Confronting Kolkata: The Epic City by Kushanava Choudhury

In conversation with Kushanava Choudhury about his new book, The Epic City — The World on the Streets of Calcutta.
Kushanava Choudhury
Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City — The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is based on a long-familiar premise, that — “Everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta (present-day Kolkata).” Choudhury, who spent much of his growing years between Bengal and the US, offers a witty and charming account of life in the City of Joy, soaking in the nostalgia and telling his story with candour, while being careful not to sound too effusive. Excerpts from an email interaction - 

Do you really prefer making handwritten notes in a notebook, over jotting things down on a laptop? When it comes to preserving memories, how much emphasis would you lay on the writing process?

I always carry a notebook in my back pocket. Sometimes I think some pickpocket is going to steal it thinking it's a money purse and then become furious and hunt me down for having cheated him. I write by hand as much as I can. I have a cheap computer keyboard, called a Neo typewriter, which can only save eight text documents at a time. I type up my copy on that. It doesn't have any internet but you can connect a wire and then transfer the text to a computer later. The NEO typewriter was developed to teach children typing and it runs on four pencil batteries.

Now why does a 38-year old man use a child's typing machine? Because trying to write on a laptop is trying to study for your boards in a moving train compartment full of the loudest and most obnoxious people you can imagine. Email offers for 2 BHKs in Greater Noida with low EMI, Diwali Dhamaka sales in designer kitchens, dream holidays in Uzbekistan, ads for pest control, sexual enhancement and Santa Banta jokes - I think AIB has a great sketch about this with regards to smart phones. Same goes for laptops too. It's one thing if you work in an office and are forced to sit in a box for 8 hours. Then the computer provides happy distractions. But I'm my own malik, tow khudi ko thoda buland karna padta hae, to paraphrase Iqbal.

Take us through your writerly process of distilling memories - a lot of it this is retrospection, but you seem to be wary of sounding nostalgic and overly sentimental. Were you being consciously careful of not coming across as too effusive and emotional?

The book is about an emotional journey, but I tried hard not to be sentimental. Bengalis, Calcuttans, and particularly emigres who have left Bengal, have tendencies towards sentimentality. Just look at what the usually acerbic Nirad C Chaudhuri, after living in Oxford for so many decades, was writing in his last years! It can be a trap, all that sentimentality, a way to prevent you from seeing what's in front of you, of being honest with yourself and confronting the uncomfortable and difficult feelings that your life and your world evokes.

Fortunately, there's always been a tradition in Calcutta of satire, both in literature from Bankim's satirical short stories and Kaliprasanna Sinha's blistering sketches of bourgeois life, to the street culture of ditties, rhymes, wall graffiti and jokes which are used to puncture our prestige  as we say in Bangla, and make us be real with ourselves.

I think in the Naxalite era, a lot of these popular forms of humour came up from  the roaks and tea shops and entered literature through the work of writers like Nabarun Bhattaracharya or Subimal Mishra or Basudeb Dasgupta or even in some of Shakti Chattopadhyay's poetry and many others. In fact, I had several of Shakti's poems in the book but we dropped them because the publisher wasn't sure about how to handle copyright issues. But all of that had a big influence on my writing.

There is in fact a lovely, engrossing mix of longing and yearning with a present-day feel of things, without much of the urgency. How often in the course of writing the book did you feel the need to ground the narrative in present-day reality, rather than get washed away in the sway of history?

I try to tell the story through very visceral everyday lived experience, based on describing what I see, where I walk, what I eat, how I feel. You can sit at a pavement tea shop and listen to a street in Calcutta like you would listen to a symphony. You can read a whole political history of the city from its wall graffiti, or tell a story of its industrial past from the names of closed factories that only remain in bus conductors' calls.

So much of what has been written about Calcutta, particularly in English, has been written by outsiders who knew very little about the languages or cultures or historical particularity of the place, and who masked their ignorance with their ready disdain. In that situation, I think you can't rely on what others have written. You have to start anew, use your intuition, your common sense, and all your senses.

The history comes in only later, when, in order to understand the lived experience -- for instance, why Hindus and Muslims live totally separately in a city whose political ideologies are so secular -- you have to delve in the past that happened on those streets, but that no one talks about. 

Bengali literature has, in the last few years, re-emerged in a sense, especially with an abundance of translated works. The rise of English language writing about Bengali culture, meanwhile, is something entirely different. How would you speak for the latter group of emerging writers - in India and overseas?

