BooK: Calcutta: Two years in the city
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Price: Rs 599
Book: New Market Tales
Author: Jayant Kripalani
Publisher: Picador India
Price: Rs 299
Two books,one fiction,the other nonfiction,published within weeks of each other. They are pitched in different registers and explore different ideas of the city but,coincidentally,they are set in the same pincode Kolkata 16. The fiction writer is better known as an actor and director. The nonfiction writer is a noted fiction writer. And,interestingly,Kolkata 16 was the title of a 1999 album by the Bengali progressive musician Anjan Dutta,about neon-painted streetscapes,dimly lit restaurants,six-string acoustic guitars and goofy first love. The pincode is designed to attract creative interest.
This entertainment and shopping district is the jumping off place for Amit Chaudhuri. It stretches roughly from the music and fine dining of Park Street to the shopping frenzy of New Market which was new in the 19th century and Chowringhee,where Indias first hotels were born. North of Kolkata 16 is the business district,followed by a fabulously tumbled mass of neighbourhoods which,in early colonial maps,is sometimes labelled Civitas Negra Black Town. Southwards is the new
urban sprawl,the side effect of a commercial boom which began after British Indias capital was shifted to Delhi,which is still advancing to swallow up suburbs,villages and malarial swamps.
Chaudhuri lives in a prosperous southern neighbourhood whose denizens typically visit Kolkata 16 for dinner,confectionery,shopping,books and music,especially second-hand LPs which are probably tenth-hand,actually. As far as I remember,Jayant Kripalani used to live in the postal district,almost across the street from New Market,before he moved to Mumbai. He writes with familiar authority of market kids and the quirks of shopkeepers and other citizens of this imperial salad bowl,who may trace their origins to points as far apart as Nanking and Aleppo. The two writers look at the same geography with different gazes,from different points of view.
Urban landscapes are made by their citizens. Just two paragraphs into Calcutta,Chaudhuri invokes two stock characters who lend local colour to the city: the beggar and the vagrant lunatic who,he notes,are almost never the same person. Kripalani acknowledges his debt to the living characters of New Market,especially the shopkeepers,and begs their indulgence if they recognise themselves in his pages. With them,he explores the inexplicable liveliness of a relentlessly dying city,a paradox founded on smaller,constituent paradoxes. In a weird but true example,Kripalani points out the paradox of Kolkatas women,who insist on their gendered privacy but many routinely buy their small clothes from male hosiers,with whom they are on affable terms.
Kripalanis stories are pleasantly anachronistic. They are written unambitiously,without an eye on the market or the literary prizes,and aim to entertain. They are somewhat reminiscent of stories from two generations ago which used to appear in magazine sections with names like Gallimaufry and Charivari. They could even find place in the modern European feuilleton. It is refreshingly unnerving to find,in 21st century Indian English,a plain-dealing storyteller. Conversely,if you miss this book,you miss nothing. Easy come,easy go.
In contrast,Chaudhuris Calcutta has a declared agenda. It is an investigation of modernity,that element of surprise which all civilisations contain,and perhaps always have. Kolkata is a rich archaeological dig in which to seek the paradoxes of modernity,a city that was born globalised and now languishes in provincial obscurity,where
old and new stand in unexpected juxtapositions. A former cultural power,it is reduced to soliciting national attention through the politics of blackmail.
Chaudhuris two years spent observing the city coincided with the implosion of the Left and the rise of the politics of change. Change is an eternal process,of course. Decades ago,the quaintly clubby boxwallahdom of Calcutta 16,remembered fondly by both Kripalani and Chaudhuri,was overrun by red flags as labour fought for control over a heavily industrialised city,where people could tell the time by the factory sirens. And the Naxalite rising and the backlash painted it with a darker shade of red. Blood red.
To study that change,Chaudhuri steps out of his comfort zone,out of the door of his beloved Mocambo restaurant on Free School Street,to make new friends at the Chandan Hotel,a demotic pavement eatery with no address and almost no furniture,whose existence is a triumph of the human will. To fellow elites who made similar journeys of discovery up to half a century ago,Chaudhuri may seem a little slow off the blocks but he is in good time. Kolkata is reinventing change as a political agenda poriborton.
Fourteen years ago,Amit Chaudhuri had established his credentials as an interesting writer of nonfiction and an interested observer of cities and communities with a very short essay,A Small Bengal,NW3. Pieced together from anecdotal history and family albums,it was a lifelike recreation of postwar Belsize Park in Camden,London,home to a community of expat Bengalis including his newlywed parents. Chaudhuri wrote to express his surprise that Belsize Park never became Bengali in the way that Golders Green became Jewish and Brick Lane Bangladeshi. As the world urbanises,as it leaves its villages behind,this shocking pink book about the worlds last pinko city brings him back to a subject that is just warming up.