Richard Blechynden's Calcutta Diaries, 1791-1822
Oxford University Press 2011
Richard Blechynden came to Calcutta in 1782 as a twenty two year old, and stayed there for the rest of his life, working as a surveyor and architect. From 1791 he maintained daily diaries, and it is these that Peter Robb has so magnificently re-worked as Richard Blechynden’s Calcutta Diaries, 1791-1822 (Oxford University Press, 2011, 2 vols). Richard’s diaries are quite literally a chronicle of the everyday and the ordinary, what might even be called mundane and the petty, in Calcutta in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In these diaries Richard talks about his children, his loves, his network of colleagues, helps, acquaintances, what might today be dubbed ‘frenemies’, people, European, Indian, ‘half-caste,’ who exasperated him but without whom it was well nigh impossible to function in a city where everyone needed everyone else to get their work done. Peter Robb’s edited compendium of these diaries is a record of how social networks operated in a very cosmopolitan city, yet one whose inhabitants were always all too aware of their social, religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Sometimes the lines between the personal and the professional blurred, and sometimes favors were given and taken from unlikely persons, and people were not always, by modern standards, ethical, yet in the end everyone managed to establish for themselves a position that would guarantee, if not prosperity, survival.