On one side there is the bustling metropolis Calcutta – now known as Kolkata, but on the other extreme, lies the stark, pulsating and darker side of the city, which comes alive in Kunal Basu’s book Kalkatta. You are immediately sucked into the plot, as Basu builds the city’s view through the prism of his primary characters. Kalkatta highlights the issue of identity loss post partition, as constant diasporic displacement eventually lead to the internal crisis of finding one’s real identity.
The novel in some way reminded me of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, how both novels in their own unique way bring out the agony and anguish of displaced persons. In the first section – resurrection – we are introduced to the internal imploding dispute of searching for one’s identity, as a Bihari Muslim family drifts from a refugee camp in Dhaka to Calcutta. “Being a true Kalkattah-wallah” are a repetitive words that the echo in the protagonist mind through the book.
Basu describes Calcutta to us, through the voice of his narrator-protagonist Jamshed Alam lovingly known as Jami. Minutely tracing the lives of Mirza Abu Alam, his wife Ruksana and their children - Miriam aka Miri and Jami, Basu’s ‘Kalkatta’ constructs the city with a parallel universe where this family tries to survive along with others from the milieu. The novel explores Jami’s internal dilemma of discovering his core , as to what is his true ‘identity’ is – a Bihari or a Bengali, an Indian or a Bangladeshi.
The story builds pace, once the family embarks their journey into India from a Bangladeshi camp – Geneva. Starting from how this 6 year-old boy sees Calcutta once they arrive. “It was right then, that very moment, when my most vivid memory of our first day at Number 14 Zakaria Street was born,” narrates Jami. Basu also deals with the issues of identity versus nationhood in his novel. How Jami is searching for his true identity, trying to solve the paradox of the self and the other and at the same time searching for his scattered and uprooted identity, when they moved from the refugee camp. He aspires to be rich and prosperous in the new city, and thus chooses the path to quick money-making by becoming a male escort taking on the guise of a masseuse. The high point or the proudest moment for the family is described when Jami gets his birth certificate, which feels as though he has won a gallantry award. This gives him the license to be an Indian, an initiation-of-sorts to becoming a true Kalkatta-ite.
Spanning through Jami’s childhood, to his failure at academics, establishment of deep friendships in the neighbourhood, to securing a job at a travel agency, working as a gigolo and then being caught in a dilemma to join his gangster-friend Rakib’s kidney-selling racket for survival. The novel disparagingly paints a grim picture of Calcutta’s underbelly. The family is brought to Calcutta to live on Zakaria street by their uncle Mushtak Ahmed, better known as Comrade Mushtak. Jami’s Abbu worked at ‘Medina Tailors’,a local tailor shop, his Ammi was “a worker at the zari factory” run by Mushtak’s mother and his crippled sister who was intellectually gifted but gives it all up eventually to concentrate on religious dwellings.
Meanwhile Ruksana’s friend Samina describes aspirations of the community encompassed in Jami’s growth, “Your Jami won’t be ordinary. He’ll surprise you.” Tales of innocence wrapped in Jami’s fond childhood memories are beautifully etched – be it reading of ‘ganda books’, stealing measuring tape from Abbu to gift it to his gunda-friend Rakib, being beaten to a pulp by his friends who tease him about Miriam, initiation into smoking, stealing the neighbourhood woman of so-called questionable character - Jahanara’s chaddis - Basu’s Jami in ‘Kalkatta’ bares it all. From these stories the plot shifts to him growing up and at a working in travel agency and then as a male prostitute. Jami starts working as a subagent at Galaxy Travels, a travel agency owned by Rajesh Sharma (who was the only Hindu who lives in Number 14) on Samina’s recommendation. Anirban Mitra- Ani eventually becomes his “first Bengali friend” who gives him the mantra or formula to be a true Kalkatta-wallah and is also his advisor when he lands in any trouble. After this the plot transcends into his work as a gigolo, introduced to this world by Monica Goswami, a high-profile socialite married to a rich businessman Bikash. “When I was with Mrs Goswami, I felt visible,” notes Jami, as one watches his character being transformed her , making him refined as she initiates him into the high-class fashion world by gifting him with a very expensive Tag Heuer.
Eventually the second section of the book – invisible fire – narrates his change of work from Galaxy Travels to being a “mallish-wallah” as Samina described his profession to his mother. It is in fact Monica who convinces him to become a masseur introducing him to the Mehras – Swati and Jagjit, who owned the parlour, and Rani, their ‘very special manager’ who was a hijra. At the Champaka parlour, was his initiation in full time prostitution, with a regular clientele and satisfying the fantasies of different ‘parties’.
This bildungsroman is not even close to an idyllic or utopian Calcutta that one images the City of Joy to be. Not necessarily painting an evolutionary path that Jami adopts, but a self-destructive and painful one. His desire to be “a true Katkatta-wallah” is his constant attempt at seeking acceptability in the city, with the people around him and for himself. This rhetoric runs seamlessly like a thread in the novel. Sometimes it feels that ‘Kalkatta’ comes alive in certain descriptions of Jami of the city through his eyes.
The next section - paradise, focuses on Mandira – the perfect Kalkatta specimen and her son Pablo, who suffers from Leukaemia. Will Jami get his love and in the process become a true a Kalkatta-wallah, will be able to acquire success, fame and money? And most importantly will he be able to discover who he really is? The answers fall into place ahead as the city and Jami conclusively converge into one entity.