Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri

University of Calcutta by is licensed under CC BY 2.0
University of Calcutta by is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Amit Chaudhuri, Union Books, 2013, 320pp, £16.99, (Hardback)


The modern megacity is characterised by head-aching enigmas and unbridgeable contradictions. Calcutta is no exception to this rule; indeed may be the epitome of it. Rural migrants beg and go hungry on its streets right outside the lavish homes of stockbrokers and IT entrepreneurs. Raj-era ‘monstrosities’ such as the Victoria Memorial sit incongruously between bastis, gentlemen’s clubs and shopping malls. The seemingly relentless forces of privatisation and globalisation have made a hesitant and uncertain entry into an economy that was for decades centrally controlled by democratically-elected communist governments. Throughout its history, Calcutta has been the undisputed axis of Indian culture and cosmopolitanism but its contemporary middle-classes know little about the city’s centrality to the Bengali Renaissance (1775-1941) and are oddly resistant to foreign imports, whether Italian cuisine or European modern art. There are paradoxes too concerning Calcutta’s geographical development in recent years: this sprawling metropolis of fourteen million people is still somehow able to feel both rural and urban, and is full of areas ‘neither of the land nor of the city’, what the writer and urban explorer Iain Sinclair calls ‘borderlands.’


For all these reasons and more, it isn’t easy to define Calcutta – or the sights, sounds, ideas or values that word signifies – in objective terms everyone can agree on. Amit Chaudhuri isn’t interested in doing this either, preferring to approach Calcutta as ‘an imaginary city; it’s in this realm that it’s most visible and detailed and compelling’. Like Sinclair, Chaudhuri takes an avowedly psychogeographical angle, filtering an impressive miscellany of Calcutta (we learn about everything from its French windows to its Marxist revolutionary heroes) through his own personal – if ambivalent – relationship with the city over the years (he partly grew up there, left it for England, returned to visit for holidays and then settled back there in 1999).


The book’s narrative structure strikes this balance between exterior and interior in a beautifully innovative manner. We flash back and forth through Chaudhuri’s own past and hundreds of years of Calcutta’s (the subtitle Two Years in the City is an overly modest misnomer), and jump-cut between disparate topics sometimes in the space of just a brief paragraph, yet all the while our attention is held by the author’s almost musical use of recurring motifs and themes. It may not be a coincidence that, apart from being a novelist and critic, Chaudhuri is an Indian classical musician of some renown.


At other points in the story, time blurs with space or the two become conjoined. When Chaudhuri travels to Free School Street and its well-known food stalls, a portal opens into a personal memory and we are whisked back twenty years to when that same street was populated by second-hand record dealers. In 1982, the young Chaudhuri symbolically rejects Western popular music by giving away a Janis Joplin LP to a friend who then sells it on to one of these dealers for a princely sum.


If Calcutta occupies a special place within Chaudhuri’s own psyche, it is also a textual space, ‘a particular idea of the modern city’ that Chaudhuri has, throughout his scholarly researches, found echoed in James Joyce’s Dublin, V. S. Naipaul’s Trinidad and D. H. Lawrence’s Nottinghamshire. But Calcutta is a city of literature as well as a literary city, the home of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s national poet and the 1913 Nobel Laureate; the legendary film director and writer Satyajit Ray; and innumerable authors working in both the Bengali and English languages. Such geniuses belonged to the bhadralok social elite which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, advocated secular enlightenment and ‘the whole cultured ethos of liberal modernity’. Alas, laments Chaudhuri, these ideals began to vanish some time before Calcutta ‘fizzled out with globalisation.’


Intriguing as this ‘Calcutta of the imagination’ thesis is, it tends to overlook or underplay the city’s all-too-real social problems which affect the poor far more severely than they do the rich, who are the main focus of this book. While he does encounter some of Calcutta’s seventy thousand vagrants (a recent Times of India estimate), he spends far more time discussing the exclusive colonial-era Tollygunge Club or trumpeting his high-born relatives (he feels the need to tack a detail such as ‘D.Sc. from Edinburgh’ onto a mention of a ‘Brahmo bhadralok’ in-law). During a lengthy disquisition on Calcutta’s trendy restaurant scene, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Chaudhuri when, just as he is about to tuck into another decadent dinner, he confesses to a brief pang of guilt about the number of his fellow Indians who are starving.


While he rightly critiques the Left Front’s bureaucracy and cronyism, he isn’t quite as vocal about the failings of the neoliberalism that is usurping it. The historian Pankaj Mishra points out that what is fashionably called ‘India’s economic miracle’ has brought with it significant increases in hunger, homelessness, unemployment and wealth disparity. While the street-level symptoms of the crisis are visible enough to anyone who spends an hour in Calcutta, they are only hinted at and seldom analysed in Chaudhuri’s account.


Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Calcutta offers us a number of new and original ways to think about the urban condition. If Chaudhuri reaches any kind of conclusion about what it means to inhabit Calcutta and why its whimsy, randomness and contradictoriness so fascinate him, it is by taking the city-as-text metaphor even further by equating his childhood holidays in the city to the experience of reading a poem: ‘a period of time in which nothing seems to happen in the conventional sense, but which we’re still changed by.’


by Tom Sykes

Tom Sykes is Lecturer in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.