‘Cities in Fiction’, a public digital archive that documents places from literature to serve as memory markers

Literary landscapes are record-keepers of major demographic shifts, cultural changes, and more, say founders Divya Ravindranath and Apoorva Saini

Updated - May 24, 2024 12:35 pm IST

Published - April 12, 2024 03:20 pm IST

Calcutta in the 1960s.

Calcutta in the 1960s. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Calcutta, 1950s. What do you remember of the city? Wide boulevards, crisscrossing tramlines, imposing white facades, an echo of the British empire? A close approximation but think again. Do you remember it? The vagrants sleeping under the shade of trees. Freedom fighter Hariram Goenka’s statue in Curzon Park, its gaze affixed at Raj Bhavan. The calm and quiet of the park, where time famously seemed to stop. In his 1962 novel Chowringhee, Sankar preserved Calcutta’s stories, and its contradictions. He chronicled Calcutta through its people and places, sounds and smells, dreams and disappointments. The neighbourhood of Chowringhee came alive; the thoroughfares and tramlines grew limbs and told tales of a dying city. 

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An iteration of this Calcutta finds mention in ‘Cities in Fiction, apublic digital archive set up by Divya Ravindranath and Apoorva Saini. “Fiction can hold memory and history in a very distinct way,” says Ravindranath, an urban studies scholar at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. The archive documents real-world places in South Asia, of the past and present, in literature. Turn to the left and one sees portraits of Amitav Ghosh’s Sunderbans and Rohinton Mistry’s Mumbai; to the right, is a rendering of Bama’s Tamil Nadu, Krishna Sobti’s rural Punjab and Nilanjana S. Roy’s Delhi. There are more than 350-plus entries, going back and forth in time, documenting the churn of cities over decades and centuries.  

Divya Ravindranath

Divya Ravindranath

Apoorva Saini

Apoorva Saini

The archive sees literary landscapes as “record-keepers” of “major demographic shifts, cultural, political and archaeological changes, urban planning, landscaping, ecology, and almost all aspects of life”. Imagination is their chosen tool to “rebel, rebuild, remember, grieve, or celebrate” several snapshots through time, all at once, the website states. 

The role of fiction 

As an experiment, Ravindranath introduced Tamil writer Sujatha’s short story ‘Nagaram’ as reading material for a class on urban health. The story of a mother and daughter travelling to a city in search of treatment, and returning later to their village, defeated. “This short story opened a very interesting conversation on health systems — it allowed us to explore so many different themes at once,” she says.  

Ravindranath involved writer-editor Saini in the project, and the two have run the website independently from last September. The database lists places and the literary works in which they appear, along with the names of the authors, dominant themes, language, date of publication and so on. The archive has evolved to include interviews with authors who have centred the landscape in their storytelling. Author Krupa Ge, for instance, says she relied on her family’s oral histories and The Hindu’s archives to create the city’s textures of Chennai, Chengalpattu and Benaras of the 1940s in What We Know About Her. “I am amazed at the writers’ ability to take the reader into microcosms, the inner lanes, places of power, everyday ways of living, being and doing,” says Ravindranath. Eventually, the project may experiment with other formats like essays and analysis, says Ravindranath.  

There are many ways to document a city. Why look at fiction? “Stories rooted in a place pulse and seethe with context, and fiction is important for its porosity,” says Saini. This combination “helps us to make sense of our individual and collective ‘social totality’, otherwise unrepresentable”.

Cities are not apolitical sites functioning in silos; they hold knots of life, living, housing, health, work, love. One entry in the database registers Mitra Phukan’s What Will People Say, set in Guwahati. It is a love story between an older couple, but also, a tale about friendships, life and interactions in the town. The imagination is almost like an intervention: it forces one to see locations as interconnected, placing people and cities in a larger continuum in time.

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Nilanjana S. Roy, whose book Black River is also in the database, agrees. “Fiction fills in our imaginations, makes us more than just strangers to one another; or at least, that is one of its promises,” she says. Her rendering of Delhi’s edgelands in the book acknowledged “the web of relationships that Delhi both enabled in the 1980s and 1990s”, seeing beyond nostalgia the contradictions and “invisible steel fences” that sliced people and cities apart. 

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The archive is crowdsourced and relies on readers to light its map with new entries. The founders verify basic information like spellings and facts but have stayed away from regulating the themes under which entries are slotted. “Each reader is likely to read the same book differently. That diversity is welcome,” says Ravindranath. 

The database also includes entries of literature from smaller cities, towns, and villages. They are “not merely to fill gaps between the metropolitans, or to satisfy the cartographic anxiety of mapping, or representation of literature... They are there because of their unique locations, in their own right,” says Saini. Over time, the database has also expanded beyond India to include stories from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The founders acknowledge the need to reach more diverse audiences, outside social media circles. In Ravindranath’s bucket list: short stories by women authors, published in local magazines.

A dynamic memory-building archive spurts dynamic challenges. Should the database include just novels and short stories, or poems, drama and non-fiction too? Saini hints at possible inclusions in the future. Some places in literature are fictionalised wholly, carrying a resemblance of real-life towns. Bombay lives and breathes in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance but is never named as such. Nilanjana S. Roy’s Black River leaves behind traces of Delhi/ Haryana in its imagination of Teeratpur. “We are still trying to figure this out,” says Ravindranath.  

‘Imagination for memory keeping’ 

Over time, Ravindranath and Saini see the archive evolving as a pedagogical tool. It could add colour to impersonal academic reading and policy deliberations to “help understand theory better”. Saini also envisions it to be a “handy resource for writers and translators”, unlocking a world of regional narratives lying behind the barriers of language. Someone contributed Amaravathi Kathalu, a short story collection by Telugu writer Satyam Sankaramanchi, to the archive. The entire book in translation was never published, and Saini hopes “that someone will find this book listed in our database, and perhaps, think about translating it”. 

The imagination doesn’t stop there. The archive insists on rethinking cities as animate landscapes; as they grow, their aspirations and identities grow too. ‘Cities in Fiction’hopes to eventually reflect these reverberations, albeit deliberately and organically, responding to the impulse of imagination and contribution, Ravindranath says. Cities require care, and their chronicles must be pursued with a similar prudence.  

Care may eventually give way to a challenge. The archive holds unique relevance in a post-truth India, where history is revised, facts deemed seditious, and complexities carelessly diluted. Literature, instead, allows for contradiction and co-existence. Rao says she “wrote with a sense of recovering memory”, taking note of the “living memories of people who are part of the city’s history but are seldom asked to share their memories of time and place”. Her Black River sets a neglected memory of Delhi against an “age of perpetual amnesia”.  

It is not enough to preserve the memory of a city, when memory itself is torn down and rebuilt. ‘Cities in Fiction’ blends two dynamic strains, dismantling and building memories together. “There are no boundaries, the archive is an ever-expanding resource,” says Ravindranath.


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