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The city of extremes

The city of extremes
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First Published: Fri, Jan 23 2009. 11 00 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Jan 23 2009. 11 00 PM IST
At last, an anthology of writings on Kolkata, and not a moment too soon. Edited by novelist Amit Chaudhuri, Memory’s Gold is a lavishly produced volume into which love and labour seem to have gone in equal measure. From the cover photograph of a rooftop under darkening skies to the elegant Venetian typeface, the look and feel of the book affords quiet pleasure. But with that also comes
apprehension. It is so easy to get this kind of book wrong. Cities, and especially a city like Kolkata, are contrary beasts: they do not take kindly to being reduced to a set of exhibits. Then there is the added nuisance of your average Coffee House aantel (an intellectual) who can be counted upon to pounce on the slightest infraction of fact or judgement.
Happily, the collection strikes the right notes from the beginning. In his lucid and thoughtful introduction, Chaudhuri positions himself as an outsider who did not grow up or go to school in the city, and who therefore did not pass as “an authentic member of the community” of a city “that lives and writes through its friendships”. Perhaps it is this distance which allows Chaudhuri to anthologize from a wide range of writers and not favour any one coterie, always a danger in books of this kind. Of the 55 pieces in the book, roughly half were written originally in English, starting with the tongue-in-cheek Henry Meredith Parker on the Bengal Civil Service and ending with an Indlish novelist who debuted this year.
In between are the usual suspects, such as Nirad C. Chaudhuri (for whom Kolkata was possibly a Dantean Inferno from which he progressed to the Purgatario that was Delhi and the Paradiso that was Oxford), V.S. Naipaul, Sasthi Brata, Jug Suraiya, Amitav Ghosh, Chaudhuri himself, and a clutch of younger writers of both fiction and non-fiction such as Raj Kamal Jha, Ruchir Joshi, Chitralekha Basu and Sarnath Banerjee, whose graphic novel The Barn-Owl’s Wondrous Capers attempts to connect the world of 21st century Kolkata with that of the mid-19th century Hootum Pyanchcar Naksha.
But works such as Hootum sit uneasily with the modernist sensibility which informs almost all the pieces featured in this anthology. Modernism in Bengali was a curious mix of bhadralok values and a vigorous engagement with the West, but had little space or tolerance for the vulgar energy and irreverence of the Battala genre of cheap print of which Hootum is the finest example.
This strand did not die out altogether in the 20th century, but was only able to survive on the margins and in such enclaves as the little magazine movement and the so-called “Hungry Generation”. In the recent past, it has to some extent been rehabilitated into the mainstream by two remarkable writers, Sandipan Chattopadhyay and Nabarun Bhattacharya. Chattopadhyay features in this anthology in the form of a typical drunk-and-disorderly extract from Kolkatar Dinratri (Days and Nights of Kolkata) but perhaps he would have been served better if one of his louche, amoral short stories had been translated.
The absence of Bhattacharya— whose Herbert and Fyataroo stories are narrative hand-grenades lobbed at the heart of the city—is inexplicable, unless it is for permission-related reasons. The other surprising omissions are Samaresh Bose, whose scandalous Bibor is surely one of the most significant Bengali novels in the post Independence period, and Shankar, whose sentimental potboilers have been keeping College Street publishers in the black for almost half a century now.
Memory’s Gold: Penguin / Viking, 538 papers, Rs699
Chaudhuri divides his material into seven broad thematic clusters of uneven length. So while the first, ‘Arrivals, Discoveries’, is primarily 19th century in origin, the second, ‘Exile, Domicile’ enters the domain of a city which has always been at the crossroads of never-ceasing human traffic, but never completely at ease with the shifting currents which ebb and flow around the idea of an essential “Bengali” identity.
The new denizens of the nocturnal city are the poets of the Krittibas group, immortalized and self-mythologized in the words of Saratkumar Mukhopadhyay: “After midnight Calcutta is ruled by four young men/ Chowringhee, Bhabanipur to the Shyambazaar delta”. The surprise element in this section is a family photograph at the residence of scholar-writer Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, showing a woman who is already dead reclining in the lap of her husband. Such macabre memento mori were not uncommon in the early 20th century—I have seen a photograph of my grandmother holding a just-dead infant, the only one of her seven children who did not survive.
The section called ‘Flanerie’ is somewhat perfunctory (surely more instances of the perambulatory could have been found?) but both ‘Manifestos’ and ‘Visitors’ are full of variety, featuring, among others, a song by Kabir Suman, a Ginsberg opium reverie, Gunter Grass’ harrowing of the soul of the city and P. Lal’s response to it. The last two sections are ‘Forms of Employment’ and ‘Memory’, in which there are classic short stories by Bibhutibhusan and Rajshekhar Basu, as well as more recent accounts as Raghab Bandyopadhyay’s vivid evocation of the Naxal period in his Seventies’ Journal. All in all, an anthology that has something for almost everyone, but which leaves ample scope for debate and good old-fashioned adda.
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 23 2009. 11 00 PM IST