hughli now seems only slightly less ludicrous than the makara.
Jamini Roy was perhaps the last to see the makara with the enchanted eyes of the fishermen of 1870. But by then, i.e. 1950s, the makara had swapped its loyalties. The goddess Ganga had retreated back into the heavens whence she had once descended, and the makara now served Bodor Pir. But the prescient Roy seemed at the time unsure of how the Pir Saheb and his makara would fare in their tryst with the horse-riders from the north who now galloped along the rivulets of Bengal. Did the makara survive the meeting? Or has it too retraced its steps? How then does the Pir Saheb now travel along the rivers that are his province? I have a hunch that the makara lives on and perhaps some day another group of Bengali fishermen shall run into it. Maybe the Pir Saheb too shall grace them with an appearance, though I doubt it will be anywhere near Calcutta.