When writer Amit Chaudhuri’s parents came to live in Calcutta in the early ‘90s— it was Calcutta then — the decline and fall of the city was official. The Left Front’s unwavering resistance to globablisation, manifested through violent trade unionism, had already scared big businesses away. It also prompted enterprising Bengalis to try their luck in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Calcutta was, at best, an obscure, provincial metropolis.
Into this city of dashed hopes and broken promises came Chaudhuri, a few years later, having left England for good.
Though he grew up in Mumbai, he was no stranger to the eastern city. He used to come regularly to his mamabari (maternal uncle’s house) in south Calcutta on vacations.
In a way, Calcutta: Two Years In The City marks the return of the writer to familiar territory, which he clearly wanted to explore further. What emerges from his search is a metropolis at once familiar and enigmatic. Chaudhuri doesn’t follow a linear trajectory as he goes back and forth in time offering tantalising glimpses into the city’s past and the present.
The book is teeming with discoveries. For instance, during a visit to Chandannagar, once a French settlement in the suburbs, Chaudhuri realises that the kharkharis (slatted windows in bhadralok houses), one of the few remaining signs of the city’s Raj legacy, is actually a French import.
Another find is somewhat painful for those who still believe in the purity of the Bengali language. On the steps of Flurys, a famous confectionery on Park Street, the writer’s encounter with a woman from a small town reveals how Hindi has permeated and even compromised the once-vaunted language. The new kind of Bengali doesn’t mind peppering a conversation with a few Hindi words gleaned from films and reality shows on television. .
Yet, unlike most Bengalis, Chaudhuri neither exoticises nor glosses over the many things the city has come to symbolise, and which, in many ways, have contributed to its fall from grace. His is an unsentimental gaze sharpened by detachment and enriched by love.
When he writes “We (the writer and his wife) were both fairly sure we were happy to give our daughter the childhood I’d never had, a Calcutta childhood; I’d intuited that, for the middle-class child at least, a Calcutta childhood is still a wonderful thing”, many of us who had grown up in the ‘80s in the city know what he means.
Calcutta isn’t a racy read like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. But Chaudhuri’s prose is tender, almost dreamlike, even in criticism. The writer takes a moment, however, insignificant, nurtures it and elevates it to the realm of art.