A Fairly Humorous Portrayal for NRIs, but This is Not For Denizens of the Metropolis Who Know Their City and Bangla Well
In his essay, ‘Savage Seers: the hidden story of modern Bengal’, published in The Caravan magazine last year, Kushanava Choudhury makes it clear that he prefers the obscure and the exceptional to the mainstream or the mundane. Thus, for example, he privileges the deliberately anti-establishment writer Subimal Misra, whose self-described ‘anti-novels’ and ‘anti-stories’ are now in real danger of becoming cult classics, over a relatively more mainstream writer like Basudeb Dasgupta; and the maddeningly chaotic and disorganised Ritwik Ghatak to the austerely disciplined Satyajit Ray.
Choudhury ends his essay with these words, “… one can begin to sense another kind of narrative about Bengal, one that transcends the limited scope of modernist aspirations and Marxist ideology, that can accommodate the sacred and the popular, the macabre and the sublime. The work of these authors and artists is like flotsam after a shipwreck, washed up on a shore. From it, we can piece together the hidden story of modern Bengal.”
His first book, The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, can be seen as just this kind of attempt to piece together the hidden unremembered history of Kolkata (or as Choudhury chooses to call it, Calcutta) — the city that seems to give the successful NRI Choudhury his identity, his raison d’être, his moorings and, just maybe, his own little patch of exotic Third World squalor to cultivate for more kudos in future. For denizens of this ‘chance-directed chance-erected’ metropolis ‘laid and built on the silt’ with ‘palace, byre, hovel — poverty and pride — side by side’ where ‘above the packed and pestilential town, Death looked down,’ there is little new to learn about their city from Choudhury’s book.
Exactly 130 years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote the above lines quoted about Calcutta in his poem ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and many others, up to and including Geoffrey Moorhouse and Gunter Grass — to take two of the most famous examples — have seen Calcutta as little better than, as Grass put it, ‘a pile of shit that God dropped’ that ‘swarms, stinks, lives and gets bigger and bigger.’ In an interview about The Flounder, the novel where he had made his (in)famous remark, Grass had spoken of his ‘broken love for Calcutta’ telling his interviewer, ‘You only come back if you love something.’
The Epic City is, in a sense, Choudhury’s portrait of his broken love for his birth-town, a city that he strives, not always entirely successfully, to make his own. Like Grass, Choudhury uses an excretory metaphor to, as it were, sum up his response to Calcutta, this time though of the liquid kind: “… to live in Calcutta is to perpetually stop, sniff and wonder, is it, can it be… the smell of piss?” (p.80)
Much of The Epic City is made up of incidents and encounters that are dully quotidian and this reviewer often wanted to know why on earth Choudhury would go to the trouble of, for example, recounting in tedious detail his hunt for a suitable flat or his commute to his former offices at The Statesman.
And then it struck me. Choudhury isn’t saying all these things for or to me, a person who has lived in Calcutta since birth, he is speaking to his fellow Americans and/ or PIOs or OCIs or whatever they are called now. And it is primarily for their delectation that Choudhury gives us little nuggets like the ‘Budh-Bikel Adda off Tamer Lane’, where obscure poets read their obscure verses to a largely obscure indifferent audience; or his encounter with the refugee-turned-idol-maker Gosto Pal and his extended family in Garia.
Woven in time
Even the city’s most well-known celebration, Durga Pujo, must be compared to its pale NRI imitation in New Jersey for it to make sense to Choudhury — without NJ, USA, the ‘epic… possibilities and visions, heroically redrawn’ of Kolkata that is Calcutta cannot be grasped, let alone articulated.
Perhaps the problem underlying Choudhury’s attempt to write a secret history of Kolkata is that he either does not know or does not want his readers to know that he knows the unsecret history of the city.
To write as though he is the first to discover aspects of this city that he then proceeds to describe, often in laboured detail (as he repeatedly does in his book), is to betray ignorance (or deliberately conceal knowledge) of a tradition of writing about the follies, fopperies, failings, foibles, fantasmagoria, fashions and functioning of a city that goes back a century and a half at least — from Kaliprasanna Singha’s Hutom Pyanchar Naksha (1862) to Nabarun Bhattacharya’s writings (he died in 2014) — which will be familiar to those who know Bangla.
But clearly, The Epic City has not been written for them. If you read Bangla and live in Kolkata, this book is not really for you.
But if you lack either of these qualifications, this might be the kind of well-written, fairly humorous narrative you might want to dip into on a muggy Kolkata weekend afternoon.
Credit: The Hindu