Kunal Basu’s new book based in the city of joy turns its eye on its poorest of the poor
CALCUTTA. KOLKATA. Kalkatta…the different people living in this ‘maximum’ city have their own name for it. So the sahibs—white and brown—prefer to call it Calcutta, Bengalis have always called it Kolkata and migrants, especially those from Bihar, UP and Rajasthan, call it Kalkatta. For his sixth book, Kunal Basu turns his eye on the people who call it ‘Kalkatta’ and takes the reader—and himself—on a journey of discovery.
These are not people who have made Kalkatta richer with their shrewd business acumen. No, they are the poorest of the poor—Muslim migrants twice displaced, once from Bihar to Bangladesh and then from Bangladesh to Bengal. We meet Jamshed Alam, or Jami, the day he becomes an Indian by getting a new birth certificate in court—his mother wants to turn him into a true Kalkatta-wallah, so going to school is a must. Geneva, his place of birth and one of the biggest refugee camps in Dhaka for Bihari Muslims, won’t do. Hence the need for the new birth certificate.
Jami and his family, which includes his mother (who does zari work), father (a tailor) and sister (the pious and polio-stricken Miri), live in one room on Zakaria Street in the house of Uncle Mushtaq, a leader in the Communist Party, who celebrates Jami’s new birthday—October 25—by distributing sweets and telling Jami that it’s a good date, as it’s the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. As Calcutta meets Kalkatta on Zakaria Street, with “its smell of dead cows and pigeon droppings”, it’s inevitable that Jami will devise an escape plan.
But he won’t be able to finish his education, running the risk of fitting into the very stereotype his mother—or, should we say, the writer—was so desperate to avoid. She wants him to go to school, so that he doesn’t stay illiterate and “do what poor Muslim boys do: Grill kebab, sing qawwalis, call azan, play football and become a cripple by the time he’s thirty; or become a criminal, carry a knife under his belly”. Jami, of course, can’t find a normal job. So he becomes a sub-agent of a crafty passport agent, meets a rich, married and successful woman called Monica, who wants to buy sex, and Jami becomes the “Gigolo King of Kalkatta”.
But before that, growing up on Zakaria Street, with its filth, lack of water and hygiene, Jami joins a gang: “It was better to be Raqib’s friend and bear Abbu’s beating than be a nobody. … he was both friend and enemy, hero and villain…” His sister Miri warns him to stay away: “Every now and then Allah creates someone who reminds him of lost souls. It’s a test for humans to recognise such people and avoid them.” In the end, it’s Jami who is the lost soul, unable to fit anywhere. As he retreats further into the shadows, trying to balance a double life, you know this is not going to be a happily-ever-after story.
Basu’s portrait of life on the margins of a city makes you uneasy about the things you take for granted. But his portrayal of the people—the Bihari, the Marwari, the Bengali, the rich, the poor, the middle-class—doesn’t break any stereotypes. So if you are rich, you must be bored; if you are a successful cop, you must be dishonest, if you are a poor prostitute, you must be kind; if you are a Bihari migrant, you must be dirty, and so on. Also, there are far too many interesting characters who aren’t given their due: the inhabitants of the house Jami grew up in, like the unani doctor Sala; his mother’s friend Samina; Jami’s gang members; his passport boss Rajesh; his former colleague Mandira and her blood cancer-suffering son Pablo; his eunuch friend Rani, and so forth.
So does Jami become a Kalkatta-wallah? Well, yes and no. For even as he becomes one, he loses himself and you are left with Ammi’s words ringing in your ears: “that the streets of Kalkatta were paved half and half, with dirt and gold”.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer