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Since 1st March, 1999
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- To write about Calcutta is to be part of a cultural osmosis

In what way does the outsider, the person with strong but often inexplicable ties to the place, relate to Calcutta' We forget, sometimes, that it’s a city of visitors, refugees, migrants, some of them crucial to the city’s self-conception, some important to others’ conception of it. To the first category belongs, for instance, the novelist, poet, and critic, Buddhadeva Bose (picture), who moved here from Dhaka as a student in the mid-Twenties, and who, along with his contemporaries, inserts the displaced, occasionally East Bengali, migrant’s Calcutta, of the mess, boarding houses, makeshift employment, improvised means of study and of exchanging ‘culture’ (for the last, think of his essay on adda), into the modernist metropolis’s poetry of exile. It is with the exile, the migrant, and, by extension, the vagrant and loiterer, that the city shares its secrets in both Bose’s time and Sunil Ganguly’s and Shakti Chattopadhyay’s.

For Tagore, many of whose formative moments (barring the epiphanies at the house on Jorasanko and on Sudder Street) seem to have taken place on trips with his sage-like father to the mountains, or on his riverine journeys — for Tagore, the city was a conundrum as he attempted to create a modernist language of perception out of his experience of the natural world. Space, light, and nature were what he understood as radical, disruptive freedom. Desperate — as, at once, a subject of colonialism, a human being, and an internationalist — to locate himself in an Indian ‘enlightenment’ which had its source in Hinduism’s vision of nature, he saw, I think, the modern city as an agglomeration of institutions, an emblem of the institutional oppressiveness he associated, as a child, with the classroom, as a young man with imperialism, and as the older, public man with nationalism, and which he so feared. The city, then, never became for him a place of anarchic, disruptive play, as it did for his successors; ‘play’, or ‘khela’ and ‘chhuti’, and the city, or ‘mahanagar’ and ‘shahar’, largely occupied, for Tagore, antinomial positions; for the generations to follow, the two would come together, sometimes in noticeably unsettling ways.

In age, clearly troubled by accusations, coming principally from Bose, of not being modern enough (the accusations stemmed from a particular Eliot-indebted idea of what it meant to be ‘modern’ as an artist), Tagore wrote a poem about the city, ‘Banshi’, or ‘The Flute’, in which he ventriloquizes Bose and the younger generation’s voice and incorporates their subject-matter — in effect, the East Bengali migrant’s Calcutta transformed, symbolically, into the modernist city of exile. The poem is a revealing failure, and reminds us of the parameters that informed, between Tagore and a subsequent generation, the struggle to create an aesthetic of the city. The poem’s protagonist is modernism’s small man, a nameless, rent-paying, tenement-occupying, but nevertheless cultured clerk, the type that, in ‘real life’, would contribute deeply to a peculiar brand of Bengali cosmopolitanism, which involved a sense of inner exile, an intellectual eclecticism, and an oddly depreciated sense of property and inheritance. And yet (this will be borne out, I think, if one looks at the writings of Bose and Jibanananda Das) the city and its spaces possessed, at once, an odd, resistant frisson as well as an intimacy for this type, and it’s this tension — of making a home out of nowhere — that gave rise to a certain literature of Calcutta; even a certain cinema (think of Ray’s delineation of Apu’s frayed, hospitable rooftop room in Aparajito).

