Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland: The lowdown on Bengal

I just finished reading The Lowland in Kolkata, where I visited some of the places mentioned by the author, Jhumpa Lahiri. Recently I attended two weddings at the Tolly Club, which is described in the novel.

Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, features prominently in some recent novels such as Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand and Jeffrey Eugenides’ A Marriage Plot.  Amitav Ghosh described early 19th century Calcutta when it was the capital of the British Raj in his historical saga, Sea of Poppies, besides depicting the city in several other novels including The Glass Palace, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Shadow Line and The Hungry Tide. Calcutta is also very much present in Amit Chaudhuri’s collection of stories, Real Time, his novel, A New World, and his novellas, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song.

Jhumpa Lahiri has also described Calcutta in her earlier novel, The Namesake.

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Kipling, Calcutta and The City of Dreadful Night


Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865- 18 January 1936). Born in Bombay, now called Mumbai, he died in London.

Calcutta, now called Kolkata, has come to be called the “city of the dreadful night”. Even newspapers in Calcutta use that phrase as a synonym for the city. However, Kipling’s short story, The City of Dreadful Night, is set in Lahore, and not in Calcutta. It describes people sleeping in the street, inert as corpses, and ends with a description of a woman’s body being taken to the burning ghat. “So the city was of Death as well as of Night, after all,” Kipling writes in the last sentence.

Calcutta is described in newspaper sketches like A Real Live City, On the Banks of the Hughli, With the Calcutta. They were compiled in the book, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Places, first published in 1891. Maybe that’s how Calcutta came to be called the City of Dreadful Night. The book was published without Kipling’s permission and so he had suppressed, according to a bibliography of Kipling’s works I found on Google.

Kipling compares Calcutta with London in A Real Live City but is then revolted by the stench and corruption.  Calcutta was the capital of India at the time and this is how Kipling begins his piece:We are all backwoodsmen and barbarians together — we others dwelling beyond the Ditch, in the outer darkness of the Mofussil. There are no such things as Commissioners and heads of departments in the world, and there is only one city in India. Bombay is too green, too pretty, and too stragglesome; and Madras died ever so long ago. Let us take off our hats to Calcutta, the many-sided, the smoky, the magnificent, as we drive in over the Hughli Bridge in the dawn of a still February morning. We have left India behind us at Howrah Station, and now we enter foreign parts. No, not wholly foreign. Say rather too familiar.

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Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is compared to Indira Gandhi by the Indian journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, who once worked for The Straits Times.

In his book, Looking East to Look West, exploring India-Singapore relations, based on his interviews with MM Lee, he writes:

Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’, it might be more accurate to recite ‘Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew’. He is probably the world’s only democratically elected leader who can boast, as France’s Louis XIV is believed to have done, ‘L’etat c’est moi’ (I am the state). That, too, has an Indian parallel. It was only half in jest that British newspapers bestowed on Indira Gandhi the ‘Empress of India’ title invented for Queen Victoria.

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Paul Theroux on Kali and Calcutta

In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux describes an animal sacrifice at the Kali temple in Kalighat. A goat, garlanded with flowers, is led bleating into a walled enclosure to the beat of drums. Once inside, the terrified creature is thrust between two upright stakes and caressed by a barefoot priest, who then hacks off its head to screeches of delight from the crowd.

The narrator, Jerry Delfont, an American travel writer invited to give talks in Calcutta (Kolkata) by the US consulate, is horrified by the spectacle. He is then led inside the temple, which is also frightening:

We shuffled past an inside window where the image of the goddess Kali, gleaming black and brightly marked, stared with orange lozenge eyes from a stack of blossoms and offerings. I was briefly frightened, jostled by the mob in this stifling place of incense and flowers and dishes of money and frantic pilgrims, who were twitching with gestures of devotion and gasping, seeming to eat the air, all of them staring wildly at the furious image.

Theroux is clearly writing as an outsider, who doesn’t share the religious sentiments of the Hindus. The scene is nightmarish. Even Hindus may recoil from the animal sacrifice. And was it necessary to give such a lurid description of the image of the goddess?

