Nine Chapters In Obscurity: ‘Calcutta’ Can’t Find Its Focus

A new book about Calcutta no only meanders, but reveals the author’s ingrained class prejudices.

A Calcutta street in 2006. Credit: Nick Leonard on Flickr

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“Each year, I suspect I’ll begin to understand this city better, be more at ease with it: and every year I find this is less true.” – A. Chaudhuri

You know how sometimes when you’re in a conversation with multiple people, and two or three of them take over the room by talking about something only they know anything about? So you’re standing there, a bit bored, a bit excluded, uninterested in the topic at hand, but wishing they would be considerate enough to bring it back to something you could follow?

That approximates how I felt throughout a great deal of Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years In The City. Perhaps I didn’t have the necessary reference points, but the book was so awash in the author’s memories of different time periods that I was never really sure how to position myself anyway.

And good luck ascertaining what Chaudhuri is trying to accomplish. Is Calcutta a character portrait of the Indian city? A perspective from someone who has adopted it as his home? A meditation on one person’s particular experience? A caution against moving there?

I have no idea. The best I can do is give potential readers some clues about what they might be in for, should they pick it up.

Calcutta is made up of nine very long chapters. It might help to sum up each to illustrate how challenging it is to find the book’s overall thread. The chapters are as follows:

  • One – “A Purchase.” Chaudhuri buys a window from an old building set for demolition and hangs it on a wall where no one notices it. Some time passes before he figures out whom to ask and how to make the purchase.
  • Two – “Chandan Hotel.” Chaudhuri explores Park Street, a part of Calcutta where there’s a lot of people on their way to somewhere else. Particularly, he frequents an eatery called Flury’s and another, nearby, that functions more like a little community for lower-income denizens of the city.
  • Three – “Names.” This one really meanders, but it’s mostly the author’s family’s relationship to the city.
  • Four – “The New Old Guard.” This one is about politics, starting with Chaudhuri’s conversations with a reformist member of the then-ruling party, Nirupam Sen. As the book is written, it looks as though the party will be voted out, a move the author seems to support, though he likes Sen.
  • Five – “Universal Suffrage.” Chaudhuri goes to the southern part of the city where development hasn’t really come yet, and watches the vote come in on Election Day.
  • Six – “High Tea.” Chapters Six, Seven and Eight are much easier to follow. In this one, the author recounts a long relationship with a very kind man, crippled by polio, and his perfect hostess wife, both of whom like to have interesting people over for tea.
  • Seven – “Italians Abroad.” Chaudhuri interviews entrepreneurs across the city to explore the reasons why nearly all foreign chefs brought to Calcutta leave before two seasons have passed.
  • Eight – “Study Leave.” In part this chapter is about how the only reason middle-class Indians return to Calcutta is to care for aging parents. But it’s mostly about the unreliability of the kaajer lok, or servants from the slums. It’s told from the perspective of the author’s own house.
  • Nine – “A Visit.” Chaudhuri goes to see the oldest friend of his mother just before she dies.

No doubt I would have gotten more out of Calcutta had I some experience with the city. But considering that Chaudhuri wrote the book in English and distributed it via an American publisher, I have to assume his aim was to entice Westerners with no previous experience of the place. In that sense, I’m in the target audience, with the added bonus of liking books about cities.

Nevertheless, I think part of the problem is that Chaudhuri doesn’t provide enough context for those not well versed in Bengali history to follow. Assuming the book is for Westerners, the eighth chapter, on servants, stands out as one of its most tin-eared. Chaudhuri blithely concedes that the kaajer lok system is little better than slavery, yet admits to full complicity without much more than a shrug.

For example: “Of course,” he writes, “the slave owners of ancient Greece had their own sense of morals and propriety and justice when it came to slaves, and we aren’t without morals and propriety when it comes to kaajer lok.” Well, as long as you have a sense of propriety, then.

One wishes for Chaudhuri to have explored the topic beyond his front door — to go at least as far as he did to find out why Italian chefs won’t stick around — but he doesn’t. After all, he functioned sans servants with little difficulty for some years in Britain, yet somehow can’t get along without them in India. It’s not that household help is inherently immoral. But the way Chaudhuri himself describes it, hiring help seems much worse, in Calcutta, than not very nice.

While Chaudhuri does not seem to realize how much he appears to reveal about his own class prejudices, the book is not without its insights. For example, Chaudhuri offers what I found to be one of the most interesting definitions of what a poem is that I’ve ever read. It won’t enter into our cultural memory, however, because no one looking for that kind of idea would search for it in these pages.

Here are a few other really crystalline moments:

  • On a very exclusive restaurant: “At the Calcutta Club, I was treated as millions are daily in India: as one intrinsically below the par.”
  • On literature: “Bengali writing, then, was deeply but strategically realist, focusing on certain details, excising others, inventing a world richer than any English-language account of the age.”
  • On the conception of his city: “Calcutta is an imaginary city; it’s in that realm that it’s most visible and detailed and compelling.”
  • On how it has faded: “Anyway, if Calcutta today suffers in comparison, it’s not really to other cities, but principally to itself and what it used to be.”

The only people to whom I can recommend this book are those who enjoying plumbing difficult texts for hidden meanings. For those who really want to learn something, on whatever level, about the capital of West Bengal, I can’t help but think there must be other books more worth your time.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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