EVENT Amit Chaudhuri chronicles the lives of Calcutta’s dwellers who are largely ignored in his recent book Calcutta: Two Years In The City

Amit Chaudhuri has written about Calcutta before in A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag and Freedom Song. In his recent novel Calcutta: Two Years In The City, Chaudhuri looks at unexplored aspects of a declining Calcutta, a vastly different approach from his earlier novels on the city. “My poet-friend Utpal Kumar Bose narrated two anecdotes of conversations of the homeless he had overhead. There was one woman he called ‘khurima’ or aunt and ‘gyana-bhandar’ or a treasure trove of wisdom. She would cook for the homeless on a porch near Sealdah Station. She told a person ‘Amra bhikheri hote pari, pagol noi’ or ‘We may be beggars, but we aren’t mad.’ To a man looking for an address, she said, ‘Thikana diye ki hobe? Soye kothai seta bolo’ or ‘What will I do with his address? Tell me where he sleeps’. Utpal realised these are our ‘nagariks’, which at once means city-dwellers and citizens. I wondered who are these citizens I have been trying to ignore?” said Amit at a discussion of his novel with Sumeet Shetty, President of Literati and Professor Rajeswari Sunder Rajan at British Library last week.

Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta in 1962, a time when the city was at its zenith. Around 1964, Chaudhuri’s parents left for Mumbai when the company his father worked for shifted its head office there. “The only childhood memories I have of the city, and I have corroborated these memories, are the porch of my New Alipore home, cows in the street outside, fried egg with salt and pepper. After that, we made the annual and sometimes twice-a-year journey to visit my mother’s brother in Bhowanipore. Because I was the only child, I would fantasise my cousins were my siblings. In my uncle’s home a whole universe opened up to me.”

Alternate existence

To Sumeet Shetty’s question on his powers of observation, Amit said: “The desire to be somewhere, to exist and therefore make existence present to oneself came to me at a certain point of time. Till I was 22 or 23, my concerns were more high philosophy and also as a writer to write like others. I started as a make believe writer-poet quite early on. I would take on voices and tones I read and become different writers like Ezra Pound and Philip Larkin. I think the first time I channelled my desire as a user of language into evocation was when I wrote a poem on St. Cyril Road, an area which seemed like an elsewhere in Mumbai. It was the first time I wrote about what existed in my own life. Till then, I thought my life was not literary.”

To Professor Rajeswari’s question of what has changed for the author while writing this book, Amit, born in Calcutta, an alumnus of Oxford University, says: “Through the 1980s I began visiting the city frequently. In the 1990s, I was shocked to see of what had happened to the city. Through that period there was a false boom, it was a period of disengagement. In 1999, when I moved back to Calcutta, I discovered aspects to the city I had not known before. As I neared the ending of the book, I realised this is still a very interesting city. I had achieved an immersion into the book.”

Amit doesn’t romanticise Calcutta, instead, as observed by Professor Rajeswari at the launch, he brings together novelistic sensibility and criticality. “The book is never only reportage”, says Rajeswari, “the form of meditation is what suits him best. Amit writes of fraught topics that never descend to sentimentality that they are susceptible to because of his artistic control…He places himself at the centre, but also off centre.”