Amit Chaudhuri’s ode to the city of joy is delicately personal and historically immense
In Page 277, when we are almost near the end of his new book, Amit Chaudhuri mentions, seemingly in passing, Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli, and how the phrase was used by Gagliano citizens to say that Christianity itself, and morality and history had bypassed their city, excluding them from the human experience. Chaudhuri recounts how a Picasso exhibition in the early 2000s had stopped at Bombay and New Delhi without coming to Calcutta. It was part of a trend that started in the 1990s, when international flights removed Calcutta from their lists, businesses moved their headquarters to Bombay, and rock groups omitted it from their itinerary.
Chaudhuri, one of the few people to return to Calcutta after years in the U.K., talks of toying with naming his book Picasso Stopped at New Delhi. It’s a light-hearted comment but a powerfully moving one that practically sums up the book, and the city, for me.
Chaudhuri takes time to tell the story of his emotional reunion and intellectual reacquaintance with a city that ignites a complex mix of reactions in those who keep belonging to it in a way that somehow never stops. His is a gentle, slow and meandering prose, which wanders into mental by-lanes and passages to explore stray thoughts, as if strolling in the alleys of the city, stopping for a chai here or an adda there. Like someone said of life that it happens when you aren’t watching, so does much of the action in Chaudhuri’s book happen parenthetically, slipped in gently.
He starts with a story about French windows, a theme that recurs. One might wonder at its significance, but not if you grew up or spent any amount of time there. You would then know just how quintessentially Calcutta those windows are, always wooden, always green. And when you closed the slats, you got a cool darkness that sheltered secret childhood games and adult romances, so intrinsic to the city’s psyche, to its clinging to the ideas of khela (play) and bhalobasha (love).
At another point, in one of the book’s many beautiful moments, the writer and his mother are looking for an address in North Calcutta. He describes how this, the old, ‘black’ town, was the birthplace of the formidable Bengal Renaissance, led by countless legendary names like Tagore and Rammohun Roy. And then, suddenly, he returns to the present, to the road and says ‘We’ve lost our way. Where exactly is Shobhabazar?’ It’s a poignant, understated lament, but one that leaves a catch in the throat.
By the 1960s and 70s, the Marxists were fiercely disputing the idea of the Renaissance itself, on the grounds that it had not been inclusive but restricted to the gentry, the bhadralok. In the next two decades, everything one recognised about Calcutta had slowly disappeared, not least its pretensions to literary and artistic primacy. Choosing to return now is an enigma that Chaudhuri clearly is trying to work through for himself as much as for his readers. He frequently returns to Park Street and to Flury’s, the now-famous icons of the city’s once-glorious, once-cosmopolitan past. He talks to strangers, beggars and the homeless, but it’s when he gets personal that his prose gets magical. ‘But who ever said that clinging to life could be explained rationally? I suppose what I mean is — India, for whatever reason, is synonymous to me with life; and you don’t love life by weighing its advantages.’ This, for me, is Chaudhuri at his best. Or when, for instance, he describes the season of Sharath in almost Keatsian and incredibly moving imagery. But these nuggets don’t come easily; you must mine through some rambles about the Mukherjee family, or Italian chefs or domestic help.
Chaudhuri’s lyricism is best suited to understand the city’s own poetry, and is yet honest enough to never lose sight of the unviability of this as a response. He recalls how Louis Malle, when filming in Calcutta in 1968, met a cop who was not only a Malle fan but had also recently translated Louis Aragon. Chaudhuri too meets a cop who discusses the role of the writer with him. But neither then nor now does this sensitivity have any bearing on the very real abyss of apathy in which the city lives.
Chaudhuri’s Bengali sense of humour is very much alive but muted; it has a British restraint. Yet, I love the little detours, like the one into the etymology of ‘abangali’ or ‘non-Bengali’, a peculiar term that means everything to a Bengali and that’s absolutely unique in its world view. Have you ever heard of a non-Tamilian or a non-Punjabi?
As he writes of Calcutta’s decline into ‘paralysis’, the word Joyce once used for Dublin, it’s as if Chaudhuri is telling a long, old-fashioned story, one that is delicate and personal but instilled with a historical rigour and intellect that makes it practically a mini-history.
Describing his mother and aunts, or even the city’s urban architecture, Chaudhuri repeatedly uses the word ‘new’…. and the modern is “perennially new, no matter what state it’s in….” It does not refer to a modernity you can see or experience, but one in thought. It’s something that Calcutta can possibly never lose its claim to; even though, as Chaudhuri says, today it is Kolkata, a tentative and formless new city that has emerged “without a past, without that enervating legacy of humanism and high culture.”