Calcutta, or Kolkata, has appeared repeatedly in Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction and he’s lived in the city since 1999. Despite this Chaudhuri doesn’t think he belongs to this “post-bhadralok” Kolkata, finds Deepanjana Pal.
You didn’t initially want to write a book on Kolkata. What made you change your mind?
Amit Chaudhuri: I felt the city, despite all its exacerbations, has been transformative to me as a child, and it had a certain quality, particularly in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, in the way New York once did. So in 2005, when my agent asked me to write a book on Calcutta, I wasn’t so eager. I didn’t feel Calcutta could be written of in the same way. Calcutta was resistant to being part of new India. Other cities, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, they’d been alchemised by economic deregulation, but Calcutta was out of joint.
I think what convinced me to write the book was the poet Utpal Basu, one of the few remaining Bengali cosmopolitan intellectuals who, in the serio-comic manner befitting a cosmopolitan, once hovered around and eavesdropped on homeless people in Sealdah Station at night. Utpal Basu told me two stories of about a personable homeless woman and the stories got me thinking. Maybe this Calcutta, this post-bhadralok city, has more going on in it than I’d been willing to admit to. And I realised my being here, this too was part of the narrative of the new city.
Did writing the book change how you see Kolkata? The city in the book is different from the romanticised city in your novels.
My notion of Calcutta changed much before the writing of the book. It changed with my spending time here. Also, marrying a person who had partly grown up here — part of my wife’s schooling was in this city and her family and relatives are here — meant access to a very different family from my own. My mother’s family had been the inspiration for much of the Calcutta and its characters in my fiction. They had a quirkiness and an idiosyncrasy about them. They were larger than life while being ordinary. My wife’s family was quite ‘normal’ and this brought me a very different perspective on the city.
You said the Calcutta in my fiction was romantic, which implies it was constructed but I don’t think it was a construct. I think there was something real in those depictions. Calcutta once enshrined a kind of provisionality, a kind of life on the street, a coming together of things that characterises certain great cities. It’s a city of provisional lines, structures and patterns, rather than monuments and masterpieces. It’s not a quality you find, say, in Washington or New Delhi or Dubai, and it’s what I was responding to when I began to write fiction.
Do you feel you belong to the city now?
It was in 1999 that I moved here and it made me realise how much of an outsider I was. After all, I did grow up in Bombay, and then moved to England in 1983. Particularly among middle class Bengali society, there’s a fund of shared anecdotes — schools, teachers, memories — that I had no access to.
I think belonging will come in retrospect. As of now, it’s where I do my work, I try to make sense of the city, and my family is here. When I land in the airport after a trip abroad and make my way back home, I feel the same excitement I felt as a child, and then, gradually, I realise it’s not the same city I knew as a child. I don’t know how much I belong to it consciously. But yes, when I’m away from it, I desire it.
In the time that you’ve written Calcutta, the city has changed a lot. Politically, for instance, there’s been a great change. How would you describe Kolkata’s mood now?
AC: For a long time, while the Left was in power, people were in denial and then they became fed up. That said, I don’t think anyone in their right mind who had heard her speak could have thought Mamata Banerjee could effect the change people wanted. At that level too, there was denial. But people were absolutely fed up. At that level, there was shock when the Chief Minister’s intolerance first began to become evident.
I think now there’s despair. I don’t know anything that can revive her popularity other than perhaps the palliative of the free market. That is a remarkably effective device. Look at Mumbai. It’s had some very bad governments, some of its political parties thrive on intolerance, its infrastructure is not great and it hosts huge numbers of the poor, there’s great violence — but there is the palliative of the free market so you forget about these things. It gives the illusion of things happening, and perhaps they are. But the magic of free market capitalism can desensitise us to political intolerance.