Review 1, of Kushanava Choudhury’s Sepulchral City

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury. Bloomsbury, Great Britain 2017.

Kushanava’s vanished city.

The rains have been lashing at my city this whole day and last night. I cannot go out because the roads are flooded. I do not want the slime and the muck of gutters to soil my feet. I like to remain clean. That is my obsession. I have sanitized the poverty of my city through this one action — not venturing out. I wonder if my love for books is a way of keeping ‘the epic city’ at bay. Calcutta is often both filth and glitter. Mayhap I want only the glitter. Therefore, when I finished reading Kushanava Choudhury’s The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta I wanted to first tell where he has gone wrong: “the Pareshnath Temples off Raja Dinendra Street” (168) were not built by “Marwari Jain traders” (169) and the priest there is a Hindu Brahmin and not a Jain. Choudhury’s primary source is wrong. His hubris is ironical: he silently boasts that he did not study political science in Calcutta. The same Calcutta where Satyajit Ray lived and studied; the same Calcutta where Mrinal Sen lives; the same Calcutta where Nabaneeta Deb Sen studied and lives. Choudhury gloats that his was a foreign education which spared him the cram-books students haplessly devour in Calcutta. He had no need to “Commit to memory, and vomit” (74) like mere Indians but he “had studied in America” and did not need these abominable intellectual “drugs” (75). I presume that our author cannot understand either India or Calcutta. These cram-books are our poor kids’ tickets to the big league. Everyone cannot study in America. And why should one beg from anyone in the First World for doles aka scholarships? It has not dawned on Choudhury to reflect on this sad factuality — he studied in America at the cost of his own self-actualization and in the process displaced the dreams of some tax-paying American family. He used his Indianness to exact a seat at Princeton. Like Choudhury’s clichéd portrait of Tagore as “The scion of a wealthy trading family” (92), he is the scion of a family which fled Calcutta and entrenched itself within the woof of an America which rightly belongs to both native-Americans and the ancestors of those who built America down-top.   Amitav Ghosh, that over-rated author, says somewhere in his forgettable The Shadow Lines that we Indians often tend to boast living off lands which properly belong to other people.

But to nitpick his narrative is to do so out of jealousy of  this Yale Ph.D. whose father routinely mocked a colleague in parties (79); presumably for not making it to America and explicitly, for being a dentist. Jealousy indeed.

Rarely but certainly Choudhury soars to sublimity. He occasionally comes close to the scope of Jibanananda Das when he writes on death. In this dirge to my city, he brings to mind Sir Thomas Browne’s now forgotten meditations on death. Death is Choudhury’s true subject and the only pastiches in this book where he sparkles with a non-deathly pallor ; there are many deaths in his book, one of them for instance, is the death of his uncle who grew up in Calcutta and who always longed for Calcutta till his last days in California:

[One night Choudhury’s uncle] said he was only going to stay in America another two years, maybe three, till my [Choudhury’s] aunt retired. And then they were coming back, to his city, his home. He called it ‘his refuge’. Nothing in his plans had anticipated the interruption caused by his death… [his death] was like being on page 237 of a 300-page novel and having the rest of the pages ripped out…I never called [him] after he left [Calcutta], never spoke with him or exchanged emails after our last dinner together. I assumed I would see him again. There seemed plenty of time. Surely, I always thought, we would share a roll at Nizam’s…What I did not know, had not anticipated, was that the narrative of every human life does not follow a three-act structure. The hero doesn’t always exit in the third act, after his triumphal return to the place from which he had set out years before. No, many die the death of extras, blown to smithereens in some inconsequential montage battle scene which does not even hold our attention, three-quarters of the way in. (166-8)

If this is not a meditation on death, then what is? Choudhury’s is a text of epic remembrances: the famine stricken of Bengal echo through his pages: “There is not a person who lived through that time [1943] who does not remember…[the] starving people begging, not for rice, but for the leftover water in which it was boiled…There were literally piles of corpses accumulated in the streets all over the city. Calcutta had become a necropolis” (154). Even when Choudhury is talking of anything other than death we have a feeling that his is a tautological dirge: “Phantoms seemed to fill up each empty room” (167), everywhere in Calcutta. Necropolis is only slightly far from Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis.

It seems that Calcutta as a city where anything intelligent can happen baffles Choudhury. The fact that there are Freudian psychoanalysts knowledgeable about Oedipus here is a matter of wonder for our political scientist who has all the right connections; at least, going by all the rave reviews of this book online. Choudhury’s Calcutta is a heart of darkness where “nostalgia” always “disappoints” and for once, he is dot on mark: “The taste of something you remember from your childhood can almost never be recovered as an adult. The flavour is gone…It was a thing of beauty” (110). Choudhury is a master of platitudes. These quotable quotes pepper his text like some burnt toast slathered in butter. Here is another one, a not so subtle reworking of Anna Karenina’s opening sentiment: “When we fall in love, we each feel our story is unique. But when we fight, we learn how pitifully common we are, how like every other warring couple everywhere… [ours is] a banal fate” (108). May be, Choudhury is just another avatar of “the nineteenth-century Bengali bourgeoise” who worshipped Sri Ramakrishna, that “bearded” man, with “eyes half shut in a trance” (92) and of whom Choudhury has only disdain. Near the end of the book Choudhury has this to say:

We who are raised on such faith in the nation and progress and modernity, who viewed the future with such confidence, hid away in shame from the most obvious realities about our humiliating condition…we remain strangers to ourselves, our heads filled with notions that have nothing to do with the lives that we are living, and our eyes blind to the most basic truths of our existence. (196)

Kushanava Choudhury is no Peter Ackroyd. Nor is he Martin Buber or Jean Paul Sartre. What promised to be on the scales of Sir Thomas Browne and Jibanananda fizzles out as another book by another author whose connections in the publication world are solid. This is why he writes long about The Statesman. This is a non-fiction bildungsroman gone bad.

Bread slathered in butter.