At Ramayan Shah’s Hotel

Deborah Baker

  • Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri
    Union, 307 pp, £16.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 908526 17 5

In January 1990 I moved from New York to Calcutta to get married. Having never been to India, I came equipped with V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilisation and Geoffrey Moorhouse’s rather more upbeat and engaging Calcutta. My mother, arriving for the wedding, looked around and seemed to grasp things rather more directly. ‘You must really love him,’ she said.

In appearance the city was circling the drain. Entire buildings collapsed as the slow progress of the subway dig undermined ancient foundations along Mahatma Gandhi Road. There were day-long power cuts. Strikes regularly emptied the choked streets and shuttered all commerce. At night, the daytime symphony of car horns gave way to the horror film screams of jackals. During the monsoons cars floated helplessly down roads turned into rivers and pedestrians were sucked into open manholes never to be seen again. The air was a jaundiced and damp pall of exhaust fumes, burned charcoal and smouldering cow dung, rolling into our bedroom in the morning smelling vaguely of the fish being packed in a nearby cannery. Though oxygen canisters were ubiquitous in Calcutta households, standing behind doors like discreet sentinels, doctors told me my foreign lungs were the reason for my frequent chest infections. I was ‘unused to the climate’. This was true.

There was also a frenetic energy in the streets I’d never encountered before. Calcutta was a city of shopkeepers and everything on sale was new to me. On my walks from Ballygunge to Gariahat market every square inch of broken pavement was home to someone: a camped-out family running a tidy eatery, a squatting barber studying the face planes of a squatting customer, a cobbler or chai wallah with a slow-burning string of hemp hanging to one side for the convenience of loitering bidi smokers. Down the centre of the street were more permanent establishments, tiny boxes on stilts, with the shopowner cross-legged inside. At night these boxes were transformed, their glittering wares lit up by a single bulb. To me they looked like a string of shrines, inhabited by living gods.

The city seemed to belong to an earlier era, but it was hard to tell which one exactly. Generously proportioned matrons in perfectly pressed cotton saris wheeled forth like centurions on hand-pulled rickshaws. My father-in-law, a former aide-de-camp in the Indian army, spoke like a character in a Somerset Maugham novel. Never having shared a household with servants, I often felt that I was being unwittingly cast in some half-remembered scene from Upstairs, Downstairs. The Sky Room on Park Street featured a menu that might have been taken from a Soho establishment of the 1970s: prawn cocktail, Chicken Kiev, Tetrazzini and Lobster Thermidor. The street urchins, the rubbish-pickers, the sing-song patter of neighbourhood hawkers, the fantastic infirmities of the beggars, were like something out of a 19th-century novel, though I quickly learned not to say so.

Adding to these multiplying time warps, Cold War vigilance had not yet eased its grip and, as a rare American, I was often given the fish eye. Two members of India’s intelligence agency came by the house to inquire about the book I was writing. Allen Ginsberg, who had lived for seven months in the city in 1962, remained in many minds an obvious CIA spy. Though the walls had collapsed on Soviet Communism, in Calcutta Marxist orthodoxies stood firm over the city’s derelict institutions and governing philosophy. Lenin’s statue was ritually garlanded. In 1990 the incorruptible and implacable Jyoti Basu was just over halfway through his tenure, one that eventually would make him not only the longest-serving chief minister in India, but the longest-serving democratically elected Communist Party leader in the world. Even as Manmohan Singh prepared to pry open India’s sclerotic state-run economy, Basu and Calcutta would hold out. Industrialists abandoned the city and foreign investors looked to Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore. Well-heeled young Bengalis had long journeyed to London and Oxbridge but, as the 1990s wore on, America increasingly became the preferred destination. Except for flying visits home, they didn’t come back.

Like all who return to the city from abroad, Amit Chaudhuri is well versed in the melancholy laments of Calcutta’s decline. Now the author of five novels, a musician and poet, Chaudhuri approaches his chronicle of the city of his birth with a practised eye. Calcutta: Two Years in the City purports to be about the two years he spent in Calcutta in the lead-up to the 2011 elections which brought an end to 34 years of Communist rule. Though he does trace the events that brought Mamata Banerjee (a ‘mistress of self-destruction’) to power, he is an unconvincing beat reporter. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. His narrative trips back and forth: from England, where he teaches, to Bombay, where he grew up; from the 1940s to 2011 and back again. The minutiae of his own life as a writer and the Bengali culture of his extended family and social circle provide the real substance of this portrait, as they have for his fiction. Hence his chosen title: Calcutta, as opposed to the 2001 brand relaunch, Kolkata.

