I picked up this book on the streets of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during my recent visit to the city. I was looking for something local to read and couldn’t seem to choose from among the scores of books by Indian authors at “regular” bookstores like Crosswords. Walking down Park Street, one of the most famous streets of Calcutta, I stopped at one of the streetside book stalls to browse through its collection. I had discovered some excellent books from streetside stalls like this when I was growing up in India, and history seemed to repeat itself. The bookseller handed me a copy of The Epic City and told me it was very good. I read the blurb, which was intriguing; I was also very impressed with the credentials of the author. But what really clinched the deal for me was this quote from the back cover:
“Stop and ask for directions in Delhi and no one knows, because no one is truly of the city. Ask for directions on any Calcutta street corner and a half-dozen mustachioed men will appear out of nowhere. They may offer radically divergent views on the matter, a street fight may break out as a result, rival political camps may emerge, and traffic may be barricaded for the rest of the afternoon. But it is their city, their streets, their neighbourhoods.”
Not only was this so well-written, it described Calcutta to a tee!
However, The Epic City is not just an ode to Calcutta, glorifying all the wonderful things about it such as its history, culture, character, vibrancy, and the passion of its people. It is also an unvarnished look at the city, warts and all, including the dirt and grime, the poverty, the chaos, the overwhelming number of people, the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheer difficulty of getting anything done. While all of this can be said of any major metropolis in India, Calcutta, in particular, seems to be caught in a time warp, according to Kushanava Choudhury, the author of The Epic City. And yet, it hasn’t seemed to have kept him away. He was born in Calcutta and moved to the US when he was 12, but the lure of the city was so strong that he returned to Calcutta after graduating from Princeton to work as a journalist, went back to the US to do a Ph.D. at Yale, and returned again to write The Epic City. His first return was born from idealism, of wanting to make a difference; the second time, he returned simply to capture the essence of the city he loved.
As a result, we get to experience Calcutta through Choudhury’s eyes at three different stages of his life: growing up in an ancestral home as part of a large, close-knit family with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; working as a journalist fresh out of college in The Statesman, a leading Calcutta newspaper; and finally, as a married young man attempting to be a writer. Needless to say, he has a wealth of stories to share about the myriad aspects of life in the city, all of which stem from his own personal experiences. Some that stood out for me include the attempted renovation of his ancestral home by his uncle, an architect trained in the US, who finally gave up because of the labor problems and red tape, and returned to the US; his grandmother’s death, which brought the entire extended family back together in the ancestral home for her cremation; his search for an apartment to rent with his wife, the news of which spread like wildfire and resulted in many people voluntarily coming forward with prospective apartments that were not remotely what they were looking for; chasing news stories as a journalist that involved trying time and again to have meetings that kept getting postponed; and participating in the omnipresent “addas” of people hanging out having fervent discussions about politics, books, sports, philosophy, or literally, anything under the sun.
I found The Epic City a perfect companion for my visit to Calcutta, as I could relate first-hand to many of the experiences so eloquently captured by Choudhury and became familiar with several of the places in the city that he described in the book. But even for those not living in or visiting the city, it shows how it is possible for someone to love a place despite all the many inconveniences of life they encounter there, so much so that they would actually choose to live there instead of a much easier, comfortable, and less stressful life in their home country.
The Epic City may not entice you to move to Calcutta, but it certainly allows you to understand and appreciate those who do.
The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publication Date: October 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.