APRIL 13, 2018
AS A TEENAGER in suburban New Jersey, Kushanava Choudhury wanted to be somewhere else. His Bengali parents had already lugged him between Calcutta and the United States multiple times, “flipping back and forth between continents like a dual-voltage appliance,” so a natural restlessness enveloped him. He longed for his ancestral country, often feeling hunched over with the nostalgia of someone twice his age. Even after Princeton accepted him, Choudhury kept oscillating between various perspectives of home.
Such a natural duplicity of viewpoints developed into The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, Choudhury’s multisensory nonfiction love letter to one of the world’s most overwhelming urban places. Through 235 pages, the narrative switches between various spells of Calcutta living during different parts of the author’s life.
He joined the newspaper staff of The Statesman, a storied institution dating back to the British Raj. We become immersed in the history of The Statesman and its role in the evolution of Calcutta, only in later chapters to see its decline along with the decimation of the newspaper industry. The offices and people Choudhury relished in his first stint at the paper, both the physical building and its few remaining employees, are now abandoned crumbling relics.
Much of the book unfolds in similar fashion, with themes of gentrification and abandonment driving the dynamics. Places Choudhury recalls from previous visits have been bulldozed and replaced by much more boring equivalents. Intertwined with modern-day decrepitude, we learn about a city shrouded in nostalgia for dead heroes. Everywhere in Calcutta, there are shells of people who’ve given up, given in to the tedium.
As Choudhury seems to oscillate between wanting to stay in Calcutta and wanting to leave, it becomes apparent early on, at least for the reader, that all the personal issues he left behind in the United States are still with him. Changing geographic locales won’t make his problems go away. The legendary Cavafy poem “The City” comes to mind immediately, although Choudhury doesn’t get around to quoting the entire poem until near the end of the book.
We get introduced to several Bengali concepts, like that of adda, a form of outré philosophical conversation among the street intelligentsia. Instead of saying, “let’s go hang out,” people say, “let’s go for adda.” We learn about adda sessions taking place on street corners, in tea shops, office corridors, and book markets. At several key inward-looking moments of nostalgia or melancholy, the author longs not just for defunct places or forgotten friends, but the adda sessions that he associates with those places and people. During one of numerous arguments with his wife, Durba, Choudhury is asked what he wants from this attempted life in Calcutta and he responds with, “Sunday adda,” the regular weekly sessions he used to enjoy with friends.
Adda is so important to Choudhury’s journey that he even exalts a literary hero, the great Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali, who spoke a dozen languages and whose prose functioned like adda. Mujtaba Ali once claimed that everything he knew he gathered from scraps collected at addas. “To read Mujtaba Ali is to always feel as if he is talking to you from across the table,” Choudhury writes. “Whether he is drawing us into the world of Kabul’s markets, Berlin’s streets, or Cairo’s cafes, he can make a reader feel as at home as we are at the local tea-shop adda.”
Choudhury will be glad to know that The Epic City functions in the same way. Adda is everywhere. On a macro level, the entire city is a symphony comprised of component parts — traffic, floods, noise, crime, food stalls, crumbling architecture, monsoons, and book-market banter — all functioning like one large adda session. Or perhaps The Epic City is an artfully disjointed assemblage of addas, but with enough through lines to make all the sections cohere. We get sordid histories of Calcutta: famines unleashed by the British, the violence of communal riots from which the very seeds of Partition grew, and the ways in which Russian literature was systematically injected into the city’s bloodstream. Choudhury’s personal history, nostalgia, and hopes for the future become a hall of mirrors reflecting Calcutta’s own knotty evolution, with the whole story unfolding as a long, three-hour adda session inside some noir back-alley tea shop.
In fact, tea and cigarettes are the other constants tying the book together. No meal or thought process unfolds without them. Nicotine and caffeine fuel the book’s multisensory treatment of Calcutta’s underbelly. In fact, their perpetual presence makes it difficult to distinguish the underbelly from the overbelly, the above-ground from the demimonde. It all seeps together.
The author comes to accept the garbage, the bodily fluids, the raw sewage, the malaria-soaked floods, and the pulverizing humidity. Channeling V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, Choudhury doesn’t whitewash the filthy veneer of bodily fluids coating a particular landscape. He emphasizes the degree to which urine coats the entire Calcutta topography. “Men piss everywhere: on the streets, in alleys, on highways and, improbably, even in the dark corners of office corridors,” he writes. “There are no uncontaminated piss-free zones in Calcutta, no elite enclave without the stench.”
Except there is one. Men apparently won’t piss on historical figures, and Choudhury introduces Bengali figures — poets, nationalists, political reformers, bomb-throwers, scientists, and saints — by explaining that murals dedicated to them exist all over town precisely to protect those areas from ubiquitous urination. With bladder control that would make Naipaul proud, we then learn about the Nobel laureate of Literature Rabindranath Tagore and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, plus Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, one of the first Indian novelists. We’re introduced to Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and even Mother Teresa, all of whom are inseparable from the history of religion in Calcutta. It’s a brilliant strategy on the part of the locals. Who but a drunk Christopher Hitchens would pee on Mother Teresa?
Choudhury tells us he is a non-believer and thus tries to leave spirituality out of his journey, even at one point trashing the western Kali tourists who flock to Bengal for the “dark goddess” and her temples. What he does include, in luscious detail, is Durga Pujo, the colorful and elaborate Bengali festival for the goddess Durga, during which the whole city comes alive amid parties, revelry, food, art, camaraderie, and pandal-hopping. Since this is Calcutta at its most definitive, the scene occurs in the title chapter, “Epic City,” with Choudhury temporarily abandoning his skepticism and melancholy for optimism and hope. For Durga Pujo, millions join together and celebrate, proving that none of them are giving up on life. There is a future to celebrate, Choudhury writes. This town is not finished yet.
“Another city rises during Durga Pujo, an epic city full of possibilities and visions, heroically redrawn,” he writes.
From the profane Company days, pujo was never about private piety. It was about strangers coming together for spectacle. That is why even a non-believer like me believes in pujo, believes in its epic narrative power to rewrite the destiny of a place. There is nowhere else in the world where such a spectacle exists, no other city where hundreds of para clubs put on a pageant that transforms a metropolis into an epic stage.
As he begins to patch things up with his wife, who at first wanted to leave Calcutta and never come back, Choudhury gradually begins to make peace with his predicament. Whether or not he finds home, whether or not he sees himself as part of Calcutta’s destiny, he give us a wondrous and illuminating window into the process.