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Calcutta hosts world’s biggest book fair

I am surprised the BBC didn’t mention the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Kolkata Book Fair. Maybe the BBC presenter and the Indian correspondent Subir Bhowmik ran out of time discussing the size and scale and the city’s passion for books that has made it the world’s largest retail book fair. Yes, that’s what the BBC said, the Kolkata Book Fair is the world’s largest retail book fair. Attended by millions of people.

The queue to enter the fair could be kilometres long, said the BBC correspondent. That’s why it was moved away from the Maidan. Environmentalists worried the vast crowd was polluting the Maidan, the green belt in the heart of the city.

Book sales in Calcutta are not likely to be hit even by the global downturn, said Subir Bhowmik. Bengalis – that’s people like him and me – can’t do without books and travel, he said.

He has been attending the fair since it started in 1976. I was there too. That’s where I could pick up the Larousse encyclopedias and the Thames and Hudson art books on the cheap. They used to be sold at discounts by booksellers from New Delhi, where apparently there were few buyers for those books.

Here in Singapore I like Borders and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookshop which is even better and has a larger collection than Borders.

But I enjoyed nothing better than visiting Rupa’s, the old bookshop on College Street. It used to be thick with Penguins – PG Wodehouse, AJP Taylor, John Updike, Gerald Durrell, Alistair Cooke, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Michael Innes, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, every author neatly arranged.

And it was at Oxford Bookshop on Park Street that I first saw the USA Today.

I also remember the bookshops in New Market, which used to keep neatly pressed copies of The Times and other British newspapers for delivery to the clubs in Calcutta.

Alexander McCall Smith tribute to RK Narayan

Alexander McCall Smith has been praising Indian writers such as RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Vikram Chandra. The Hindu reports he said:

“The works of R.K. Narayan have steered my writing to a certain direction… The Man-Eater of Malgudi was the first of Narayan’s books that I read, and the effect was profound.”

Allen Ginsberg and Calcutta

But of all the writers who have visited Calcutta, the one who made the deepest impression was the poet, Allen Ginsberg.

He made friends with famous Bengali writers, poets and journalists when he visited the city in the early 60s. They did things I better not write about in Singapore. But here’s a report.

Calcutta is non-conformist, anti-establishment, said the BBC correspondent Subir Bhowmik. But the younger generation is more career-oriented, he added. Still, there’s hope…

Barack Obama is the biggest sensation this year. The Times of India reports:

Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are out of stock in most bookstores. Distributors have placed huge orders for these two books, expecting a rush for them during the Kolkata Book Fair.

Remembering Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died on this day in 1968 at the age of 66, six years after he won the Nobel Prize, which even he himself didn’t expect.

Critical scorn

When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, “Frankly, no,” says Robert Gottlieb. In a New York Review of Books article published in April this year, he writes about Steinbeck:

When to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. “Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck’s accomplishments,” ran a New York Times editorial, “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age.”

Of Mice and Men

But Steinbeck still sells “well over a million copies a year,” says Gottlieb, “with Of Mice and Men accounting for more than half of them. (It’s short, it’s easy to follow, and it’s full of feeling—a perfect assignment for junior high school readers.)”

Note the words Gottlieb puts in brackets. He sounds so dismissive. But he finally has to praise the book.

It begins, as so many Steinbeck novels do, with a loving evocation of its natural setting:

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green…. On the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring.”

And he loves his central characters, too, the pair of itinerant ranch hands—”bindlestiffs”—named George and Lennie. George is the smart one, the leader; Lennie is the massive semi-idiot, worshiping George, dreaming of the little bit of land they might one day own, and—his most powerful fantasy—the rabbits he might one day be able to tend and caress.

We know that this isn’t going to happen, and on some level George knows it too, but he needs to believe in it as strongly as Lennie does: it’s the illusion they live by. And then, catastrophe. Yes, the pathos is laid on thick; yes, everything is foreshadowed and manipulated. (Edmund Wilson called it “contrived with almost too much cleverness.”) But Steinbeck’s sympathy for these decent, forlorn men is so intense that it carries us along with it. Uninfected by moralizing, ingeniously if stagily constructed, and credibly populated, Of Mice and Men—far from Steinbeck’s most ambitious book—is the closest he came to a fully satisfying work of art.

The snapshot here from Google Book Search shows George and Lennie’s first appearance in the book, just after Steinbeck has described the banks of the Salinas River.


