Calcutta: Two Years in the City Amit Chaudhuri

Union Books, pp.308, £14.99, ISBN: 9781908526175

The Chandan Hotel is not a bit like the Exotic Marigold Hotel. It occupies, not a rambling rundown mansion, but a piece of pavement, about six feet by six feet, on Free School Street in downtown Calcutta. Here under the hotel sign, from time to time men doss down on string beds, shrouded from head to toe in sheets to keep out the sound and light of the Indian afternoon.

Next to the Chandan Hotel stands Nagendra with his heavy iron and ironing board, and on the same pavement there is Ramayan Shah’s restaurant where you can also sleep if no one is eating or chopping vegetables there. It’s the human equivalent of those buildings by modern architects where all the ventilation and plumbing pipes are on the outside.

Amit Chaudhuri discovers, as he awkwardly asks his questions, that these street entrepreneurs no more live there than he does. They have places to go, people to see, work to do, collecting parking tickets, cleaning cars. Even the beggars outside Flurys, his favourite tea shop, are all passing by like him, and when he asks if he can talk to them again, they say, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow’ and melt off into the crowd as he does.

Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta, but grew up mostly in Bombay where his father was the first Indian CEO of Britannia Biscuits, an offshoot of United Biscuits, and nowadays he spends part of the year teaching in Norwich. His five novels offer haunting glimpses of the everyday — in Hilary Mantel’s words, ‘he has perfected the art of the moment’. At times, they stray over into non-fiction; the characters sometimes carry the names and traits of his friends and relations, just as the narrative flickers through the parts of Calcutta which he knows best.  Conversely, Calcutta, his first work of non-fiction, now and then seems to dawdle back into a dreamy sort of novel.

This quizzical and beguiling book is not for those whose taste is for tales of the expected (If you need a straight historical guide, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta is still gettable). Mother Teresa is mentioned only once and Lord Curzon, I think, not at all. You will find nothing much either about the monuments that the British left behind, those peeling imitations of St Martin in the Fields and Curzon’s own Kedleston. The only buildings Chaudhuri talks about are the charming mansions built by the Bengali haute bourgeoisie, the bhadralok, during the Twenties and Thirties with their green shutters. When he is away in Norwich, it is these French windows with their slatted jalousies which are the most poignant reminders of his exile. And when he gets home, he manages to buy a set of them off a building site but cannot find anywhere suitable in his parents’ flat to put them. Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of Kipling’s ‘Broken Men’:

Asleep amid the yuccas
The city takes her ease
Till twilight brings the land-wind
To the clicking jalousies.

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Except that Kipling’s exiles are dreaming of the white cliffs of Dover, and Chaudhuri is dreaming of Calcutta, even when he is living there, or rather dreaming of a fabulous, long vanished Calcutta. For the city he loved is not what it was.

In fact, the old ‘Second City of the Empire’ has not been what it was several times: first, when Curzon partitioned Calcutta’s Bengali hinterland in 1905, then again six years later when he switched India’s capital to Delhi, then at independence when East Bengal was partitioned off again, this time into East Pakistan, later to become Bangla Desh. Muslims fled the city, Hindus took refuge in it. In Calcutta today, poor Muslims often keep their profiles low by adopting neutral-sounding Hindu names.

Large numbers of the city’s poor are also incomers, from the wastelands of Bihar, India’s poorest region. The man peeling potatoes in the Chandan Hotel, who is also a part-time parking attendant, goes home to Bihar every month to see his family. At the top end of the scale, what’s left of the economy is mostly in the hands of the brash and go-ahead Marwaris, who have over the years floated down the Ganges from faraway Rajasthan. Only 37 per cent of the city’s inhabitants today speak Bengali. Yet Bengali resentment amounts to  little more than mild grumbling. When some zealots started a party called Amra Bengali (We are Bengalis), they were laughed out of existence. If only Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) had met a similar fate.

