by Rishidev Chaudhuri
There are many things that fascinate me about Calcutta: the way it remains poised between the stagnant and the revolutionary, the contrast between the ubiquitous echoes of history and the seeming timelessness of much of the city's life, the faded intimations of a once grand modernist city, the oddly archetypal characters who wander its streets, the distinct discrete obsessions of its inhabitants. Perhaps all cities are seen this way by those who love them and perhaps such love is unjustifiable and untranslatable. The people I tell to visit are sometimes disappointed, and I can understand why; the city can seem oddly provincial for a place that was once so central to empire and India.
But, by way of partial and possibly incoherent justification, here are a few stories from the city, excerpts from a collection of memories gathered when I was working for a newspaper there. To me they seem to capture something essential about the city – the sort of story someone who knew the city would listen to with immediate recognition and often an exasperated fondness.
As soon as he heard what I was there for, the elderly waiter straightened up a little, handed his grimy rag (used for everything from wiping down tables to cleaning plates) to the junior waiter who followed him around and came and stood next to me.
“What you must understand,” he said without preamble, “is that you can't just mix rice and meat together in any way. There is a process. And these days people come in asking for chicken biryani. How can that be? You tell me how that can be.” He was getting quite agitated now. “I tell them, biryani has to be made from meat. It is not a biryani otherwise. You can't boil chicken and mix it with rice. And people sell that as biryani.
And it must have some fat on it. You even get people complaining about that. You should write about it in your newspaper. Wait one minute.”
And he vanished into the kitchen, to return with a leg of mutton which he brought back over to the table. It swayed suggestively among the customers as he walked, dripping slightly.
“Look,” he said, pointing to marbled fat. And then, “that's where the taste is”, now pointing to the neighboring diner's plate. The neighboring diner did not look up. “Can you imagine getting that with chicken?”
I shook my head sorrowfully in agreement.
“And the problem is,” he added after some thought, “is that intellectuals like you have not attempted to educate people about the proper construction of a biryani.”
I was not expecting the conversation to go this way, and I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or rebuked. I maintained my sorrowful expression as best I could; it seemed a reasonable compromise.
“After all,” he continued, “if we are uneducated we eat like animals, mixing things instead of constructing them. That's what a dog would do.” He shook the meat at me.
He seemed to be building up steam and I was starting to wonder if he might attack someone with the piece of meat. At that moment, one of the cooks emerged from the kitchen (shirtless, pot-bellied, sweating) and snatched the piece of meat out of the waiter's hands. They both marched back towards the kitchen, loudly arguing about whether the waiter was right to have taken the meat without asking.
When I finished my meal, the plate was beaded with drops of oil like post-coital sweat on a lover's body.
“You ask me who my teacher is. My teacher lives there.” And he pointed dramatically at the wall (cigarette dangling from his long fingers). It took me a few seconds to realize that he was actually pointing at a mirror, one of the many that lined the walls of his small sitting room. So I turned around and scrutinized him in it, obligingly, as he mimed for me in the mirror.
“I've worked as a hospital sweeper for over twenty-five years and I retired last year. They offered to promote me; I went to college and I could have had another job. But that would be wrong. I don't need a higher job. I don't need to be above other people. And now my children are working at big companies for big salaries and they have forgotten about art.
I didn't need a teacher. I worked on my plays at night and at my job during the day. I struggled with the working class, and I express that struggle in my performance.”
We sat in his small sitting room, talking while he smoked an endless series of cheap cigarettes and made me endless cups of sweet milky tea. He told me of his discovery of Marx and of his history with the Communist Party, of fleeing the state for six years and only returning when the Communists came into power. I asked why he fled, but all he said was “police trouble” and it seemed impolite to press him.
“But I'm older now. I'm not interested in politics any more. I just want to direct and act in plays.”
But then his eyes sparkled when we talked of class struggle, and he told me that he was organizing a production of Act Without Words, and that it represented the alienated voices of the working class. And we talked of Brecht and of using mime to crystallize and display estrangement and of whether performing and teaching mime could help restore our species being.
We talked for hours, as the melancholy of evening crept up on us and the lamps of his house came on. And I watched him, with his expressive angular face and his deep-set eyes, and I watched us talking in the sea of mirrors, our displaced reflected selves wondering if we really would show them the truth of their estrangement.
I walked past the lane several times while looking for the house. The lane was small and the main road wound through shops, hawkers and crowds of people and when I finally turned onto it, it seemed deserted after the chaos of the main road.
I found the house (I should say mansion) halfway down and I was surprised by how incongruously big it was, on that tiny forgotten street. It loomed over the street, four storeys high, with large wings coming off a central building whose entrance had thirty-foot-high grand pillars (which would have been tacky if they weren't a century old). Almost the entire house was dark, except for the top two floors of one wing, which glowed quietly with a warm yellow light, and I hung back at the entrance nervously wondering if I'd stumbled into a homage to Poe.
Eventually I creaked past the gate and up the pathway to the main entrance, through the large unlocked doors and into a dark room with staircases ascending on either side. The house was built around a large central courtyard (like many old Indian houses) and I walked across the front room and out onto the walkway that surrounded the courtyard. A few men squatted there, smoking. The walkway continued past us on both sides, dusty in the moonlight and interrupted by the occasional doorway leading to unseen other rooms.
The men seemed unsurprised to see me and one silently pointed me back to one of the staircases when I asked for the family that lived there. I climbed past a procession of abandoned rooms and hallways, dark and silent, until I saw light ahead and then came to a large grill that blocked further passage up the stairs. I rang the bell and a woman came down and opened the gate after I told her where I was from. We walked up a further two flights of stairs, the walls now lined with what looked like early 20th century Bengali paintings and then she opened a door at the top of the stairs and I tumbled into a profusion of forms.
The family had retreated (I like to imagine it happened slowly over many years) to the upper floors of the west wing as their numbers and fortunes dwindled and they now lived in a tiny lit corner of their vast dusty old house. As they retreated they had taken their art with them and so they lived crowded in with sculptures, paintings, metalwork, lamps and vases, equal parts ornate kitsch and elegant beauty. There were sculptures on the floor, paintings stacked against the walls, piles of books with ornate leather covers in the corners. There was barely room to move amidst this strange Noah's ark of turn of the century Indian art and relics – a mansion's worth crowded into a few rooms.
I was there to interview the daughter, a melancholy girl a few years younger than me, about her interest in dance and her performances, but I remember little of what she said now. I found her impossible to imagine outside those few rooms and those few moments, impossible that she could exist not framed by flotsam; and what the mind finds impossible it will not remember. And so, throughout the interview I let my imagination wander through the house and the lives of the people who had lived there and I imagined the family living in those few rooms for centuries while outside the city dreamed its way past modernity into the future.