When I decided to undertake this fund raising I turned to a trusted friend and colleague at KKR. He not only threw himself into helping me, he also suggested and presented me with this first book. He’s got to know my reading preferences and particularly my strong like for non fiction books. I was excited when he briefed me on its content and even more excited when I saw my hard copy was a bright pink colour.
Calcutta is a personal account of two years in the Capital city of West Bengal. Although born in Calcutta Amit Chaudhuri grew up in Bombay and later moved to the UK. On returning to Calcutta in 1999 he felt the city had lost the charm he remembered when holidaying there as a boy. “It wasn’t just that the relentless departure of capital, of its intelligentsia and middle class, had left it hollowed from inside; it was also the way local politics had territorialised it. ” But in 2009, on the verge of political change and the hope that comes with it, Chaudhuri felt the time was right to explore the city and the reasons for him becoming a ‘reluctant citizen’ in the city that once enchanted him. The book is written in real time, noting the changes as they happen.
It is a personal memoir in which the author uses the City of Joy as his vehicle. I only really get to see small parts of the city from my seat on the team bus, but I can agree with the statement ‘You feel that something happened here’. You get the feeling that Calcutta failed to progress from it’s once greatness.The authors mood changes from upbeat excitement to disappointment and nostalgia as he ventures from the Calcutta of his youth to the Kolkata he returns too as an adult.
I grew up in Port Elizabeth, and on returning to that city as an adult (after a 10 year absence) also felt disappointed. I can relate to Mr Chaudhuri’s feelings but am wondering if this is not more a reflection of the changing expectations of the individual rather than the decline of the city. After experiencing the diverse atmospheres, cultures, architecture and cuisine of other cities, surely a return to your city of birth could seem disappointing?
Mr Chaudhuri does give plausible causes for the perceived decline of the cities fortunes. Political beuracracy and political decision making are regularly visited topics in the book. ‘It was the usual story of the time: this gradual emptying of the city of commerce; the absolute reign over it of what it had always harboured – politics. ‘ It is however far more than a political history of the city.’
The book is a waffle, but a good flowing waffle. His writing is full of unexpected digressions, full of surprises and constantly changes direction in ways you don’t expect. By choosing to write in this way Chaudhuri has the freedom to cover a wide range of topics. He uses a mixture of rich text and quirky commentary to make the most mundane objects, personal interactions, and routine occurrences seem fascinating. The digression away from Calcutta-specific topics keeps the writing fresh and the reader interested. It also satisfies the appetite for knowledge over a wide area of interests.
Chaudhuri’s book is populated by a rich cast of characters, varying across social strata, religious beliefs and heritage , reflecting his depiction of Calcutta as a melting pot of cultures. Relating anecdotes about individuals he has encountered allows the author to use Calcutta’s wide range of inhabitants as different platforms from which to explore the city.
My most enjoyable part of the book was Chapter 2, Chandan Hotel. The author vividly describes a part of the city that I am very familiar with; “The stalls are squalid, a small universe of cooking pots, potato peels, benches, and a few people absently lolling under the shelter of a tarpaulin” and ” even now, when its supposed to have been phased out of the city’s traffic, the hand-pulled rickshaw rolls onward, with an imperious shopper afloat.” By interviewing and observing the ‘citizens’ of Park Street and the adjoining Free School Road he brings the area with its narrow alleys and it’s informal economy to life. I felt and fulfilled the urge to jump in a cab and get down there after reading this chapter.
The contrast between the local informal eateries of free school street ( “tiny cauliflower florets,their tips rusted like dry blood. This snack costs a paltry two rupees a plate “) and the refurbished restaurants of Park Street where tourists, much like myself, watch people toing and froing through the large modern glass windows of restaurants that charge London prices for a meal. ” Park Street is neither Oxford Street nor the Champs-Élysées, but here, in the stretch between Chowringhee and the junction of Free School Street and Middleton Row, it has an energy comparable to no other downtown district that I know. ”
One negative is the constant use of complicated vocabulary which I think would scare off readers with a less than excellent handle of the English language. (Chaudhuri studied at Cambridge). I had to look up the meaning of many words and while I personally found the exercise interesting and insightful I feel that it will prevent many readers from enjoying this unique account of this fascinating city.
If you don’t mind consulting a dictionary, or preferably have an extensive vocabulary, then I have no doubt that you will enjoy the book’s mixture of facts and excellently written opinions.It could even captivate the imagination enough to make you want to explore the places that are the centre of this story of the City of Joy.