The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta (Bloomsbury Circus, United Kingdom, 2017, 272 pages)
In his much-celebrated novel Ignorance (French L’ignorance) published in English in 2002, Czech novelist Milan Kundera attempts to trace the etymological roots of the word “nostalgia” and its shifting meanings across multiple languages and transnational borders. In the process, he retrieves the meaning of nostalgia as the pain of ignorance, a longing for the past, for lost childhood or a first love, rooted in the universal trope of Odysseus’ return, successively replicated in the physical and psychological journeys and eventual return to the destined motherland of epical heroes across cultures. Nostalgia becomes a highly politicized category affecting collective communitarian ideologies and individual subjectivities, which, in Kundera’s reinterpretation of Homeric tragedies, ultimately transforms into a glorified supreme in the hierarchy of emotions. In Kushanava Choudhury’s debutant narrative The Epic City published earlier this year, nostalgia becomes a driving element which problematizes both the content and the structure of his mixed-genre narrative. Choudhury’s book is a bemusing meditation on the relationship between the tropes of migration, homecoming, belongingness and intimacy through incessant interrogations, conflicts and reconciliations, which he attempts to formulate through a combination of historicization, ethnography, testimony and autobiographical reminiscences.
The protagonist of Choudhury’s non-fiction is Calcutta itself, the city where Choudhury, an American-Indian, traces his genealogical roots and his sense of belongingness. Divided into four parts that are preceded by a short prologue, The Epic City narrativizes the author’s perception of the city and how it penetrates, influences and significantly manipulates his thought process and lived experiences. Choudhury’s peripatetic storytelling retraces anything and everything that resonates with his cultural moorings, his aesthetic and gastronomic indulgences, his youthful predilections and the memories of childhood-College Street, D.L. Roy Street, Bagmari, Maniktala Market, Statesman House, Mitra Cafe, Allen Kitchen’s shrimp cutlet, Chota Bristol bar, cap guns, fried jillipis, mutton chaap, kochuri, beef roll near Chowringhee Square, roadside tea shacks, statues at street crossings-every artefact attempts to re-surface through the author’s overtly passionate time-turning narratorial ordeal and thereby overwhelm the readers with the profundity of their impact on the author’s psyche.
What makes the narrative-style particularly problematic other than these overflowing details which are difficult to accommodate satisfactorily within the main concerns of the narrative are the gaps and ambiguities in the mode of storytelling. The author shifts impulsively and at times erratically from one topic to another, perhaps trying to grasp at the unsurmountable archive that he has unleashed from the vaults of his memory, without confronting them one at a time to rupture a gradual closure. Thus, his narrative becomes clogged by unnecessary repetitions. From the censorious city-parks to the declining aristocracy of Bowbazar, from the decrepit Statesman House whose insides are hollowed out “like the innards of an abandoned factory” to the colonial ruins of Marble Palace, from the abandoned factory lands in the “lifeless shell” of Taratala to the poverty-stricken alleys of Kumortuli lined by demonic clay figures, from the tram dragging through the busy streets “like a matriarch who refuses to die” to the trapped unhappiness of underground Metro compartments-the city of Calcutta attains a morbid spectral oeuvre for the most parts of The Epic City. The city appears as one straight out of an Orwellian dystopia, populated by unhappy souls caught within the stagnating intransigence of their mundaneness and forced into fulfilling the obligatory duties of a spectral citizenship.
In the prologue titled “Midlife Crisis,” Choudhury, an Ivy League graduate born and brought up in New Jersey, tries to explain what led him to return to Calcutta, temporarily after receiving his Bachelor’s’ degree from Yale and permanently after completing his Ph.D. from Princeton. While writing about his experience of staying in Calcutta for two years and working for The Statesman before moving back to US, Choudhury’s description of Calcutta as a pathologized city breeding contagion and irreparable despair becomes particularly problematic because of its absolutizing tone doused in generalized and/or judgemental anecdotes. According to him, when he first arrived, “everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta” (xvi) where he’d wake up in the mornings with a feeling that his chest has been set on fire and where keeping the dust and grime off his body, out of his nails, hair and lungs was a “daily struggle.” In a manner of self-interrogation, he repeatedly attempts to understand and make people around him realize why he has returned with the dreams of mobilizing some change within the apparent drudgeries of the city. The rhetoric of his ambition and aspirations is repeatedly interfered with by his unilinear perception of Calcutta as the “city of poverty” with non-gentrified neighbourhoods strewn with “roadside hillocks of garbage,” “baying of stray dogs” and “ubiquitous stench of urine” which is further supported by his reference to a group of Princeton students who come to the city for charity work and echo his reductive perceptions of the city. It remains unclear whether this unilinear perspective of the city narrated in the prologue is a deliberate act by the author to reflect upon the uncertainties of his youthful mind overpowered by anxieties and homesickness generated by cultural confrontations in its initial phase.
In part I, Choudhury describes the gradual unfolding of his personal life, his relationship with graduate school friend Durba which culminates into their marriage, and the trials and tribulations of his marital life as they eventually settle in Calcutta. Both the domestic space engendered by marriage and the city-space engendered by migration affect him psychologically. The existential vulnerabilities exposed through his navigation of the rough terrain of these two experiences—marriage and migration—and his subsequent struggles for adjustment are reflected in the disjointed nature of his narration; his words are formulated and disseminated like spontaneous thoughts as his narration oscillates between elaborate descriptions of his flaneuring and coming to terms with death and other myriad losses.
