Raghubir Singh Posts

An extract from “The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is a memoir of his time spent in Calcutta. It is the city of his parents and he has strong familial ties. Despite studying at Yale University he moves to Calcutta to join The Statesman as a reporter. After two years he quits and returns to do his doctorate from Princeton University. There are incredible descriptions recreating a city which is an odd mix of laid back, sometimes busy, always crowded, crumbling juxtaposed with the shiny new concrete jungles. The language is breathtakingly astonishing for in the tiny descriptions lie the multi-layered character of Calcutta. As William Dalrymple observes in the Guardian that The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  is “a beautifully observed and even more beautifully written new study of Calcutta”. All true.  Yet it is impossible not to recall the late photographer Raghubir Singh’s book Calcutta, a collection of photographs that sharply document details of a city where the old and new co-exist and continue to charm the outsider. Both the books by Kushanava Choudhury and Raghubir Singh are seminal for the way they capture an old but living city but with a foreigner’s perspective that is refreshing. For instance the following excerpt about little magazines and literary movements encapsulates the hyper-local while giving the global perspective.

The excerpt is taken from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury published with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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From Tamer Lane, along the gully that leads to the phantom urinal, there is a house with a mosaic mural of two birds with Bengali lettering. The letters read: ‘Little Magazine Library’.

Sandip Dutta sat in the front room of his family home. He looked a bit glum, half asleep, just like a Calcutta doctor in his chamber. Not one of those hotshot cardiologists who rake in millions, but more like the para homeopath without much business.

Surrounding him were bookshelves piled high with stacks of documents. Behind them was a glass showcase covered with pasted magazine clippings, like in a teenager’s room. They included cut-out pictures of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman, Vincent Van Gogh, Jibanananda Das, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, two big red lips, one big eye, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. A cartoon read, in rhyming Bengali: ‘Policeman, take off your helmet when you see a poet.’

On one wall was a taped computer printout: ‘‘‘I have been following the grim events (in Nandigram) and their consequences for the victims and am worried.” Noam Chomsky, Nov 13, 2007. 4:18:17 a.m. by email.’

Curios from local fairs were indiscriminately piled high on the desk. Cucumbers made of clay, pencils carved into nudes, tubes of cream that were actually pens, pens with craning rubber necks like swans, bronze statues from South Africa, masks from rural Bengal, a porcelain dancing girl from America. Behind them, Dutta looked like an alchemist in his lair.

‘I went to the National Library in 1971 and I saw that they were throwing away a bunch of little magazines,’ he said. ‘I had a little magazine of my own then, and I took it as a personal affront.’

No one was archiving little magazines at the time. No libraries kept them. When Dutta finished his masters, he started collecting them. At first he had a job that paid fifty rupees a month, then another for one hundred rupees, teaching three days a week in a remote rural school. ‘They were funny jobs,’ he said. ‘Jobs basically to buy magazines.’

In 1978, he got a teaching job down the road at City College School, he told me. That same year, in the two front rooms of his house, he began the Little Magazine Library. Since then he has been running this operation by himself – a bit like those heroes in Bollywood films who take on a whole band of ruffians single-handedly, he likes to say. His is a one-man effort to save the ephemeral present.

Every afternoon he came home from school and set to work at his library. A couple of days were devoted to maintenance, spraying to prevent bookworms and termites. The rest of the afternoons, he kept the library open to the public.

In Bengal, literary movements were usually connected to one little magazine or another. The heyday of the Bengali little magazine was probably the 1960s, when the poets Sunil, Shakti and Sandipan brought out Krittibas. No magazine today packs the same literary punch. Yet people keep publishing Bengali little magazines. By Sandip’s count, each year 500–600 little magazines are still published.

