The “modern” is man-made, and talking of architecture and modernity, the most ubiquitous of such objects in the city is the French window, says Amit Chaudhuri in his latest book Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books).
For Chaudhuri, who wonders why they are always green and never noticed, the French windows are a key to imagining the city — “…the street would flood in through the crack, without any part of you seeping out. This was another feature of the city’s modernity: the importance — for no discernible reason — of looking”. He was so taken up with them that he bought one off a house that had been demolished.
This was in 2007, two years before the book was begun. The house in Ekdalia was being “promoted”, therefore demolished. The family had vanished. Chaudhuri picked up a window, and a door too, with its lotus pattern grille (such grilles too have vanished, says Chaudhuri), after a rather quaint negotiation — and was left with a disembodied window and a door. They were finally fixed to various spots in his Sunny Park flat.
An inadvertent, though persisting, legacy in the city of a colonial power that was not British, French windows are not much seen anywhere except in Ho Chi Minh City, in Chandernagore in Dupleix’s “beautiful and sepulchral house”, in Calcutta, of course, and in the Chinsura oils, an “aberrant” lot of pat paintings done in Chinsura, not in the usual water colour but oil, maybe in the early 19th century. In them, behind the figures of perhaps Chaitanya and Shiva, says Chaudhuri, you may notice the French windows. “With the windows I could begin to write about the city. But they also point out how difficult it is to pin down Calcutta’s provenances,” says Chaudhuri. “They are a part of our subconscious.” In Calcutta, much foreign stuff is part of the subconscious from long ago.
The “foreign” is one of the concerns of Chaudhuri’s book: if it starts with French windows, it goes on to explore “Italian” food in the city, now, but it is not a book that can be seen as belonging to the fairly recent trend of writing on cities. The search for the “modern” is the theme. “The Bengal renaissance has no monuments, unlike the Italian renaissance. It is about watercolours, not oil. It is the renaissance of a certain modernity.” It was like looking out to the world from a window, with the world largely unaware.
“I couldn’t do a Maximum City to Calcutta,” says Chaudhuri, talking of Suketu Mehta’s book on Mumbai, which he liked. Mehta’s book has been followed by “a new genre of non-fiction about the booming new India, an amoral and unstoppable drive shaping everything, as in the creation myth”. For various reasons Calcutta has escaped that.
Besides his relationship with the city is uncertain. He spent his early years in the city but lived in Mumbai later, studied abroad, to return to Calcutta again, and when he is abroad, “in odourless order”, he longs to come back, but is it his home?
Instead of a city welling up the way Mumbai does, Chaudhuri’s Calcutta moves slowly, if at all, beginning in the Sixties and the Seventies, when the first Naxalite movement began, industry fled and Calcutta began to change, then through the recent big Change.
Chaudhuri moves in and around Park Street and Free School Street, Mocambo, visits those who run Chandan Hotel on the adjoining pavement and Flurys, or Narendrapur, many points of the familiar and spreading Calcutta that can be joined to draw up a map of the current city, but also moves in and out of the city’s past and present. “The windows gave me the frame to write about the city. I didn’t want to write about the city in separate chapters, on politics, on history…so that I could move from one thing to another in the same space.”
But he also says he can never bring himself to taste the stuff that is served at Chandan Hotel. “There’s no point in not showing our self-protectiveness. I recoil from a few things, but I am deeply interested too. There’s a deep urge to return to the city, but is it my home? That’s the larger story.”
He hates the kitschification of Tagore. It’s the result of “a static engagement with the past”. He also thinks that the marginalisation of Bengali as a language that is spoken or written in explains much that is amiss in the city.
But he does not yet know why the French windows are always green.