India was famously described by JK Galbraith as a functioning anarchy, a phrase that probably suits Kolkata better. Yet, for Bengalis and for those who have made the city their home, the indescribable pull of the city is real and physical. It is very tough to live in Kolkata, but it’s heart-wrenching to stay away too.
Kolkata’s stagnation is not even the topic of research any more. Writing in Desh recently, Sumit Mitra found health clinics in the city spilling over with only old people. The youth have flown out to where the money and career growth are. Kushanava Choudhury was one of the few to return—from the Big Apple, of all places—and stay back to live the “Calcutta” life.
The Epic City is a book that has grown out of this abiding, relentless love for the shohor that he left aged 12 years and re-embraced, despite an Ivy League education, not to change or reform but to observe and absorb. It was a decision that even the most Left-leaning Bengali intellectuals would have greeted with “maatha kharap naaki” (are you mad)? But Choudhury turned it into an advantage. Reporting for The Statesman, Calcutta’s most loved and respected institution (for what else is news, but the gospel truth to Bengalis?), yielded rich material for the book that was growing inside him and took 12 years to write.
The Epic City is a quest to find Calcutta. It is also an ode to the city, a series of letters that one keeps writing and stashing away in a box, never to be shared with the lover. It is non-fiction. Told mainly through journeys on Calcutta’s living streets and into the minds of ordinary people who refuse to succumb to apathy and let their souls die, it is at once a story of Calcutta’s decline to become a place where nothing happens, and of its rise to be a world city, with its rich history and heritage, energy and ennui, greatness and ordinariness forever churning towards a resurgence.
Choudhury is unstinted and unsentimental in peeling the layers of the city. Even though much of the book reads like a history lesson for non-Indians, his Calcutta is a real account of the thousands of stories created since the first boat carrying the West anchored on the Hooghly. And most of these stories are deeply tragic and violent. The exploitation of the East India Company, the decline of the Bengali rulers and then zamindars, the young freedom fighters and the Partition-triggered riots, the man-made Bengal famine, the obliteration of tribal history, the crushing of the Naxalite movement that swallowed an entire generation, the de-industrialisation that left empty shells of towns, the decay of the Marxists, and the gradual annihilation (funnily non-violent) of the true middle class that ever existed in India—these events are capable of creating separate universes, so great has been their impact on the people and the city.
They have managed to drown out what we learnt from Rammohan’s renaissance, Vidyasagar’s social reforms, Vivekananda’s nationalism, and many other luminous minds. As Premendra Mitra’s poem Shohor,possibly the best verses ever written on Calcutta, describes: Anek dhuloy molin pa taar/onek dhoyay jhaapsa duti chokh/aamaar shohor bhuley gechhe/taar jiboner aadi porom shlok (Much dust has covered its feet/smoke has blinded the eyes/my city can barely remember/its song ancient and wise).
Choudhury’s prose is well crafted, but is a curious blend of emotion and detachment, as if he is trying to rein himself in. He is often unnecessarily detailed and irksome to a Bengali reader—for all his exertions, he can’t really escape the slightly superior, outside-in look, being the global citizen that he is. His observations, though, are kind and sharp, with a dry wit that fits the Bengali bhadralok to a T. But what remains with the reader is his fresh voice, painful in its honesty and sincerity, drawing the reader in to share his struggles, confusion and frustration, and which Calcuttan doesn’t know the feeling this wretched city evokes?
In the end, it may seem that Calcutta only has survivors, vainly trying to escape the haunting memories—the bhadralok who are “strangers to ourselves, our heads filled with notions that have nothing to do with the lives that we are living”. Like the mother in Mahasweta Devi’s Hajaar Churashir Ma, or Ritwik Ghatak’s alcoholic intellectual Nilkantho in Jukti, Takko, Gappo, or the corpse of the famer’s wife in Subimal Misra’s Golden Gandhi, the people are wracked inside with terrible guilt and confusion, and maybe even despair, but still have the get-go, making the best of everything every day.
There’s nothing wrong with surviving though, for it brings hope. Because the surface is so vast and overwhelming in Calcutta, the stink in the air so pervading, the rush of daily life so exhausting, that one always makes the mistake of not looking beyond it. Choudhury’s gentle and empathetic probe finds the people who are building the new narratives of Bengal—the unappreciated poets of the budh-bikel adda (Wednesday afternoon group), the hard-working journalists of the dying print media, the unrecognised literary sparks of the little magazines, the leftovers of the closed factories trying new avenues. And these narratives, to paraphrase Ghatak’s Nilkantho, won’t go away just because we have failed to listen to them.
In trying to piece together the hidden story of Calcutta, Choudhury may not have been successful all the way, but he manages to hurl the first axe in the hushed soil, finding the murmur of the voices of the phantoms that grew and nurtured us for ages, and who must be heeded before we can go find a new song.
Calcutta is more heartbreak city than epic city, but in a broken heart lies immeasurable hope.
Paromita Shastri is a freelancer