After spending 16 years in the United Kingdom, author Amit Chaudhuri returned to Calcutta where he was born and saw a very different city than what he remembered. While still considered a modern city in a rapidly developing India, Chaudhuri’s perception of Calcutta transcended the symbols commonly associated with modernity, such as skyscrapers or modern transportation networks.
Chaudhuri, who documented his thoughts about Calcultta, modernity, and the craft of writing in his latest book, Calcutta: Two Years in the City, spoke at an ASNC event co-organized with the Mechanics’ Institute on October 1.
Initially reluctant to tackle the difficult task of characterizing Calcutta in a book, he noted that the city gave him his first taste of modernity. “You never experience modernity in a city when it is shining or new,” Chaudhuri said. Cities have history and this history defines the present and one’s interpretation of a modern city.
Calcutta also informed his personal perspectives and feelings of the modern city that lasted throughout his life. He spoke about the “dead order” of San Diego’s suburbs to the vibrancy of New York. Calcutta, however, continues to be a complex cosmopolitan place that is full of paradoxes. He admits that he often felt ill equipped to interpret it.
This became most apparent while interacting with Calcutta’s homeless residents while researching his book. He uncovered a different kind of energy and interpretation of the city that he never saw or could see. “Maybe there were more interesting conversations happening in the city that I didn’t know about,” Chaudhuri said. “Maybe I was missing those things because it wasn’t the intellectual vibrancy, modernity I [understand].”
The two years alluded to in the book’s title is in reference to the two years it took him to write the book, between 2009 and 2011. It was also the period of decline of the Left Front Party, which dominated politics in West Bengal for 34 years, and which provided him with an interesting context for his story. “I am interested in life, in living, so the desire to inhabit certain spaces informs my writing,” he said.