In 1999, the brilliant Anglo-Indian novelist, literary critic and musician Amit Chaudhuri returned from England to Calcutta, a city he luxuriated in as a young boy, although in fact he grew up in Bombay. However, as is often the case with such return journeys, the Calcutta to which the then 37-year-old writer returned was not the city he had known in his youth.
The peculiar allure of this 300-page book, now available in paperback, is bound up with the profound affection which Chaudhuri has for Calcutta, while he has learned to accept unpleasant realities about poverty and crime, twenty-first century style. To write and research the book, he spent two years (2009-2011) in the city. According to the 2011 national census, Calcutta or Kolkatta district had a population of almost five million that year.
He carefully exhumes the facts of his own family, East Bengali landlords on his father’s side, who lost their properties with Partition. His mother's family were colonial engineers, but the family ‘lost face’ after her father’s early death. He includes in lesser detail his wife's family background.
One reviewer of the hardback edition questioned the author’s over-reliance on the upper class for the material of his story. But a man can only write about what he knows, unless he sets out to do a comprehensive job of reportage. With his novelist's eyes and ears, Chaudhuri goes where his nose takes him, and all the better for that.
Chaudhury’s best novel, The Immortals, is set in a world of privilege and affluence, albeit in 1980s Bombay, the city in which the writer actually grew up. Calcutta, the subject of this factual book, was more enchanting presumably because it was less familiar, thus more exotic in the young boy's fertile imagination.
‘The Calcutta upper class was all related to each other: I realised this after I moved here,’ he writes in a chapter called High Tea. `More exclusive than the Jews, less endangered, they seemed to know each other by name, and if they didn’t, had the knack – or helpless habit - of unearthing connections.’
There is interesting materiual on the India Premiere League and a colourful vignette on Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, current owner of Kolkatta Knight Riders, Calcutta’s cricket team. In earlier, more energetic days, it seems, Rukh Khan used to throw post-match parties for team and cheerleaders, to which models, businessmen and various others also congregated.
The parties went on all night, yet Khan mystified hotel staff by his ability to get up early and catch a flight to Bombay. Chaudhury is always ready with his literary comparisons, and is reminded of Nick Carraway’s amazement at Gatsby’s similar ability to be fresh in the morning, in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. The writer has a dry wit when necessary, as the best travel writers are. “Of all human types, the Bengali experiences the most acute deprivation I’ve noticed anywhere on being denied his or her quota of animal protein at mealtime.”