Writer Amit Chaudhuri tells Budhaditya Bhattacharya about writing “Calcutta: Two Years in the City”, and his new perspective on the city

In a discussion of the New Year in Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri, writer, academic and musician, brings up the once popular poet Iswar Gupta and his delirious poem on the subject published in the early 1850s. He also informs us that Bankimchandra Chatterjee called him ‘jaha ache tahar kobi’, or the ‘poet of what’s at hand’, and distinguishes it from the category of the ‘poet of memory’.

As an account of two years spent in the city, Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City is about what’s at hand, but also inescapably about memory. In it exist reportage of the historic elections of 2011 alongside a personal history of the city, snapshots of its various nagariks, and mini disquisitions on subjects as varied as slatted windows and the great Bengali pastime of discussing that disorder known as gas, or, as Bengalis would say, gash.

The city comes alive not in sweeping narratives of what it was and what it has become, but through carefully constructed vignettes, which have long been a feature of Chaudhuri’s writings.

“I wanted to write not just about the home, but the street and the impingement of the street on the home. And that made it necessary that I write in a way that was provisional and moving from past to present and episode to episode swiftly rather than through the building up of a story line…I had also begun trying to perfect a kind of non-fiction writing in the essay…where I could move away from the academic without necessarily totally jettisoning preoccupations that are important to an academic…So I began to work…towards a form where I could speak personally about a cup of coffee but also speak about history in the next line,” he says.

While the style of this book is informed by choices he had arrived at in his novels, they were also the source of his misgivings about writing it. When approached by his agent in 2005 with the idea of this book, Chaudhuri turned it down initially because he felt he had mined the city for all its worth in three of his novels (A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song). Moreover, Calcutta, which was once emblematic of modernity, now abounded in symptoms of morbidity — urban dereliction, industrial stagnation, and the decline of Bengali language. The city had become, as Chaudhuri puts it, “bereft of poetry”.

“It was no longer the city it had been when it had transformed my imagination and instructed me in viewing cities like Berlin and New York later when I encountered them… It was a city which had schooled me in modernity. And then I felt that the city no longer existed, it had no more lessons for me,” he says.

But a new perspective emerged from the poet Utpal Kumar Basu’s comments about the city’s homeless, which the book begins with. “The fact that stories could circulate about, and emanate from, people who lived here now, including those I didn't notice, perhaps pointed to a sort of subtle but vigorous regeneration,” Chaudhuri writes.

Born in Calcutta in 1962, Chaudhuri moved to live there in 1999. One of the reasons he mentions for this journey is homesickness, but the return isn’t a simple homecoming. For the traveller in Amit, who can also claim Mumbai and the University towns of the UK as home, the familiar is always inscribed with a sense of “an elsewhere”.

“I have not been able to crack the city and I make no bones about it. I live a life of isolation in Calcutta and this is a record of someone who is on the periphery of the city even when he lives in it,” he says. “I see the bhadralok, both provincial and cosmopolitan at once, as a kind of heterogeneous tribe that occurred in various parts of the world, and I can see that because I am an outsider to it. The same holds true for various other facts of city life.”

According to Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, quoted in the book, “…if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City shows how they might begin.