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City of Impregnation

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In her foreword to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta, the novelist Anita Desai mentions how visitors from that city, on unpacking in the dry air of her Delhi home, invariably release a distinctive odour. ‘Damp, mouldy, deltaic, even swampy’, it clings not just to clothes but, less eradicably, to the luggage itself. I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water. Any organic elements must long since have expired, and desiccation has lent a sub-whiff of archaeological respectability, but still it pongs. And like India itself, I can’t bear to part with it.

Dutta’s book, the thirteenth in a brave new series of literary and cultural guides entitled ‘Cities of the Imagination’, features a city of impregnation. Calcutta gets inside the traveller as well as his bags. It reaches those parts that other cities ignore. Without bothering to appeal to the eye or the appetite, it goes for the gut, the craw, the soul. You can’t not flinch. Being mildly disposed towards Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’ is as ridiculous as being somewhat discomfited by Kipling’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’. Acceptance or rejection are the only options. You desire it or you damn it.

For many this is true of India as a whole; Calcutta is just the acid test. Sensitive enquirers demand to know how one can abide so much poverty, discrimination and squalor. Even writing about the country in terms other than those of quivering revulsion invites accusations of a callous condonation. Forty years into a serious affair with India, I ought to have an answer for these critics; but I don’t. In fact I share their horror and still wrestle with the moral contradictions. But reading Krishna Dutta’s gentle and judicious portrait of her native city, I was reminded of how inadequately the condition of India measures up to the experience of it, and of how easily all such scruples melt into

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In her foreword to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta, the novelist Anita Desai mentions how visitors from that city, on unpacking in the dry air of her Delhi home, invariably release a distinctive odour. ‘Damp, mouldy, deltaic, even swampy’, it clings not just to clothes but, less eradicably, to the luggage itself. I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water. Any organic elements must long since have expired, and desiccation has lent a sub-whiff of archaeological respectability, but still it pongs. And like India itself, I can’t bear to part with it.

Dutta’s book, the thirteenth in a brave new series of literary and cultural guides entitled ‘Cities of the Imagination’, features a city of impregnation. Calcutta gets inside the traveller as well as his bags. It reaches those parts that other cities ignore. Without bothering to appeal to the eye or the appetite, it goes for the gut, the craw, the soul. You can’t not flinch. Being mildly disposed towards Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’ is as ridiculous as being somewhat discomfited by Kipling’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’. Acceptance or rejection are the only options. You desire it or you damn it. For many this is true of India as a whole; Calcutta is just the acid test. Sensitive enquirers demand to know how one can abide so much poverty, discrimination and squalor. Even writing about the country in terms other than those of quivering revulsion invites accusations of a callous condonation. Forty years into a serious affair with India, I ought to have an answer for these critics; but I don’t. In fact I share their horror and still wrestle with the moral contradictions. But reading Krishna Dutta’s gentle and judicious portrait of her native city, I was reminded of how inadequately the condition of India measures up to the experience of it, and of how easily all such scruples melt into soggy irrelevance when exposed to the monsoon of Indian reality. Calcutta these days has, as well as a new name (‘Kolkata’), another bridge over the Hughli river and an excellent Underground. But in most respects it has changed less than its three major Indian counterparts and clings, partly from neglect, partly from a well - placed confidence in its own superiority, to the belief that the timeless verities of rural Bengal can still be comfortably realized amid the grime of a Dickensian London. Jack Preger, a doctor from Manchester, used to (and perhaps still does) run a pavement clinic in the vicinity of Park Street. It was exclusively for vagrants and mendicants whose destitution had somehow to be established before the dressings could be changed and the pills handed over. When at first light the medical centre materialized from a fleet of ramshackle carts and vehicles, the patients would be waiting, an unlovely huddle of the lame, the leprous and the fevered. But their distress seemed to be relieved as much by their shared derision of the fly-by-night dispensary and its assorted helpers as by the medical attention. Quite unlike the Blessed Mother Theresa’s establishment for the dying, the clinic-that-Jack-ran echoed with ribaldry, was mildly subversive (the city fathers disapproved of it), hopelessly underfunded and, dare I say, rather fun. Shakespeare-Wallah with a stethoscope, it should have toured the countryside and would have made a touching film. Poverty amid the greenery can be picturesque; seemingly, only when transferred to the city does it become importunate, repugnant and reprehensible. Less self-re g a rding than Delhi and less cosmopolitan than Bombay, Calcutta is yet more metropolitan than either and infinitely more sophisticated. He re, in the bus queue and the traffic jam, ideas have a genuine currency; conversation aspires to performance, and the artist gets away with murder. More with regret than rage Krishna Dutta takes issue with the city’s detractors, notably that distinguished trinity of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Malle and Günter Grass. Her complaint is not that they made Calcutta ‘a byword for human degradation’ but that, in their lurid portrayals of an urban apocalypse, they ignored the city’s historical traditions and its cultural vitality. The same mistake in respect of India as a whole would indeed dent its appeal. In Calcutta the culture comes with the crowds. Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, both of whose writings Dutta has translated, stalk her book like benign colossi. Towering presences on the city’s intellectual skyline, their achievements are undiminished by a roll-call of all the other remarkable Roys and Rays, Mukherjis, Bannerjis, Chatterjis and Chaudhuris, Boses and Basus, Ghoses and Ghoshs, Duttas and Dattas, Sens and Seths. Their variable orthography (a shortage of Bengali surnames makes for infinite variety in the spelling) may be confusing, but the sheer weight of talent and intellect makes one wonder what a Bengal-less India would have left to boast about. The history, for better or worse, bears a British frown. Lord Curzon declared Calcutta ‘the second city’ of the Empire and it was his 1905 partition of Bengal which, though not finally implemented until East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was lopped from India in 1947, made Calcutta what it is. It radicalized the Bengali babu, turning a previously harmless figure of fun into a ready-for-anything revolutionary; it triggered the most violent phase of the independence struggle; and it established the city as a possible refuge from the ravages of famine and sectarianism in the rural districts. The eighteenth-century ‘City of Palaces’ memorialized by gossipy bon viveurs like William Hickey had already made way for the sober façades of India’s political and commercial capital. Fort William, the city’s erstwhile citadel, had assumed the character of its ‘Black Hole’, hard to locate and heavily mythologized. And the lairs were full and the gates already locked on Park Street’s cemetery. There, a brisk stroll from Preger’s pavement clinic, lies Rose Aylmer, the 20-year-old beauty who died of ‘a most severe bowel complaint brought on entirely by indulging too much with that mischievous and dangerous fruit, the pineapple’. For all of which, and very much more, Krishna Dutta is to be applauded. She reminds us that affection for anywhere, and especially India, is a gift from the god of detail, of unregarded facts and chance friendships, sudden smells, flashes of recognition, acts of kindness, shudders of horror and, yes, moments of rapture.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © John Keay 2004


About the contributor

John Keay’s latest book is Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East. He also writes on the Far East. In between, India remains a fruitful obsession.

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