What if some of the world’s greatest storytellers were invited to make a Calcutta Collection? They would not have to invent very much. Just reading about everyday happenings in the city papers over the last week would make them want to claim some of these stories for their own. On Monday, for instance, three massive iron chests, each weighing more than a thousand kilograms, were opened with great ceremony by the fire services department, after the police’s disaster management experts failed to prise them open. So immense was the general anticipation about the contents of these mysteriously unearthed chests — for the ownership of which a fortune had been spent on litigation over the years — that the walls of the police station were extended upwards with scaffolding and cloth to prevent outsiders from peering in. But all that the chests were found to contain were a packet of needles, a table calendar, and an envelope with four five-rupee notes in it. To make the owner’s disappointment bearable, the Archaeological Survey of India has promised to test these for “archaeological value”.
In the afternoon of the same day, in another part of the city, two drivers of the Metro set out on their usual underground route. By the time they finished the journey, they had had to stop twice to extricate the bodies of, not one, but two successive suicides from beneath the same train. After the first accident, the drivers had been sent to the back of the train to get back their wits. But a few stations later, after the train started again with new drivers (and the previous ones coxing from the back), there was a second suicide. Finally, on Thursday, a tramcar was left in front of a depot on a main road at a busy time of the day with its engine switched on, but with the electricity cut off temporarily. So, when power supply was resumed, the tram doggedly started running again on its own, bulldozing a long line of cars standing at a red light, terrifying everyone on the streets, and inspiring two homeless young men living on the pavement nearby to abandon their breakfast, give heroic chase, jump into the tram, fiddle cluelessly with the levers, bring it to a halt, and manage not to get beaten up by the public after being mistaken for the drivers.
Underneath the quasi-magic realism of these comic, tragic and tragicomic stories, runs a current of dreamlike despair and dysfunctionality. They are, after all, about the dashing of material hopes, the trauma caused by doubled suicides, about dangerous absent-mindedness. Reading them in the papers (sometimes on the same page), or inhabiting them in person, could feel like being part of a collective nightmare or delirium, at once maddening, frightening, fascinating and sad. They seem to take place in one of those nowhere-cities of surreal bleakness found in a Saramago novel, like the one where everybody suddenly starts going blind; or in the little Kafka stories, like the one in which a policeman, when asked the way to the station by someone running to catch a train, laughs and says, “Give up, give up!”, in the tone of someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.