The award-winning author Amit Chaudhuri has been widely praised for the beauty and subtle power of his writing and for the ways in which he makes “place” as complex a character as his men and women. Now he brings these gifts to a spellbinding amalgam of memoir, reportage, and history in this intimate, luminous portrait of Calcutta.
Chaudhuri guides us through the city where he was born, the home he loved as a child, the setting of his acclaimed novels—a place he now finds captivating for all the ways it has, and, perhaps more powerfully, has not, changed. He shows us a city relatively untouched by the currents of globalization but possessed of a “self-renewing way of seeing, of inhabiting space, of apprehending life.” He takes us along vibrant avenues and derelict alleyways; introduces us to intellectuals, Marxists, members of the declining haute bourgeoisie, street vendors, domestic workers; brings to life the city’s sounds and smells, its architecture, its traditional shops and restaurants, new malls and hotels. And, using the historic elections of 2011 as a fulcrum, Chaudhuri looks back to the nineteenth century, when the city burst with a new vitality, and toward the politics of the present, finding a city “still not recovered from history” yet possessed of a singular modernity.
Chaudhuri observes and writes about Calcutta with rare candor and clarity, making graspable the complex, ultimately ineluctable reasons for his passionate attachment to the place and its people.
Chapter One: A Purchase
It was probably three years ago that the poet Utpal Kumar Basu reported to me a couple of observations he’d overheard in the nocturnal din of North Calcutta. They both came from the same source, an old woman whom Utpalda calls, with some irony, khurima (“aunt”) and gyana-bhandar (“treasure trove of wisdom”). The woman, herself homeless, would cook for the homeless on a porch near Sealdah Station. The memory is from circa 2003, and Utpalda is pretty certain that the group of people he saw that year must have moved on. Utpalda possesses a context for Khurima’s first observation: a man had once come to the group of destitute and desultory wage-earners looking for someone—say, Nipen— with Nipen’s address (probably a landmark and directions) on a piece of paper. Khurima had responded dismissively: “Thhikana diye ki hobe? Soye kothhai seta bolo.” That is: “What good is an address? Tell me where he rests his head.” Utpalda had found the remark “illuminating” (his word): “Quite true,” he thought. “For the homeless, an address has no meaning. What’s far more important is where they find a place to sleep.”
Her second remark was probably made in self-defence and with pride, though Utpalda can’t remember whom it was directed at: “Amra bhikeri hote pari, pagol noi.” Or: “We may be beggars, but we aren’t mad.” This may well have been addressed to a policeman. Utpalda reminded me that, in the conditions in which people like Khurima found themselves, sanity must be a prized asset. To be homeless, destitute, and mad meant you were totally defenceless. As an afterthought, Utpalda recalled that there was a mad person in the queue of people who came to her for food. Khurima’s aphorism made me wonder about this city in which the difference between the beggar and the madman was near invisible and also immensely wide.
This, then, is the city as it is now: not its only incarnation, certainly, but one of several. It is always possible to glimpse it— through a car window at night—or to walk through it; it is possible to absorb it without being wholly aware of it. For a long time, I didn’t see this city—so formative, probably, were the impressions of the Calcutta I’d visited as a child to me.
“Erai amader nagarik,” says Utpalda to me gravely, as we discuss Khurima. “Nagarik” means, at once, city-dweller and citizen. “These are our citizens.”
My parents, after living in Bombay for twenty-seven years, moved to Calcutta in 1989. During that period—from the early sixties to the late eighties—people had been steadily departing Calcutta: middle-class people, of course, but also workers. My father had arrived into, and left, the city twice. Once, in the early forties, he’d been a student here at the Scottish Church College, an institution then favoured by East Bengali migrant students for its boarding facilities. Another Chaudhuri, Nirad C, had studied history at the same college, about twenty years before my father. The fact that my father and the great memoirist shared the same initials sometimes led people to ask him with a disarming innocence, “Are you two related?” or even, “Do you come from the same family?” Not the same family, but the same part of the world; subject, eventually, to the same shift in history: the older Chaudhuri from Kishoreganj, my father from Sylhet, both bits of Bengal that would go with Partition. My father claims that the present spelling of his surname was given to it by a registrar’s clerk in Calcutta University on the day he enrolled there. This standardisation of the spelling of that variously spelt surname at the university might have been a practice at the time, and would explain why the spelling is common to alumni from two or three succeeding generations. The story has had the effect of making me feel I don’t know my father very well; neither does he have a very clear idea of how he became who he is.
