Review: Calcutta

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August 12, 2013 by markstani

From Aravind Adiga’s raucous, Booker Prize-winning ‘White Tiger’, to the much-feted ‘Narcopolis’ by Jeet Thayil and the vibrant reportage of Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind The Beautiful Forevers’, much of the recent, globally celebrated Indian writing has arrived from the point of view of those at the bottom looking up.
While the western appetite for what one might glibly label slum-lit shows no sign of abating, it’s evidently not the whole story from a nation seeking awkwardly to establish itself as an increasingly significant economic super-power.
Amit Chaudhuri’s invigoratingly genre-defying Calcutta (pub. Union Books), then, stands out as a book about a city from an unapologetically upper-middle class perspective: its opinions evolved not by the daily scrabble for spare rupees and clean drinking water, but through meetings with government ministers; dinners at top-of-the-range new Italian restaurants; upheavals issuing from the unreliability of hired helps: ‘Sometimes,’ writes Chaudhuri with the merest hint of self-parody, ‘when I’m in Norwich during the Pujas, I hear that some of the help have gone missing for more than a week, and the house is in disarray.’
Certainly, if you came to ‘Calcutta’ straight from Boo’s gut-wrenchingly desperate account of daily life in a Mumbai slum, you might consider such an observation worthy of some contempt, though Chaudhuri later clarifies: ‘it’s the machinery – cheap labour – on which India, even the world, runs today. I say this not to exculpate myself, but to point out that I’m complicit not in a local mode of exploitation, but in a global arrangement.’

In fact, Chaudhuri’s different perspective is precisely what makes ‘Calcutta’ so engrossing, and so enrichingly unique. It’s not a travelogue, as such, and it could certainly not be classed as a form of autobiography. Chaudhuri uses his own experiences as the framework to gauge the health of a modern city which rose to prominence on fiery left-wing politics and culture, yet now finds those same qualities a hindrance as it flounders in the wake of a thrusting Mumbai and the seat of political power in Delhi.

Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta but brought up in what was then Bombay. He was educated in England and currently divides his time between Norwich – where he is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia – and Calcutta, a city to which he has returned in order to care for his ailing, ageing parents: an all-too-common occurrence in the city, according to Chaudhuri, who muses: ‘Bombay’s main preoccupation is money, and Delhi’s is power.. Calcutta’s preoccupation is, ‘will you be eating at home tonight?”

Chaudhuri ruminates on the gradual crumble of the city’s long-time leftist government, the influx of Italian eateries and chefs driven to make quick exits by what they see as the city’s culinary intransigence, and the way big money and western razzmattazz is eroding its traditional values: on the introduction of the Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team, Chaudhuri observes: ‘[Its] cheerleaders were met with grave reproach by both cricket purists and common-or-garden puritans, and then – as is the case with so much in Indian public life – lazily accepted and secretly looked forward to.’

Perhaps it is precisely that kind of inertia which has seen Calcutta slowly cede its power base to thrusting cities elsewhere. Chaudhuri’s story is very much one of a city whose best days have passed. And yet for all his evident concern for the direction in which the place he can no longer bring himself to love is heading, the gentle , evocative way in which Chaudhuri charts its slow decline makes the place, like the book itself, nothing short of beguiling.


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