Bengal calling

Calcutta: Two Years in the City, by Amit Chaudhuri, Union Books, RRP£16.99, 320 pages

I read the final pages of Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta in the coffee shop of a Jaipur hotel. At the next table were three children and their mother. Lured by the many breakfast buffets – Chinese, Japanese, a south Indian “live station” competing with continental – the youngsters jumped noisily on and off their chairs. Then I noticed that one child, dressed in a drab woollen scarf rather than the Benetton of the others, was an adult with the physique of a 10-year-old – the maid, probably stunted by malnutrition.

This odd sight would be familiar enough to anyone visiting India: the new and the old overlapping. Chaudhuri, who makes detailed social observations about restaurants, might have recorded it. He notes that cheese and tomato pizza has now become indispensable “in the diet of gregarious Gujarati and North Indian families”, though not long ago pizza was seen only in comic books, where a character called Jughead, “eyes shut, was repeatedly interring the long triangle into his open mouth”. Don’t be misled: alongside Jughead, the author stretches across American folk-rock, the Italian writer and painter Carlo Levi, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das and Giorgio Bassani’s Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini.

Chaudhuri’s writing has a strangely mesmeric quality, using the quotidian to draw the reader into the author’s mental world, his own way of looking. If you like vicarious stories about the horrors of Asia – wars and slums – his books are probably not for you. As the publishing industry in India accelerates, in English and in local languages, so does the variety of ways of understanding the country. In a series of novels starting with A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), Chaudhuri has created a distinct, adjacent position of his own in Indian literature. He is not part of a group or trend, and appears to have ingested the significance of postcolonial theory without showing any interest in running along its tramlines.

Calcutta is less a book about the city that he moved to with his wife and child in order to be with his ageing parents, than a series of essays or deductions about life, the world and “Bengaliness”. His vision is inward. He might make a little trip down the street, crossing from Music World to the Oxford Bookstore or Mocambo restaurant, where he will notice the red upholstery (evoking psychedelia and the Soviets), explain the sugary prawn cocktail (“something with which to disarm and surprise a hostile party”), spot a leftwing couple making a radical point by eating beef steak, and observe “fair-eyed, starved Europeans, who cultivate a look of simplicity and subsist largely on sex”.

This sort of writing is hard to pull off, and can become trivial, but at its best it reads like Sebald or Naipaul in A Way in the World. Chaudhuri lacks the temperament to develop an encounter or conversation in a way that will cause the other person to reveal much. This does not mean he is unperceptive. His prose displays an ability amounting to brilliance for finding the right words to catch an emotion, a thought, a personality. He gives a quick and perfect description of Jyoti Basu, the communist leader who for more than two decades ruled West Bengal. “He seldom smiled; when he disagreed with someone, or when he encountered any disapproval of his regime, the nostrils of his thin nose flared slightly.”

Chaudhuri sees Basu’s seriousness and “unexcitable hauteur” as having roots in “the wishful intensity of a romantic”, and in 19th-century Bengali puritanism, which arose from the Hindu reform movement. This intellectual and social renaissance, beginning in the 1820s with Rammohun Roy, forms the basis of a self-conscious idea developed by Bengalis: “the project of creating themselves”. It was a refashioning that produced literature, music, philosophy, poetry, criticism – and, as Chaudhuri correctly says, the similarly self-absorbed British “knew almost nothing of what was ‘happening’ in Calcutta’s cultural life; invisibility was one of Bengali modernity’s prerequisites and cardinal achievements”. (In keeping with this inwardness, the author says nothing of simultaneous renaissances occurring in other parts of India.)

Come the 20th century, when the capital shifted from Calcutta to New Delhi, taking political and economic influence with it, this flowering began slowly to wilt. Chaudhuri’s father, like many others with talent and education, found it necessary to shift to another city to prosper, in his case to Bombay, where he became a bigshot in a biscuit company “whose products had been integral to the English teatime”. The people who stayed inevitably provide good copy. With his wife, Chaudhuri regularly takes high tea with an Anglophile family who live in fading grandeur, selling off vases and paintings to keep going. Such people, referred to as “Ingabanga”, who know how to use a knife and fork correctly and serve sandwiches with “canonical fillings”, are distinct from the cosmopolitan, well-read descendants of the 19th-century Bengali renaissance – the “bhadralok”. Indeed, the sock-wearing Ingabanga is still perceived as “a slightly fatuous servant of the British”.

Today, the austere communists who defined West Bengal’s politics for two generations are, along with the Ingabanga and the bhadralok, emblems of the past. The sophisticated Bengali traits that were once admired by “abangali” (those who are not Bengali – the existence of such a non-term is in itself revealing) are sometimes a cause for ridicule. Calcutta is run by Mamata Banerjee, a populist leader from a simple background who cut her teeth fighting what she saw as the privileged orthodoxy of the left.

For Chaudhuri, living with three generations of his family in a city he does not much like, the external world intrudes most frequently in the form of surly servants, whose situation he compares to slave labour, though these days they are “addressed as tumi – the semi-formal second-person pronoun for equals”. In a time of flux and progress in Calcutta (or Kolkata), the masters do not always seem in control. Cooks and maids come and go as they please, taking stores from the kitchen. Chaudhuri chronicles “a steady outflow from our apartment over the years, denuding us of bhadralok accoutrements: of decorations, saris, cardigans, shoes, precious jewellery”. Sometimes his wife wonders “whether straight-backed Chandana, with her soulful gaze, ever wears the long, moss-green East cardigan in Sonarpur in the winter”.

Patrick French is the author of ‘India: A Portrait’ (Penguin)

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