But, as the clerk in Tagore’s poem moves through his neighbourhood into his tenement room, there is neither that resistance nor that intimacy (both of which I’d sense, as a child, while entering the city); nothing but an obstinate hollowness. Only when an invisible neighbour plays a raga upon a cornet does the clerk experience an utter sense of release and revaluation; only then does he transcend his immediate environment and discover that all human beings are equally regal, that he and the Emperor Akbar are, after all, one; and, again, a much-recalled scene from the past, concerning a woman he was to marry in a village by the banks of the river Dhaleshwari (which flows from Assam into East Bengal), returns to him in its absolute perfection. So, what started out, in all earnestness, but deceptively, as a modernist poem, turns, relieved, into what it always wanted to be (at a time when Tagore was cultivating all kinds of disjunctive forms in his verse and his paintings): a romantic lyric, culminating in a variation of the Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’. Just as in “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (which is quite probably a London poem rather than a Lake District one), a sensory signal — daffodils — leads the poet to negate his immediate environment and be transported into memory (the image of the dancing daffodils) and towards the “inward eye”, so the cornet in “Banshi” urges the clerk’s retreat into his own inward eye, and a negation of what’s at hand. The modernist epiphany entails a paradoxical, momentary embrace of the urban and the decrepit, the ‘here and now’; but Tagore’s poem isn’t interested in moving towards it, but in rehearsing, as the early Yeats did, the private Romantic moment on the “pavement grey”; to enable the recovery of Innisfree, or, here, the Dhaleswari, in the “deep heart’s core”. Yet Tagore is shrewd enough to sense the current of East Bengali migration that underlies, to a significant extent, Calcutta’s new urban modernism, and he gives it room in its poem; but won’t, probably can’t, enter its imaginative possibilities, its way of remaking the city on its own terms.

In the second category I mentioned earlier — of visitors who’ve been important not so much to Calcutta’s self-conception as to others’ conception of it — the foremost literary figure would be, I suppose, Gunter Grass. There is Mother Teresa, whose continued presence in newsprint had, for a while, superseded all others’; but I’ll leave her aside for now, because it’s an aesthetic of the city, of this city, that I’m concerned with tracing. And, like Bose and Tagore, it’s an aesthetic position, or a position about the aesthetic, that Grass is concerned with formulating in relation to Calcutta, and he brings to it the moral ferocity with which writers approach problems of the imagination and of formal expression. Not just “How does one write about Calcutta'” but “Should, in Calcutta, one write at all'” is what exercises Grass. It’s a brutal query, and, in its way, a self-indulgent one (P Lal’s pained and effective riposte provides a provisional answer); but one can’t doubt its integrity, and one needs to place it in context — not that of Calcutta, but within the growing Western unease with ‘literature’ in the second half of the 20th century. Grass came to Calcutta as a novelist, but swiftly turned here into a haunted German post-war intellectual; by, in effect, denying Calcutta its language and literature, he was invoking post-war guilt and Adorno’s affirmation that poetry is no longer possible after Auschwitz. And so, Calcutta became an epiphany, a ready-made holocaust, in Grass’s story of expiation as a post-war artist who, despite Adorno’s declaration, had dealt copiously with words; no literature of Calcutta, then, was tenable except a literature of bitter penitence and bearing witness.

Was a different response possible from a German writer, one less absolute, and more alive to history and process' For an answer to this, you might look at Grass’s contemporary, the playwright Heiner Müller, one among a group of artists and intellectuals that, after World War II and the reallocation of Europe, decided to stay on in and practise their art in the East — mainly in East Berlin and the GDR — rather than in the ‘free world’. For Müller, an exceptionally subversive and intelligent artist, the decision was, I suspect, a means of bypassing Adorno’s holy stricture; to create forms out of silence and oppositionality rather than certainty. “The Eastern bloc has a very large ‘third world’ within it,” he said in a late interview, “and we in the East are in a state of constant osmosis with it.” And, referring to the Turkish population in West Berlin, he remarks, “The future of European cities lies in their ability to be in osmosis with the ‘third world’ within them.” Müller isn’t speaking of ‘multiculturalism’ here; he’s talking about an ongoing, often difficult, transaction that undermines the utopian dichotomy, which transfixes Adorno and Grass, of holocaust/perfect society. To write about Calcutta is also, in many ways, to be part of that osmosis rather than to bear witness, to stand somewhere in between that idealized dichotomy. An osmosis between disrepair and civility, breakdown and order, the colonial and the local, has directed the relationship of the writer — who, by definition, is an outsider, a settler, a person who made a choice to stay on — to this city.

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