Often, the upper-class bhadralok predisposition is sharply reflected in the narrative, bringing out inherent contradictions in his yearnings and subjectivity. He proclaims himself to be a regular middle-class individual but his description of the ancestral properties of his maternal family and the status of his family members points to an elite upper-class background. It is only much later, towards the end of the text, that the readers get to know about the struggles of his paternal grandparents, erstwhile landlords reduced to penury and struggle for subsistence in post-Partition Calcutta. These discontinuities disrupt the building up of the reader’s’ empathy conclusively. In multiple instances, Choudhury describes situations where his recognition of his family’s privileges are clearly manifest and acknowledged. But his personal awareness of these privileges become futile in the absence of any attempts on his part to redress them.
Choudhury describes how having personal connections with the chief engineer of the crematorium helped him to arrange a cut in the line of people waiting to cremate their dead relatives and skip past the “corpses of the less well-connected” in order to cremate his dead grandmother (25). The Hindu crematorium is a culturally sanitized space where caste and class-specific hierarchies are made normative; by inserting himself as a conforming participant into that normative practice, the author inadvertently invites the conscientious reader’s disapproval. In another case, he confesses that he didn’t know until recently about the use of underage children in domestic slavery being a transnational phenomenon and not something exclusively Indian, and that both his wife and he dislike “the awkward dealings between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ (97). This confession of ignorance is indeed surprising, coming from someone who has lived a substantial amount of his life in post-slavery US where instances of gendered racial labor are rampantly visible. He further says, “The idea of a middle-class man getting down on his haunches and scrubbing the kitchen floor was unthinkable. […] My floor-washing embarrassed Durba, made her feel guilty, as if my sweeping and scrubbing were part of a strategy to show her up” (98). Instead of amending the deep-rooted biases, the author chooses to “give in,” thereafter hiring a “reed-thin woman” as domestic help for “less than $20 a month.” Instead of resisting the perpetration of class-based conservatism, popular notions on the gendered division of labor and misogynist stereotypes, the author chooses to give in to those very vices and, moreover, blames the influence exerted by the city, caught in a state of socio-cultural stasis according to him, as the reason behind his own moral trepidation.
Choudhury’s work could very well have been a fiction, another diasporic re-imagining of the city and its people suspended in the particularities of a historical time-warp, or the story of nostalgic immigrants caught in the cycles of cultural irreconcilability and liminality of identities, like in the novels by Jhumpa Lahiri, Neel Mukherjee or Amit Chaudhuri. Perhaps, as fictional characters, Kushanava and Durba would have been analyzed and understood more sympathetically as characters caught in the web of history, memory and displacement, robbed of their capability of self-articulation, and helplessly channelizing their pent-up emotions in the wrong directions. As real, palpable subjects with the capital and agency to articulate their experiences thoughtfully and responsibly in retrospective through writing (although technically the narrative is written singularly from Choudhury’s perspective), they infuse a sense of unease and awkwardness into readers as individuals, who, in an urgency to prioritize their testimonies, have successfully overlooked their biases and obliterated all capacities for self-speculation.
Durba’s repulsion for Calcutta, a city “perpetually in decline” where there is “ostensibly nowhere to go and nothing to do,” a “heartless city” is matched by Kushanava’s disdain. Their cumulative hatred and frustration pour out in page after page, perplexing the reader about their decision to continue to stay in Calcutta irrespective of their inability to either love or willingness to adjust in this “urban hellhole.” It is only from the end of the chapter titled “The Epic City” and in the concluding chapters that the writing reflects a significant change in narrative pattern and perceptible shift in aesthetic sensibilities of the protagonists in question. Moments of optimism, utopia and imaginings of a desirable futurity insert themselves into the narrative; the author finds hope and peace in the epic city that emerges from the new architecture and cultural geography recrafted during festivities in the city.
Throughout the book, Choudhury inserts excerpts from the history of Calcutta to substantiate and possibly provide a legible framework for his autobiographical fragments. Not all of his historical retellings are satisfying or inclusive, given the frequent interruptions by personal recollections, the multiplicity of events and their continuous movement back and forth across different time-space planes instead of following a legible structure of exposition. However, the recounting of his journalistic ventures stands out as particularly illuminating: the different conversations he’d had with a motley of individuals (brokers of north Calcutta, liftmen and peons working at the Statesmen), and interviews of people who have recrafted democratic modes of resistance against structures of statist violence and neoliberal economy (Goshto Pal-an idol-maker who lost his job when the Bengal Lamp Factory shut down in Jadavpur, Jagabandhu Pal—one of the founding members of the Bijoygarh colony for refugees from East Pakistan) become productive in addressing the questions of diversity and mutually supportive co-existences within the city-space. In the pages intervening these ethnographic investigations, the author’s historical retelling of the partition of Bengal and the Naxalite movement of 1970s blend in effectively to buttress the personalized experiences.
Reading The Epic City is an ambivalent experience for someone who has grown up in and around Calcutta for a significant amount of time. This is precisely because the differences generated between the author and the reader’s subjective perceptions of the city, separated by regional specificities, identitarian positions and sociocultural experiences. The Epic City shows promise as the author’s first book in its momentary historical expositions and its insider’s accounts of the city-space but fails to carve out a place for itself as an irreplaceable narrative. Perhaps, Choudhury could have opted to focus more extensively on his project of interviewing people victimized by the decline in industrial developments and municipality’s plans of forceful spatial eviction and segregation. Or he could have expanded the data accumulated from some ethnographic research. In that case, his book would have perhaps garnered more fondness and relatability, while succeeding simultaneously to interrogate and resolve the questions revolving around diasporic belongingness and identity in a historically battered city like Calcutta—more endearingly.
This work was first published as part of the Sage ~ December 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.