He confesses at the outset: ‘I’ve written about … Calcutta in so many works of fiction and essays that, when someone suggested I write a non-fiction book on this city, I put it off for years, because I felt I had nothing more to say about it.’ One feels this hesitation in the book’s opening chapters, which jump skittishly from those heavily plumbed memories to straight reportage about ‘the city as it is now’, though the ‘now’ he refers to is often a moving target. When, 26 pages later, he is still fretting ‘about this book which I had taken upon myself to write’ one begins to worry alongside him.

How would it start? I had the opening paragraph; where would the rest of the chapter go? It was while thinking of these questions that I came upon Ramayan Shah’s ‘hotel’ on the pavement, in front of the peeling wall that said Sarabhai Chemicals … Earlier, I would have denied this place its existence, would have seen it but shut it out, would have looked upon it as a stubborn aberration while my mind pieced together, image by image, the ‘real’ Free School Street as it had existed 25 years before.

There is something odd about Chaudhuri’s earnest interrogation of the inhabitants of Ramayan Shah’s ‘hotel’ as they lounge about on charpoys, flattening puri or ironing clothes under a dusty tarpaulin. Repelled as he is by the oleaginous fare on offer, he would clearly prefer to be at his perch behind the plate-glass window of Flurys on Park Street, a revered establishment of Calcutta’s middle class. There, with his coffee and chicken croissant sandwich, he can sit and watch the crowds at the intersection of Park Street and Middleton Row, picking out those ‘who don’t belong’ – the young men in faux leather jackets, ‘exuding menace and discomfort’ (‘menace’ is a treasured word of Chaudhuri’s) – and those who do, presumably genteel Bengalis like himself. He struggles with his ‘infallible urge to stereotype’ all he sees, which is ‘conflated inextricably with the urge to fictionalise’.

Yet, like a diligent reporter, he keeps returning to study and interview the denizens of this particular stretch, ‘properly, not for the sake of ethnography, or from a sense of duty, but to experience again the ways in which people belonged to the city I lived in’. He asks them stock questions like where they are from, and what they do for a living. Such inquiries, he informs us, combine ‘sociological rigour with an assumption of concern and friendliness’. Twenty-three pages later he is back again, polite but indefatigable: ‘Since sociological rigour is essential when you’re writing of a city, I asked the man dicing vegetables who he was and, intrusively, what his earnings were like.’ He is both disappointed by the man’s matter-of-fact answers and worried by how often his conversations with these migrants seem to trail off in aimless or confused directions.

At first I thought that this haplessness and indirection must be some kind of comic meta-non-fiction, that it was simply a rhetorical performance. As the chapters progressed, and he moved on to relate encounters with Calcuttans more attuned to his own sensibilities, culinary tastes or intellectual interests, I decided I was mistaken: Chaudhuri writes with the utmost seriousness about nearly everything that befalls him. His attachment to the city is evident, as is his distaste for the vulgar excesses of ‘India Inc.’. But an entire chapter is spent on the experience of taking tea with the Mukherjees – a perfect example of his rather fantastic absorption in the world of the arch-Bengali.

Samir Mukherjee, a mimic and something of a raconteur, is homebound by polio. His swanlike wife, Anita, is a gracious hostess and their ground-floor flat on Lower Circular Road is, inevitably, tastefully furnished. Here the Mukherjees and the Chaudhuris engage in lively, wide-ranging conversations, interrupted only by the arrival of Anita’s ‘delectable array of sandwiches’ and ‘what seemed most important of all, spotless napkins’. For Chaudhuri the elderly couple are emissaries from a vanished world, preserved in aspic by Samir’s disability. Their quirks, turns of phrase and displays of high culture are lovingly catalogued, each detail embellishing an extended metaphor for what has become of Calcutta’s Anglophile elite. According to Chaudhuri, the Mukherjees are ‘Ingabanga’: a lineage once mocked by the British and characterised by their irreproachable English table manners, ability to distinguish between Camembert and Stilton, and perfect ear for proper pronunciation of the Queen’s English. Ingabanga are not to be confused with the Calcutta bhadralok, or middle class, who, however cosmopolitan they are in their starched dhotis, have trouble hearing the difference between ‘worm’ and ‘warm’. Even Calcutta’s sole Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, had trouble here.

