Calcutta chronicles

Updated: Feb 1 2009, 05:47am hrs
Its a city that evokes joy, misery, laughter, anger, helplessness, but most of all, ceaseless chatter. Theres much adda that Bengali word you just cant translate about everything and nothing. Even a visitor who flits in and out will surely have a comment on the many things you would definitely like to comment upon once you have been to Calcutta its traffic, people, river, character are all up for discussion. As one of the cities steeped in Raj memorabilia, be it architecture, food or simply a way of living, Calcutta has found her space in literature, the words not all kind. Calcutta is famously, or infamously, a city of dreadful night, a dying city, but its also a city of joy and a city of palaces. You get the drift its a city of extremes, but its also a city you engage with.

And Amit Chaudhuri, born in Calcutta, bred outside, and now back in the city, exploits that aspect relationships in this 532-page anthology. Sure, you may miss some favourite writers or some favourite memories of the city, but Chaudhuri includes enough and more about Calcutta to keep the reader engaged with her.

In what way does the outsider, the person with strong but often inexplicable ties to the place, relate to Calcutta Chaudhuri asks in his introduction to the anthology, that was a decade in the making.

We forget, sometimes, that its a city of visitors, foreigners, refugees, migrants, some of them crucial to the citys self-conception, some famous and important to others conception of it.

Divided into seven sections, the anthology begins with arrivals, discoveries, starting off with three poems by 19th century Anglo-Indian poet Henry Meredith Parker. The section includes Kaliprasanna Singhas satire on middle-class society in 19th century Calcutta, Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, with Singha as the Hootum Pyancha or night owl prowling around and recording the growing chaos in the city; Tagores reminiscence of childhood and a letter by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, 19th century poet and dramatist, to his friend Rajnarain Bose, Sri Aurobindos grandfather, about this chance encounter with a shopkeeper whom he found reading his Meghnadvad Kabya, an epic which looks at the Ramayana through Ravanas son Meghnad.

This section is followed by Exile/Domicile, which deals with the consistent movement into the city, from the long history of migration from Rajasthan; the daily influx of unskilled and semi-skilled labour from surrounding villages and states; and, as Chaudhuri, calls it, the movement, both before and after Partition, of the East Bengali into the city, creating a residual, poetic space for otherness Theres Sunil Gangopadhyays Neera, the poems he addresses to someone called Neera in which he gives us a history lesson on Calcutta, Manas Rays tale on Growing up Refugee and Shaheen Akhtars musings on the other side of Bengaliness. This section also includes writers like Raj Kamal Jha who have reclaimed Calcutta in fiction (If You Are Afraid of Heights).

The third and fourth sections deal with how Calcuttans use space Buddhadev Boses two stories, Adda and an extract from Tithidore (which tells us how people reacted the day Rabindranath Tagore died), are simply brilliant and provide some ironical views of the city (Kabir Sumans I Want You). The fifth section deals with visitors and includes perhaps one of the most despairing commentaries on Calcutta by Nobel Laureaute Gunter Grass. After three months in the city, Calcutta begins to gnaw, yet Grass cant stop taking in life around him. the sketching and the recording do not abate, even when eyes have grown tired and dry from all the openly spread-out misery. Grass makes some resolutions in the sleepless night. Once back in Germany, measure everything, myself included, by Calcutta.

The sixth section explores an important strand of Calcutta society employment, often a fundamental end in itself for the Bengali and the seventh, memory, on how does one remember the city. The extract from Sasthi Bratas My God Died Young on Coffee House on College Street is indulgent nostalgia at its best.There are many books on Calcutta, including a two-volume book on the city called Calcutta: The Living City edited by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri. Add Memorys Gold to the list. Sudipta Dutta