Dining Out and In Calcutta

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…

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