Book Review: Non-fiction/ Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books India), 320; Rs599 (Hardback)
In all humbleness, Amit Chaudhuri admits, he knows Calcutta not like a native but through his personal interaction, happened infrequently with this city. A major writer of his time, Amit Chaudhuri is known for writing most natural prose in English-the reason was, his first book- A Strange and Sublime Address (collection of a novella and a number of short stories), won the Betty Trask Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and also was short listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize.
With his first book, he descriptively presented the richness of Bengali culture and with his latest-Calcutta: Two Years in the City, he explores Calcutta, but this time not like an absentee Bengali but as a city resident. In personal accounts, shaped through deep sensibility he brings forward the impact of changes on Calcutta. If the author tempts to capture the loss of old symbols, he also tries to dwell on the replacement, which makes Calcutta functional in certain way.
The book opens the beautiful stock of imagination and facts, combing together. Amit Chaudhuri presents his meticulous take on this great city, which is chasing the course for eroding that tag. His interest in Calcutta is closely attached with the city’s diverse range of specialties, even if many of them have passed. Those old icons/edifices are under heavy strain from the strong wave of commercial globalization and as Amit says, it’s mimicking ones’ stature earned through long academic and intellectual exercises.
His apprehension is straight and makes high sense, when he compares Calcutta’s embedded urban jungles with the other Indian metro-cities-how these all are coming up planned and cornering anything traditional for targeting resources. This will remain unchallenged-as we read the interviews and other conversations of this book, we realise it. From petty businessmen, domestic helps to aged gentle couple, all are facing the severity of change.
By buying the ‘old French window’ from a scrapper and finding a place for it inside the home, Amit Chaudhuri secures a gateway to the world. A new world, which may be not too broad but it ensures the basic exchanges of ideas not under limit of any system or impression from outside. Unlike with that window, Amit Chaudhuri secures a new world for the readers through his latest book.
Earlier too, he has been writing on Calcutta but with his memoir, he is turning to the city with unexpected fondness and concern.
As scholar, he has lived a life away from partitioning compulsions, which enabled him for open confession that Jibanananda Das, not Tagore was his favourite poet. For the Bengalis, he also landed precious suggestion to curtail with the surviving mass madness for over-celebrated personalities or conventions. This is for making the cultural atmosphere clean and impartial.
With a remarkable memoir on Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri has given timely impetus for the lively debates, which this city needs in urgency.
He spoke on all types of components, supposed to make Calcutta complete, much more than an old fading city-from Bhadralok to the ill tempered ‘music record seller’ of Park Street. Also in details, Amit Chaudhuri opens his anecdotal reservoir of East Bengal-this allows looking on Calcutta, as recipient of the migrants affected from communal clashes started at the time of India’s independence in 1947.
Like his previous works, the new one will also be in the memories of readers. This insightful book is a vital source for knowing the changing Calcutta and Bengal-as both are imminent. So genuine enthusiasts on India must read and keep with Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on April01,2013)