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Friday , June 20 , 2014
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Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata By Indrajit Hazra, Aleph, Rs 295

In the opening pages of his fourth book, the journalist-writer, Indrajit Hazra, writes of a little-known septuagenarian in Calcutta named Kartick Chandra Paul, who discovered in the 1960s that “the sun goes around the Earth once in a year”. Paul, who dropped out of school, was so steadfast in his belief that he even wrote “to NASA, pointing out how Copernicus and company had got it very wrong”, and his scribbles propounding his geocentric assumption were seen on various concrete surfaces in the city for years. Even though the writing has largely disappeared, nothing can shake Paul’s confidence in his theory, not even “NASA’s polite letter that the heliocentric theory worked just fine for the world.” “All those who ignore me today will have to come back one day and admit that I was telling the truth,” said Paul. Hazra, who is also from Calcutta, compares the tale of the feisty Paul with the city they have in common, one that “still believes in its utterly special, if no longer central, position in the country it is a part of.”

Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata, with less than 140 pages, is the “short” read it claims to be, and runs the risk of being labelled non-comprehensive, given that it is supposed to be a ‘biography’. The whimsicality of Hazra’s work becomes apparent early in the book, as does the fact that it may not be suitable for anyone searching for dispassionate, conclusive material on the city. Grand Delusions, in all fairness, does not masquerade as an authoritative work on Calcutta; it is but an assemblage of Hazra’s memories of the city of his youth. Weaving together his experiences, opinions and bits of Calcutta’s history, Hazra tries — at times, struggles — to understand the messy, rebellious city he had called home. He says, “While there are many meeting points between my notion of Kolkata and the Kolkata that ‘lies spread out there’, I can’t write a history of the city in the empirical, objective sense. I can only write a biased, coloured, palimpsestic story of a village that pretends to be a city.”

A recurring note of lament in Hazra’s recollections has to do with the widespread political violence that the city and the state witnessed for decades. The Left’s “roughshod ways and its use of muscle ‘n’ moron power” stamped industry out of Calcutta and West Bengal. While Hazra maps the origins of the violence back to the Naxalite rebellion, he fails to acknowledge the city’s unrelenting spirit of inclusion. Unlike in Calcutta, migrants in metropolitan cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have routinely been at the receiving end of organized racial discrimination. Refugees from across the border have found a home here and inhabit important spaces, both real and imagined. While talking about the divide between north and south Calcutta, Hazra implies that the dilapidated north envies the south: “...the bulk of the move away from North Kolkata has been to the South — from houses to apartments... from rooftop views to balcony ones.” The fact that this ‘posh’ part of Calcutta has witnessed a huge rush of refugees who made the city’s southern edges their home misses Hazra’s eye. It is only when he writes whimsically — he speaks of the city’s love of food, for instance — that he shines.

Hazra’s feelings for Calcutta oscillate between distaste and longing. He recalls, with more than a smidgen of nostalgia, the “load shedding” days. But the contempt in his tone is evident when he speaks of the city’s apathy towards its beautiful architecture and disintegrating edifices. Hazra just reiterates what one knew all along: that Calcutta remains true to its own peculiar cadences, rebuffing any attempt to make it adhere to the world’s rhythms.