The one sentiment that I shared with Kushanava Choudhury, the author of “The Epic City: The World On The Streets of Calcutta” was a sense of nostalgia. It’s been over a year since I left the city myself and reading the book brought all the bittersweet memories springing back.
Never has a name for a book been more accurate: ‘The World On The Streets of Calcutta’. We follow Kushanava as he weaves his way through the alleys and narrow paths of Calcutta, thinking back on his life and travels in the West and how much it reflects on the places he misses in Calcutta. Few cities have Calcutta’s almost irritating sense of nostalgia (and I say this with utmost fondness), where even when far, far away from the city, one is forced to look at their surroundings and think, “Shit, I miss that place.”
Possibly the most delightful part of reading this book was how much I could see myself at the places he described, at the moments of him describing them. This is also a testament to how much Calcutta is very much a city unto itself, almost stubbornly unchangeable. Oh, not to say much has changed but so much has not.
Even I, who moved to Calcutta (or Kolkata) in 2008, almost a full decade after Choudhary did, could spot the unchanging nature of the city. Mentions of streets and places I know (Sector V, College Street, Jadavpur University), made me smile and shared experiences such as struggling in a crowded bus (which I did during my university days without fail) made me laugh out loud. This is exactly how I would do it, I would say, flipping through the pages. I’ve been to this street side store too!
Choudhary frequently touches upon how Calcutta is seen as an almost-dead city. As he describes it, post-1970, it couldn’t quite catch up with the speed of progress Delhi and Mumbai were making and fell behind. Way, way behind. And, for me at least, this is true.
I remember describing Calcutta to people I met in Delhi: ‘The small town of the metropolises’. Which, now I feel, is both accurate and doing a disservice to the city. The Epic City also build upon this, describing both a city caught up in its own past and a city which is constantly trying to rediscover itself.
Choudhary also understands this sentiment – or more accurately, this mismatch of sentiments. He describes people almost fleeing Calcutta, a city where many jobs are on their way out. A reality which also holds true for my time. At the same time, people remain almost fiercely attached to Calcutta, a city that is stubbornly holding onto its identity. An identity which is partially rooted in an idealised version of the past (Choudhary jokes about the three most important historical figures that Calcuttans are unable to let go off: Subhash Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda, and Rabindranath Tagore) but also determinedly going forward, no matter how sluggishly.
Stepping into Calcutta is less like stepping into the past, but more like into an era where different parts of the city are ballooning into the 21st century while the rest of it wants to stay where it is, thank you very much.
There is one viewpoint I must consider though: what must it be like, as a non-Bengali (native speaker or otherwise) to feel about this book? The Epic City is so tied up in Bengali culture and nostalgia, that the contributions of non-Bengali people and culture to West Bengal (for example, the sizable Marwadi community) is mostly untouched. It speaks freely to my background, but Calcutta is more than a city built on Bengali heritage. What does Calcutta feel like to a resident of Calcutta who is a non-Bengali? From the almost religious devotion many residents feel for Tagore to the indolent nature of the required late afternoon naps and the almost inescapable addas (hangouts) – is this something specific to Bengali culture or just Calcutta as a city. This is a viewpoint I wish Choudhary had addressed more fully.
This book was a rediscovery of a city I had once lived in and loved, represented if not in all, but in most ways, one could see it. For those who’ve never been to Calcutta, my advice is to read it after you visit, and then maybe you’ll see what I’m talking about.