Tag Archives: calcutta

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City Title: The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-9386432575
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I have always been fascinated by Calcutta – right to its portrayal in movies to books to even theatre and sometimes even TV shows that are genuinely set there. Something about that city – it has managed to mingle the traditional and the modern so well, that it makes me more curious about the thing they do, how they do it and why – the culture of Calcutta cannot be spread across one book or one review (most certainly not), however “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury is indeed one of its kind books on the city.

I remember my first visit to Calcutta. It was 2011 and I had gone there to prepare for a course, which meant Calcutta was home for about forty-five days. The city was hesitant to be my friend initially and as I learned its ways and sought it out, it almost became a second home. Everything about it seemed better and yet there were times that nothing about it made sense to me. Sometimes I would find the people cold and distant and at others extremely affectionate. The polarity of the people lends itself to the city or is it the other way around?

So as I read “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury, I would often find myself nodding my head and agreeing or disagreeing with what he was saying about the city. Kushanava arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve – migrated from Calcutta with his parents. After graduating from Princeton, he decided to move back home – Calcutta that is and this book is a medley of experiences of that movement. As I mentioned earlier, you cannot encapsulate Calcutta in a book, but people must and need to so readers can know about this soulful city.

The book traverses through the city and Choudhury introduces to places and people off the streets. He makes us acquaintances of jobless men, of looming buildings, of a city abandoned and people who are there and yet only in a limbo. Calcutta belongs to a different era perhaps. Or it did. Yet, it struggles so hard to keep up with the rest of the country. Choudhury at the same time in his writing is hopeful of what the future holds.

“The Epic City” is written from inside out and also to a large extent from outside in. There is a quality of frankness and melancholy in Choudhury’s way of describing the city that almost breaks your heart. You want to know more about the place and yet you want to resist, because Calcutta then seems like an aged queen whose grandeur is not lost, yet she is.

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Before we visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

BeforeWeVisitTheGoddess FC Title: Before we Visit the Goddess
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1471146930
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I started reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books in about 2001. I clearly remember being fascinated then by the writing and surprisingly still am. Every time there is a book by her, I devour it. I am somehow taken in by the writing that is so lucid and the interpersonal relationships that stand out so strong in all her books. Whether she is speaking of Draupadi in “The Palace of Illusions” or trying to deal with cousins and their lives in “Sister of my Heart”, she sure knows her craft and is the top notch mistress of it.

“Before we visit the Goddess” is her latest book and to be honest, I think it is way better than the others (that’s saying something) and very taut in its writing. It is a story of three generations of mothers and daughters – spanning right from West Bengal and leading to Texas – a sort of back and forth – not only between terrains but also emotions and lifestyles.

The book is about a family that is torn apart by love, ambition, pride and the need to belong. It starts with Sabitri, daughter of a poor banker in rural Bengal and the decisions she makes that will rock not only her world but also those of her daughter Bela’s (even though she manages to escape to America, falsely thinking that the past is well behind her) and her granddaughter Tara’s who will learn and unlearn love the hard way.

I think more than anything else it is the uniqueness (or not for some) of the plot that had me going. The voices are strong, fearful, uncertain and only human at the end of it all – as the story progresses and reaches an end which is quite unpredictable.
The writing as usual is succinct and not too long. At no point did I feel that I did not know the characters or wanted the book to be longer. It is just right. The pace of the book is languid – the way it should be – the descriptions rich and in full detail, making you wait as a reader about what’s going to happen next.

“Before we visit the Goddess” is an honest book revealing the emotions, the decisions and lives across time and generations of women – each trying to find their own existence and home. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am sure so will you. A must read.

Book Review: Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri

Calcutta - Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri Title: Calcutta: Two Years in the City
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670086221
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

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.

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Book Review: On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today by Amit Chaudhuri

Title: On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Publisher: Penguin Viking India
ISBN: 978-0-670-08621-4
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 178
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

When you write about Tagore, you take a risk. A major risk at that. It is not easy then to talk about the man and his works over years of writing – plays, prose and poetry and more so to lucidly make sense of what he meant and why. So when I received copy of “On Tagore” by Amit Chaudhuri from Penguin, I was a little skeptical to read it. Why? For the simple reason that I hold Tagore in high regard and didn’t want my semi-god stance to shatter to pieces.

Rabindranath Tagore was quite a radical thinker in his own ways. I would also go a step further and say that he was one of the first writers of the country whose heroines were liberated in their thinking and sometimes action and that said a lot about him as a person. Amit Chaudhuri’s five essays on the writer explore different facets of Tagore – his thoughts, his concerns with the movement, the modernist, the conventional and sometimes the revolutionary. Amit Chaudhuri paints a picture of Tagore like no other and to manage that in less than two hundred pages is something commendable.

Amit Chaudhuri also touches on the topic of what it is like to read Tagore today and what it actually means. He talks of the dichotomy in Tagore’s works and explains it as clearly as possible through Geetanjali, heavily through his prose, a few other poems and his songs. I liked how Mr. Chaudhuri covered almost every aspect of the writer and the relation to modernity and relation to contemporary society.

On Tagore can get to be a dull read for people who aren’t interested in Tagore’s writing or his style. I do not recommend this book to everyone, but definitely to those who are interested in knowing more about Indian Literature’s doyen and his works, should definitely not give this work a miss.

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Book Review: The Dancing Boy by Ishani Kar-Purkayastha

Title: The Dancing Boy
Author: Ishani Kar-Purkayashta
Publisher: Harper Collins India
ISBN: 9789350291245
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

The Dancing Boy struck a chord in me. The time is 1980’s and the setting: Calcutta, which brings out the plot even more vividly. It is not an extraordinary story or something that you will mull on long after finishing the book, however it is one of those books that will make you look up and notice the writing.

In the lazy by-lanes of the city, a boy spends hours in front of a mirror, draped in his mother’s saris, entranced by their touch on his skin. Moyur wants to be his twin sister who died before she was born. Moyna talks to him, and urges him to do things. He wants to overcome his oddities and break free from his mother’s expectations and live the life that he wants to. No one understands him but Jojo, his childhood sweetheart, who eventually marries someone else and this changes everything.

They both move on with their lives and come back later to where they started from. Relationships are intertwined – Moyur, his wife, Jojo, Boshonti and Shiuli‘s characters emerge strongly from the book. Your heart goes out to them and you almost feel at one with their happiness and sorrows and the complexities that surrounds them.

I loved the way Ishani described Calcutta in the book. The by-lanes, the colours, the food, the noise and the air link very well with the story that is being set. For me the book was not a heavy read at all, despite the plot feeling heavy-handed in certain places. The story is simply told and the writing reaches to a wider audience, and doesn’t let go of the plot. I would recommend that you read this book on a rainy or a winter afternoon. It is that kind of a book. Perfect for a day like that.

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