Decline and sprawl

A review of Kushanava Choudhury’s The Epic City: The world on the streets of Calcutta
(Bloomsbury, 238pp, 2017)

The Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 2018

by Ian Garrick Mason

Kushanava Choudhury’s grandmother refused to use a refrigerator. Ensconced in the larger of the two bedrooms of the family flat in Calcutta (Choudhury uses the English-language name for Kolkata throughout the book), she kept her space traditional and religious, as befitted a Hindu widow. In the other bedroom were Choudhury’s parents, scientists both, exemplifying in outlook and habits a modernizing, outward-looking India. Two worlds in one household: a situation which ended when the couple moved to New Jersey with their eleven-year-old son – and Calcutta, all at once, became a memory.

The Epic City is the story of the son’s determined return. “Of all the people who came to Ellis Island in the first decades of the twentieth century,” he observes in the very first line of his book, “more than half went back.” Yet though diaspora and its counter-flow are phenomena as old as humankind itself, the city that Choudhury moves back to as a newlywed after graduate school is one with a reputation as – he minces no words – “an urban hellhole”. Almost everyone he meets there wonders why he has returned.

Having previously interned in 2001 as a junior reporter for Calcutta’s august Statesman newspaper, Choudhury presents a narrative full of journalistic curiosity. With family members, friends, and former colleagues as guides, Choudhury visits para after para, finding in these closely-packed neighbourhoods the symptoms of a city in the simultaneous throes of decline, stagnation, and aggressive growth.

This is no paradox, but the complex expression of a metropolis responding to forces largely outside its control. The docks and warehouses that supported the massive trade flows of the British Empire – and made Calcutta the largest city in Asia for a time – are hollowed out and collapsing. The factories and tool shops that expanded after Independence, helping to build a self-sufficient society by reverse engineering and mass producing the technology of the West, are disappearing, unable to compete with low-wage producers elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, the city is playing a vigorous game of catch-up with already-globalized parts of India: “Now, when offices vanished in Cleveland or Kalamazoo,” he writes about a fast-growing district of corporate high rises, “they sprouted up in such towers in Gurgaon, Bangalore and Sector Five, Calcutta”.

The callousness of change saddens Choudhury. But so too does change itself. He immerses himself in the city he remembers: in North Calcutta’s laneways he relishes the food stalls of his youth; he partakes in addas of engaged conversation with writers and poets in the literary district around College Street; he gets marriage advice from his family’s loquacious poultry vendor; he perceives “an epic city full of possibilities and visions” in the spectacular Durga Pujo religious festival. Even his practical, Jane Jacobs-like appreciation for the civilizing value of dense, low-rise neighbourhoods and all-hours street life seems to play another role as a rationalization for keeping things the same.

Choudhury writes in the “let me use my own story to illuminate a bigger story” style beloved by book publishers hoping for a broader audience. He is skilled at it, too, using his marriage, family history, and street conversations as segues into informative discussions of epochal events like the Bengal famine, Partition, and the multi-decade Naxalite insurgency. He shows us the hand of history that invisibly shapes the quotidian life of this city – no small accomplishment.

Though engaging and readable, his writing is hardly flawless: Choudhury has a tendency to repeat stories as if raising them for the first time, and seems unable to resist describing a fact or event without immediately trying to boost it with a simile. The claim that mental asylums in the city routinely neglect their patients has punch enough on its own; adding that the victims are “abandoned like Spartan children on a mountainside” is gratuitous, even misleading. More substantively, he demonstrates the limits of personal reportage. Though Choudhury rightly shows us the desperation of laid-off assembly line workers, for example, he doesn’t ask (nor provide the facts that might encourage readers to ask) whether Calcutta as a whole might be better off with digital back offices or with fan factories – or with neither. The frustration he often evinces in grappling with the city’s uncertain future is not unrelated to his choice of a solely street-level field of view.

Choudhury manages to make a virtue out of ambiguity, though. By the end, he has realized that the “clash of civilisations” he had imagined between the old world of his grandmother’s Calcutta and the rational, scientific aspirations of contemporary India is nothing more than an illusion. Calcutta can’t be understood by choosing sides, he concludes, but only by embracing it whole. And in this he is surely right, and wholly convincing.

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