The city in City of Death is never named in my book but from the description and references, it closely resembles Kolkata. Besides, the title itself is something of a clue in its opposition to Dominic Lapierre and Larry Collin’s Eighties’ best-seller, City of Joy, a paean to what was then Calcutta.
This anonymity afforded some liberties. Naming the city would warrant a degree of accuracy in its description. Street names would have to be correct, neighbourhoods fall in the right grid of a city map. Besides, it would constrain the plot to unfold in an identifiable period of time. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda is set in Kolkata of the late Sixties to the early Eighties. Although Saradindu Bandyopadhyay wrote his Byomkesh Bakshi novels over a span of almost 40 years, most Byomkesh readers would place him in the years both preceding and following World War II. The city of my book lays no claim to any accuracy of detail or historical authenticity.
Instead, my protagonist Sohini Sen’s city is the Kolkata of my imagination. This, however, does not make it entirely unreal. After all, imagination is quite literally about images and images ultimately draw on the well of memories. Thus, the Kolkata I know and write about is a flip-book of recollections from different points in my life — of the first 22 years that I lived there and visited once a year over the next 30 as a probashi (émigré), the absentee tenant who keeps renewing his lease.
For an immigrant, the imagined homeland (to take liberty with the title of Salman Rushdie’s delightful collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands) is often a safe harbour where his mind drops anchor to seek respite from his alien existence. My image bank of Kolkata, alas, ruffles more than it soothes. The dominant theme is decay — of a city whose back and spirit has been broken by economic decline, its demographic permanently transformed by the forced exodus of thousands of young people to seek a likelihood. Thus, I write, “Her father, a historian with a deep interest in the First World War had told her how the muddy trenches of the Ypres and the Somme had swallowed up an entire generation of immigrants, leaving behind the old, infirm and the tender. She often feels that this city is similar.”
Embedded in this is an ever-present sense of anxiety and foreboding. What drives it? Perhaps, it is the fear of being left behind in the backwaters of professional opportunity. Or could it be the terror of being forever trapped in its ugliness? “The sewers in the impossibly narrow lanes overflowing with the piss of squatting men, the blaring horns of cars careening down the rutted streets and the peeling paint of the rain-drenched houses covered with dirty green moss clumped together in a medieval disregard for the principles of modern planning.”
There is also an undertow of violence in my Kolkata. Or, at least, the constant threat of its eruption — the awareness that the marchers at a street-choking political rally each carry with them the tiny vestige of the collective fury of a mob; that the dull thud of a ‘peto’ (a locally made bomb) that punctuated my college lecture signalled the start of street battle, of the “specialists” who pride themselves on their ability to inflict pain — the finger breakers, the nail pullers and the skin flayers. For this is “an impatient city, a street-fighting city used to punches, bruises and screams till it gets what it wants.”
The only respite that this urban sprawl offers is at the edge of its land mass, on the banks of the muddy Hooghly. Years and decades of accumulated silt have slowed it down and forced indolence. This lazy river marks a contrast to the hardscrabble life of city-dwellers. Both Sohini and her colleague, Arjun, of my novel “believe that there is peace to be found in the constancy of the river, in the fact it will persevere in carrying its water to the sea .. undisturbed by the vagaries of the …city.”
To be fair, Kolkata has changed over the last few years. For one, it has been prettified — there’s a fresh coat of paint on buildings, street lamps light up in the evening, garbage dumps are regularly cleaned. The debate on the aesthetic sensibilities of this drive notwithstanding, this is clearly for the better. Institutions are being revived not just by coats of paint but by the infusion of financial blood. I am grateful for this. My high school and college years were spent in the middle of a cultural revolution — the regime in power sought to destroy any trace of beauty or excellence that remained in this metropolis.
History has shown that is, indeed, glorious for cities both to be rich and reinvent themselves. The company-wallahs need to return, new offices spring up downtown, factory sheds build up in the industrial suburbs. Kolkata needs a new incarnation, not as a Singapore and London, but simply a much better version of itself.