The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta and Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India – exploring ‘The Returned Writer’.
There is a genre of writing that combines elements, in varying degrees, of long-form journalism, personal memoir, therapeutic diary, and US graduate school dissertation field notes. The author is Indian, or of Indian ancestry; male; of middle class or wealthy upbringing; educated in elite Western universities; shaped by experiences of early adulthood in the urban West; and committed, around the age of 30, to putting down or reclaiming roots in India. The genre is defined by the authors’ attempts to make sense of the India around them and to make sense of themselves and their hybrid cultural baggage. Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004), Akash Kapur’s India Becoming (2012), and Rana Dasgupta’s Capital (2014) all fall within this genre, which I’ll refer to here as The Returned Writers, and which might be expanded to include works of literary fiction that explore the same terrain, such as the Pakistani-American author Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (2009).
Kushanava Choudhury’s The Epic City (2017) is the latest contribution to this genre, and could be read as a capstone to the earlier books, since his immersion in Calcutta geographically rounds out works focused on Bombay (Mehta), South India (Kapur) and Delhi (Dasgupta). The Epic City is the most personal of these books, filled with details of marital tension, family deaths and lamentations on roads not taken. Choudhury left Calcutta for New Jersey as a boy on Indian independence day 1990, and initially returned 11 years later, minted with a Princeton degree, to cut his teeth at The Statesman, a newspaper of faded glory. He departed again a few years later for a PhD programme at Yale, fell in love with a fellow graduate student, from Delhi, and persuaded her to move to Calcutta, where they could pursue a shared life of adda (conversation), home-cooked meals, and meanderings around the city.
Calcutta presents its many and varied challenges. Choudhury narrates the couple’s struggle to find housing that is both affordable and comfortable, leaving them to tangle with unreliable middlemen. The hunt ends successfully when, on his own, Choudhury finds an online posting from the owner of a desirable flat, who accepts the couple’s low-bid offer because Choudhury and his wife can be trusted to vacate it someday. Choudhury likes the neighbourhood tea joints and tangles with his wife over her patronage of Barista, a climate-controlled coffee chain; she retorts that his roadside tea is served by ten-year-olds amidst the adults’ banter of Marxist theory. Choudhury chronicles Calcutta’s traumas of the past century, all of which left deep and permanent scars: the 1943 famine, the 1946 communal killings, Partition, Naxalites, industrial collapse, economic malaise, three decades of single-party rule at the state government. In the early 20th century, he explains, Calcutta had been the largest city in Asia and India’s most advanced. Now he peers out in traffic trying to find that rare “face without the creases of disappointment, without the contortions borne of petty deceptions, without the cloud of gloom.”
Choudhury’s embrace of Calcutta leaves his own face unmarked by the creases of disappointment. In the book’s final scene, he and his wife walk the city streets together, far from Barista. “I led her across the street and into a lane, half dug up. We walked single file past the clothing stores as I showed her the bar where we used to go, where women were still banned.” Unlike his uncle, who died in California before he could retire to India, Choudhury has avoided the trap of American migration. There will be no “living almost entirely in English, with Bengali worn at home like a high-school t-shirt until it faded and fell apart.”
If The Epic City rounds out an anthology of The Returned Writers, it’s also a bhodrolok counterpoint to Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants (2017), a work decidedly outside the genre. Gidla provides an account of her family’s life as untouchables (Gidla uses the term “untouchable” to refer to herself and her family, not Dalits) in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, largely focusing on her Uncle Satyam, a local communist agitator whose 2012 death “was national news in India. . . . For days all the TV channels in Andhra ran nothing but programmes on his life and legacy.” Gidla, who now lives in New York City and works as a subway conductor, does not appear anxious that, after decades in America, she has ended up wearing her Telugu like a faded t-shirt. Her story is one of hardship – malnutrition, sexual abuse, untouchability, political violence, patriarchy, poverty, medical neglect, early death – punctuated by family love, gritty accomplishment and small bureaucratic mercies.
