Familiar streets, novel adventuresThe sun sets over the Howrah Bridge as fishermen reel in fresh batches of Hilsha. Nearby, a young, bespectacled, curly-haired poet in a Punjabi spouts Marx and Tagore in the same breath as he eats a dinner of maach-bhaat, ending it with a syrupy roshogolla.
The sun sets over the Howrah Bridge as fishermen reel in fresh batches of Hilsha. Nearby, a young, bespectacled, curly-haired poet in a Punjabi spouts Marx and Tagore in the same breath as he eats a dinner of maach-bhaat, ending it with a syrupy roshogolla. From his window enter strains of Rabindra Sangeet, played by a long-haired girl with almond eyes, who bites into a sondeshas as she flutters her lashes tinged with kohl. In the courtyard just beyond, women adorned in red-and-white korial and taant sarees dance in a frenzy in front of an idol of Goddess Durga, their ululations reverberating long and mysterious in the waning light.
This is Calcutta (or Kolkata) as many of us imagine it—a timeless image fed to us by movies, stories, jokes, random references and stereotypes, so that it has truncated and metamorphised into a cultural hub of intelligent, artistic, beautiful, fish-eating, sugar-loving people. In his first work based on this Indian city that has been the subject of many a romanticisation, Kushanava Choudhury brings an authenticity and honesty that has the power to alter the Calcutta of our minds.
The Epic City is part-memoir, part-essay, part-travel literature, veering close to fiction in its delicacy of plot, but always with feet firmly planted in the truth of a forgotten and rewritten history. Choudhury, who spent a short time in Calcutta before being shuttled to the US, returned to his childhood locale to work at a newspaper. He left, but something pulled him back to Calcutta, to this book: it is this feeling of nostalgia-memory-idealism that he tries to explain and explore throughout his 14 odes to his parents’ birthplace.
Foreign-returnees regularly dedicate thousands of words to their home countries, in fiction and otherwise. Most tales end in a predictable disillusionment, disenchantment with the people but a reluctance to sully reverent memories. Choudhury’s accounts include all of these foreseeable patterns. But he does not merely distance himself from his city, he examines himself doing so—he questions, analyses, wonders. Most importantly, even when describing milk-tea like water of the Ganges and sewer-ridden slums, the accounts are full of feeling, a genuine connection to the city that makes readers feel included and involved.
Choudhury’s sharp, accurate, but very much personalised portrayals of places, objects and traditions bring out their innate character. For example, back in Calcutta after a hiatus, he explains his trepidation in just two sentences: “My generation had gone missing, leaving behind a city of geriatrics who busied themselves with bilirubin levels and stool analyses. Their blood-test results were kept in plastic bags as if they were examination mark-sheets or graduation certificates, to be presented to visitors along with tea and biscuits.”
This sad outline of a youth-less place is enough to tug at the heartstrings of inhabitants of all such countries left in the care of the elderly. Again and again, Choudhury makes deft observations that force readers to make discomforting parallels with their own towns and villages and countries. When he talks about unemployment in Calcutta, he could be talking of Kathmandu: “Every guy in every street corner is running some small-time hustle to survive. It might simply be stealing power from the overhead lines to run a paanshop, or paying off a cop to look the other way while you squat on the pavement selling aphrodisiacs. Then there were the big men’s scams: surgeons charging for bogus operations, builders constructing high-rises with sand passed off as cement, or medical suppliers reselling used syringes to hospitals.” Choudhury reveals the insides of men-only bars and phony psychiatrists, religious segregation and political bandhs, poetry meets and identity crises.
Most passionately, the work tries to piece together the city’s history and geography, its upheavals and transformation from the most prosperous city in the country to one struggling to keep its factories open. The reporting is matter-of-fact and precise, yet there is a humane touch that links it all to the writer’s recollections and remarks. He holds our hands and leads us as he unravels passages of his work, relationships and life—we are allowed to peek into his sweet courtship, chaste dates, mindless bus rides, knotted relationships, flat hunts, marital discord, existential worries—all this to try to make sense of his journey back home from the land of opportunities. He writes eloquently of elaborate Durga Pujos, giddy family reunions, historical figures, celebrity furniture shops and soulless malls. His words lovingly caress the art of adda, reminiscent of the English coffeehouses and our own chiyaguffs. This intimacy between writer and setting extends into a form of love and ownership by the reader for the chaotic, unplanned urban sprawl. One of the finest pieces in the book, the chapter ‘The Epic City’, wherein the writer drenches us in a shower after a tempest—a jhor—in his Calcutta, is enough to help us appreciate the beauty of his prose.
Unlike autobiographical pieces that can become a bit too cloying and littered with humble bragging, the writer makes a sincere effort to be self-critical, even deprecating. Just as he doesn’t mince words while describing the depravity and gruesomeness of Partition, he also doesn’t hesitate to brand himself a hypocrite.
He is equally forthright when discussing the great famine and the massacre that destroyed his city. There is very little of the condescension and derision that often seeps into such meditative works. The accounts are candid and rarely patronising. However, the oft-appearing sullen, fretful, even resentful tone adopted in the narrative drags down the work.
The meandering structure of the narrative, quite pleasantly introspective for the most part, deviates into a confusing and disjointed mush at times. There is a disconnect even within a single account that could bewilder readers. This tendency can be described through a comment the writer makes in his own book —“Their parts did not always fit seamlessly together.” In the search for depth, the width of the canvas is left unattended. Another statement that is an eerier reflection of the book—“I struggled to follow the references of their arguments.” So, too, readers will struggle to follow Choudhury’s references, from Emma Lazarus to Hiuen Tsang, from Billie Holiday to Antoni Gaudi.
Critics have been quick to liken The Epic City to A City of Djinns and Maximum City. Time will tell whether the work will live up to these epic proportions.
For now, it is an important,
well-researched and even better-articulated work that reintroduces familiar yet forgotten streets, helping us look at them from a hundred new perspectives. v