From him, I got a fleeting sense of North Calcutta as it was. Those anecdotes, related intermittently over decades (he doesn’t repeat stories, as my mother does), weave into what little I know of the East Bengali scholar’s Calcutta—of the “mess,” the hos- tel room, communal meals, cheap restaurants, and “cabins”— from the writings of Nirad Chaudhuri and Buddhadev Basu. He lived in the Hardinge Hostel, which, when he pointed it out to me for the first time (seventeen years ago), was an unremarkable run-down brick building, surrounded by numbing but entirely expected traffic on its way to Sealdah. But, already, things had moved on to such a degree—not just for me and my father, but for Calcutta itself (which had changed not visibly, but in every other way)—that I found it difficult to make a connection with what was just a building. Yet there used to be a romance in my father’s allusions to the northern and central parts: whether this was retrospective, or whether he’d brought this romance to the city when he’d arrived here in 1941, I don’t know. Some of this romance is difficult to disentangle from remembered sojourns to eating places, and private, momentous discoveries of food. Most of those eating places and discoveries, once removed from the forties and that romanticism, are disappointing. In the late seventies, my father, executing one of his childlike plans that now and again inflected his very successful professional career, took my mother and me, in Calcutta on a visit from Bombay, to the famous Anadi Cabin to taste its kasha mangsho (traditional dry mutton) and Mughlai paratha, an oily, flattened piece of bread fortified by egg which always impressed my cousins and me when we were children for its royal provenance. This crowded cubby- hole with damp tabletops alienated us; and I remember the other customers had their eyes averted but were curious. My mother was uncomfortable, and her bright sari probably made her very visible; but she tried to be fair-minded about the kasha mangsho, and judge it on its merits. Actually, it was not so much the food: the Calcutta of today was already upon us—the one without space, without a past, and, as in our case, without a real appetite.
My father left twice—before returning here for what seems now the final time. In his memory—as in any memory—national and world-historical events are indistinguishable from personal detail. The year he joined Scottish Church College, 1941, was also the year the poet he and his friends adored died; and I already know that he became a part, for a while, of the great crowd accompanying the body. Although it’s a struggle for him these days to articulate sentences, he still informs me indignantly—as I attempt doggedly to ascertain the year—of, at once, Tagore’s death and the abrasion on his calf that led to some bleeding, the result of a poke from someone’s umbrella in that suffocating crowd. It’s a detail I haven’t heard before; and, for a moment, I’m unsure, as he lifts the bottom of one pyjama leg, whether he’s speaking of something that happened yesterday—because he’s now prone to accidents. But it’s the crowd he’s thinking of as he passionately stutters the words.
From the other snatches of stammered speech, I learn that he withdrew from the city for a year (a third departure, then, of which I knew nothing) to Sylhet, after the Japanese dropped a bomb on Hatibagan in North Calcutta. Maybe he thought they’d blow up the whole place. He came back gingerly the next year, and began an articleship in incorporated accountancy—as he’d been advised to, shrewdly, by his best friend and still-to- be brother-in-law, because salaries in this line were said to be generous, and prospects generally excellent: because, whatever the fate of engineering companies and medical research, people would always need accountants. Unobtrusively, irrevocably, an important development took place: incorporated accountancy and chartered accountancy merged into one body. After being a relatively unemotional witness to the inevitable moment of Independence, shocked at the nights of post-Partition violence in the city, but recouping and resolving to travel towards becoming a chartered accountant, he made his first, official egress from this metropolis in 1949, sailing to England.
He was there for twelve years. My mother, who knew him since childhood, and was taken by surprise by his proposal of marriage before he left, was reconciling herself to his never returning— when he invited her to join him in London. She flew in 1955 from Shillong to Calcutta—with her mercurial younger brother, Dukhu, who was going on a training course for civil engineers in Germany. Customarily, it’s the bridegroom who makes the journey from his town or village or neighbourhood to the bride’s home to marry her; this was an eccentric, but unavoidable, inversion. My mother’s never been one to romanticise Calcutta—as I, for instance, have—but her first and brief impression of the city was one of beauty and clean air—the latter, if it lasted for more than two or three days that year, is not something that Calcutta has possessed for several decades. Perhaps it’s because it was a first encounter, or a transient acquaintanceship, or because she knew it would be her last vision of India for a long time, that my
mother’s memory of Calcutta in 1955 is like a personal intimation.
