The primal place

saikat majumdar | Updated on January 20, 2018

The old faithful: A rickshaw puller takes a break on a summer day at a busy road in north Kolkata. Once the hub of the Bengal Renaissance, north Kolkata nowlanguishes as the non-modern section of the city. Ashoke Chakrabarty

Saikat Majumdar

Kolkata’s micro-cities are so much more than mere physical spaces

The American novelist Faye Myenne Ng once told me: “The first five years is all you need.” The first five years of life, she argued, is the material for a lifetime of fiction writing.

That statement has left a deep impact on me. It has made me realise why, in spite of having spent the last 17 years in North America, so little of my fiction is set there. A few short stories, perhaps. Both my novels, including the recent The Firebird, where I feel I found my identity as a novelist, are set in the same milieu — a Calcutta of the 1980s, though a fictionalised early 19th century Bengal also played a significant role in my first novel, Silverfish. Mid-1980s Calcutta — at least a decade before it became Kolkata — which contained, not the first five years, but the first decade of my life. Rooted in the same milieu, the two novels told different stories: one spoke of an elderly man trapped in the corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Communist government and the lost voice of a young widow from colonial Bengal preserved in a timeworn manuscript; the other narrated the story of a young boy’s disturbing attachment to his mother, a stage actress, a community’s suspicion of women who perform, and an intense relationship to an art form that eventually becomes poisoned.

My relationship to the US, I realise, is primarily that of an academic. I enjoy that life; the incredible and incomparable intellectual force represented by its fabulous university system, of which I’ve been privileged to be a part. The sparkling conversations that go with its fine-wine receptions. But somehow, none of that has found its way into my fiction.

Why the first five? Or 10, perhaps 15 at the most? Before adulthood, at any rate?

Because, I now realise, that is the period when one forms a relation with place that is non-intellectual, or at least predominantly so, raw and visceral, full of primal joys and terrors, sensual memories, absurd connections made on the basis of daily habits and bodily experience of a person.

If there is a disconnect between my identity as a literary academic and a novelist, it is not so much one of temperament, or of the technicalities of intellectual labour. It is one of place. As an academic, my identity is predominantly Western, and increasingly, through the last decade and a half, American. My disciplinary training as an academic has taken place, initially, through a British colonial curricular system, and I have finally emerged as a literary scholar and researcher through American academic training. As a novelist, I belong to India. My sense of craft owes something to Western traditions — I do have, in addition to a doctorate in literary studies, an MFA in Creative Writing. But the real part of writing, the part that really matters — the part that engages with place and atmosphere non-intellectually, viscerally, is firmly rooted in India, in sensibility as in landscape.

Of course, Calcutta is an aesthete’s delight. It is a modern city in the historic sense of the term, in the sense in which that modernity is now in decline, or has been for the last three decades at least. This is the modernity that saw its daybreak with the Bengal Renaissance, and which was effectively stalled by the Communist regime inaugurated in 1977. The decay created by that stalled modernity has inspired both my novels. Because it is an intense, atmospheric kind of decay, with sensual contours that are painful, indelible and utterly unforgettable — the load-shedding, traffic jams, the dysfunctional bureaucracy, and crucially for The Firebird, the unique moral policing carried out by the Communist Party that easily crossed over from the city streets to the innards of the home and the life of women.

Calcutta is a small city. Physically, it is more like Dublin though it has much in common, architecturally and otherwise, with London. It is a walkable city. Often as a student I walked home from St Xavier’s College in Park Street to Shyambazar in north Calcutta, where I lived. The North American city that most resembles it in this sense is perhaps Montreal — small but dense with culture. Calcutta, too, is compressed, not just in space but also in time — at a little more than 300 years old, it is young by Indian standards but the product of a dense and magnified kind of history intricately patterned with cultural and social upheavals. Spatially, it is the polar opposite of huge, sprawled cities, like Los Angeles or Delhi. But physically small as it is, it is humongous in human terms, with close to 15 million residents.

It probably explains why this “small” city is large enough to hold micro-cities within, hundreds of them. Its neighbourhoods are not merely physical spaces, but also the inextricable entwinement of lanes and houses and gossipy voices and loafing bodies. The word ‘neighbourhood’ felt primarily spatial to me, so in The Firebird I used the Bangla word para. The micro-city that has been the most real to me is that where I spent close to 20 years of my life — north Calcutta. Once the hub of the Bengal Renaissance, it now languishes as the provincial and the non-modern section of the city, as opposed to the posher and swankier south, with its wider, tree-lined avenues and, since the new millennium, snazzy malls. The northern cityscape is stubbornly resistant to change. Its serpentine, meandering lanes that appear at cracks between houses with crack-jawed facades, brittle yellow paint decayed like grins that have become grimaces.

The micro-cities of Calcutta make you ponder the inevitable.

Does that which moves the modern artist always frustrate the modern citizen?

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

(Saikat Majumdar’s most recent novel was The Firebird, published by Hachette India last year)

Published on April 15, 2016

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