Calcutta is a peculiar city. It is a giant metropolis that changes so slowly it does not seem to change at all. And it is a city that has slid gradually into the backwaters in a way that perhaps disqualifies it from the title metropolis. The other Indian giants, like New Delhi or Mumbai, have a bustling business life,serious business, and cafes and all other trappings of a modern city. Calcutta is a giant provincial town.This is also the impression Kushanava Choudhury gives in his journalistic and personal walk through Calcutta’s streets and recent history. The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta (Bloomsbury 2017) is a delicious blend of nostalgia and frustration over a city that no longer is what it was and perhaps never were, a narrative spiced up with enjoyable portraits of people who manoeuvre through the changes that after all do take place. And, like Salman Rushdie, who insists on Bombay rather than Mumbai, Kolkata is still Calcutta for Choudhury. And there lies a clue.Like many other prabashi Bengalis, he is of two cultures – partially raised and educated in the United States, but brought up in Calcutta and drawn back by a strange city with its own atmosphere, a city ‘in its own time zone’. That time zone was his childhood.The chapters of the book meanders in and out of streets and encounters. A particularly touching portait is of Calcutta’s remaining and somewhat worn-out poets who, in their arch-Bengali adda, recite their latest poems, drink tea and complain of a back-pain. Among them are the last of that dying race, the publishers of ‘little magazines’ of essays, poetry and polemics. And as they trod home late after another weekly session, he asks why they do it, why they carry on. ‘They could have stopped long ago, caved in to the pressures of family and work. They could stay home and watch television like the rest of the world. But they persevered, because to craft verse, however unappreciated or inadequate, still brought satisfaction.’It is in the same light of nostalgia and wish to understand he sees the city. The abandoned factories in Garden Reach and Taratola; the underused Kidderpore docks; the University and College Street with its countless book stalls, slight hint of dust and urine in the air, and its once famous Coffee House where political and philosophical topics have been replaced by smartphones; the marble colossus of the Victoria Memorial and the somewhat unkempt Maidan filled with families and young lovers hiding under umbrellas; and above all his own extended family’s spacious, once wealthy home in north Calcutta – now abandoned by most members and haunted by memories and ghosts.He is ambiguouswhen explaining what the city was and how it became what it is today. In several places he blames the Communists who ruled for over thirty years. ‘We lived under the graveyard peace of Communist rule’, he writes at some point, and at another that everything was safe in those days, because the Communists controlled everything, even the criminals. And so he remembers a city where they played cricket on the streets, where the markets were filled with people,and where people worked but still had plenty of time for adda.
It is pure and true nostalgia thatbubbles up when he looks at planned luxury high-rise buildings that are markers of today’s Kolkata: ‘What would the children of those flats be like, who belonged to no street, no para, hear no loudspeakers and spoke no dialect? What kind of jokes does a child raised on the fifteenth floor, in a stratosphere so far from the pavement, learn to make?’The Epic City is well-written and highly enjoyable. It fits nicely with other books on India’s giant cities, like City of Djinns by William Dalrymple on Delhi or Maximum City by Suketu Mehta on Bombay. Even though it does not quite reach the pinnacle of quality that these other two represent, The Epic City is definitively up there in terms of atmosphere and ability to portray the pulse of a great city.Isn’t time Dhaka had its own portrait, of its people and places, its chaos and energy? It would be a very different book, for a very different city.
Arild Engelsen Ruud
Professor of South Asia Studies, Head of Research,
Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages
University of Oslo, Norway