The Mag This Week: Books

Three reviews and one interview in this week’s Books page.

And we have an interview with Amit Chaudhuri, whose new book Calcutta: Two Years in the City has just come out. (For those of you in Mumbai, there’s a launch on Feb 28 at Bungalow 8 in Colaba (at 6pm) in which Chaudhuri will be chatting with his old friend and journalist, Naresh Fernandes.) Here’s the unedited text of the interview. Warning: it’s long. But I think it’s worth the time it takes to go through it. And the hot pink bits are just an ode to the hot pink in the book’s cover.

Amit Chaudhuri on Calcutta

Full nostalgia: Victoria Memorial on a cloudy day. Taken using a cracked, old iPhone 3GS.
Full nostalgia: Victoria Memorial on a cloudy day. Taken using a cracked, old iPhone 3GS.

Why write the book despite the initial disinclination:

I felt the city, despite all its exacerbations, has been transformative to me as a child, and it had a certain quality, particularly in the 60s and early 70s, in the way New York once did. When I first visited New York in 1979, it hadn’t been cleaned up by Rudy Giuliani nor become the first city of the world. It was doing very badly economically. It was seedy and dangerous in parts, but it was vibrant with a history of experimentation in culture. In those years, Calcutta had that same quality. It’s very difficult to package this and consume it later, after the event, but you do sense it when a city loses that quality. So, for example, when I returned to New York in 2002 to teach at Columbia University, I’d walk those streets and it was no longer threatening in that way, thankfully, but, alas, it was no longer exciting in the old way either. The cafes and pavement stalls were there, but that earlier past was now available only for consumption by the very rich. Incompatible things coming together create a unique kind of life, which is what New York City and Calcutta had until, say, the mid-70s.

So in 2005, when my agent asked me to write a book on Calcutta, I wasn’t so eager because I realised his idea was partly a response to the reaction Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City had received. It’s a book that I’ve enjoyed greatly and reviewed but I didn’t feel Calcutta could be written of in the same way. Calcutta was resistant to being part of new India. Other cities, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, they’d been alchemised by economic deregulation, but Calcutta was out of joint. Mumbai arising out of Bombay was a distinct development but Calcutta, or Kolkata, whatever you want to call it, it has no distinct definition in its new post-bhadralok period. This is the Calcutta I felt disengaged from, almost believing it was an aberration from the earlier, contradictory city that had once so moved me.

I think what convinced me to write the book was Utpal Basu, the poet and one of the few remaining Bengali cosmopolitan intellectuals who, in the serio-comic manner befitting a cosmopolitan, once hovered around and eavesdropped upon homeless people in Sealdah Station at night. Utpal Basu told me two stories of about a personable homeless woman whom he ironically called khurima, or aunt, and the stories got me thinking. Maybe this Calcutta, this post-bhadralok city, has more going on in it than I’d been willing to admit to. And I realised my being here, this too was part of the narrative of the new city.

On writing the book:

I knew I didn’t want it to be structured in terms of separate chapters on history, memories, infrastructure and so on. I wanted it to move like my fiction does, shifting almost seamlessly from history to object to myself to other elements. I didn’t want to separate things into compartments.

Knowing where to end it, that’s a kind of instinct you have, and it’s similar though not exactly like writing and ending an essay or a novel. I did briefly toy with the idea of adding a chapter. I remember the fire at AMRI took place when I had almost finished writing the book. The day it happened, I was up early, unable to sleep because of the tension of nearing the end of my book, writing at 4.30am, and I heard sirens in the distance. Later that morning, I heard about the fire. So I went there and spoke to people there. There’s a slum neighbouring the hospital whose inhabitants had helped to put out the fire, and I thought I’d include a chapter about this event and the amazing people I’d interviewed that day. But ultimately I didn’t and I stuck to the book as it was. At some point, you’ve got to trust your sense of judgement that the book is done, and the interesting things you couldn’t put into it will find their place in other things you write.

The city characterised by the question “Will you be eating at home tonight?”:

Sandip Roy’s comment captured the comedy and anguish of Calcutta now being a peripheral city. But at the same time, there’s also an intimate, caring quality to it. I thought it summed up the city as we saw it around us perfectly.

My notion of Kolkata changed much before the writing of the book. It changed with my spending time here. Also, marrying a person who had partly grown up here – part of my wife’s schooling was in this city and her family and relatives are here – meant access to a very different family from my own mother’s. My mother’s family had been the inspiration for much of the Calcutta and its characters in my fiction. They had a quirkiness and idiosyncrasy about them. They were larger than life while being ordinary. My wife’s family was quite ‘normal’ and this brought me a very different perspective on the city.