The fact is many of us who write in English never learned an Indian language very well in school. That's not a character flaw. My own formative years were spent in the US and I never got a proper Bengali education. I moved at age 12 and I didn't read any Bengali after that. After I came back to Calcutta as an adult, my reading in Bengali was limited to the newspaper. I started reading Bengali poetry and novels much later.

In Bangla, I have had an autodidact's haphazard education. I've read novels by Tagore but none by Saratchandra. I've read the poetry of Jibanananda Das but not Binoy Majumdar. I've read Mahasweta Devi but not Ashapurna Devi, Teni'da but not Ghona'da and so on. My education is a work in progress. But what I read has had an enormous influence on the writing of the book and on my own intellectual development.

Aside from Bangla, I also read some literature in Spanish and in Hindi, languages I learned in part in school, and in part from friends. I try to improve my knowledge of those literatures by watching poetry recitations on youtube, reading newspapers, short fiction and poetry. I can read a little Urdu poetry too if I try. I'm working on a book on Kerala now, so for the last year I have been learning Malayalam and spending long stretches in Kochi. I can usually understand conversations but I still don't have the confidence to speak fluently. I watch Malayalam movies and I can slowly read newspapers and short stories, but no novels yet. Kerala has an enormously rich literary history. I need to push myself to improve so that I can access those works. 

There are still over 800 languages being spoken in India! That's an enormous resource. Each language contains a worldview. I grew up in America, where most people only know one language, so I know what you lose when you can only speak and read and write in English. Sudipta Kaviraj, who teaches political theory and Sanskrit at Columbia University in New York, likes to say that to be an elite in India today, it's not enough to know English.

You also have to not know any other Indian language. Kaviraj belongs to my parents' generation. I think he reads in at least four languages, English, Bangla, Hindi, Sanskrit, and writes in English and Bangla, and perhaps some others. Up to his generation, being intellectually multilingual was the norm for scholars from Bengal or Maharashtra or Karnataka or elsewhere. AK Ramanujan writes that every Indian writer has at least three traditions at their disposal - the western literary tradition, the classical Sanskrit/Persian/Arabic tradition and their own mother-tongue's tradition. Ramanujan wrote in English and Kannada and also read Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit.

I don't think in Ramanujan's time, you could call yourself a writer or a scholar if you only read and wrote in one language, whether that was only English or only Hindi. In fact it's hard to find instances in history when multilingualism was not the norm in Indian intellectual life. I think in the near future in India, people who remain willful monolinguals, who read and write only in English, will not be taken very seriously as writer or scholars. 

You maintain a fairly journalistic and observational tone and style in your writing. The characters and episodes seem to be based in real life experience. How much of this is factually verifiable, and how much leeway by way of imagination did you factor into the book?

Everything in the book is real. This is nonfiction. It's all fact. All the people are real, though a couple of names have been changed for obvious reasons. When I quote someone it's what they actually said. In this kind of writing, you have to maintain the same standards as in print journalism. You can't make anything up. That's what makes the work challenging because you're bound by what reality offers up, by what people say, by the kinds of people you meet.

The work of the imagination is to take all these pieces -- which don't add up, because in life you're not given a neat narrative like in a novel or a film, because in real life, things just happen one damn thing after the other without any narrative coherence -- and to make them add up, to put them into a story that makes sense. The imaginative work is to find coherence, to tell a story out of the chaos of facts.

You also seem careful about carrying forward - or sidestepping - discussions about the political undercurrents of the era, in your narrative. Was this a deliberate consideration?

What you won't find in the book is me bashing the CPM or the TMC or Jyoti Basu or Mamata Banerjee. That kind of analysis belongs in a newspaper, because it dates quickly. Readers stop caring about this or that leader or party after a few years. But politics isn't just slogans and elections. Politics is how we determine how it is that we will live together in this world. How is order going to be produced? Who's going to be in charge? How will we prevent violence from breaking out? How will we accommodate different groups into our society? Will we be just? Will we treated others as equals? What values will we have and what concept of the good life will we hold? If you consider these questions then it's a deeply political book.

I'm a deeply political person in the way I understand the world, and how I choose to live. It's not an accident that you find Aristotle in the last pages or that I did a PhD in political philosophy and taught that for many years while writing the book. Calcutta is a city that is shaped by its deep political culture. I try to write about politics beyond the headlines, about the larger, more human questions that arise, about what kind of society the Left Front produced, about how it championed people's aspirations and why it failed them as well. I was born a year after the Left Front came to power and the time I describe in the book ends in 2010, a year before the end of Left Front rule.

I write about trade unions and refugee colony politics, how the Left grew in Bengal after Partition, why it splintered into CPI, CPM and Naxalites, the ghosts of the failed Naxalite revolution and the graveyard peace that followed. If you read it that way, then The Epic City is can be read as an account of Calcutta under Left Front rule.

