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Dining Out and In Calcutta

desai_1-092613.jpg
Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
A café at one of Calcutta’s new shopping malls, 2006

I was twenty when my family gave up our home in Old Delhi and moved to Bengal in the late 1950s. I thought Calcutta the first metropolis I had set eyes on. Delhi, although the capital since 1912, in the 1950s was still little more than a cluster of villages on the sand and dust of the northern plain. Calcutta by contrast seemed to pulse with a sense of purpose, a confidence in its raison d’être. The reason may have been taken away with the shift of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi but a tradition had been established, habits formed. One saw it in the energy with which the traffic moved, in the orderly variety of the markets. Here was no compromise between city and suburb; here was city. How wonderful to have piped gas supplied by the city, to see a blue flame leap at the turn of a knob!

In Delhi we might as well have been camping in the desert, the way we had to construct our lives, but in Calcutta the city constructed our lives for us, making us city-dwellers, not junglees—people without a sophisticated culture. Not coincidentally, in Delhi my attempts to break into publishing or journalism had been rebuffed with scorn whereas here I quickly became a member of a writers’ workshop that met for coffee on Sunday mornings. Everything I wrote was considered with flattering, if unearned, seriousness. The city had a sophistication about it, I felt, to be experienced at all-night concerts of classical music that only broke up at dawn, or the film club where I first saw the work of Eisenstein and Bergman.

Calcutta appears to have affected Amit Chaudhuri in somewhat the same way, at a much younger age when he visited it as a child from Bombay, where he lived with his parents, to be entertained and indulged by relatives on his vacations. He continued to visit through the spectacularly dysfunctional 1960s and 1970s, when the Bengal region turned into a pariah, a terrorist state in the grip of anarchy. The government had proved incapable of dealing with its manifold problems. The brightest of its youth and many intellectuals turned to revolution in the form of the Communist-inspired Naxalite movement.

Nothing came of it, only violence and destruction, turning Calcutta into what Kipling might have called “the City of Dreadful Night.” If it had once been “the graveyard of the British Empire,” it was now the graveyard of the dreams and ideals of a still-young independent India. Eventually Calcuttans accepted the depressing reality of its dysfunction and adjusted to it, as people do. Out of it today’s Calcutta emerged, more or less similar to other Indian cities from which it had once been distinct.

It is to that modern Calcutta that Chaudhuri returned, from teaching at the University of East Anglia, for a longer stay than previously: partly because he was tired of “Britain under Blair,” partly because his parents, who now lived in Calcutta, were aging and needed help, and partly to write the book his publisher had suggested and that he was reluctant, he has said, to undertake, having already set several novels in the city and also because “I don’t actually like the Calcutta of today.” The city had given up the Anglicized name bestowed by the group of East India Company officials on what was then a cluster of fishing villages in the Ganges delta where they had chosen, in 1690, to set up their trade in chintz and muslin, jute and indigo. In 2001 it reclaimed its Bengali pronunciation, Kolkata.

To Chaudhuri this is an act of betrayal: names have magic, he insists, and to change them is to destroy that magic. Hence his choice of the title for his book, though the city he describes “is neither a shadow of Calcutta, nor a reinvention of it, nor even the same city. Nor does it bear anything more than an outward resemblance to its namesake.” Still “haunted and impeded by my childhood vision of it,” he is “intrigued” when friends visiting from Europe and America tell him it is the Indian city they like best, and it is that city he sets out to discover.

Then there is the other retreat from which he chooses to make his wary, nervous forays into the present—that of the bhadralok: a Bengali term and a slippery one to define, “since it’s synonymous with ‘gentleman,’ [and] could well be claimed by any member of the landed gentry” as well as by “secular individuals identified by their sophistication and learning, rather than the extent of their property and land.” Although largely Westernized since the end of the nineteenth century, they tended to be “deeply cosmopolitan,” knowing their Bengali literature as well as their Marx and Milton, and dressing in the Bengali style of the purest and most impeccably starched muslin.

To Chaudhuri this class is exemplified by an elderly couple, the Mukherjees, who live in a “gently peeling, charming apartment” where Chaudhuri and his wife are frequently invited to “high tea,” invitations Chaudhuri covets and prizes for the “heavenly,” “incomparable” sandwiches, “spotless napkins,” and the pleasure of “how beautifully the Mukherjees spoke English.” A whole chapter is devoted to these delights.

Otherwise, Chaudhuri seeks them in Park Street and its string of restaurants—Flurys, Skyroom, Mocambo—that he had come to know during his childhood visits. Happily, they still exist and contain “some of the discredited magic you could once breathe within” them. Here he can linger over a coffee and enjoy comparing the prawn cocktail at Flurys with the one at Mocambo—“thicker, like melted ice cream [and] sweeter,…but also sharper.”

