It is not easy to write about a city. Any city for that matter. More so, the city you were born in and then left and then came back again to visit a couple of times, and then left behind almost permanently and then returned. For Amit Chaudhuri, I would like to believe that Calcutta has always been a part of his life (or so it seems from the books that he writes). Everything that he has to say has to revolve around the city or make an appearance some way or the other in his fiction. This time though, he has taken a step further and written a book completely on the city of his birth, vacations, dreams and of a city that is home: Calcutta.
Reading “Calcutta: Two Years in the City” by Amit Chaudhuri is like taking a roller-coaster ride. I was born and brought up in Bombay and somehow after reading this book, I yearn to visit Calcutta. I had visited it in 2011 to study there for a while, and after that I did not go back there. Maybe I will someday. For now, here is what I read and my thoughts on the book.
Amit Chaudhuri’s book is an account of two years (2009-2011) spent by him in the great metropolis. Amit’s Calcutta almost seems very different from the city that exists. He writes about the Calcutta of the nineteenth century and then compares it (almost) to the Calcutta of the twentieth century and how much has changed and what has remained. To me that was the most fascinating aspect of the book. I have always wondered the same about my city and tried putting things in perspective, however never been able to do so. While reading this book, I could try a little.
“Calcutta: Two Years in the City” is a book that almost takes your breath away, because it has been written from the heart and less using the mind. The characters that Mr. Chaudhuri encounters, their lives, the dichotomy that plays itself out on a daily basis in metros, the political agendas, the stench of the city that gets under your skin and its people and the warmth sometimes is all there in this book. The bygone era of the city has been beautifully described by Mr. Chaudhuri, this includes the language, the names, the visits that he made to the city and its exploration through them, and the yearning for the city for not there and the need to get away when there is what everyone feels when returning to a city.
For me this book was something quite special. It is nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone writes about cities they belong to and what has been their relationship with them. Having said that, the way this book is written is what took me by the horns. The simplicity of language, the socio-political angles described without taking sides, without the emotions getting complex or convoluted is superbly expressed in the book. Amit Chaudhuri captures the essence of the city so well that sometimes I forgot that the Calcutta I visited was very different from the way (or not) the writer writes about it. I feel that non-fiction has to have the extra something about it to engage you completely in it, almost to drag you in the content and “Calcutta: Two Years in the City” manages to do that. I highly recommend this jewel of a book. It will amaze you and make you see the city differently. I sure do want to visit it again and relive the moments.