The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The old dreams of Calcutta are changed today

Although I was born in Calcutta, I naturally have no memory of the flat my parents moved to shortly after, situated in the suburban idyll of New Alipore. One random moment seems to survive, however, from the flood of moments of which one’s first self-awareness must be composed, of sitting on the verandah, interestedly studying a ‘poached’ egg flecked with pepper, and my mother pointing out a passing cow on the road and saying “Hamba!” History was being unmade around me; such images, in their flattering calm — the verandah, the main road, the nuclear family, company space — conceal and suggest equally that unmaking. In a year and a half, we — my parents and I — were gone from Calcutta, and then my father returned to it briefly with a new job in Britannia Biscuits. But in 1965, both we and Britannia Biscuits left for Bombay, apparently for good, joining the famous flight of capital from the city. That movement, and the question it raises — “What if'” — has haunted me and my writing ever since, in ways I still don’t understand. What if we’d never left, and I’d grown up in Calcutta' What if that turn in history and politics that made those migrations inevitable and necessary had never occurred' These aren’t actual questions I ask myself; they’re subterranean stirrings. In asking them now, I’m not only preoccupied with a personal itinerary, but with the larger question of exchanging, in my life, one idea of metropolitan existence for another. That’s why my childhood memories of Calcutta are not only full of a deep nostalgia for the past, but are imbued with an idiosyncratic sense of value that’s perhaps impelled and misled me equally.

As industry moved out, my trips back to Calcutta from the late Sixties onwards possessed the ancient, stealthy happiness of homecomings as well as the thrill of living, for a month or a little more, another life, a different existence, an unthought-out but concentrated response to that “What if'” I became, during those holidays, the Bengali child that I never really was, and part of the sort of family that I didn’t come from. From the moment we entered the city, I had a sense of its multifariousness, from the giant neon teapot pouring tea into a cup in Chowringhee (one of my earliest memories of the startlement of recovering the city), to the advertisement for cigarette on slats on one end of Park Street, which changed direction every few minutes and, in the duration of a traffic jam, transformed into a different advertisement. Then the long vista of Pratapaditya Road, where my uncle lived, where Congress and Naxalite cadres fought each other in the evening, while my cousins and I peered out from the green Venetian shutters. Part of the exacerbated magic of this world were also the mysterious covers of the Puja annuals that belonged to my cousins, as well as the array of semi-inhabited terraces that swam away from us in every direction, as we ourselves looked out in triumph, our chins resting on the stone of my uncle's terrace.

In 1999, I made a calculatedly “permanent” homecoming to Calcutta, deciding, after 16 years in England, to return to India and actually live in my birthplace. I realized quite soon, in a way I hadn’t before, that I didn’t really ‘belong’ to this city, that, not having grown up or been educated here, I possessed neither the credentials nor the friends to pass for an authentic member of the community — and Calcutta, as is borne out by its theories of congregation under the rubric of ‘adda’, and the different phases of its literary history, notwithstanding the solitary, prickly figure of Tagore, is a city that lives and often writes through its friendships. I’m thinking here of two subsequent generations who mythologize themselves and their artistic and political milieu in prose and verse: the Kallol generation of Buddhadev Bose, and especially the perpetually adolescent and extraordinarily wise and gifted Krittibas generation (both named after the influential magazines that became synonymous with their temper) of, among others, Sunil Ganguly, Shakti Chattopdhyaya, Sandipan Chatterjee, and the intriguing, slightly marginal and angular figure of Utpal Basu. It’s now too late, anyway, to convincingly insinuate myself into the fabric of Calcutta. I’m told by many who live here that this is a good thing, almost a blessing; and that tells us a different, more ambiguous, story than I would have expected about this metropolis of friendships, camaraderie, comradeship, and, as I used to see it, relations.

When I moved here, Calcutta was barely stirring from its 20 or 30 years of being caught at the fag-end of one sort of history, to do with a culturally definitive but politically marginalized middle class, and emerging into another one — whose possibilities seem, at once, thrilling, banal, and shocking — of a newly-empowered diasporic population, and a suddenly-disenfranchised agricultural constituency. Job Charnock was being demoted from shadowy founding father to unverifiable imponderable around the time of my return. Then there was the breach of taste that the renaming of the city represented; to name things on nationalist and religious lines is, I suppose, unavoidable sometimes, but to rename something for the same reasons is a deeply disconcerting gesture. If the new official name, Kolkata, was meant to recuperate the mythic metropolis of modernity, or the village on the riverbank from which it reportedly grew, it only reminded us, as such things do, the distance the city had travelled from that history: reminded us that there was no going back.

Now, as I write this, as we know too well, the state of West Bengal is groomed for economic revival by the communist government; the groundwork is being laid, with a mixture of trepidation and short-sightedness on all sides, for land that was once ‘redistributed’ by this government to be acquired, seized, and handed over to large companies like the ones that had fled the state when I was a child; once more, Bengal is in conflict with itself, as it was before and during Partition, and in the Naxal period in the late Sixties. As it often has been with modern Indian history, some place either forgotten by or unknown to the urban middle class — Chauri Chaura, Naxalbari, Ayodhya, Kargil, Godhra, and, in this instance, Nandigram and Singur — bursts into the consciousness, becomes the focal point of a conflagration at once real and symbolic, and part of a larger, national anxiety. As far as the Bengali is concerned, the terrifying promise of a changed, unrecognizable Bengal and a changed Calcutta has always been held in a melancholy equipoise by the horrifying prospect of perpetual changelessness and paralysis. Tagore lulled the reader with a melodious version of this trauma in this poem he once wrote for children: “O what a dream of dreams I had one night!/ I could hear Binu crying out in fright,/ “Come quickly and you’ll see a startling sight:/ Our city’s rushing in a headlong flight!”/ …Tottering and lurching/ Calcutta goes marching/ Beams and joists battling/ Doors and windows rattling…” (Sukhendu Ray’s translation).

The comfort offered by the final couplet — “Then at some sound, my dream came to a pause/ To find Calcutta where it always was” — has ceased to be reassuring for more than two decades now; the dreams are changed today, and represent a deep, unresolvable conflict of interest.

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