My father, at last a full-fledged chartered accountant, with other professional qualifications like useful appendages, returned, with my mother, to a job offer in Bombay in 1961. Soon after, she was pregnant, as an Indian doctor in London had predicted she would be: “Childbearing has a lot to do with happiness and mental peace.” Coming back to India, at least in those days, was a matter of fulfilment, an occasion for optimism—something we tend not to remember or acknowledge. Dukhu had returned earlier from Germany, and had a job in Calcutta; he insisted my mother come to his house to have the child. The reason for this was a combination of practical need and common sense and the precedent of tradition, the last anyway being a consequence of the first two, not to mention economic hard-headedness. Tradition asks the childbearing woman to journey temporarily to her father’s house before giving birth. In this way, the nuisance of birth is wished away and literally transported to the “other” place. Importantly, the psychological closeness between mother and pregnant daughter is seen to be a necessary condition for the birth—a small bending of a regulation to briefly replace the mother-in-law’s vigilance with maternal attention; and the general support and care of her own family is essential to the mother- to-be. My mother had no in-laws to escape from; my father was an only child, displaced by Partition; both his parents were dead. So she kept putting off the journey to Dukhu’s flat on Fern Road, where their mother lived with him and his new wife. She knew it was going to be intolerably hot by the end of April. Still, because there was no family at all in Bombay, she arrived in Fern Road early that month. By temperament a nervous insomniac, she found sleeping difficult because of the yowling of street dogs at night and the passage of traffic at the Gol Park roundabout. My grandmother contributed to her well-being by knocking firmly on her door at around 6 a.m., just when she’d embarked on her first slumber, so she (my grandmother) might walk to the adjoining balcony and receive the city’s sounds and sights. As a result of decisions taken without conviction, and slightly regretted in retrospect—all, of course, is transmogrified by a mother’s eventual joy—I happened to be born in Calcutta in the middle of May: a difficult time of year to be here.
My father changed jobs. Leaving Bombay, he took up a position at the head office (which was then in Calcutta) of Britannia Biscuits. We lived, for a year and a half, between 1964 and 1965, in a recent suburb, New Alipore. I seem to summon, without too much effort, a memory of a veranda or porch, and the courtyard and the main road beyond: it could be, of course, that I’m imagining I remember these things. Their shapes and unremarkable colours, and the daylight they inhabit, are pretty consistent, though. This is the time that my mother is jotting down, in a book with a white hardback cover, all the relevant information concerning “Your Child’s Name” and “Your Child’s First Word.” I would see this solemnly inscribed book after growing up, but I think it is finally lost. I could have grown up in Calcutta, and had a very different relationship with it, but I am a Bombay person. By just a few years, I missed the trauma and the impress of change that would come upon this city. Britannia, anticipating labour unrest in the wake of radical left-wing politics, relocated its head office to a more amenable metropolis. What remained in Calcutta was a husk called the “Registered Office.” It was the usual story of the time: this gradual emptying of the city of commerce; the absolute reign over it of what it had always harboured—politics. My father, on the ascendant, left it for the second time.
It takes a while to understand that a city has changed, and that change, like most change, is irrevocable. By the time my parents moved back to Calcutta from Bombay in 1989, roughly seven years after my father’s retirement, the city itself had traversed a great distance from where it was when he’d left it in 1965. Besides clearly being in decline, it had the strange air of something that’s been a symbol of the zeitgeist for more than a hundred years, and now embodies nothing but its severance from what’s shaping the age. It had become a city that was difficult to connect with in an emotional and intellectual way. For me, in many ways, it was not the “true” Calcutta.
What was “true”? Throughout my childhood, I’d encountered Calcutta during the summer and winter holidays—as a place of freedom from school and a realm of childish anarchy. My uncle’s house—Dukhu’s house, now no longer in Fern Road, but further south, in petit bourgeois Pratapaditya Road, in a lane lined with two-storeyed, different-shaped houses—was my playground. I’ve written about that house and that Calcutta in so many works of fiction and essays that, when someone suggested I write a non- fiction book on this city, I put it off for years, because I felt I had nothing more to say about it. The Calcutta I’d encountered as a child was one of the great cities of modernity; it was that peculiar thing, modernity, that I first came into contact with here (without knowing it), then became familiar with it, and then was changed by it. By “modern” I don’t mean “new” or “developed,” but a self-renewing way of seeing, of inhabiting space, of apprehending life. By “modern” I also mean whatever alchemy it is that changes urban dereliction into something compelling, perhaps even beautiful. It was that arguable beauty that I first came across in Calcutta, and may have, without being aware of it, become addicted to. I ran into it again in New York in 1979, on my first American trip, after a stifling ten days among the monuments of Washington and the sweet prettiness of California. Walking in Manhattan, I was reminded, at once, of Calcutta. New York was in economically troubled times, and still possessed—even for the short-term adolescent visitor—an air of menace and fortuitous unpredictability. The addict of that particular strain of modernity, to whom noise and stink are oxygen, and odourless order death, can sniff it out quickly in foreign places, and swiftly connect it to their own history. 1979 was probably the last year of its reign. New York no longer reminds me of Calcutta; with globalisation—maybe even before it happened—the paths of these cities diverged. With Giuliani, New York famously gentrified its seedy areas; while Calcutta became one of those strategic, deceptively populated outreaches that the wave of globalisation has never quite managed to reach.
Excerpted from Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri. Copyright © 2013 by Amit Chaudhuri. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Amit Chaudhuri is the author of several award-winning novels and is an internationally acclaimed musician and essayist. Freedom Song: Three Novels received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. He is a contributor to the London Review of Books, Granta, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is currently Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.