Author of The Opium Clerk, Racists and The Japanese Wife, Kunal Basu in Kalkatta traces the story of an immigrant Bihari Muslim gigolo who stumbles through life in search of identity and purpose, only to be condemned into oblivion. In conversation with Indrani Mukherjee, Basu explains how his work is anything but tragic, since it upholds the struggles of the deprived who do not let go off their dreams.
Edited Excerpts from an interview.
How did you come across your protagonist, Jami? What preparations were necessary to flesh him out?
I did not come across a real person similar to Jamshed or Jami. When I thought about the story, I thought of a person who lives in that part of Kolkata, which we think is the periphery of the city. Somebody who is an outsider and wants to belong. There is a tragic story about Muslims from Bihar who left India for East Pakistan after the riots of 1947. Unfortunately they became country-less — rather homeless — because they felt they did not belong in any of these societies. Therefore the desire to be located and stable in one society became paramount in people like Jami and his parents.
The preparations are very important because I come from the mainstream of Kolkata society. The world of the Bihari Muslim in Zakaria Street and my world as part of the Bengali upper class intelligentsia are very different. The metaphor that I used in my mind is of Kolkata as a universe and the different groups of people as planets. They inhabit the same universe, pass by each other but remain strangers. For me, it required two years of preparation, making friends and associations in Zakaria Street, visiting it often, engaging in activities with boys like Jami and meeting with their families. I tried to familiarise myself and get a real understanding of how someone like Jami views the world.
Kalkatta is set in the era of a tumultuous shift in power from the Leftist regime to the current tmc government. Is this backdrop a mere coincidence?
The debacle of the Left in the last State Assembly elections in Bengal is not simply coincidental — or scene, setting and context — in my work. The reason being, politics is inseparable from the lives of Kolkatans. The political alignments of the city leave their mark in every locality in terms of personal relationships and access to power. