I’d joined The Statesman in 2001, when it was already over a hundred years old. At the turn of the last century, when India was ruled by the British and Calcutta was the capital of their Raj, it had ten times the circulation of any paper in Asia. Now it was barely beating its younger competitor across Chittaranjan Avenue, The Telegraph.
In the decade before, a dozen cable news channels had appeared. Other newspapers, like The Telegraph, used the front pages to feature cleavage and product placements. With each new subscription, they doled out free tchotchkes. But The Statesman was The Statesman. It may no longer have been the largest paper in Asia, or even in India, but in Calcutta it was still, tenuously, king.
The offices of The Telegraph had cubicles with glass partitions and an electronic security system, but that did not change the fact of their humble location. Like the nouveau riche who rented antique furniture and passed it off as their own, the building’s new frontage boasted alabaster columns, but it still hovered over a shabby little side street off Central Avenue. The Statesman’s Doric columns loomed above Chowringhee Square in the heart of Calcutta.
When I first started at The Statesman, a co-worker told me this story about my new boss, Michael Flannery. He and Mike used to work the newsroom nightshift together. One night, as they were leaving the office, a drunk grabbed the co-worker by the collar and began to accost him, swaggering with the taunt, “I’ve murdered someone tonight.” Mike walked up to the drunk, and without a word, knocked him down with one punch.
Newspaper men were divided into desk and beat. The beat guys were streetwise; they went out every day covering the dirty rotten world around them. By sundown they were at the Press Club, drinking. The desk sub-editors came to work in the late afternoon and stayed past midnight. They turned the beat reporters’ filings into palatable prose, designed and laid out the paper, and produced headlines. They never left the air- conditioned office.
The subs saw the reporters as no better than the wild monkeys that sometimes laid siege on Indian cities.
The reporters saw the subs as house plants. Mike was an assistant editor at the Statesman, a desk man with the heart of a beat reporter. His education was on the city’s streets; he had barely lived anywhere else.
Every evening Mike’s office was given over to the sweet Bengali pastime of aimless digressive conversation called adda. To call mere conversation an adda is like confusing a jazzy ring tone with Billie Holiday. There was the bureaucrat who ran the city’s malaria-control unit and wrote Kafkaesque short stories from the perspective of the mosquito. His name was Debashis, but we called him Mosha (mosquito). Mosha was often accompanied by young Debjit, who wanted most of all to be a journalist and hoped to accomplish this by hanging around editors’ offices instead of writing articles.
Next to him sat the admirers: the dancer, who always smiled and never spoke, and occasionally the Amazon, whose boom was heard across the newsroom. Then came the “race men” with their pamphlets full of numbers and prospects, their talk full of conspiracies and false hopes that reliably turned into disappointments every Saturday afternoon at the Calcutta racecourse.
In this configuration of unlikely persons, Mike would largely keep quiet, a lit Gold Flake between his fingers as he edited away, paring down the turgid prose on screen. He was a master whittler, and while his name never appeared in a byline, many a hapless writer’s articles were buoyed by what he called “my gift of language”.
When I first met Imran in Mike’s office, he had just written an article about a bar that had illegally opened in proximity to a school. After the article appeared, the city was forced to close the bar. One evening at the adda, Mike told us that the bar’s owner had come to see him. “He had a suitcase full of money. He said, ‘Mr Flannery please type a retraction. I will pay.’ He had twenty thousand rupees in his briefcase.
“I said, ‘Are you aware that this room is bugged? Everything you have told me has been recorded.’ You should have seen the face of that bugger.”
Henceforth the 20,000 figure would climb to over 200,000 with each telling, as an ever-swelling testament to the power of Imran’s pen. Imran had grown up in a village in north India and now lived with his uncle in Calcutta. We were the same age, far from home, both new and hungry. Naturally, we became fast friends.
There are no jobs in this city, Mike told me in one of our evening addas, so every guy on every street corner is running some small-time hustle to survive. It might simply be stealing power from the overhead lines to run a paan shop, or paying off a cop to look the other way while you squat on the pavement selling aphrodisiacs.
Then there were the big-men’s scams: surgeons charging for bogus operations, builders constructing high-rises with sand passed off as cement, or medical suppliers reselling used syringes to hospitals. The most poignant were the cases of government callousness: the retired schoolteacher reduced to begging on a railway platform because his pension was never paid, the schools where no teachers ever appeared at all, or the babies who died in the children’s hospital because not enough oxygen cylinders had been allotted.
Calamity could befall you at any moment in Calcutta. A century-old portico could fall on your head on the way to work, or you could plummet into an unmarked manhole, or be hit by a runaway bus. The only power people had in such moments was in the fury of the mob. If a road accident happened, the driver could be yanked out and lynched, his vehicle doused in kerosene and set ablaze. If a pickpocket was caught, every passer-by would get one free thwack, a consolation for all the everyday tragedies for which there was no justice, no recourse.
As a reporter at The Statesman, sometimes I wrote a few hundred words to make sure that an accident victim’s medical bills were paid by the reckless driver who struck him. Sometimes, all it took was a phone call, identifying myself from the Statesman, and things would happen: justice, fairness or, more often, the water supply would be restored. In a sea of helplessness, newspaper work made you feel like you could be, as the motto had said, of service.
Imran and I were hanging out at the pavement tea shop outside The Statesman, drinking sweet tea out of clay cups and smoking Filter Wills cigarettes. Imran was complaining: Every day you make the rounds of phone calls, buttering up bureaucrats and then stretch out your beggar’s bowl: Dada kichu ache? Brother, have you got something for me? Meaning, a story to leak?
Most of the news that filled the paper emanated from government reports and press briefings. The 5 p.m. daily round up at Lalbazar police headquarters, the daily dose from Calcutta Corporation and Writers – city and state governments – the daily declarations of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) (or CPM) and the non-existent opposition, the politics of he said, she said, then fires, accidents, crime. We attended the daily press briefings, noting down what the public relations officer said, and regurgitated it back in the newsroom, all digested into 400-word pellets.
The rote of newspaper work, I said, could be done by monkeys.
Meanwhile, the worlds of the city went on. Millions toiled in workshops and on pavements, never ate enough, shat outdoors, slept ten to a room or under the night sky. The stories of those people could not make the news, because they did not hold briefings or employ press relations officers. You could not call them from the cool comforts of the office to stretch out your beggar’s bowl. Their everyday lives fell into no beat. They only appeared in our pages when they marched in rallies or barricaded roads, as bit players in a production of political theatre. Their voices were only heard in the fury of the mob.
In the afternoons, increasingly I joined Mike and his coterie at Chota Bristol in Esplanade, across the tram lines that ran down Lenin Sarani, for their “liquid lunch”.
No one has their own table at Chota. Instead you sidle up next to any party that has a few empty chairs and order your drinks. You pay first. Then the waiter fetches the drinks from the bar.
There are other waiters at Chota who come around with trays full of snacks which are slung around their necks like hawkers on local trains. In fact, Chota has the feel of a place of transit, not repose, a waiting room to delay returning to the places you wished you did not have to go.
Chota is the last bar in Calcutta where only men are allowed. There are stories of female journalists attempting to infiltrate Chota in disguise, but none to my knowledge has ever breached the gates. It is a place full of men who are avoiding the women who await them at home. In the bustle of waiters serving Old Monk and ferrying trays of fish fingers, there is the appearance of a hall full of activity, of things happening.
The shared tables at Chota are full of whispers, insider talk. And a first-time visitor may mistake this for intrigue – for back-room banter among dons and thugs, journalists communing with their sources, traders paying off pols. There are other bars and restaurants for such clandestine matters. The talk at Chota is among strangers who know each other’s predicament, which does not bear talking about.
No deals, no business, no work, no home – talk is of booze, and jokes about booze. Maybe a bit of banter about betting pools, cricket and races, a little wagering by men of small means who have given up hopes of ever making it out. I met a man in Chota once who had been cuckolded by his own brother. The brother was a bachelor who lived under his roof. Everyone knew the score, but they kept living in the same home – a triangle of unhappy souls, none with any hope of escape.
Excerpted with permission from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, Kushanava Choudhury, Bloomsbury.