Superficially, The Epic City feels small in places when read alongside Ants Among Elephants. Choudhury’s anxiety about air-conditioned chain coffee stores and the artistic shortcomings of Ritwik Ghatak’s late work lacks the human gravity of Gidla’s mother nearly bleeding to death in childbirth, the family unable to afford treatment, having spent its last 75 paisa on rickshaws to the hospital. But the comparison is also unfair. Proust’s lack of interest in French settler colonialism in Algeria does not detract from his interior meditation on maternal love.
The Epic City is self-aware of its bhodrolok worldview and is built on its own foundation of suffering. Choudhury writes movingly of his father’s family’s struggle as Partition refugees, when the question of survival was a genuine uncertainty. His father, the tenth of thirteen children, “became the boy who made good, finishing college, then graduate school, to become a scientist.” As Choudhury shows, behind every middle class Calcutta story is a contingent history of what might have gone wrong at innumerable violent, desperate twentieth-century crossroads.
Politics, and each author’s political orientation, is a more apposite comparison. Choudhury takes as a granted the failure of the long-ruling Communist Party to meaningfully nurture the city’s economy, yet he’s also skittish about Sector Five, the global conglomerate office park sealed off from the organic city. The 1943 famine, he writes, broke the moral order of Calcutta, since neither the liberals nor the (pre-Naxalite) communists tried to save the starving millions. For a book so heavily textured with the feel of a place, right up to the present moment, Choudhury notably offers no views on the Trinamool Congress, in power since 2011, or its voluble chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. Perhaps he is pulling his punches with the powers-that-be to avoid retribution and censorship. Or, perhaps, he sees, shall we say, no audacity of hope in Calcutta’s politics, Trinamool Congress or otherwise, and he simply prefers to sketch its rusty decline into the abyss without any guideposts for its revival.
Gidla’s book, by contrast, is rich, even arcane, with details of the post-independence communist movement. Uncle Satyam becomes a fellow traveler as a student, and later a party man, committing himself to the cause as it grinds its way through factional splits, personal betrayals, and cyclical rotations of urban and rural struggle. He meets Naxalite leader Charu Mazumdar at one point, in a historic and dangerous effort to synchronise the uprisings of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana. Gidla herself joins Left Front student agitations before being warned off them by thugs, and she suggests that there is something redeeming for her family, and possibly the wider untouchable community, in Uncle Satyam’s public career.
While it lacks a similarly overt political view, Choudhury depicts a vision of community and of mutual obligation. While working as a young reporter at The Statesman, he is informed that an office peon’s three-year-old son has gone missing. The father, understandably distressed, asks his employer to intervene, and Choudhury is dispatched to inquire with neighbours and the police. A few days later, the boy reappears, fed, clothed and unharmed. We don’t learn the details of the disappearance or re-appearance, and Choudhury knocking on doors for an afternoon may have made all the difference to saving a life or been completely irrelevant. What matters is that he went knocking.
The bonds of mutual obligation are more frayed in Gidla’s account. An untouchable whose family converted to Christianity, her wealthy Syrian Christian college classmates “shunned me just as any Hindu would.” Christ’s love, apparently, does not bridge all divides. Every small step Gidla’s family takes toward a secure existence requires overcoming the forces of housing discrimination, meagre pay, and institutional malfeasance. There are no guardian angels from The Statesman keeping an eye on things. When Gidla’s mother, lacking the 75 paisa, finally receives an injection to stem the bleeding in childbirth, the nurse who diverts the medicine intended for another (less critical) patient is one of the few kind strangers in Gidla’s account who comes to the family’s aid in its hour of need. Otherwise, society does not catch them when they fall.
Gidla’s family is not without community, however. Uncle Satyam’s activist work extends to the pakis, a group of untouchables Gidla describes as “manual scavengers or, more euphemistically still, porters of the night soil.” Satyam approaches the paki union about organising a street theatre troupe. “One good thing for pakis in Gudivada was that enough shit was produced in the town every day to give every able-bodied man, woman and child among them paying work,” Gidla writes. “Only after they got back home in the evening, scrubbed themselves clean, and put on fresh clothes were they ready to perform.” Denied funds to travel by bus to the district-wide dance and drama competition, the ten-person troupe, including children, walks the 25 kilometres to participate, only to find themselves unable to enter the drama segment. Having come so far, the group doesn’t give up: after days of performances, an eight-year-old girl from the troupe wins first place for dance, and Satyam wins first place for singing.
