Irficionado | Book Review | ‘Calcutta’

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Toward the end of his books, Marquez typically reveals the message of the book, either in a subtle manner, as in No One Writes to the Colonel, or spelt-out, as in Love in the Time of Cholera. (He perhaps does this to reward the reader, for having stayed the course and waded through the stream of magical realism – not that you need this, if you’re a Marquez-lover.) In No One Writes, he leaves it to the very last line. Downhearted over their last-remaining scrapings and savings in their old age, the colonel’s wife fears to ask how they’ll now manage, what they’ll eat. The response, in a mix of anger, vehemence, and pride, and coming at the end of a volley of words: “Shit.” In Love in the Time, it’s suitably more romantic, though excrement does make a reappearance: “They had gone past the shit of marriage and family and kids, and went straight to the heart of love.”

Amit Chaudhuri, another of my favourite authors, seems to have done something similar in Calcutta, observations of two years in the city (2009-2011). On the second-last page of the second-last chapter, he keenly observes, “I realise this notion of ‘home’ is an invention: that, though I was born in Calcutta, I didn’t grow up here, and don’t belong here. Each year, I suspect I’ll begin to understand this city better, be more at ease with it: and every year I find this is less true.”

Writer Amit Chaudhuri against the backdrop of an illustration of old Calcutta

Calcutta seems to be an effort by Chaudhuri to not just understand the Calcutta/Kolkata he came back to (after studying and living in England and growing up in Bombay/Mumbai) but try and adopt his ‘home town’, make it his again. He embarks on this journey in typical Chaudhuri style – warm, moist, and writing non-fiction that’s like fiction (just as his fiction is like non-fiction) – with the delectable and perfectly paced and sized A Purchase. The 19-pager (one of the shortest chapters) draws both Chaudhuri and you into his again-new world, where he ventures to save a vestige of a time fast going by – a French-style slatted green window of a British-era house. Finally getting it into his modern-day apartment in an upmarket area in the heart of the city, he seems happy with the endeavour, like he’s again become a part of the metropolis.

Calcutta_OldBuilding

Seemingly buoyed, Chaudhuri goes forth to cover more ground, literally, in the ensuing chapters: traversing and striking up conversations with people on the ever-popular Park Street, the iconic and revamped Flurys, the mansions on Park Street with their street economies… It’s typical Chaudhuri celebration of the everyday, and it’s comforting.

He then steps into more intellectual territory, with discussions of the elections, the change of guard in the state after several years and the people’s feelings about this; he actually goes to several booths, during the actual voting, to speak with voters, campaigners, officials and politicians alike.

He then switches to humanistic ground, with detailings of a middle-aged couple who have seen better days, both physically and financially; of his ageing, ailing father; of foreign chefs who join the city’s hotels/restaurants, and leave soon enough, not being able to adjust their dishes to the tastes and demands of the burgeoning (and bourgeois?) Marwaris; of even domestic help; and finally of more ageing, and even, dying relatives.

But somehow, as the chapters progress, you sense Chaudhuri’s developing disenchantment with the city (although he’s not one to write excitably about things), and a sense of unavoidability at his situation (as his wife and he came back for his ageing parents and also not “wanting to die in a foreign land”), and therefore find the writing getting increasingly academic. It’s like he started the journey enthusiastically (by getting something new into the house – the window), and then realised this (the city) is not somehow he likes, or at the very least, gets; so, his mood begins drooping. As if reflecting this, the last chapter is about an exit, something going out of a house – his ailing aunt eventually passes away.

Calcutta then seems to be less about the city and more about the writer and his attempt to make it his own – in vain. So, though you feel the trademark Chaudhuri writing dipping as the book progresses, there’s still enough of it. Which makes you wonder: If Chaudhuri can still manage to write warm and moist and everyday about a city he eventually, plaintively shrugs off as not one he can call his own, what wonders would he weave about the city he does consider his own? Appropriately, at the beginning of the book, he declares, “I could have grown up in Calcutta, and had a very different relationship with it, but I am a Bombay person.” Now, that’s the book you hope he writes next. At the very least – being in a similar situation myself (living in my “home” town, Chennai, for only 3.5 years of my life, the more recent ones, and having lived in Bombay/Mumbai for the better part, 23 years) – at the very least, I do.

Evening shot of Bombay's heritage Crawford Market

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