A new book, The Epic City, traces the city's literary heritageby Tanjil Rashid / October 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Calcutta has had many chroniclers. In the 19th century, Rabindranath Tagore’s stories heralded the arrival of western ideas in what was then India’s capital. In the 20th, Satyajit Ray’s films delved into the social world that was created after independence. And in the 21st century, as the city’s cultural and colonial glory faded, novelists like Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri have charted the political convulsions of the city’s decline. Now Kushanava Choudhury offers a more personal account of what he regards as “the epic city” in this brilliantly eloquent memoir.
The stereotypical journey of 21st-century middle-class Bengalis has been to escape the city for an elite education and then a well-paid job in the US. Choudhury, who has degrees from Princeton and Yale, baffled his family and friends by returning to his ancestral city after his education. There he became a reporter immersed in the life of the metropolis.
He likens the task of finding stories to wandering the streets “with a begging bowl.” He also compares his marriage to something out of a Ray film. The city exposes the couple’s differences: sentimental backwardness versus the progressive capitalism of America and Delhi, favoured by his wife. “Calcutta offers nothing to see, nothing to do, and no one famous,” Choudhury says mischievously.
That must be why the city has produced so many writers. With nothing to do, people turn to books. One could do worse than this one.
The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta is by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, £16.99)