The Epic City, and the larger Returned Writer oeuvre, might also be read in contrast with V.S. Naipaul’s accounts of India. Naipaul, of course, was also around 30 when he landed up in India to work on An Area of Darkness (1964). But Naipaul had no intention of staying; he had already made his life’s leap, from Trinidad to England. India, for him, was an impenetrable mess. If there were tears to shed for a lost childhood, they would have been shed in A House for Mr Biswas (1961), a novel drawn from his father’s life in Trinidad. It’s an amusing thought experiment to picture prickly Naipaul, full of brutal judgments, announcing around the time of Nehru’s death that he’s decided to stay on in India forever to enjoy adda with his newly found friends.
The Returned Writers fall somewhere between a generation and a half-century after Naipaul. They are confident in their Western credentials; they have achieved success at an early age. The challenge isn’t making it in New York or London, but having the audacity of authenticity, the chutzpah to not be swallowed by New York or London and culturally flattened. Choudhury captures this mood when writing about an ersatz Durga pujo in America. “The architecture of a city is not just big buildings, but corners and clubs and pandals, sounds and bodies and movements,” he writes. “Its social fabric is held together like bones and tendon and muscle and skin, to form a whole. You cannot carve one piece out and plop it in the middle of suburban New Jersey, served on styrofoam plates in a high school cafeteria.”
When Naipaul began writing, the European empires were in full retreat, and the central question of his books was what the formerly colonised would make of themselves. (Naipaul’s assessment was not generous, to put it mildly.) For a writer like Naipaul, living in England in the 1950s, there was no existing blueprint for success. The Returned Writers came of age under different circumstances. With talent, they entered the most elite echelons of the Anglo-American academy, and nothing stood in their way of joining the Bhararas, Pichais, Lahiris and Haleys at the apex of Western professions, businesses, literature and politics. Indeed, it was certainly more likely, when Choudhury graduated from Princeton, that he would have become an asset manager at State Street or a graduate student at Stanford than a cub reporter at The Statesman.
This is an entirely different world than Naipaul’s generation. As recounted in his memoir Out of Place (1999), when the late Edward Said, three years Naipaul’s junior, attended Princeton as a rare nonwhite undergraduate in the 1950s, the school was, in his assessment, a “provincial, small minded college” with a “poisonous social atmosphere” centred on the rituals of eating clubs. The trap of failed imagination had swallowed the white kids, not the plucky Indian immigrants. Fifty years later, in a radically different academic and professional climate in which the doors of ambition have been pushed open, The Epic City is motivated by an intuition that there is something incomplete and artificial in Western success, and that a deeper, more authentic self can be discovered in Calcutta over hours of tea and fish curry with trusted friends.
One wonders what the literary afterlife of The Returned Writers will be, and whether in another generation or half-century of war, rising sea levels, reality television and smartphone apps, an intrepid grandchild of Choudhury will seek to start anew in Brooklyn, fed up with the parochialism of the Bengali middle class and debates around the relative priority of Bose, Tagore and Vivekananda in the pantheon. Naipaul’s legacy has suffered precisely because his judgments lacked sympathy and context and were too sharp and final. “I had seen the physique of the people of Andhra,” he writes in An Area of Darkness about Gidla’s home state, “which suggested the possibility of an evolution downwards, wasted body to wasted body, Nature mocking herself, incapable of remission.” The Returned Writers do not stand guilty of such judgments. It’s impossible to say today, but one suspects that future readers will ultimately understand Choudhury’s book and those of his Returned Writer peers as being personal journeys of swimming against the tide of their generation, navigating through all that is incomplete and complex in themselves and in the India to which they have returned.
Andrew Nash has an MA in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is a lawyer in New York City.