Calcutta: Two Years in the City
Rs. 599 pp 308
In 2005, Amit Chaudhuri’s agent had proposed that he write a non-fiction book about Calcutta, the city he had made his home since 1999.
Chaudhuri, who had mined the city in three novels (A Strange and Sublime Address, Freedom Song and A New World), turned down the suggestion because he felt he had nothing new to say.
Now, eight years after that rejection, we have the book: a perceptive, beautifully written and often wry portrait of Calcutta/ Kolkata, a book that deals with, among other things, the dichotomies between Calcutta and Kolkata, the pastness of the city’s past as well as its presence in the present.
So why did Chaudhuri change his mind? “A couple of anecdotes narrated to me by a poet friend (the anecdotes comprise the opening pages of the book) made me wonder if there was more going on in the city than I admitted,” he says.
“The fact that stories could circulate about, and emanate from, people who lived here now, including those I didn’t notice, perhaps pointed to a sort of subtle but vigorous regeneration.”
With the historic elections of 2011 - in which Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress swept into power - as its pivot, Calcutta is subtitled “Two Years in the City”.
But it is actually about much more. In it, Chaudhuri finds that pretending that things have not changed in this city is of no use; and neither is saying that change has nothing to do with oneself.
In a sense, the book is his attempt to try to acknowledge the change, and explore where he fits in (or not) in this city that, as he writes in Calcutta, is “neither moored to its past nor part of a definite future”. (Subsequent quotes in this piece, unless otherwise specified, are from Calcutta.)
We are sitting on the verandah of the Calcutta Club, a colonial era institution “with obfuscatory regulation concerning attire” that figures in Chaudhuri’s new book as well as in A New World.
In that novel, Chaudhuri spoke of Calcutta Club, with its “reluctant waiters”, as a place where an adult son who is not yet a member “had to accompany his parents as a guest, a sort of overgrown child, allowed to sit with them but not to sign the bills or pay for the snacks and the drinks”.
Chaudhuri and I have both had this experience until, in a gesture in equal parts of subversion and irony, we became members ourselves, within a couple of years of each other.
Calcutta Club is also an excellent place to observe the breed Chaudhuri dwells on at length in the book: the bhadralok (a word with “all sorts of contradictory registers: ‘bourgeois’, ‘elite’, ‘educated but not necessarily propertied petit bourgeois’ indeed, the whole cultured ethos of liberal modernity”).
I ask him what it was like to write about this city in a non-fiction book after having written three novels about it.
“I love non-fiction when it is not confined to a particular sub-genre of itself but inhabits a sort of poetic midway space,” he tells me.
Which is the space that Calcutta inhabits. Composed in sections, (or “movements”, as Chaudhuri puts it), it is written in real time, and, at the same time, offers us his recollections and knowledge of the city.
These two strands are often woven into each other, resulting in a pliable narrative, able at once to accommodate the description of New Year’s Eve on Park Street and a reflection on the work of the 19th century Bengali poet, Iswar Gupta.
Having been born in this city in 1962, grown up in Bombay, visited every year during his childhood and then moved to this city 14 years ago, Chaudhuri is as much an outsider looking in as an insider looking out. The tension between those two positions imparts to Calcutta its particular dynamic.
We walk along Park Street (“neither Oxford Street nor the Champs-Elysees... it has an energy comparable to no other downtown district that I know”), one of the key locales of the book, and one that happens to be Chaudhuri’s favourite haunts in the city, its 1970s charm vanished, but having still endured, in a transmogrified form.
We revisit Mocambo restaurant, with its “justly famous” prawn cocktail, “something with which to disarm and surprise a hostile party”. We walk across the road for coffee to Flurys, “uniquely placed, over the decades, to at once view and receive [Calcutta’s/Kolkata’s] drifts and convergences”.
Writing the book has been a process of discovery for Chaudhuri. Has it, I ask him at Flurys, where “[history] eddies around you, as the waiters with their trays and teapots do”, helped him reconcile himself to his place in this city that is “no longer emblematic but ordinary, yet uncannily lit by its past”?
“This book was my response to my changed relationship with the city and its own changed status with regards to its history.” He couldn’t have done better.