Of past and present

The author--s pleasant memories of old Calcutta is often interrupted by the city--s current dead and challenging nature
Of past and present
Of past and present

Amit Chaudhuri used to vacation in Calcutta as a child. That city is incandescent in his psyche, crowned by Park Street in Christmas glitter. A demanding muse with &ldquoan air of menace and fortuitous unpredictability&rdquo, it exudes an elusive modernity. Something that feels worn and easy, yet fresh. Something with a vibrant inner life. That city, Chaudhuri finds, that abode of the genteel bhadralok, has slipped away. In its place today he finds a different city that is &ldquointriguing but I am haunted and impeded by my childhood vision of it in the 60s and 70s when it was a great city&rdquo. In this city-memoir, Chaudhuri strenuously attempts to engage with this new Calcutta, while frequently succumbing to the one in his memories.

The strain is not just in reaching for the present through the fog of a fragrant past there is also a class barrier to overcome. Chaudhuri&rsquos own milieu is decidedly privileged and all his Calcutta novels are set in the educated middle class. Here, urged by the poet Utpal Basu who enjoys eavesdropping on the homeless at Sealdah station, Chaudhuri gingerly ventures out of his comfort zone to observe the common people &ldquothe ones who entered, irresistibly, the city&rsquos spaces without really owning them.&rdquo

Chaudhuri&rsquos white-hot love for Park Street grows an awkward appendage an Utpal-inspired lens on the undergrowth. He self-consciously engages with a dishwasher child writhing in pain, gives him Rs 50 for medication, and immediately proceeds to reminisce about Skyroom&rsquos prawn cocktail in lurid detail. After a hefty Christmas lunch at the Bengal Club and before entering Flurys for coffee, he quickly checks out the eco-system of a sidewalk food shack.

Because Chaudhuri deploys his new lens listlessly, none of his commoners &mdash Nagendra pressing laundry, Ramayan running the food shack, or even Lakkhi, Chaudhuri&rsquos domestic help &mdash appear fully lit. This lack of interest seems mutual. He writes candidly about this chasm when rebuffed by suburban voters he tries to interview at a booth in Rajpur &ldquoThey had decided I was hilarious, sidling up to them, and had a hard time remaining serious or even civil &mdash and I, once again after my schooldays, felt conspicuous and silly in the eyes of the hardened boys.&rdquo

In contrast, he soars when portraying those who embody the arc of his city &mdash damaged, decrepit, but refined, with powerful hints of a resplendent past. One is the dapper Mr Mukherjee, wheelchair-bound with polio, presiding over the slow loss of his graceful lifestyle, funded by the sale of its aesthetic accoutrements, as his &ldquoswan-like&rdquo wife serves dainty chicken sandwiches.

But Chaudhuri is besieged by the other. They are everywhere. The &ldquomerrymakers, exuding menace and discomfort, on Christmas Day&rdquo on his beloved Park Street and those who go out on Sunday evenings causing &ldquolong traffic jams in front of South City Mall and not a table free in restaurants on Park Street&rdquo. And Chaudhuri is a sad god in the sky holding his Eden overrun with savages like a snow globe in his hand.

Chaudhuri put off this book for years he felt he could no longer channel Calcutta&rsquos magic and hence had nothing left to say. He takes on the challenge, but his Calcutta is dead and the surrogate &mdash his home &mdash tastes like grit. The pathos in this is this memoir&rsquos purest note.

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