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Finally, Calcutta may have found its Suketu Mehta. Having said that, to compare The Epic City with Mehta’s Maximum City is as invidious as to compare Calcutta with Bombay. Kushanava Choudhury’s debut is a deeply felt and beautifully written account of a city that remains a mystery to many Indians, foreign-returned or not.
It is clear as you enter his world that he is acutely aware of the minefields waiting for anyone who tries to write about Calcutta, but he bravely forges on nonetheless. He has a gift for the pithy sentence: quite early on, he observes that “Park Street is caramelised White Town,” and I promise you will never look at Flury’s with the same eyes again. From his first encounter with the city in the late 1990s when he tries quixotically to hold down a job at the Statesman, a phase memorable mostly for the friendships he made, to the end of his time here just before the three-decadeold Left government fell, Choudhury focuses on the countless small stories that catch his eye on Calcutta’s pullulating streets. He manages to take all of these strands and weave them skillfully into a larger picture which brings into relief many of the issues that have dogged the city from the beginning: the silent segregation of communities, the wounds left behind by the failure of the Naxal movement, the problems of displacement, poverty, denial and shame. But as he does this, he does not forget to celebrate the good, to find peace under squalour, to be wowed by Calcutta’s unexpected glories and nonchalant revolutions. The ‘epic’ of his title is the drama of Mahalaya and the four days of Durga Puja as all the colour and creativity absent from everyday life turn the city into a disposable wonderland and everyone pulls together to defeat evil, stuff their faces and rack up as many pujo visits as they can.
There are stories absent from his account that I would have liked to see: the rise and fall of Calcutta’s bookfair is absent, but there is a wonderful account of College Street’s beleaguered book district. This is a book that should be read by visitors to the city and permanent residents alike.
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