In his book of essays Clearing A Space, Amit Chaudhuri – literary critic, essayist, novelist and now city-memoirist – recounts that by the time of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth in 1861, Calcutta ‘was not only a site of scholarship, it had printing presses proliferating in Bengali and English, and was producing books more than anywhere else in the world except London.’ Chaudhuri narrates how William Dune, the editor of the journal The World published from Calcutta, had expressed way back in 1791 that ‘in splendour London now eclipses Rome … and Calcutta rivals the head of the empire.’
The name of the journal – The World – further attested to the internationalist glamour and aspiration of the still nascent colonial city that Calcutta was at that point of time, as if snippets of the future were tugging it from afar, from the bosom of the succeeding centuries, giving it a pre-determined halo of the glowing times to come.
Yet, Calcutta of the present is, for Chaudhuri, a shadow of the past, a ghost bred in dereliction, a city of cries and whispers. Calcutta: Two Years in the City is part memoir, part eyewitness account, but mostly a contemplative portrait of the beguiling conurbation that is the city. Chaudhuri, one of the Baudelaireians who scrounge for the stink and clamour of megalopolises to sustain and survive, who breathe the dilapidation and absorb the dejections – historical, architectural, literary – finds in Calcutta the murmurs of the past, present and future, strung along the omniscient flute of modernity. Calcutta is at once a monument, a relic and a being resigned to its incorrigible decay.
Chaudhuri has a relationship with the city that, on one hand, borders on the mystified, wide-eyed wonder of a young boy who comes to visit it during his summer holidays, and on the other, it lurks along the sidewalks of betrayals and turbulent reversals that his peripatetic life has seen vis-à-vis living there. Calcutta-born, but Bombay-bred, Chaudhuri has returned to the city a number of times, but most prominently when his parents decided to move back in 1999 after nearly three decades of living in Bombay. Consequently, Chaudhuri’s narrative, too, moves from the halting reminiscences of soporific Calcutta, envisioned stealthily (A Strange and Sublime Address) to more fulsome, but still fleeting, engagement with the city.
There’s a lilting melody in Chaudhuri’s transliteration of all the half-caught utterances that he overhears in Calcutta. Firstly, he insists on retaining the colonial name, not as an obeisance to a recalcitrant Anglophilia, but as testament to history, no matter how shoddy, unkempt and bloody that had been. There’s a brutal need to hold on to the story, record its pauses and punctuate its seamlessly dangling sentences, the serrated ends of which dip into the broth of ‘Coke-colonisation’ that Chaudhuri wants to push away. Calcutta’s urbanism is not the story of India’s trumpeted entry into the globalised world stage. It is rather one of painful forgetting and abandonment, of disappearances and ghostly apparitions, of history, memory and other indissolubles of interred lives.
In this sense, Chaudhuri’s Calcutta, the book and the city, is different from the sprawling sagas of Indian metropolises, penned by the authors and children of the distinctly Indian conurbations. Works such as Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Altaf Tyrewala’s Mumbai Noir, Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns are forebodingly different from Chaudhuri’s account, which is less sociological and more literary, almost Proustian in temper and texture. Despite his paeans to the noise and din of modernity, Chaudhuri harnesses a slow, meandering step, a lyrically reluctant beat from the whistles and honks of the vehicles, from the ubiquitous rickshawallah, to the black and yellow taxis, from the ramshackle and overcrowded buses to the thousands of private cars moving gingerly through the gridlock of decadence.
This is not the joyous delirium of boisterous Bombay or the smoke and mirror excesses of dictatorial Delhi. This is about drawing an invisible but immensely wide line between dereliction and madness, as Chaudhuri recounts Khurima saying. Like the French windows that Chaudhuri and his wife spot in New Market, which have been torn from their window scaffolds, and now lie forlornly on the footpaths, by-passed mostly, or admired for a jiffy from a distance, Calcutta’s former imperial glory has now been similarly slit and gashed and split into millions of splintering shards of self-abuse and self-loathing. Like a drunkard or a drug-addict, Calcutta is licking from the corners of its own mouth the drops that have been ejected by its own body. Like the millions of homeless on its streets, these drops find their way back into the mouth, only to be rejected once again in a cycle of acceptance and refusal.
In this sense, Calcutta resembles the disease-ridden Victorian London of mid-nineteenth century, only without its colonial riches. Calcutta of Tagore functions, Left politics and Satyajit Ray films has been usurped by a regime of demolition. Much has changed in the recent deacdes, with older buildings of North Calcutta paving ways for multistoried apartment blocks, shopping malls and multiplexes, whose digital billboards and shining faux-marble floors scorch eyes with endless self-reflections devoid of meaning. Bookstores get replaced with designer coffee shops, while the ancient outlets and joints get made over to suit the current undiscerning palate. No more of the ceaseless debates on Tagore’s ‘restless traveling between genres’ as words derive weight and sense from the airtime on television channels. Books are sidelined by CDs, old journals become unavailable, Bengali and English novels, or those in translation, are rendered out of print. Stereophonic speakers drive out megaphones; political harangues are always on big screens.
Choudhuri’s Calcutta is running on ‘texture deficit’, but he manages to distil the moods and melancholy of this once-great-city. The food, too, has become a lump of variously assorted tastes, with toasts to Pan Asia, Pan Europe, and vigorous nods to McDonalds and Pizza Huts wiping out the tongue’s ability to pick and tell, of the hand’s ability to mix the right amount of right spices. The craze for Chinese food, a middlebrow obsession of sort with alimentary difference of the accessible kind, has been substituted by craving for an Indianised Italian menu mania, among the still sluggishly gentrifying sections. Restaurants are less about imbibing the feel of a foreign neighbourhood, and more about recreating the global ‘lounge, constituting brief arrests on overnight journeys.’
This is not a literary history of Calcutta; nor is this pseudo-sociological account of the undiagnosed malignancies of the disappearing city. This is a reverie, a prose of hushed sounds, offbeat music, a meditation on the miniature glimpses and vanishing moments that Calcutta offers up in plenty. This is also about a flaneur’s self-regarding love affair with a mistress of a city, an elusive but ageing paramour, who can’t be left behind, even if the promises of emotional gratification are drying up, and who can’t be disregarded, even in the wake of utter disappointment.