The Weekenders

Eleven authors

It’s always interesting to see your country, your city, through the eyes of an outsider. In The Weekenders, Adventures In Calcutta, you see it through not one, but 11 pairs of eyes, the result of 11 popular writers spending a short while in the city, and transferring their experiences into fiction and non-fiction pieces, all of it set in Calcutta. And so, in this anthology edited by Andrew O’Hagan, the author Bella Bathurst calls Ganga ‘a liquid road, a strand of Shiva’s hair, a blessing and a gravemouth’; Colm Toibin wrestles with Mother Teresa’s legacy to the city; a rickshaw-puller (‘twice my age and half my strength’) pulls Tony Hawks around the city, while he, in turn, pulls around a still older man (paying him Rs. 20 for the privilege). And then you have Monica Ali’s sensitive portrait of Calcutta’s street-children, looking for scraps that can be traded in for a few rupees from their allotted railway compartments; and if that’s too poignant for you, flip on to Simon Garfield’s sharp cameos of the staff at The Hotel Calcutta, all the way up from the lad who peels the potatoes to the executive chef. These — and other — snatches, turn in front of your eyes like a kaleidoscope, and from the broken fragments of other people’s memories, patterns emerge — lovely, colourful and surprisingly well-structured.

It works because…

With 11 writers, a brilliant editor, and a shared vision to showcase Calcutta, the prose is lively, enriched by the writers’ unique takes and styles. One writes about starving street children, and another about a seven-star hotel; there’s a lot about the poverty, a little about the pride. Some pieces are set slap-bang in the middle of everyday Calcutta… Bathurst describes Kumartuli’s Durga idols, easily double her height but as ‘delicate as spun glass’; Colgan calls Indian women ‘fabulous butterflies in pink and orange sarees’, squished up in the trains like ‘plump posies’. But somewhere, the stereotyping and the generalisations begin to grate, especially the references to the heat, humidity and the dust. And while the average Indian psyche is explored in the touching tale of the father who goads his son to become a cricketer and the one set inside the beauty-parlour, at some point, you begin to wonder if this was the writing equivalent of checklist tourism.

Perhaps it still worked for me because I haven’t read very many books on the city, nor have I visited the place. But somebody who’s lived there all their life might be annoyed that the spotlight, once again, is trained on railway platforms, street children and rickshaw-pullers. And they might mutter, like one of the characters in the book ‘they always take you the railway-station’…

And this one stays with you…

From Sam Miller’s essay, Going Underground.

‘Kolkata is an emotionally exacting city. It is hard not to get involved. The city makes exceptional and continuous demands on one’s senses: on the eyes — its colours, the street life of ordinary people, the urban decay; the smells, almost overpowering in the rainy season, of rotting vegetation, of sewers, of leather factories, of street cooking; then the taste of Bengali sweets, of (sewage-fed) fish, and the strange, saccharine taste of the air; the sounds of cars, of street-sellers, of manual typewriters, of crows, of people quarrelling and of children playing; and of course, the touch, the touch of other people, and of the occasional goat or cow. You can’t exist in Kolkata if you can’t stand being jostled and squashed’.