Calcutta: Two Years in the City, by Amit Chaudhuri
A cosmopolitan traditionalist embraces the contradictions of home
Calcutta: Two Years in the City
Amit Chaudhuri, the distinguished Indian novelist, poet, musician and university lecturer, is residentially bipolar. He divides his time between two extremely different cities, Norwich and Calcutta. For three months of the year he is professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, where, for £4,000, one can be told how to write a novel, and then how to try to persuade a publisher to publish it. Chaudhuri himself has already written five novels, and won critical praise and several important literary prizes. Here is his first nonfiction book, on the city in which he spends the other nine months of his year, with his wife and daughter.
When people of the West hear the name Calcutta (officially called Kolkata these days, to dissociate it from the Raj) most of them imagine a place of destitution, where Mother Teresa devoted her life to offering spiritual comfort to beggars starving to death on the pavements. Chaudhuri mentions her a couple of times, dismissively. From his situation on the fragrant upper slopes of society inhabited by the haute bourgeoisie, he surveys a more complex, more interesting city and people of every social stratum.
His scattershot pointillist technique presents details of close-up reportage and subjective value judgments that initially seem casually haphazard yet somehow finally combine to enable the reader to imagine how gratifying it must be to live in a fashionable Bengali district with a devoted family, a cook and a couple of maids, and access to the city’s most stimulating intellectuals and best restaurants.
The son of a successful chartered accountant, whose job required travel, Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta and educated in Bombay and at Oxford University. At one point he says, “I am a Bombay person,” then his prose is recognisably anglicised, but, like his father’s, his heart ultimately remains in Calcutta. The father, after long absences, retired to the city. In his senescence, there are gaps in his memory; he is unsteady on his feet, and he is discontinuously articulate, while his wife is an anxious insomniac. Like many other exiled Calcuttans of means, the younger Chaudhuri intermittently goes back to his birthplace to care for his aged parents, and he believes he will end his life there.
He was 48 when he agreed to devote the best part of two years, 2009-11, to recording his impressions of Calcutta. For both him and the city, the period was pivotal: for him on the brink of middle age, for the city as it was emerging from surprisingly many years of democratically elected communist government to a more comfortable era of middle-class consumerism under the Trinamool Congress party. He sketches the outlines of Calcutta’s history, from the 17th century, when the British East India Company established its Indian headquarters on the Hooghly River, as the country’s economically greatest port, an entrepot for the opium trade, to the time Calcutta was the capital of all India, until 1911, when Britain shifted the centre of administration to Delhi. As Chaudhuri points out, Bombay is the new money capital, New Delhi is the power capital and Calcutta/Kolkata maintains only traces of its dominance as India’s capital of culture. He pays tribute to the revered poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Chaudhuri writes with elegant fluency and sotto voce wit, moving attention deftly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, from mansion to condominium, always allowing himself remarkable linguistic freedom, as if language were his own, to manipulate any way he likes. On one occasion, indeed, he plays with it in the fast and loose manner of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty. Alice objected, in vain, to the great egg’s idiosyncratic conversational style. “ ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ” Thus similarly declares Chaudhuri: “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.”
Globalisation is another concept that undergoes a certain amount of strain when Chaudhuri applies it to ancient-modern Calcutta. “Calcutta,” he writes, “became one of those strategic, deceptively populated outreaches that the wave of globalisation never quite managed to reach.” But later: “Globalisation first made its presence palpable in Calcutta in the nineties with gated clusters of buildings which had peculiar names like Hiland Park and South City and Merlin.” Discussing “characteristic resonances of life in the ‘new India,’” he says “most of these post-globalisation epiphanies arise from eating out”. Not quite global? Global? Postglobal? Heartburn?
Chaudhuri’s analysis of Calcutta may not have been rigorously organised, but disorder is part of the book’s charm and, paradoxically, its fidelity, for Calcutta is a marvel of cultural contradiction, with nostalgia for lost civilisation and simultaneous eagerness for every sort of progress, even at its most destructive. Chaudhuri seems to be at once a sophisticated literary cosmopolite and a traditionalist who enjoys stodgy pudding on Christmas Day at the Bengal Club. Worldliness cannot protect him from the shock of a Calcutta cricket club’s being called the Kolkata Knight Riders and their American-style cheerleaders waving pompoms.
He has made me want to go there.
Patrick Skene Catling has written novels and children’s books