But sadly there is the assignment he has accepted—to write a report on the Calcutta not of his childhood but of today. So he tears himself away and visits a stretch of pavement nearby, occupied by a very different establishment—a ramshackle stall under a tarpaulin where “slop” is dished out to the hungry who line up for it, a very ill child sits scrubbing pots and pans, and a man with an ironing board presses clothes.

Chaudhuri dutifully asks the questions he feels are expected of him: “How much do you earn? Where is your home?” Their replies, if made at all, tend to be laconic. They don’t “hugely mind answering my questions,” he observes, but seem to find his presence “mysterious, if not a downright nuisance.” A poet friend sets him right. You don’t ask a homeless man where his home is, you ask “where he rests his head.” “These,” the poet adds, “are our citizens [nagarik].” Chaudhuri returns with relief to Flurys, where his wife has been holding a table for him, and for the most part the homeless vanish from his book.

Also, there are elections on, always hotly contested and hotly debated in Bengal, which saw the Maoist Naxalite movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the ferocious backlash against it, rage through the region, leaving the entire population defeated, depleted, and stranded in irresolution. The reader might be surprised to learn how many of the bhadralok like the Mukherjees tell Chaudhuri they actually enjoyed that “troubled and tragic time.” “It was a fun time,” they recall, “with an odd, subversive excitement.” They had never before “experienced the closeness and the thrill of danger”—ideology breathed a new life into their drawing room, along with a “mood—of cultural ferment and economic and social unrest.”

Chaudhuri needs to report on the present climate, however: fractious but somehow devoid of energy. He borrows his father’s car and chauffeur and has himself driven to distant polling booths to show his determination to get the elections right, although he is aware that he looks foolish—“hilarious” to some of those standing in line to vote, and to others “like a salesman who has limited time to make a pitch.” In fact, he has come to regard himself in much the same fashion as he puts to them the same basic questions: “What do you do? Who will you vote for?”

One senses the relief, in fact the enthusiasm, with which he returns to investigating the culinary scene. Not Bengali cuisine as one might expect—he dismisses it by saying that what had once been “delicate” is now “watery”—but Continental fare, especially Italian. An entire chapter, “Italians Abroad,” is devoted to finding out why the few Italian chefs who came to Calcutta quickly left, with one exception—who married. “He was a Michelin-star chef…. But Calcutta is not a Michelin-star city.”

With the survivor Chaudhuri mourns the poor quality of the Italian dishes in a city with no good cheeses or olives, and where local diners prefer ketchup to fresh tomatoes. An Indian hotelier explains to Chaudhuri that “people here don’t want local produce when they come to a five-star hotel. They want something from far away.” Such items prove difficult to prepare in this setting—the cheesecake, Chaudhuri finds, lacks the necessary cream cheese and resembles a soufflé or mousse, and when his eye lights upon his favorite ginger pudding on a Taj Hotel restaurant menu, and he is served Christmas pudding instead, he creates the kind of scene that too often takes place in the “new” India where a waiter is berated by a customer whose tastes are of another world. This chapter will no doubt surprise those readers who associate Calcutta solely with the infamous Black Hole of 1756, Mother Teresa’s saintly endeavors, endemic street poverty, and the commentaries of V.S. Naipaul, Günter Grass, and Louis Malle.

At this point one may decide to turn to the more comprehensive scope of Krishna Dutta’s cultural and literary history of Calcutta, published in the Cities of the Imagination series, or to the more profound view in Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s magisterial Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.* But Amit Chaudhuri (no relation) comes into his own in the latter half of the book. It is when he gives up his place as the outsider, the visitor, and steps into the inside of his subject that he is at his most engrossing and impressive, drawing on the gifts he has displayed in his novels, which include A Strange and Sublime Address, Freedom Song, The Immortals, among others. These are books in which one finds precise observation, subtle and unexpected insights, disarming transparency, and delicate prose, making one appreciate such phrases in Calcutta as “an aquarium…frugally populated with unremarkable fish,” “swaggering, hirsute pigs” on a garbage dump, and an “ostentatiously ambulant” octogenarian—to describe the Bengali politician Jyoti Basu.

He provides a clue to his approach to life and to writing when he tells us that it was on a visit to the Jewish museum in the Hallesches Tör in Berlin—not the Holocaust Museum, but the museum of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in the city with its busts and portraits, its clocks, combs, and coffeepots—that he “understood that it was the banality of modern man that gave me most pleasure and most moved me,” and it is of such “banality” that he is the poet and celebrant.

  1. *

    Signal/Interlink, 2003; Macmillan, 1951 (republished by New York Review Books, 2001). 

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