It has been a while since I read a book focused on a city. (The last one that I truly enjoyed was Peter Ackroyd’s London, but that was a biography.) Amit Chaudhuri chose to write in “real time” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/02/amit-chaudhuri-new-perspective-calcutta ) witnessing the ups and downs of the city. It is actually a riveting book. Calcutta is a city that can leave you exhausted with its hustle-bustle, filth and yet is unexpected with its richness.
I have just returned from a brief visit to the city. It was after a gap of seventeen years. Much has changed in the city and yet it seems as if it is in limbo. I noticed the disappearance of many old and beautiful buildings and the stark harsh and posh-looking apartments, check-by-jowl with malls set in cramped spaces—many of which were in ridiculous settings. Old buildings that have had their innards gouged out to be replaced with “modern” spaces and embellished with cheap façades so that as you turn the corner you see the older and decrepit building beneath. So Amit Chaudhuri is spot on when he says, “This city-Kolkata-is neither a shadow of Calcutta, nor a reinvention of it, nor even the same city. Nor does it bear anything more than an outward resemblance to its namesake, Kolkata: the city as it’s always been referred to in Bengali. I myself can’t stand calling it any other name but ‘Calcutta’ when speaking in English; just as I’ll always call it ‘Kolkata’ in Bengali conversation. Is this because we – cities and human being – have contradictory lives that flow in and out of each other? To take away one or the other name is to deprive the city of a dimension that’s coterminous with it, that grew and rose and fell with it, whose meaning, deep in your heart, you know exactly. (p.96)”
The author chose to write about the city at the behest of his agent who wanted a non-fiction book on Calcutta. Amit Chaudhuri did not want to imitate Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City but he wanted to do something original. He opted to write about two years of living in the city, a place he had returned to live after having lived most of his life in Bombay, England and in patches in Calcutta. So he says “Why, in 1999, did I move to it? Because I’d been rehearsing that journey for years; as a child, in trips from Bombay in the summer and the winter; and later—in my continual search for certain kind of a city—in my reading. …Even later, when I finally became a published writer, that city would be given back to me by my readers, from their strange identifications and instants of recognition.” And this is exactly the flavor, of wandering, discovering, analyzing–that comes through the text. It is about the city but also the “associations of ‘home’, ‘away’. ‘return’ [that] are quite hopelessly mixed up in my mind” (p.44). His anecdotes are as is—whether it is a description of the people living on the roadsides, or the Italian chefs or even a description of his family, he captures what happens in the space of those two years. No further information is provided to that which has already been given.
Like Raghubir Singh the photographer about whom he has a short piece Amit Chaudhuri too has become a chronicler of a new terrain, albeit through words. Calcutta is a book that will like Raghubir Singh’s Calcutta: The Home and the Street become a landmark book encapsulating a moment in time of a very historically and culturally rich city.