Writer Bunny Suraiya's debut novel Calcutta Exile is a story on home and of a time when the music was still alive

Bunny Suraiya's “Calcutta Exile”, a debut novel, examines identity, not from the eyes of one who's gone away to foreign lands, but someone who's struggling with it in their own homeland. “You can have an identity problem in the land of your birth, which is much more poignant. In contemporary India, everyone has a tremendous sense of rootless-ness. People have lost ownership to their cities. We've become a transient population, always looking for the next best place. It's sad really,” says Bunny, who pursued writing and editing, following an award-winning career in advertising.

Bunny Suraiya, in “Calcutta Exile” (Harper Collins, joint venture with the India Today group, Rs. 299), writes of a city, where the music was still alive. The novel evokes a bygone era of Calcutta. The multi-dimensional characters, moving plot and literary style makes “Calcutta Exile” an engaging read.

The Anglo-Indians, Armenians, Muslims and Jews contributed much to the character of a Calcutta of the 50s and 60s. However, with the weakening of its political fabric and the steady economic stagnation of the city, the very communities that defined it left in search of greener pastures.

Bunny speaks of how it felt to leave Calcutta, the city of her birth: “We never really left Calcutta. The city left us. I am a Calcutta exile. Every city changes; and when it does, people who have been living there for long, feel a curious sense of unease and conflict. The music died when these various communities left. Calcutta has lost more of its inhabitants, perhaps more than any other city.”

Central to “Calcutta Exile” is the struggles and aspirations of an Anglo-Indian family — the Ryans. Robert, his beautiful wife Grace and their two daughters Paddy and Shirley live in Sharif Lane, a part in Calcutta that lies close to Wellesley Street, a more elite part of the city. Though a happy family, the Ryans are conflicted about their descent and the city in which they reside. Robert, a senior executive with a managing agency, longs for “home”, which he believes to be England. His wife Grace, however, is content with her comfortable life in their cosy flat in Sharif Lane. Their children discover their own journeys by effectively negotiating with their lives at home and outside, in the reality of the city. Included within the narrative are the stories of their helpers, Ayah and Apurru, who long to go home to East Pakistan. On the other end of the spectrum is Ronen Mookerjee who belongs to the landed gentry.

The plot is multi-layered and will touch readers who are familiar with feelings of belongingness and loss. The book is as much an excellent fictional read as it is an attempt of understanding the notion of ‘home', raising questions on collective and individual identities. The book is close to Bunny's heart for many reasons. “This book was in my mind for a long time. It's a true novel because the characters are inspired by people I know. Writing the book was a trip down memory lane. Ayah and Apurru are my Ayah and Apurru. I knew that once I had retired from advertising, I'd write this novel. I wrote a thousand words per day. I felt bereft, though, after writing the book,” she says.

When asked if the Anglo-Indians in Calcutta were ever really accepted as part of the mainstream, Bunny frankly says: “The Anglo-Indians didn't accept the mainstream either. Robert thought, in some sense, that he was superior. The British nurtured this mutual antagonistic nature between the different communities. In the novel, Robert questions that if we are meant to be Indians first, why aren't we ‘Indian-Anglos' instead of ‘Anglo-Indians?'”

Having grown up in Calcutta which she recalls as its vibrant years — between the 1950s and 1970s — Bunny gives an insider's view on the city. “I was brought up in Wellesley Street. The flat in which the Ryans live is similar to the flat where I grew up in. I just put the Ryans in Sharif Lane. As recently as 1985, when I was working in Calcutta, an Anglo-Indian secretary was desperate to immigrate. In the immigration form she wrote ‘Anglo-Indian' as her nationality. When I told her there's no such nationality. She told me, ‘Well, I'm not Indian, I'm Anglo-Indian'!”

Bunny holds West Bengal's previous government responsible for Calcutta's decline. “They stopped the music,” Bunny says, ruefully.

Though “Calcutta Exile” will particularly touch Calcuttans, Bunny believes the book is for everyone. “Some readers have called from Himachal Pradesh and some have e-mailed me from Goa to tell me how real the characters are. It made me feel so good!” Bunny smiles.