The idea of Kolkata

By Chhetria Patrakar

28 January 2018

Why author Kushanava Choudhury believes his book is about the present, the Kolkata that is lived in.
Kushanava Choudhury, author of 'The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta' at the Galle Literary Festival 2018.

Kushanava Choudhury, author of ‘The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta’ at the Galle Literary Festival 2018.

Chhetria Patrakar’s first sighting of Kushanava Choudhury at the Galle Lit Fest is of him belting out a song along with the lead singer of the Bangladeshi band Chirkutt, whom he had encountered only the previous day. Choudhury has recently published a book on Kolkata to critical acclaim, and at a discussion at the Lit Fest he discussed his book, his own journey back to Kolkata (he and his family had left for the U.S. when he was a child of 12), and what Kolkata means for modern democracy.

At the public forum, Choudhury traced the unlikely origins of Kolkata as a capital; the city’s anguished witnessing of deaths due to the famine engineered by the diversion of food to the British war effort; the violence of partition and its absorption of refugees after 1947, when 50 years of growth of population was crammed into five years; and its post-Independence emergence as a city of complex and finely calibrated social relationships, different in many ways from India’s other large urban centres.

Kolkata is often portrayed as a city of the past, a decaying megapolis, an urban cosmos steeped in communist nostalgia out of step with the modern times. Indeed the moderator of Choudhury’s session seemed to share that opinion, asking when the city would join the rest of modern India.  Choudhury questions the assumptions underlying this perception however, arguing that the vision of a modern India of never ending consumption would be simply untenable.

What kind of visions, then, can we have of the future Choudhury asks, suggesting that a robust engagement with ‘the lives we have lived’ in cities such as Kolkata could offer more insights and answers.

CP caught up with Choudhury after the event for a semi-formal chat where he enlarged on some of these themes. The supposed future where everyone would be filthy rich is as much of a fantasy as the Nehruvian idea of a planned economy, a modern folly. Only a small sliver of the population of India could aspire to that prosperous future.

Choudhury said he had been drawn back to the city of his childhood in the search of doing something concrete, his comfortable university existence of seminars seeming almost unreal as if his real life lay elsewhere. For some years this was through journalism. But the process, or the journey back into Kolkata, became clear only with the writing of the book. Most reviewers have commented on Choudhury’s apparent affection for the city. But while many have spoken of his delineation of its history or the evocation of its physical presence for visitors – both armchair and real – Choudhury was emphatic that his book is about the present, the Kolkata that is lived in.

Listen to exceprts from the interview:

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