I was moved to tears when I read the book a long time ago. Imagine Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without the wisecracks and the horseplay. Of Mice and Men describes a relationship similar to that except that one man is totally dependent on the other.

Writer for hard times

In my younger days in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Steinbeck was popular with our parents’ generation. The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, they were all popular books. While The Grapes of Wrath was considered a classic – Calcutta has always been a leftist city – East of Eden was apparently a very popular movie, too, though I have not seen it myself.

Steinbeck is relevant again today because of the economic downturn, says the Millions blog:

With Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck…The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.

Steinbeck may suit people who like folk music – songs like This Land is Your Land, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Prison Trilogy…

Maybe I am over-romanticising Steinbeck. I haven’t him read him for a long time.

But I was moved by Of Mice and Men.

And a man has to have his heart in the right place to say, as Steinbeck did:

“Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

Amit Chaudhuri on Calcutta

Real Time by Amit Chaudhuri

What a surprise! Dakkhinee, the bookstall I used to visit in my younger days in Calcutta (Kolkata), is mentioned by the Indian writer, Amit Chaudhuri, in his Real Time collection of short stories.

“The Dakkhinee Bookshop, at the turning crossing of Lansdowne Road and Rashbehari Avenue – it was really no more than a pavement bookstall,” begins the short story, Beyond Translation. “It stands even now, though with more than half its books gone, still doing business, but a shadow of its former self.’

Even in my time, it was just a hole in the wall – with a long bookshelf jutting on to the pavement from a glass bookcase built into a wall. But I used to love standing there, browsing through the Penguins and Faber and Fabers.

That’s where I used to buy the weekly New Statesman. Anthony Howard was the editor then and it used to cost six Indian rupees. The reviews by AJP Taylor, EH Carr et al and the funny First Person column by Arthur Marshall were marvellous.

The magazine had no connection with my life in Calcutta. But that was Calcutta, where people used to be insatiably curious about everything happening in the world. From Mao to Milton Friedman, Shakespeare to Brecht, Chaplin to Fellini, Plato to Krishnamurthy, every big gun had his fans.

Amit Chaudhuri, who has lived in Calcutta, lovingly describes the arty nature of the city. In the short story, Portrait of an Artist, which is autobiographical I guess, he writes:

Going to England blurred certain things and clarified others. I realised that a strange connection between this small, cold island and faraway Bengal had given rise to the small-town world of Calcutta… from a distance, I saw it gradually in perspective – a colonial small town, with its trams and taxis, unknown to, and cut off from, the rest of the world, full of a love for the romance of literature that I have not found anywhere else…

Indeed, it used to be said every Bengali writes poetry in his youth. Even the current Marxist chief minister of the state, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is an accomplished poet who was praised by the Economist magazine last year. He must have been pleased.

Bengalis have this thing about England. I have outgrown it myself, I think. 

I wanted to review Real Time and ended up reminiscing about Calcutta!

But that is because most of the stories are set either in Calcutta or in Bombay (Mumbai).

Most of the stories are about people we Indians call “boxwallahs” – senior executives and their wives and children. A boxwallah’s son, Chaudhuri writes intimately of them. But he is at his best when he describes the shabby gentility of the literary world in Calcutta in Portrait of an Artist and his own schooldays in Four Days before the Saturday Night Social. He went to Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay. I don’t know why the story reminded me of La Martiniere in Calcutta.

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

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Sublime writing — like a movie

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the best Indian writers in English today. Salman Rushdie may be more flamboyant, but when it comes to describing a scene, Chaudhuri is second to none. He can be as vivid as a photograph or a video.

The only reason he is not better known is his short stories and novels are not ambitious in scope: they are more like subtle miniatures than epics. But Chaudhuri, who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, has won several literary awards. Praising him, the Guardian said:

Yes, he writes about India, but not the Technicolor romps British readers have come to expect since Midnight’s Children. Mr Chaudhuri’s work is better, and more truthful, than that…

Here’s an extract from A Strange and Sublime Address, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1991. It’s set in Calcutta (Kolkata), where Chaudhuri was born. Here he is describing three little boys looking out of a window and watching pigeons mating. They are too young to know what the birds are up to. The details are fascinating. It’s both poetic and funny.

