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.


Short stories that add up to a novel

Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

Tales from Firozsha Baag is a charming collection of short stories – and unusual too. Published in 1987, Rohinton Mistry’s first book describes an India I remember all too well. An India where it took years to get a telephone, months to get a refrigerator. Now even slum dwellers have mobile phones and television sets.

But life was more laidback then. People once they found jobs could expect lifetime employment. Workers were seldom fired. Companies that went into the red were taken as “sick industries” by the government, which kept on the workers. That might have made the economy sluggish, the country poor – and the bright and ambitious emigrated in droves – but there was a stability, which seems enviable amidst the uncertainties unleashed by globalisation.

Mistry describes the lives of Parsis living in a rundown apartment complex in Bombay, now called Mumbai. They include clerks, salesmen, lawyers and a vet. Few own cars, residents use their neighbours’ phones and fridges. But they like their drinks, send their children to English medium schools, celebrate Christmas and New Year while at the same time maintaining their own Parsi traditions.

Each short story centres on the occupants of one apartment. One is about a Goan maid working for a Parsi family, another about a widow, a third about a lawyer.

Mistry describes their lives in intimate detail. He describes the interaction between neighbours, the escapades of their children who play in the compound, the interaction between the children and the adults.

The stories flow from one into another, documenting life in the apartment complex with the passing of years. A mischievous boy is sent off to a boarding school, a popular resident dies, his wife adjusts to widowhood, another boy goes to college, finds a girlfriend and then realises he is gay. Another boy becomes a social activist.