You said the Calcutta in my fiction was romantic, which implies it was constructed but I don’t think it was a construct. I think there was something real in those depictions. What was real in it was the quality I would encounter in works of art inspired by other cities. That’s why it made sense that Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief could inspire Satyajit Ray, even though it’s apparently a world away and set in a different time. Calcutta once enshrined a kind of provisionality, a kind of life on the street, a coming together of things that characterises certain great cities. It’s a city of provisional lines, structures, and patterns, rather than monuments and masterpieces. It’s not a quality you find, say, in Washington or New Delhi or Dubai, and it’s what I responding to when I began to write fiction.

On belonging to Calcutta:

It was in 1999 that I moved here and it made me realise how much of an outsider I was. After all, I did grow up in Bombay, and then moved to England in 1983. Particularly among middle class Bengali society, there’s a fund of shared anecdotes – schools, teachers, memories – that I had no access to.

I think belonging will come in retrospect. It’ll perhaps be like my experience of England. I spent years there and I didn’t like the time I spent there much. I still don’t like it but I do have deep associations with it. As of now, what I look at in Calcutta is the city around me. It’s where I do my work, I try to make sense of the city, and my family is here. When I land in the airport after a trip abroad, and make my way back home, I feel the same excitement I felt as a child, and then, gradually, I realise it’s not the same city I knew as a child. I don’t know how much I belong to it consciously. But yes, when I’m away from it, I desire it.

On turning from the Left to the poriborton (Bengali for ‘change’) that Mamata Banerjee embodied:

For a long time, while the Left was in power, people were in denial and then they became fed up. That said, I don’t think anyone in their right mind who had heard her speak could have thought Mamata Banerjee could effect the change people wanted. At that level too, there was denial. But people were absolutely fed up. To all purposes, Mamata Banerjee was category X. Maybe that was what the hope was based on. At that level, there was shock when the Chief Minister’s intolerance first began to become evident.

I think now there’s despair. I don’t know anything that can revive her popularity other than perhaps the palliative of the free market. That is a remarkably effective device.

Look at Mumbai. It’s had some very bad governments, some of its political parties thrive on intolerance, its infrastructure is not great and it hosts huge numbers of the poor, there’s great violence – but there is the palliative of the free market so you forget about these things. It gives the illusion of things happening, and perhaps they are. But the magic of free market capitalism can desensitise us to political intolerance.

Look at Narendra Modi, for instance. The man’s a monster, the history he’s responsible for is terrible, but his praises are sung by everyone because he can show a certain kind of success. So yes, the palliative of the free market is the only thing that I see saving Mamata Banerjee because the promise of poriborton has certainly failed. But at a larger level, at a national level, this tendency of ours to be seduced by the booming India rhetoric is a cause for worry.

On the possibility of a cultural resurgence in Kolkata:

I don’t know. One of the great things, and I say this not because of my Bengali identity, but one of the great things about Calcutta’s cosmopolitan efflorescence was the Bengali language. It was much more than a language rooted in identity and racial pride. It denoted a modernity, an openness, a true cosmopolitanism. It adopted so many personae, it encompassed so much. The lack of support for this language, both among people and at a governmental level – and I mean real support that is beyond the patriotic, chest-thumping rhetoric – is worrying. That said, perhaps a source of optimism is that one still notices in Bengali media, in local publications, very interesting and erudite letters from readers. It’s something my wife pointed out to me: the letter writers, particularly from outside Kolkata, are often more erudite than their counterparts in other parts of India. That’s worth being interested and invested in.

Otherwise, there is a deadness about Kolkata’s engagement with the Bengali past. It’s characteristic of Kolkata as well as Bengali communities abroad who will celebrate their identity with sammelans. It’s a static version of what the past was. It’s conservative. It’s essentially a closing of the ranks against where they’re actually located to create a synthetic little Golf Green or Dhakuria for themselves.

Curiously, I feel the one celebration that still does have a sense of Bengaliness to it is Durga Puja. You see the puja pandals and the decorations, they’re using Kolkata as it is now, rather than denying it. In the pujas you see the city being acknowledged for what it is – decaying in parts, derelict in parts, built up in others. I’d be happy if more filmmakers, artists, video artists made more use of these spaces.

We tend to forget Jean Renoir’s marvellous insight – “All great civilisations are based on loitering” – was based on Kolkata. I think it is possible to create something here, even now, simply by taking a camera and following a person around the city, as Renoir had suggested. I don’t think enough people do that.

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