Sunday, February 03, 2013

Amit Chaudhuri: my new perspective on Calcutta

To a young Amit Chaudhuri, Calcutta seemed its own strange, particular world – and thrillingly modern. Later, it lagged behind as India underwent vast change, but now it can resist no more

A Kolkata flower market in 2008
Fulfilling a childhood fantasy … Chaudhuri moved to Calcutta, later Kolkata, in 1999. Photograph: Peter Dench/Alamy

I was in Berlin at the end of 2005 when my agent called and asked me if I'd write a book on Calcutta. It was a work of non-fiction he wanted: Indian non-fiction was going to be the new Indian fiction. I declined, saying, "I'd rather write about Berlin"; but I saw where he was coming from. Suketu Mehta's compendious narrative of Bombay low-life, Maximum City, had been a critical and commercial success. It wouldn't have taken much to guess that it, and a country transformed by 15 years of economic deregulation, would unleash a stream of books on what, in journalistic shorthand, is called the "new India". I'd written three novels which had Calcutta as their setting, and my agent probably saw me as the ideal candidate for producing a non-fiction work on the city. The mid-2000s was a time of complete immersion in the present – a characteristic of free-market capitalism – so that things that had happened 15, 10, or even five years ago felt remote, and the frequent "all-time best" lists in newspapers covered a span of, at most, 20 years. From the perspective of this compressed view of eternity, my novels about Calcutta might almost have inhabited another era. Perhaps it was time to write a new book about the city.

I instinctively knew that I couldn't, and didn't want to, do a Maximum City with Calcutta. Mehta's book, which I had reviewed and admired, wasn't just about Bombay; it was a creation-myth for a new nation and its unprecedented, amoral provenance. History may not have ended, but the Nehruvian era had, with its "mixed" economy of socialist development, Five-Year Plans, idealistic hypocrisies and circumscribed private enterprise. Dams, the avowed temples of the older, industrialising nation, had given way to new temples where the rich and the aspirational classes could congregate in a kind of celebration, such as international airports (Katherine Boo's recent book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, records the doomed theatre of a slum that festers, hidden, behind Bombay's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport).

I, who'd grown up in Bombay, leaving it for Britain in the early 1980s, had barely encountered the city Mehta described during my 21 years there – although the rise within it of new buildings, a new rich and underclass, the rightwing Shiv Sena and BJP, had become disconcertingly visible by the time of my departure. The Bombay I grew up in – though it had long been India's financial centre – was genteel and tame in comparison. When PV Narasimha Rao, the prime minister at the time, officially deregulated the economy in 1991, the city that was most responsive to the event was Bombay. Post-independence India had stricter, prissier demarcations – between the polite and the profane, the admissible and the inadmissible – than the India energised by the free market. .

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