The little magazine originated in early-twentieth century America. Many of the radical strands of modernism – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first serialised in the Chicago based Little Review – first appeared in little magazines before anyone bet on their viability in the capitalist market. The early works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and many others were all published in the little magazines of their day. Unlike regular magazines, they relied on patrons and modest sales rather than advertising. Shielded from market pressures, they provided a place for writers to be read, even if by a small number of people, and they gave intrepid readers a way to discover new writers. In Calcutta, like so many other aspects of life taken from the West – the tram, homeopathy, Communism – once adopted, little magazines then took on a life of their own and became central to how we understood ourselves. In a proper capitalist system, these magazines would have vanished long ago, taking with them thousands of writers. But like those 1950s Chevrolets in Havana, the Bengali little magazine rolls on, patched up, creaky, a source of local pride, as if it were uniquely ours and as integral to Bengali-ness as a fish curry and rice lunch.

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Kushanava Choudhury The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  Trade Paperback | 272 pp | INR 499

21 August 2017 

An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture and Society

20150526_131129At a time when a law is expected to punish the polluters of river Ganga, an anthology of writings about the river is timely. An Anthology of Writings on the Ganga edited by Australians, Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson is a collection of extracts from the epics — Mahabharata and the Ramayana; poetry and the Will and Testament of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; extracts giving a historical perspective such as by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Iranian traveller Ahmad Behbahani to contemporary travel writers like Eric Newby, Raghubir Singh, Vijay Singh. The editors have even managed to make an eclectic selection giving a bird’s-eye view of how the river has caught the imagination of Indian fiction writers such as Manik Bandopadhyaya, Raja Rao, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and interestingly enough translation of a scene from a Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film – Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The collection concludes with a handful of specially commissioned academic essays on the Ganga on topics as varied as culture, religion, Hinduism and the river economy.

The Central Government of India has established the National Water Mission for the “conservation of water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated water resources development and management”. ( http://wrmin.nic.in/forms/list.aspx?lid=267) Apart from this there are two projects for river Ganga — Namami Gange project and National Mission for Clean Ganga.  According to a newspaper article published on 19 May 2015 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/draft-law-to-curb-ganga-pollution-in-final-stages/article7219922.ece ) “the Rs. 20,000 crore Namami Gange project is spread over five years and covers 41 tributaries of Ganga. The National Mission for Clean Ganga that has been assigned the task of cleaning the river, is focussed on abatement of pollution and has designed its interventions around this. However, it is seeking partnerships and is tailoring its projects so that state governments, local municipalities and panchayats have a stake and take ownership of the projects for sustainability. To speed up the process of cleaning the river, the Mission has sought the participation of institutions, donors, overseas Indians, business and corporate houses to donate their might and money for projects or sponsoring projects to clean up the river . Already pilot projects have been launched in eight cities. The challenge is to set up a drainage system in thickly populated cities. The urgent need is to bring down lean season BOD levels in the river to 10 mg/litre/day, the Total Suspended Solid levels to 10 mg/litre/day and Total Faecal Coliform to 100 mg/litre/day. These levels run into over lakhs at present.

The Indo-Gangetic plain created by many years of sedimentation is the most fertile agricultural land in the subcontinent. The flat plains Gangastretch for miles till the horizon and are mostly covered in fields. So apart from the cultural and religious associations with the river the economic considerations are equally important for its preservation since India continues to be heavily dependent upon an agrarian economy — it is estimated to contribute at least fifty percent to the national economy. Given this scenario, it is handy to have an intelligently devised anthology tracing the history, cultural significance and contemporary views plus challenges on the maintenance of this river crucial to the socio-economic and cultural capital of India. The only quibble I have with this anthology is that when we have plenty of photographs of the river, including some iconic ones taken by Raghubir Singh, why was the book cover design inspired by Australian aboriginal art work?

Even so, read it.

Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture, and Society Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 380 Rs 895

 

Amit Chaudhuri, “Calcutta” (17 Feb 2013)

Amit Chaudhuri, “Calcutta” (17 Feb 2013)


Title: Calcutta: Two Years in the city
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Publication details: Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. Pp. 308 Rs. 599

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.