What might seem to be the final blow to the city was the election in 1977 of a
Communist-led government in West Bengal. The original Naxalites, as they were called from the village near Darjeeling where they started, were a Maoist group which had split from the mainstream Indian Communist Party. For 34 years, West Bengal proudly held the title of the only place in the world where the Communist Party was consistently re-elected by democratic means. Its sole rival was the the south Indian state of Kerala, but the Communist-led coalition there has come and gone, just as democratically, in alternation with a Congress-led coalition.

Yet the regime in West Bengal was fascinatingly unlike Communist regimes elsewhere, just as the Chandan Hotel is unlike other hotels. It has had the usual catastrophic effects on the economy. People and businesses fled to friendlier climes. The younger generation is elsewhere, in New Delhi or New Jersey. Bengalis make up quite a fraction of the great, world-scattered tribe of NRIs, Non-Resident Indians. Even getting back to Calcutta is a sweat now. There are no direct flights from London, or any other major foreign city. There have been endless power cuts. The austere, seemingly immortal Naxalite leader, Jyoti Basu, whose first name means ‘light’, became known as Darkness Basu. The ingenuous Rajiv Gandhi, visiting Calcutta as prime minister in 1985, told its inhabitants that it was ‘a dying city’, though, as it turned out, he died first, in a suicide bombing in Madras.

Calcutta, by contrast, for all its notorious poverty, is a remarkably peaceable place. Chaudhuri himself has voted for Basu on occasion, and he gives the Communists due credit for their abiding achievement, of securing the land rights to the peasants and ending centuries of exploitation by landlords. There is something easygoing about the Bengali variant of Communism. One cannot imagine anything like the Chandan Hotel on the pavements of Mao’s Peking or Stalin’s Moscow, or even Putin’s. By some peculiar mutation, the pro-poor propaganda which used to be blared out from megaphones at every street corner did at least license them to spread themselves on the pavements. And the habits of democracy endured.

After each election, the Marxist MPs trooped back into the Writers Building in Dalhousie Square, which dates back to the days of Warren Hastings, for all the world like Roman senators in their white dhotis. But when they were finally voted out of office in 2011, they vacated their ministerial offices without a murmur, in favour of an oddball in flip-flops called Mamata Banerjee and her breakaway Congress coalition — for which incidentally, Chaudhuri discovers, that the residents of the Chandan Hotel mostly voted.

Mamata is struggling to construct some kind of makeshift surfboard for Calcutta to ride the waves of globalisation. So far the omens are not promising. Tata’s promised new car factory has decamped to the Western enterprise zone of Gujarat, for example. Calcutta now seems as isolated culturally as it is economically. On hearing that the first big Picasso show to come to India was going to Bombay and Delhi but not to Calcutta, Chaudhuri thought of calling this book  Picasso Stopped at New Delhi, but thought better of it.

Very few people return to Calcutta, he tells us, except to be with their parents. That is why he has come back too. Being in Calcutta seemed to him like the right end of the story. He dreaded the thought of dying anywhere else. His father is sliding into dementia, and his mother, a famous singer in her day (as is her only son), is getting on a bit too. Amit and his wife and daughter now live with them — a story repeated all over the city among returning exiles. The servants come and go, mostly going when they are caught pinching bits of jewelry and small quantities of food, usually to be forgiven and re-employed a few months later.

Chaudhuri does not claim much for his city. In fact, he claims that he doesn’t even like the place, except for the songs of Tagore that he and his mother sing, and the sound of the rain on the leaves and the loitering in Flurys tea-shop, or on the pavement outside. Yet what else are cities for? As the great filmmaker Jean Renoir said in defence of Calcutta when on a visit there in 1949, ‘all great civilisations are based on loitering’. These are not the claims that people make for Happening Cities like London and New York. But then Calcutta has not been where it’s at since about 1820. Amit Chaudhuri makes it sound like just the place to be.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated