Book review

These are the Calcutta stories that stare everyone in the face but most don’t write about

At last, a book about the city that isn’t fixated on football, mishti doi and Satyajit Ray.

In a searing essay about Harlem in 1960, James Baldwin refers to the insular young denizens of Fifth Avenue as “immense human gaps”, their tribal loyalties solidified by the common space they occupy as well as their trait of bitterness. Replace those young men with enervated, old men and he could have described the Calcutta presented in The Epic City. An ambitious non-fiction debut by Kushanava Choudhury, the book, part personal history, part travelogue, manages to be both masterful and mundane.

Writing about Calcutta is a gargantuan task. It’s a city that has been deified, exoticised and excoriated in equal measure across a slew of books, movies and plays. Currently, its primary perception is as a city in political, economic, and cultural stasis, which itself has provided literary fodder for contemporary novelists like Neel Mukherjee and Saikat Majumdar. Choudhury grapples with the question of why he has returned to a city whose best days are ostensibly behind it. The answer seems to be both spiritual renewal and the calculated literary endeavour of writing this book.

The events in The Epic City unfold over a year (2009-2010). Choudhury decides to move back to Calcutta after finishing his PhD at Yale. His two-year stint in his early twenties working as a reporter for The Statesman, that former formidable institution, is personally regarded as a failure. Durba, his wife, indifferent to the city’s charms, begrudgingly accepts this migratory mania. As they settle down, she looks for escape hatches in the teeming metropolis while he immerses himself in the city that venerates the trinity – Tagore, Bose and Vivekananda.

Following the bhodrolok

History and memory collide as Choudhury excavates Calcutta. He notes that the city marches to its own beat and has no sense of the “global aesthetic”. He largely follows the bhodrolok whose colonial-esque nostalgia is for a city that used to recognise them as Somebodies. We are dropped in on family get-togethers and funerals, trips along gullies where Durga idols are made, and union offices whose factories have shut decades ago. Choudhury effortlessly evokes the sights and sounds around him whether it is a trip to the booksellers down Boi para (College Street) or an arguing group of poetry aficionados at the Budh-Bikel Adda.

Initially, I was reminded of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, which also follows the broad template of tracing the path of the Indian-American whose return to a metropolis is both an existential and anthropological exercise. Yet, in Mehta’s magnum opus, the real Bombay was hidden away from prying eyes whereas Choudhury finds his Calcutta on the streets. A closer peer is Amit Chaudhuri’s strange and underrated Calcutta: Two Years in the City, a personal history of the city that coincidentally starts in the same year as The Epic City. Chaudhuri notes in a piece in The Guardian that Calcutta actively resists those creation myths of fortune, family, and country that cities like Bombay and Delhi can so easily tap into. As a result, The Epic City, like Chaudhuri’s book, is sprawling but intimate.

“The architecture of a city is not just big buildings, but corners and clubs and pandals, sounds and bodies and moments. Its social fabric is held together like bones and tendon and muscle and skin, to form a whole. You cannot carve one piece out and plop it in the middle of suburban New Jersey, served on styrofoam plates in a high school cafeteria.”

— "Epic City"

Of old men and binaries

The Epic City is strongest when it focusses on an array of older men who’ve been ensepulchred in their habitats. Sandip Datta, an avid collector of little magazines whose home doubles up as a library; Michael ‘Mike’ Flannery, a reporter who continues to work on in The Statesman years after its decrepit buildings “have been exposed like the innards of an abandoned factory”; Nilkashyap, the pen name of a retired bank manager who voraciously pursues poetry in the twilight years of his life. Choudhury regards the city with exasperation and exultation and his description of ritual incongruities is frequently laugh-out-loud. “...the organisers had installed a Megatronesque Mahishasur being vanquished by a Robot Durga who looked as if she had emerged from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” At times, his Western points of reference can jar. Durga Pooja is unsatisfyingly compared to Mardi Gras while Brahmoism is described as a Quaker version of Hinduism.

Choudhury astutely captures how political binaries lose their bearings in the city. He is flummoxed that the World Bank, which he associated with Western capitalist expansion, is fighting for the rehabilitation of squatters along the Beleghata Canal, while the Communist state government is trying to evict them so that the land can be parcelled off and sold for tidy sums to real estate developers. Another instance features a trade union member who blames militant unionism for shutting down the factories.

Where The Epic City falters is in personifying portions of Calcutta’s history. Lumbering sections about the Bengal famine and Naxalite movements have more than a whiff of a rote history lesson. Occasionally, The Epic City also straddles an uncomfortable line between memoir and travelogue without being personal enough to be the former and not as deeply researched as the latter needs to be. Also missing in the book is the lyrical flavour of Bengali. Since the language itself is a sort of currency to access Calcutta, it would have been interesting to see how Choudhury, an outsider, manages to navigate it.

Of course, no teeming metropolis in our country, let alone one as storied as Calcutta, can be captured seamlessly on pen and ink. As it stands, The Epic City is a rich and eminently readable work. More importantly, it encapsulates that universal Sisyphean quest – to recapture that ephemeral feeling of the cities we have left behind and are inexplicably drawn to.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, Kushanava Choudhury, Bloomsbury.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.