*

The relationship between a writer and his subjects is often a cold one and for all Chaudhuri’s artfully phrased affection for his hosts there is something merciless in his narrative of the Mukherjees’ declining fortunes. These teas began in ‘1992 or 1993’ and are, presumably, ongoing (Chaudhuri is frustratingly inexact with dates). He relates how, impoverished by an untrustworthy financial adviser, the Mukherjees were gradually forced to sell off family heirlooms and dodge creditors by disguising their voices when answering the telephone. Given their tightly held dignity, years of generous sandwich plates and chocolate éclairs from the Kookie Jar, as well as Chaudhuri’s grievances about his own treatment at the hands of surly salesmen, hometown book reviewers and the dress-code police at his club, this breach struck me as infra dig.

Chaudhuri’s greatest gift is for filleting out the minor mysteries of Calcuttan daily life. It is a comfort to know that someone else has been baffled by the parking attendants who are always nowhere to be found until one is about to drive off. Suddenly, out of thin air, he is here at your car window, having intuited your intentions while eating a plate of rice and fish round the corner at Ramayan Shah’s hotel. Chaudhuri is particularly interested in solving the enigma of Calcutta’s trouble in maintaining the quality of fine dining in its five-star hotels. Just as one becomes accustomed to finding excellent Italian or Chinese dishes at the Taj or Sonar Bangla, one returns after an absence to find the chef has disappeared or the food has gone irretrievably downhill. Chaudhuri sets out to discover what becomes of these chefs by collaring another Mukherjee, this one a local chef called Sujan.

Indians are not very adventurous when it comes to food, he is told. Sujan ‘gestures towards a handsome, giant jar of black olives in the buffet. “Nobody eats those.” Then adds: “Even cheese. They have no interest in cheese.”’ The chefs have left in a huff after being asked one time too many to take back pasta their customers considered undercooked. Perversely, yet perhaps inevitably, it appears that Calcutta customers are also unhappy to be served food that is too familiar:

‘People here don’t want local produce when they come to a five-star hotel,’ he tells me. ‘They want something from far away … For example, they’re unimpressed when they see a begoon on the menu,’ he says, spontaneously, acerbically, using the Bengali word for ‘aubergine’. He then approximates the supposedly cursory speaking style of a Bengali customer: ‘Why have begoon,’ they say, ‘when I can get it in the bazaar?’

Chaudhuri does after all have a sense of humour.

When he turns his attention to the why of Calcutta’s eclipse and decline, he gets to the heart of his book, a book that in the end is perhaps more an attempt to articulate the nature of his attachment to Bengaliness than about ‘the city as it is now’. He first realises something is amiss on a visit to Calcutta at some point in the early 1990s, having taken note of the darkened neighbourhoods as his plane descends into Dum Dum airport. In 1989, seven years after his father’s retirement as an executive at Britannia Biscuits, his parents returned to the city from Bombay. Periodically, their son came back to live with them, first on his own, then with his wife and daughter. It is from these journeys that Chaudhuri collected his impressions, leading him to write the eulogies and death notices for the lost city of his youth.

What had changed? I think it’s to do with the decline and marginalisation of the Bengali language – through the disappearance of the bhadralok class; through the processes of globalisation – a language which, in its books, its poems, songs, stories, cinema, brought the city into being in the imagination. Calcutta is an imaginary city; it’s in this realm that it’s most visible and detailed and compelling. I remember the covers of my cousins’ Puja annuals and of their collections of mystery stories, and the envy and inarticulate loss I’d feel upon studying them.

It is fitting that Chaudhuri should believe that Calcutta’s precipitous fall from grace was coterminous with the eclipse of the bhadralok class and their mother tongue. Elsewhere he cites the statistic that only 37 per cent of the city’s population still speaks Bengali, everyone else getting by on Hindi and English or some mixture of the two. But can the power cuts truly be due to the marginalisation of the bhadralok? Is every citizen as haunted by the decline of Bengali as he is? What about the industrious Marwaris? The skilled Muslim artisans of Metiabruz? The thriving Bihari households of Kidderpore whose presence in the city dates back to the early 19th century? Or even the more recent migrants at Ramayan Shah’s hotel? Calcutta is surely not an imaginary city to them, nor a city on its last legs. I’m more inclined to place the blame for Calcutta’s woes on that fateful marriage between the Left Front, with its demands for ideological purity, and the often equally hidebound worldview of the Bengali bhadralok. Whether or not the city reclaims its former title as the cultural capital of India (and why shouldn’t it?), it will certainly endure as it always has.

In some sense Chaudhuri is the true migrant in this book, the only child of a Bombay apartment, still revisiting his uncle’s sprawling joint household on Fern Road, and still covetous of his cousins’ Puja annuals. Never entirely convinced that he belongs, he views the city and its golden age through the glass of longing. At times he confuses this longing with homesickness, like a traveller mistaking a city in which he once felt happy for his final destination.