" 'Kolkata' in English is a dead word"
Amit Chaudhuri tells Shinibali Mitra Saigal on what inspired him to write Calcutta: Two years in the City, about his favourite city. His latest is a work of non-fiction that documents the life and times in this unwieldy metropolis (2009-11) when it was going through one of it's greatest political upheavals
You have written three books that are set in Calcutta. While these were fiction, this recent title is non-fiction. Why did you choose the period (2009-11) to base your book? Also, how challenging was it to write about Calcutta in the non-fiction genre?
My first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, emerged from my childhood encounters with what I call ‘modernity’ in Calcutta. One of the definitions of ‘modern’ I might offer in this context is an urban milieu — a neighbourhood that continually promises the possibility of discovery, and is therefore, continually strange.
The modern city is at once grimly derelict and excitingly new, and the reason for the paradoxical newness and dereliction in one place is industrialisation. More than any other city, it’s Calcutta that represented these paradoxes and possibilities for me; but, by the end of the Seventies, I sensed that rich, fertile period in its history, which had begun in the middle of the nineteenth century, had come to an end. I wrote my first novel in the mid-eighties, but the fact that I wrote it without any sense of elegiac mourning reveals that I probably believed Calcutta was still deeply contemporary and relevant to my imagination. But by 2005, when my agent asked me if I’d write a non-fiction about Calcutta, I thought I’d had my say about this city which had been so formative to my imagination, a city which had been my first instructor in what a great modern city is, and which by then (2005) was in a state of stasis.
What could I say now about Calcutta, which was no longer the Calcutta I’d written of earlier? In 2008, a couple of anecdotes related to me by a Bengali poet about a homeless old woman who lived near Sealdah station opened my eyes to the fact that there might be something in the purposeless, post-bhadralok city to write about. To write a work of non-fiction — which is anyway a slightly meaningless term — is to be able to make transitions and explorations in it that are not always possible to in a novel, to be unshackled by things like ‘character’, ‘setting’, ‘plot’, etc — all the bogeys of the realist novel. I have, anyway, always attempted to break those fetters in my novels too.
You grew up and schooled in Bombay, attended University in England and even now, spend some time in Norwich. Why did you decide to make Calcutta your home?
I always wanted to return to India, and would have been happy with Bombay too — Bombay is where I grew up. But my parents, who are very old now, were one the reasons for choosing Calcutta as I am an only child. Also, I think both my wife and I wanted to give my daughter the Calcutta childhood that I, for one, never had. I still think that a Calcutta childhood for a middle-class child is an interesting and possibly unique thing.
You write about Calcutta and not Kolkata. What is the difference?
Calcutta is that great and exacerbated city of modernity, where unlikes converge; Kolkata is a provincial metropolis without a real sense of its history, where its past either doesn’t exist, or is converted into kitsch, like the Tagore songs being played at traffic junctions. But Kolkata/ Calcutta is also a city of possibilities, and I hope these will be explored. I have always referred to the city as Kolkata in Bengali, because the word has a history and energy in the Bengali language, just as Calcutta does in English. But ‘Kolkata’ in English is a dead word, without any history, embodying a utopian view of the past that is near meaningless. No one uses ‘Kolkata’ in English except to comply with certain rules or for a political reason.