Book name: Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization
Author: Sumanta Banerjee
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Calcutta (Kolkata) is the locus that unifies Sumanta Banerjee’s oeuvre, a terrain he finds endlessly fascinating and endlessly rewarding. Like a lover so besotted by the beloved’s multitudinous quirks and quibbles that s/he cannot help circling back time and time again to explore the beloved’s many mysteries, Banerjee keeps returning to the city of his birth to probe — yet again — some part of her inexhaustible mystique. And we should be grateful for it.
For well over three decades now, Banerjee has been chronicling those bits of the city that remain beyond the ken of the average English-educated Kalkattawallah. From In the Wake of Naxalbari (1980) and the Thema Book of Naxalite Poetry (1987) to The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and popular culture in nineteenth-century Calcutta a couple of years later, Banerjee has performed the task of educating and entertaining us with meticulously researched and engagingly presented accounts of times, peoples and places that are integral to why we are what we are but which remain hidden from view — because they are either embarrassing to our sense of self or considered to be of marginal significance, or both.
Thus his Dangerous Outcast: The prostitute in nineteenth-century Bengal (1998) brought this particular variety of humanity, and the socio-ecological niche occupied by her, into the limelight after having been consigned to darkest limbo by bhadralok society, while The Wicked City: Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta (2009) revelled in exploring the worlds of the killers, house-breakers, thieves, swindlers, pilferers, forgers, embezzlers, smugglers, gamblers, drug dealers, poisoners and other cognate colourful characters who slunk (not always noiselessly) through the underbelly of what used to take pride in being the “Second City of Empire”.
In his latest offering, instead of his usual cast of weird and wonderful humans, Banerjee’s focus is on the spaces they inhabit, although here, too, he cannot help drawing a parallel between mere (physical) locale and more evocative (human) bonds. The three roads that are the subject of his book are seen as “the grandmother (Bagbazar Street), a matriarch spreading her progeny of lanes and by-lanes” and the “midwife (Theatre Road) bringing to birth a hybrid lifestyle and architecture [bearing] the signature of the colonial era” while the third (Rashbehari Avenue) “can be likened to the growing up of a middle-class Bengali housewife gingerly stepping out into the limelight of modern society”.
In his sometimes meandering, sometimes dead-straight-ahead, but never boring, narrative, Banerjee animates the once-glorious, now-decrepit city in strange and striking ways. Here’s Banerjee quoting his diary to animate that quintessentially Calcutta phenomenon, the temporary bustees on major thoroughfares that house, by some estimates, about 30 per cent of the city’s denizens: “At midnight, as I walk down the paths of neon-lit glittering Park Street-Theatre Road, where the bars and restaurants are still alive… it is now time for another Kolkata to come alive…men and women, old and young, drag out their belongings…hidden during the day…they lay [these] down on the pavements — plastic sheets, discarded packing-case hardboards, piles of newspapers, or even vermin-eaten rags…these masses of heterogeneous families remain outside the boom of IT centres and shopping malls…[serving] the same old daily needs that the city’s underclasses have been serving for centuries.”
The reader will find much to be educated and amused by in this wonderfully picturesque work, such as, for example, that Rashbehari Avenue, that bastion of bhadralok propriety, was originally called Main Sewer Road, much to its dwellers’ discomfort, who successfully petitioned the colonial sarkar bahadur to name it after that paradigm of middle-class success, the High Court advocate, in this case, Sir Rashbehari Ghosh.
Memoirs of Roads is not content to merely recount the past, however colourfully, for Banerjee takes a stab at crystal-ball gazing in his concluding chapter, subtitled “Towards a Future Megalopolis?” where the question-mark takes on a somewhat ominous significance. For Banerjee, whose sympathies have always been with the deprived and dispossessed, the creation of “a safe and walled megacity to feed the economic and social appetite of the new generation of beneficiaries of the neo-liberal economic order” is no cause for celebration. In these planned places “roads lose their traditional role as a public space for citizens” and the urban commons, like the Lakes off Rashbehari Avenue or parks on Theatre Road or the water tank in College Square, are replaced by newly-demarcated pleasure spots — “golf courses, swimming pools, hotel chains, and shopping malls…exclusively built and reserved for these residents”. Call it the new apartheid, based on money not melanin.
For anyone interested in the past, the present, and the possible future, not merely of Kolkata but of any Indian urban conglomeration, this book offers much by way of example, illustration, anecdote, insight and (dare one say it?) rooted wisdom. Read it.