PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Calcutta' Is a Vivid, Sensitive, and Perceptive Literary Portrait of the City

The author presents a balanced, if occasionally slow-paced, portrait of his birthplace, detailing his travels and memories of Calcutta over a two-year period.

Calcutta: Two Years In The City

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 320 pages
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-04

Everything you’ve ever heard about Calcutta (modern-day ‘Kolkata’) is, in a way, true. The chaotic beauty, poverty and squalor, incredible food, the civic pride, omnipresent vestige of the British empire, immeasurably rich art and culture, it’s all there and then some. More than anything, however, Calcutta is one of those rare cities that ‘stays’ with you long after your visit. Love or hate it (for the outsider, there is seldom an in-between), Calcutta can’t help but imprint itself on your psyche, assault your senses, and force you to question your previous assumptions about what a city is capable of, in both darkness and light. For both tourist and local alike (or so I imagine), it is impossible to be neutral about Calcutta.

Similarly, I imagine it would be difficult for most readers to be neutral about Amit Chaudhuri’s fascinating memoir Calcutta: Two Years In The City, recently released in paperback. Spanning both the history of the author’s connection to Kolkata, and the recent history of the city, the natural inclination is to compare Chaudhuri’s memoir to the Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul’s India trilogy (including An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, and India: A Million Mutinies Now). Although Chaudhuri’s deft prose is comparable to Naipaul’s, Chaudhuri is less polarizing, while at the same time sharing Naipaul’s occasional prickliness, and commitment to maintaining his self-awareness as an ‘insider/outsider’ of sorts. At the same time, Chaudhuri makes Calcutta seem like a fascinating, if challenging, destination for the uninitiated traveler, while it's not hard to imagine that Naipaul’s causticity continues to turn many travelers off of India entirely.

... Living in Calcutta is hardly to live in Kabul or Baghdad or even Johannesburg -- nor is it comparable to inhabiting a suburb in Atlanta, or moving to Ipswitch. As a city, it's neither too threateningly alive, nor too defunct (if extinction can be measured and graded). Anyway, if Calcutta today suffers in comparison, it's not really to other cities, but principally to itself and what it used to be. Anyone who has an idea of what Calcutta once was will find that vanished Calcutta the single most insurmountable obstacle to understanding, or sympathizing with, the city today. (p. 72)

This is not to suggest that Chaudhuri’s vision of Calcutta is overly romantic; quite the contrary, as the author explores poverty, religious prejudice, governmental incompetence, and the city’s slow decline in often-discomforting depth. The author presents a balanced, occasionally slow-paced, portrait of his birthplace, detailing his travels in, and memories of, Calcutta over a two-year period.

Although the author explores some grand themes in this work—the impact of globalization in Calcutta (still limited compared to many other Asian metropolises), what ‘modernity’ means in a city that often appears to resist it—Calcutta is most compelling when it explores the daily lives of the city’s many and varied inhabitants; the chai wallah ravaged by disease, the cunning of a beggar subsisting on pennies a day, the quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) pride of the Bengali intelligentsia. Where the book’s flows bogs down is in occasionally indulgent, unnecessarily lengthy descriptions, an over-reliance on adverbs, and frequent (and sometimes disorienting) jumping-around to multiple themes, and disparate scenes, in a single chapter. (Although this type of frenetic energy, too, is a huge part of life in Calcutta.)

On the food; Calcutta is one of Asia’s great culinary destinations, and the author seems to take great delight in writing about this rich and complex tradition. "Bengalis talk constantly about food to express an irrational joie de vivre in the midst of a jaded present; and they speak of their digestion -- especially a mysterious complaint called "gas," or gash -- to register melancholy, a persistent dissatisfaction with life." (p. 136) What most North Americans (and Brits, for that matter) consider “Indian food” belongs to the Punjabi tradition from the northwest of India; Bengali cuisine, with its heavy reliance on seafood, and overall more floral taste and texture, is an entirely different world, and Chaudhuri captures that world well here. As it might feel impossible to read some of Hemingway's works without getting hungry, reading Calcutta made me pine for a Bengali dinner, while at the same time enhancing my appreciation of the range and diversity of the cuisine on offer in one of my favourite cities.

Of all human types, the Bengali experiences the most acute deprivation I've noticed anywhere on being denied hit or her quota of animal protein at meantime. It could be goat's meat, chicken, fish, or even the common egg; but one of those needs to make an appearance before lunch and dinner draw to an absolute close. A vegetarian meal is not a meal; it's a preamble, a preface. And animal protein isn't a main course for the Bengali; it's what wine is for the Frenchman--something integral to the meaning of mealtime, something to unconsciously savour. (p. 192)

Despite the renovation of recent years, with glitzy shopping malls and multiplexes replacing the crumbling colonial infrastructure of yore, Calcutta’s problems are legion, its detractors many, and the ongoing “brain drain”—the educated classes’ flight to the comparatively greener pastures of America, Europe, Delhi, and Mumbai—continues to threaten the city’s artistic and economic future. Calcuttans are nothing if not resilient, however, and anyone despairing over the city’s future need only look to a 21-year old Bengali friend of mine who once cringed when I used the city’s colonial pronunciation (‘Calcutta’) in conversation. (It's interesting that the author chose to do the same throughout Calcutta.) “No, it’s Kolkata,” she reprimanded me. “Calcutta is in the past.” The city’s destiny is ultimately in the hands of this younger generation of Kolkatans who, unlike many of their elders, dare to dream of an incrementally better future for their city, rather than cling to the grand revolutionary narratives of the past.

With Calcutta, the author has compiled a vivid, sensitive, and perceptive literary portrait of the city. This rumbling, enraging, paralyzing, energizing, and overwhelming behemoth of a city is immensely difficult to capture given the limits of language, but Chaudhuri is worthy of serious recognition and appreciation for his accomplishment with Calcutta.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.