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A CITY THROUGH ITS BYLANES

Kalikatha: via Bypass By Alka Saraogi, Rupa, Rs 295

Historically, Calcutta has played host to various peoples and communities from the subcontinent. In fact, not so long ago, it was alleged that the city harbours more people from a particular state in India than the capital of that state itself. In her first novel, Alka Saraogi deals with such a community — the Marwaris — who left their land to seek the favours Calcutta and the raj offered them.

Kalikatha: via Bypass has as its protagonist one Kishore Babu, who was born in north Calcutta in 1925. We look at the city through the eyes of this man who takes to wandering the city after a bypass surgery. In the process, Kishore Babu goes back to the time of his great grandfather, Ramvilas Babu, and travels back and forth in time.

At times, Kishore Babu delves into his own youth — the times of Netaji Subhas Bose and Gandhiji. He contrasts his attitude with that of his progeny who, in his eyes, lack the thrift which has made the community so prosperous.

Kishore Babu has lived through two horrifying events in the history of Calcutta — the great Bengal famine and the great Calcutta killings — and both have scarred him for life. “The infant was naked and the bones of his ribcage could be counted from a distance. Its emaciated limbs hung as if lifeless. But that it was alive could be guessed from the rise and fall of its belly”. The child had marasmus and died two hours later. Kishore Babu and his friend, Amolak, took the body to Keoratala burning ghat and left it next to a mound of corpses waiting to be buried.

The great Calcutta killings were traumatic too. The family just managed to escape because of the timely appearance of Kishore Babu’s mama. The killings confused Kishore Babu a great deal. The Muslims had cooperated with Subhas Chandra Bose yet they were now ravaging Hindu temples. Yet Kishore Babu had no option but to come to terms with his trauma.

It is Kishore Babu’s wanderings after his bypass that thrill the reader. Kishore Babu walks through Calcutta’s lanes and bylanes unfamiliar to his children who take pride in their south Calcutta residence, for that symbolizes the fact that they have arrived.

The bypass surgery which Kishore Babu underwent is central to the tale. “Bypass” is the key word of this novel as it suggests ways of going round a situation rather than confronting it. Kishore Babu bypasses problems in his life, the tragic events in the city’s history and life goes on.

The novelist has reconstructed with some skill not only some gaps in a community’s history which have contributed to the evolution of West Bengal’s history, but also the contemporary collective psyche.

Arunjyoti Basu

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