For Kolkata, with love and squalor
In his first non-fiction book, Grand Delusions, author and journalist Indrajit Hazra writes about Kolkata, the bipolar city he left in the 1990s. He now occasionally saunters there to see where the crumbling paaras and the posh Park Street take him, finds Kareena N Gianani
For the world outside of Kolkata, the city is colourful, a mine of clichés and memorable for the annual jamboree called the Durga Pujo.
For author-journalist Indrajit Hazra, however, Kolkata is rather delusional. A city which “believes in its utterly special position in the country it is part of”… “a city that even as it falls apart, exists, like Magritte’s floating castle in the air.”
Grand Delusions, Hazra’s first non-fiction book, does not promise to be an objective, empirical account of a city he left 16 years ago, but ends up being exactly that. “To be honest, when the publishers approached me to write a biography of Kolkata (Grand Delusions is part of a series of short biographies of Indian cities), it seemed like a scary prospect. It would be too close to the bone, I thought. I was more comfortable writing about Delhi, where I’ve been living since 1998,” he says.
Author Indrajit Hazra (inset) holds a mirror up to the bipolar city called Kolkata, shaped by its ideas of greatness, yet unable to shake off the shroud of decay. AFP PHOTO
The author begins the book by justifying its title. He holds a mirror to this bipolar city by referring to a piece of guerrilla graffiti in the heart of the city, (‘The Sun Goes Around The Earth’, it announces), off the mark, yet unshakeable in opinion. “I loved Calcutta for what it was and still is, but got restless after a while. I know clichés about its work culture abound, but I took great advantage of that!” Hazra admits that Grand Delusions has been possible only because he has Delhi as a yardstick to compare. “You don’t see the Mona Lisa from inside the frame, do you? You have to stand in front of it,” says Hazra.
In the book, Hazra, the flaneur, meanders through Kolkata’s endearing haunts and crumbling paaras to paint a comprehensive portrait of the city. He engages the city’s mutterers in conversation and looks for the devil in the details with much regret. Intermittently, Hazra allows himself to indulge in that only-too-ready-to-be-summoned sentiment, nostalgia. “I grew up in Beleghata, in the Calcutta of the 1980s, and they were interesting years as an observer. The vision is too personalised, but you couldn’t deny some things. Politics, for once, was in every nook and cranny and you were either in it or out of it,” he reminisces.
A more lasting memory Hazra has is one of being “cut off” from the rest of the world. Absence of cable TV made his generation more curious. “Actually, we were more bored than curious,” he laughs. The North Kolkata-South Kolkata divide, to which Hazra devotes an entire chapter, was at the heart of this boredom. “We at Beleghata were at the epicentre of this divide,” he says.
Grand Delusions sweeps through aspects of Kolkata that would be blasphemous to miss out on, irrespective of the fact that the city has been widely chronicled in the past. Politics, the revolt of Naxalbari, the rise of Mamata Banerjee, the city’s idea of what constitutes ‘oposhonskriti’, the demonisation of the Marwaris, Kolkata’s decaying architecture, the pulsating Park Street, its cultural legacy — Hazra pays homage to all that makes Kolkata what it is today. His relief and regret are not missed out on, either — Hazra, in the book, admits that there are meeting points he chances upon with the city, and other viewpoints he just does not agree with. “I agree, for instance, with the general perception that Kolkata is more a subject than a city — be it for films, books or art. However, I disagree with people who, then, only see beauty in Kolkata. The output of its people who have done great things is undeniable, but at this stage, we are stretching that a bit, and we now need to see whether these past achievements work on an economic level at all. The city needs that. Kolkata can’t live off the interest anymore, and this superiority isn’t helping anyone. I’ve seen old postcards of North Kolkata and it was charming. But today, the place has large swathes of squalor,” he explains.
Tell Hazra that the undertones of disillusionment and decay run deeper in his book as compared to that of, say, hope, and he smiles. “Does it? I am very hopeful. Actually, more than being hopeful, I am very cognisant of the fact that things are already changing in Kolkata. I’ve recently met an increasing number of youngsters, writers and filmmakers who I think are turning to a better work culture. When I left Kolkata, most mainstream writing were the same domestic sagas — much like Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Bengali. But that’s changing, and the youngsters are definitely less insular than their parents,” he says.
It is for reasons like this, he adds, that writing this book was cathartic for Hazra. “I learnt not only about the things which happened after I left the city but also about things that were there when I was in the city. I unearthed some fascinating details about my family. They are small pleasures but definitely rediscoveries, too,” says Hazra.
Yet, the relief one feels after finishing a book eludes Hazra. “Things I used to opinionate over whiskey to friends on the terrace are all out there, frozen in print. That is intimidating as ever,” he admits.
Aleph Book Company