Union Books, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Calcutta: Two Years in the City, By Amit Chaudhuri
An engrossing journey through Calcutta delves beneath its poverty and drabness
Friday 15 March 2013
Once the capital of British India and the second city of the Empire, Calcutta is not even regarded as a major Indian city today and it is known abroad, if at all, only for its supposedly bestial poverty. Calcutta is certainly ugly, overpopulated, dirty, chaotic and poor – but, whatever the missionary types might claim, no more so than any other Third World town.
Amit Chaudhuri's quirky new book delves beneath the drabness and poverty. Blending reportage, meditation, history and critique, it draws a fascinating portrait. It is especially rewarding because of the author's ambivalent status. Although familiar with Calcutta from childhood and fluent in Bengali, Chaudhuri never actually lived there until recently. Even now, he spends half of every year teaching in the UK. An insider but also an outsider, he approaches the city from a unique perspective. Calcutta should be mandatory reading not only for those unfamiliar with the place but for those who imagine they know it well.
The book records Chaudhuri's experiences during his first two years in the city after moving from England. Rather than focus on Calcutta's lower depths, he brings out its true diversity. I had no idea that the kind of Anglo-Bengali (Inga-Banga) Calcuttans, to whom Chaudhuri devotes one of his finest chapters, still existed. Speaking authentically British English at home and treating the Chaudhuris to afternoon tea with (delectable) sandwiches, the Mukherjee family, predictably, is doomed and has to give way to dodgy representatives of the new Indian economy.
The Inga-Bangas are easy to deride. Even the sandwiches tempted me only briefly. But Chaudhuri, with delicate, ironic strokes, transforms the Mukherjees into protagonists of a very Calcuttan Cherry Orchard, whose world is collapsing around them while they live, with increasing difficulty, as they always did, vaguely sensing the coming of a cruel new age but incapable of making sense of it, let alone adapting.
Not that the new world is less weird than the old. The wealthier denizens of Calcutta have embraced Italian cuisine but the few Italian chefs who do come to work there tend to leave precipitately. Chaudhuri unearths a little-known saga of provincials playing at being cosmopolitan. While the older generation swore by fictitious Continental dishes like chicken tetrazinni, the new lot daub their pizzas with ketchup and indulge in other abominations that reduce Italian chefs to despair.
As I chuckled, I wondered how this could be contrasted with the emergence of pricey restaurants specialising in traditional Bengali food. There was just one such place in my younger days, but now there are so many that one is justified to call it a trend.
Perhaps the greatest passion of Calcuttans after food is politics, but again the style and tenor have changed. Chaudhuri goes on a tour of polling stations during a landmark election that ended 35 years of unbroken "Communist" rule in Bengal, replacing it with a populist regime lacking, as became evident rapidly, in the slightest administrative competence. Chaudhuri tries to identify the forces behind the change but for once, seems to be slightly out of his depth. His laconic interviewees fob him off with platitudes and he reveals an intellectual's inability to comprehend the sheer bloody-mindedness of street politics.
Quite the opposite is the case with Chaudhuri's reflections on the past of Calcutta. Whether it is a rhapsody on a French window that he rescues on a whim from a demolished building, or a mental quest through the crowded streets of North Calcutta for the monuments of the much-hyped Bengal Renaissance, Chaudhuri's trysts with the past are entrancing in their lyricism, and simply stunning in their intelligence and percipience.
Professor Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Mortdecai becomes Johnny Depp's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Last Tango in Halifax, review: Can we ever really move on from Kate?
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'