In fact — disappointingly on one level; thankfully on another — there’s some good stuff in these books. Makes you wonder? Let me confess: I plagiarised that sentence from page 219 of Calcutta: Two Years in the City. In situ, it’s about food, and it goes like this: “In fact” — ditto, ditto — “the food was mostly good.” I plagiarised it so you can wonder — as I did, there and through much of Calcutta — just what it means.
But the good stuff?
Mark Amit Chaudhuri’s eye for detail. “Mrs Mukherjee Senior was birdlike,” he notes, “but she was still beautiful, her straight hair parted in the middle and tied back severely… She had a Roman nose.
She also had a squint… She said ‘thet’ for ‘that’, ‘beck’ for ‘back’.”
Elsewhere, “Ramayan Shah is flattening dough for puris… A kadhai reveals the filling — tiny cauliflower florets, their tips rusted like dried blood.”
And his picture-perfect description of macaroni: spaghetti’s “blunt, midget-like, pug-nosed cousin”.
Mark Chaudhuri’s quiet but pointed sense of humour. I want to know how many blue-blooded Bengali friends he has left after this riff to their revered “rui” fish: “[its] white flesh tastes to me similar to what I imagine blotting paper would taste like if you prepare it to the same recipe.”
Or this fleeting thought as “an urbane-looking bespectacled gentleman” approaches: “If this guy doesn’t recognise me, I might as well give up writing.”
And in Telling Tales: Selected Writing 1993 – 2013, mark his detailed, empathetic and vivid portrait of Qutubuddin Ansari, the famous face of the 2002 Gujarat massacres. Ansari “is India’s first celebrity who is both anonymous and poor”, writes Chaudhuri, and “the fame has left him no better off, but robbed him of the protection of being no one”. Which is a sobering comment on us, but also on Ansari’s particular torment.
And in fact, Telling Tales has several keenly observed, thoughtfully crafted essays on all manners of themes: Geoffrey Boycott, rejecting soiled notes, the gentrification of New York. Most of these, significantly, are his columns for The Telegraph from many years ago.
But if I can list these, let me mark them, too, as mere pit-stops in a wearying torrent of words and phrases, page after weighed-down page.
Calcutta, especially, leaves you puzzled, groaning and ultimately, just baffled. Yet, if you read both books, there’s a certain epiphany to be had.
I’ll return to that.
For now, consider: “The problem of sexuality gives to [EM Forster’s fiction]… its modernist disquiet, its obsession with duplication, alterity, otherness, and with echoes.”
Consider: the “decorative peacock feather [that] was still”, and “that stillness comprises, for me, an inalienable continuity with the child who first observed this world of relatives”.
Consider: the building that, “if you make eye contact with it during a traffic jam, still, in that brief, lethargic duration, has the power… to be both of and not of the billboards, the swarms of hawkers, the buses that take off without warning at terrifying speed, and the pedestrians constantly rushing about the Esplanade.”
And wait, this building helps “make Calcutta at once a European city and a Bengali one”.
What does all this mean, Amit?
I mean, there were times in these books, as I struggled through yet another passage that said nothing in five times more words than nothing needs, when I wondered if it really just embodied Amit’s pointed sense of humour. Is this one long joke? Is he actually just laughing at his readers?
Really, what else might explain these two Calcutta passages about dining out:
• “Alex and I turned subtly to observe the other diners — not critically, but gripped by the spirit of discovery. ‘Look’, we nudged one another, glancing unobtrusively but comprehensively, ‘they’re sharing the pasta.’” and
• “There was almost no one in the restaurant but us; it’s an experience I’ve only had in the static sadness of Indian small towns, of eating out without the general — and, really, indispensable — accompaniment of other customers, enrhythmed in the semi-animal bliss of now noticing, now ignoring, now being noticed, now being ignored; no, in the small town, you are alone, being lavished attention by three waiters who’ve been galvanised by your sullen otherness, and item after item which you’d abstractedly ordered now stubbornly makes its way towards your table.”
In a mere two sentences, that first passage offers four descriptors of, yes, a glance: not critical, gripped by the spirit of discovery, unobtrusive but comprehensive. Somebody please act out for me what such a glance would look like.
And reading the second passage, I long to know: What is a static sadness, and in what sense do our small towns have it? What’s the semi-animal bliss of whatever? Why are waiters galvanised by sullen otherness and can somebody please act out such otherness as well?
Exactly how do bits of food travel stubbornly, and why?
It goes on. The Bengal Renaissance’s “cherishing of secrecy” and “surreptitious playfulness” — whatever those are — somehow are an analogy for why “the afternoon was a time of enchantment in Calcutta”.
Modernity in Calcutta “was born with the aura of inherited decay and life”. A kid says “‘thank you’ in the way of one who knows only those two words in English.” (What is that way… never mind). The taste of a chicken croissant “is a reminder that, in Calcutta, in a sort of ritual transubstantiation, you were constantly consuming the flesh and blood of urban modernity”. (Is this Chaudhuri’s stubborn but surreptitious channeling of Proust’s madeleine?
This juggernaut of sludge so bogs you down that you find yourself doubting even the once-in-a-while savouries. Like these observations from Calcutta:
• Immediately after a passage about the killing of a Maoist leader by government forces, Chaudhuri tells us of the “heinous slaying by Rama of Vali” in the Ramayana. He concludes: “Independent forest kingdoms often sprang up in India, and were seen as a threat to the ethos and sovereignty of the mainland. It was for this reason that Vali would have had to die; because, for Rama, he represented a threat to the norm.”
Vali, like the Maoists: unmistakably a threat to the norm. Yes indeed.
• “As we grow old, we’re unsettled not by our need of those who are suddenly absent, but by the coalescing of an old, quite familiar disappointment.”
I am so deadened that I really can’t tell. Is this just one more grab-bag of words? Or is there actually something quiet and profound here?
Deadened. That’s it. Deadened by “deceptive nullity”, “deceptive experimenter” and “deceptively vacant”, all within ten pages. By “limpid receptivity”, “rebarbative angularity” and “uninvestigated, autochthonic past”. By “a quality of tactility, of ‘madeness’” and “epiphanic registers of withdrawal”. By Calcutta football that is “undertaken ferociously but microscopically, for its own delight”.
I’m deadened, it’s true, by “disguised posthumousness”.
And yet — that epiphany — his earlier essays are so refreshingly free of these pointless phrases! Did the same man write all this, but the Ansari portrait too?
Which is why I returned more than once to a sentence about Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak in Telling Tales. Her preface to her famous translation of Derrida, writes Chaudhuri, was written “before her own discourse both inaugurated and embedded itself in the extravagant entanglements and syntactically tortuous articulations of post-colonial theory”. This is a laugh-out-loud comment on Spivak’s writing, more evidence of that superb Chaudhuri sense of humour.
But it’s also — tellingly on one level, sadly on another — an unwitting comment on Chaudhuri’s own writing. 1993’s clarity and thoughtfulness has mutated into 2013’s syntactically tortuous articulations.
It’s instructive to read both books. Because you realise that in his current writing, Chaudhuri is so enamoured with ever-more-obscure language that he forgets a certain engagement with those he so closely observes. The result is that he is at a constant remove, curtained off from them by this Niagara of overblown prose.
It’s a decaying, magnificent, overflowing, vitally human, sensory assault of a city, Calcutta. It deserves much more than the nearly soul-less, nearly empty book that, sadly, carries its name.