On the far side of the parapet, while the rest dreamed, two pigeons began to kiss each other in a solemnly painful manner, beaks locked together, heads moving up and down simultaneously as if they were trying to release themselves from the mysterious lock. It was a strange kind of passion; it was the only way birds could embrace, or come close to embracing — locking their beaks in that funny, tortured way. Finally, the male climbed on the female’s back and proceeded to flap its wings in an abstracted fashion. The female waited, bending its head in a world-weary manner.

“What are they doing?” asked Babla, noting the nuances of the scene in fascination.

Sandeep did not know.

“I think they’re fighting,” he said, not sure of the validity of his superior knowledge.

“If they’re fighting,” said Abhi,”why doesn’t the other one struggle?”

“It’s lost,” said Sandeep.”It knows it’s defeated.”

The entire spectacle,from courtship to climax to possible marital bliss or discord,lasted around ten minutes. God had apparently created these birds with the sole purpose of amusing slothful boys, and probably Himself, on unpleasantly humid afternoons.

The magic of Ian McEwan

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Seldom have I read a better book. It’s about a day in a man’s life. Forty-eight-year-old neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes up in the middle of the night in his posh London home, sees a plane in the sky and fears it is going down in flames. But there’s nothing he can do.

Morning comes. There’s no news of the plane. Perowne goes for his usual Saturday game of squash, gets caught up in an anti-war demonstration — it is February 15, 2003, people are protesting against the coming Iraq war — and, trying to escape the gridlock, has a minor collision with another car. But it has major consequences. The other car’s occupants barge into his home in the middle of a family reunion.

Yes, it’s a domestic drama, and the way I have told it, it doesn’t sound anything much.

Ah, but the language. McEwan’s vivid descriptions of scenes and relationships, his empathy for Perowne and his happy, successful family — the wife is a newspaper lawyer, the son a talented blues guitarist, the daughter an award-winning poet — and even for the hooligans who burst into their world, lift the story to another dimension. It’s a touching story of people in the post-9/11 world. Perowne is Everyman. For all his professional success, he is an ordinary man — a loving husband, a loving father, but helpless when danger threatens his wife and daughter.

McEwan paints a moving portrait of a man vulnerable in his love for his family and his awareness of his physical powers diminishing with age. He is portrayed beautifully:

“His head hair, though thinning, is still reddish brown. Only on his pubes are the first scattered coils of silver.”

McEwan’s command of language and powers of description are extraordinary.  He describes how Perowne met his wife as an intern when she came to the hospital. She had a brain tumour which had to be removed to save her from blindness. McEwan describes the procedure eloquently:

“To go right into the face, remove the tumour through the nose, to deliver the patient back into her life, without pain or infection, with her vision restored was a miracle of human ingenuity.”

McEwan has a way with words, and it’s only fitting that when danger threatens his wife and daughter, they are saved by a poem: Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. One of the hooligans taunts the daughter when he discovers she is a poet and commands her to read a poem. She reads Dover Beach. “You wrote that,” he says excitedly. Ignorant and ill-educated, he is moved by the poem though he doesn’t know who the author is.

That may seem extraordinary here in prosperous Singapore where young government “scholars” are sent for undergraduate studies to top British and American universities, where ministers earn million-dollar salaries and school students were not encouraged until recently to read English literature for their school-leaving examinations. Bright students were — and still are — encouraged to read law or take up medicine or engineering. Perowne himself could be a role model for them. A successful surgeon with a loving family who has no time for literature.

But I recall places where poetry and literature, music and drama, flourished, where people loved quoting writers. Dover Beach is a favourite poem of mine and my wife’s.

I am not surprised that words can move even a young hooligan. I am not spoiling the story by revealing this: it doesn’t end there. This anyway isn’t a book to be read just for the story’s sake. One may dip into it even after reading the story for the pleasure of words. McEwan gives voice to our innermost feelings which we don’t have the words to express. What could be more beautiful than this scene, where Perowne joins his wife in bed:

“He fits himself around her, her silk pyjamas, her scent, her warmth, her beloved form, and draws closer to her. Blindly, he kisses her nape. There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this. And, at last, faintly, falling: this day’s over.”