Calcutta: Two Years in the City
If one were to revisit Amit Chaudhuris novels set in Calcutta, especially A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song, we are likely to find them talking about a city that doesnt exist any more. Houses with slatted windows, playful bylanes, giant neon advertisement signs are gone. Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta, grew up in Bombay, lived in England for a while and then moved back to Calcutta in 1999 to discover that neither was it the city of his childhood dreams, nor did he really belong. As he explained in the introduction to Memorys Gold, writings on Calcutta, which he edited, my childhood memories of Calcutta are not only full of a deep nostalgia for the past, but are also imbued with an idiosyncratic sense of value thats perhaps impelled and misled me equally. It was time to write another book on the city, to take in the changes, like the exit of industry and the intelligentsia, the rise of territorial politics and a new leader and so forth. Calcutta is an account of two years in the city, 2009-11, when historic elections took place, dislodging the Left.
With Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, and out of the Lefts grip after three decades, Chaudhuri turned to non-fiction to record the sweeping changes which began under the Left Front itself. The city, which had seen a violent Naxal uprising, saw a flight of industry in the 1970s and then a deliberate move towards a brand of status-quoesq politics which hasnt done it much good. As Chaudhuri writes, Anyone who has an idea of what Calcutta once was will find that vanished Calcutta the single-most insurmountable obstacle to understanding, or sympathising with, the city today.
When a friend and poet gave Chaudhuri a new perspective on Calcutta, opening him to the world of the homeless, the migrants and the mad, the citys citizens, he agreed that there were new stories to tell. He writes as it happened, of the Left Fronts humiliating exit and the Trinamool Congresss victory, and wonders whether Calcutta is caught between a rock and a hard place (as a writer friend also tells him). Along the way, he also writes about his complex relationship with the city, real and imagined; Calcuttas experience with globalisation in malls and restaurants; the disappearance of old houses; the festivals when Bengalis briefly return for a nostalgic holiday, never to stay on.
He also breaks the myths associated with Calcutta. Calcutta is still often stubbornly called a capital of culture... when my parents moved here in 1989 I realised slowly that it had ceased being any kind of centre. Chaudhuri admits that the shadow of the Bengal renaissance hangs over the city, but that few are aware of its history. There were great changes from the late 18th century in Bengal that would produce figures like Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore, who created the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist sect that decisively turned away from Hinduism towards a Unitarian Upanishadic world view, and later Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore.
Chaudhuri is particularly scathing about the change of name: The ingenuous Rajiv Gandhi, visiting Calcutta in 1985 as prime minister, had inadvertently informed its inhabitants that it was a dying city. Out of the remnants of that city, and through a simple act of renaming, eventually arose a new onewithout pedigree or history; large but provincial, inhabited but largely unknowncalled Kolkata. Its while trekking up and down Park Street and covering the elections from the northern fringes of the city to the south that Chaudhuri delights us most with his keen observations. After visiting an election booth on the fringes, Chaudhuri admits the presence of a new city that had come up where the old had been. To be in it was not to be any closer to comprehending it than when Id studied it from the aeroplane window a few days ago Mamata Banerjee fits in well here, having emerged, like this tentative city itself and the people Id met on election day, without a past, and without the enervating legacy of humanism and high culture.
So what has changed in Calcutta Chaudhuri thinks its to do with the decline and marginalisation of the Bengali languagethrough the processes of globalisationa language, which, in its books, its poems, songs, stories and cinema, brought the city into being in the imagination. Calcutta is an imaginary city; its in that realm that its most visible and detailed and compelling. Unfortunately, Calcutta has died in the imagination, and Kolkata can never hope to live up to it. Like Chaudhuris novels, this account of Calcutta gives us glimpses of the city that lie in front of us but still go unnoticed.
The writer is a freelancer