(From left) Krishna Bose, Amit Chaudhuri, Sandip Roy and Devi Kar at the launch. (Sanat Kumar Sinha)
Amit Chaudhuri does not like parts of this Calcutta. His relationship with the city is a little complicated. He is not the usual resident.
At the launch of his book Calcutta — Two years in the City (Hamish Hamilton) on Saturday evening in the city, he spoke about how he would visit Calcutta as a boy in the 70s, on holiday from Bombay where his father was a well-placed corporate employee. Bombay life was “quotidian”; Calcutta was rich.
The exuberant children’s literature, the bright illustrated covers of the children’s magazines, and Tagore: these freed into a “holiday from his own culture”. “This was an education in what the modern city was,” he said at the Oxford Bookstore, where former Parliamentarian Krishna Bose launched his book and educationist Devi Kar read out from it.
The book is an account of the years 2009 to 2011 in the city. The writer, an onlooker, visits its many streets, especially Park Street, its many pasts, and meets numerous people to try to engage with what it is today.
He may not like parts of this city, but then he loves it. Love is difficult.
After his studies abroad, he came back to the city as a young man. “I made a choice to come back,” he said. The older city had passed away, which was inevitable: no place can be revisited. But the city had lost something. As an itinerant writer, who visits many places in the world, he keeps leaving and coming back to the city, and he still feels that excitement when coming back. And then it goes.
Walter Benjamin talks about two types of memories, Chaudhuri says, memories you put together and destructive memory, things you can’t help. The second kind of memory, destroying the narrative, strikes like splinters. Memory of another Calcutta strikes Chaudhuri like these splinters.
The change started in the Seventies and worked its way through the Eighties, culminating in the recent upheavals.
So now, if Delhi is about power and Mumbai, formerly Bombay, about money, the most important question in Calcutta is: “Are you going to eat at home tonight?”
This he learned from his journalist friend Sandip Roy, who appears in the book along with several other Calcuttans, well-known and otherwise, and was the third member on the panel.
People return to the city to only take care of aged parents, who ask that question. Many stories about the city are implicit in the question.
But it’s not with nostalgia that he looks at the city, says Chaudhuri.
He comes down heavily on the “static versions” of the city’s past that feed the nostalgia-industry. In the same breath he mentions “static versions” of Tagore, especially of his songs. They are dead things.
“Tagore has turned into what Buddhadeb Bose said of Sanskrit, ‘a venerated corpse’,” said Chaudhuri. Visva-Bharati’s stress on the skeletal versions of Tagore’s music while he was still in copyright helped such attitude to crystallise.
The city, and the poet, need to be rehabilitated — in the imagination of people. The city to live has to be imagined in the minds of the people who live in it. For even with “the mapping of abortive journeys” within it, the city comes alive again. In its verisimilitude and all its bizarreness. It is useful to look for things that are various and strange and foreign, things that keep a date with modernity. That Christmas in Calcutta is populated densely with Santa Claus everywhere and his valiant cheer, but hardly any nativity scene, as a friend from London pointed out to Chaudhuri.
At this point Sandip Roy added that during a recent Christmas, a curious group looking at turkeys in New Market claimed the birds were “Australian ostriches”.