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.