You have written extensively earlier about immigrants playing a crucial role in reshaping American cities economically, politically and culturally. How is The Epic City a continuation of those observations?

I had a one-year fellowship to do research for the book, which is the time that I describe, between 2009-10. I didn't have a book contract or an advance  so when that grant ended, I had to make a living. From 2010-15 I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, while I wrote the book. I was only able to find a publisher after it was done, and it took me a long long time to write. That was my real graduate school, learning by doing like any other craftsman, over thousands of hours spread over several years. In that time I was teaching seminars in political theory and also in urban studies.

As a part of that academic track, I did some research and a little journalistic writing on cities, based in Philadelphia and also in Delhi. All that work is much more intellectual; it doesn't have the emotional pull of the material of the book. But thematically, it has a lot in common with the reporting in Calcutta, particularly in the refugee colonies, about how ordinary people make a new life in the city and build a society, from the ground up, by coming together in public through politics.

Tell us a little about combining your work as a reporter, teacher, academic and as a writer. How important are all the other vocations with relation to your writing? 

I basically know how to do three things: read, write and talk to people. I do some combination of them whether I'm teaching, reporting, researching or writing. The Epic City is the product of a scholar's mind, a reporter's hustle, and a writer's heart. 

As a scholar, I've always been interested in how society is made, and why it doesn't collapse at any moment. We think it's force or law that keeps order but that's not true. I have a friend in Calcutta who's a police officer he always says that police don't prevent crime or maintain social order. The police show up when things break down. A society is maintained in myriad informal ways each day by ordinary people. Cities are basically all functioning anarchies. They can stop functioning too, if those unwritten rules break down. Then the society can descend into chaos. That happened in Calcutta in the 1940s, during the Famine and the 1946 Riots and Partition, which I write about in the book in detail. Ritwik Ghatak is the great chronicler of that breakdown. But interests me is how was it built back up again.

Millions of people had to come together in big and small ways, in the paras, in the colonies, in the various social and political movements, the parties, the little magazines, the neighbourhood clubs, to create a social order again. They produced new norms, new unwritten rules, a new culture. Middle-class women joined the workforce after Partition because many refugee families had no male earning members.

You see this in films like Meghe Dhaka Tara by Ritwik Ghatak or Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar. The way men acted around women in public had to change. Buses began having Ladies only seats. The bus conductors' familiar shout of Aste Ladies!, "Slow Down for Ladies!" indicated that the driver had to take care because a woman in a sari was getting on or off -- all these are little details may seem unimportant but they are clues of a big cultural  change, of the expansion of a male public sphere to accommodate women.

There's a big story there about social change, a society's answer to a political question about who belongs in public. Sometimes I write about these things in academic or journalistic contexts. In the book I try to explain these complex processes as simple stories that you had feel rather than intellectualise. If I can make you feel it, then that's much more effective. 

You've spoken about race cleansing, and murderers and shamans in Connecticut, as themes for your next work. While American amnesia is a phenomenon we're familiar with, are there any particular ghosts of the past that you're looking to dig up?

Right after I finished writing The Epic City, my daughter was born. From when my daughter was born to when she was two and a half, I was home most of the time. My main job was to be a parent. It was a beautiful thing, which fathers particularly, and increasingly mothers too, don't get to experience. But I wasn't able to get away from home to do much reporting in that time. Just to keep myself sane, I started writing a novel in brief stretches of time.

Slowly, in bits and pieces, I stitched together a rough draft. I started writing it because I missed my friends from graduate school, and our life together in New Haven. But then the novel became something else entirely. People say everything in India is about caste. In America everything is about race. At one level that's obvious, but at another level it's obscured, by other debates, about politics, social issues, etc. I'm an American and when I go back now I see that society with the clarity that distance gives you. Living in a place like India, which doesn't have an idea of race, can bring some realities into sharp relief. 

Anyway, I have a draft of the novel. I'm doing research for a nonfiction book on Kerala now, and writing nonfiction requires that you travel, meet people, track down materials, sometimes put yourself in all sorts of difficult situations. And then at end of it you're limited in what you can write by the material you find. I'd never written fiction until I was forced into it because of circumstances, nor had I aspired to write fiction. I came up through journalism and academia, not creative writing.

One thing I will say about the experience is that fiction writing seems like it was made for lazy people. In a novel you're not constrained by the facts or by reality. Being a novelist means you can sit in your house in shorts and a banyan sipping tea and make up whatever you want. To me, it felt like I was cheating, which is to say, as with any guilty pleasure, it felt really good!

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