A letter from Bernard Kelly (around 1995) states: ‘V.S. Naipaul notes he met a disgruntled demoted maharajah who keeps a house in Hampstead. Any clues? Couldn’t be Rat Vindaloo, the man who eats women, by any chance?’
The subject of this enquiry was one of the most distinctive personalities to have graced the bars of the Magdala. Sasthibrata Chakravarti was born in the Indian city of Calcutta in 1939 to a family of comfortably well-off Bengali merchants. He received the traditional upbringing of a Brahmin, followed by a strict Catholic schooling, and then entered Calcutta University in the midst of the free-thinking 1960s. Not surprisingly, this was an educational brew that created an explosion of rebellion and a miasma of complexes.
There was no doubt that Sasthi was brilliant. Although his works are largely forgotten today, the 1968 publication of his autobiography ‘My God Died Young’ (at the age of 29) was a major literary event in India. It was a blistering attack on traditional Hindu society and its superstitions. Also it was known for its uncompromising depiction of explicit sex, thereby ensuring its place on the bookshelves (or under the mattresses) of thousands of young Indian males. Sasthi became notorious as one of the angry young men of Indian society – but one who preferred to live in exile in London.
His next book, the 1971 work ‘Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater’ was considered to be even more obscene but was admired for the elegance of its prose and for the intelligence of its arguments. He continued this theme with ‘Confessions of an Indian Lover’ and ‘She and He’ in 1973; also ‘The Sensuous Guru’ in 1980. He became known in London literary circles and worked in journalism and even made TV appearances on such programmes as ‘What the Papers Say’.
On occasion, to supplement his life style, he had to undertake what he saw as menial tasks – kitchen porter, air-conditioning engineer, and barman amongst them. Not realising that this was a perfectly normal experience for most London actors and writers between periods of their real work, he fumed at the indignity. It was probably his time as a postman that roused his ire the most. In a full page article in the Evening Standard his headline raged: “Would They Make Margaret Drabble Work as a Postwoman!!!’
Nobody disputed his undoubted talents as a writer, but Sasthi had a personality almost guaranteed to make enemies. His instinctively abrasive comments immediately raised hackles, while his pursuit of women – any women – angered many husbands and boyfriends. After one such incident he was hung by his heels from the 17th floor of a tower block by an Indian artist. His incapacity to handle alcohol also contributed to his unpopularity. He was ushered to the door during an embassy reception after he vomited over the wife of the Hungarian ambassador.
He fell out with the Hoffmeister (see above) during a session at the Mag. In a drunken quarrel about literature they violently disagreed over who had written the famous line: ‘blue remembered hills’. The Hoff maintained that it was John Milton, while Sasthi said correctly that it was AE Houseman. They ended the night with a bet for £2000 on the result. As at the time neither could have raised 2000 pence, this was a little unrealistic.
The next lunchtime as the Hoff was nursing a mammoth hangover in the saloon bar, Sasthi barged in through the door brandishing a copy of AE Houseman’s poetry and demanding his £2000. The Hoff, in no condition to fight, decided on flight. He opened the hatch in the bar counter, slipped behind it and ran through to the public bar. An enraged Sasthi chased after him screeching: “It WAS AE Houseman, I tell you, it WAS AE Houseman!!” They circled the public bar, the street outside, and the saloon bar three times before the landlady intervened. It was one of those episodes that could only have occurred in Hampstead.
By 1990 as a result of legacies, etc., Sasthi had achieved a reasonably affluent position. It was enough to allow the purchase of a house on Savernake Road (near SEG) which, to emulate GB Shaw, he re-christened ‘Brata’s Corner’ and affixed a brass nameplate to that effect on the street wall. He was living the life of a Hampstead literary gent.
Then, in a move guaranteed to produce catastrophe, Sasthi decided to open a wine-bar with himself as mine host. The ‘No Comment’ opened for business on Fleet Road in 1990. It was well situated and well decorated, with a well equipped kitchen and a well-stocked wine cellar. The only part of the bar that did not merit the adjective ‘well’ was the owner. Sasthi simply did not get it.
From the outset he assumed that it was his duty to impose his personality on all who entered his establishment. Individuals in for a quiet drink and a perusal of their newspapers would find themselves subjected to half hour long harangues, while couples arriving for an intimate tête-à-tête would find him sitting down with them to discuss politics. But where Sasthi really went wrong was in his oppressive treatment of staff. In the space of one week, four successive chefs walked out on him. He was left trying to cook the food orders himself while simultaneously acting as barman and head waiter.
This soon took its toll and the clientele themselves began to bear the brunt of his tiredness and ill temper. The barring of customers over the minutest infraction of Sasthi’s rules became a nightly occurrence. Even worse, being of small stature, each time he issued a ban he would phone the police to come and eject the miscreants for him. After this had happened five nights in succession, the cops had had enough. Sasthi was on his own.
Inevitably the venture failed and he was forced to surrender personal control. There then followed a series of sub-lettings. During one such period, Sasthi was caught trying to seduce the wife of the lessee and was banned from his own wine bar. The business staggered on for a few years – at one time under the control of the actor Derren Nesbit (see above) – but finally metamorphosed into a fast food café.
Unfortunately this was not the end of the affair for Sasthi. In the labyrinthine deals connected to the sub-lettings, he fell foul of Ali Amin, the owner of the Chequers Café at Camden Town, who had invested money in the operation. The bad blood degenerated into a legal wrangle, and then proceeded to an action at the High Court. At the end of the case, neither side would relent. It turned out to be a feud to the death.
For the next couple of years Sasthi and Ali were to contest their case in 26 separate court actions – several back at the High Court. The expense was ruinous both financially, as Sasthi ended up bankrupted by the battle, and physically, as Ali suffered a fatal heart attack assumed have been caused by the strain. Even the magazine Scallawag (see above) became involved in the affair as one of their correspondents, Richard Ford, had a score to settle with Sasthi. At some distant point, Sasthi had stolen Ford’s girlfriend and Ford determined on revenge. Through the pages of the magazine he poured vitriol on Sasthi and coined the adhesive epithet ‘Rat Vindaloo’ to describe his enemy. As the financial woes grew, Sasthi lost his house and even the nameplate ‘Brata’s Corner’ was stolen.
By the turn of the century, he left the environs of South End Green and retired into what he described as ‘comfortable destitution’ somewhere off the Holloway Road. Very occasionally he was ‘re-discovered’ by young Indian reporters eager to dig up what they saw as a true standard bearer of 1960s bohemianism. One of them travelled from Calcutta to obtain a last interview. During it Sasthi said: “I would rather have ‘an essay in failure’ as my epitaph than die in the comfortable niche of mediocrity.”
To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’
Feb 28: 1 South End Green – Prologue
Mar 7: 2 Where Eagles Dared
Mar 7: 3 Murder and the Magdala
Mar 14: 4 The Hepburns
Mar 14: 5 Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho
Mar 21: 6 Garland and Mercer
Mar 21: 7 Laureates and Spies
Mar 21: 8 The Silver Fox
Mar 28: 9 The Hoffmeister and Kelly
April 4: 10 The Harvey Brothers
April 4: 11 The Journos
April 11: 12 Five Funerals and a Resurrection
April 18: 13 Scallawag
April 25: 14 Crime and Punishment
May 2: 15 Good Companions
May 9: 16 Sasthi Brata
May 9: 17 Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat
May 16: 18 Eddie Linden
May 16: 19 The Branch Offices
May 23: 20 The Mulls Kid
May 30: 21 The Musos
May 30: 22 Closing Time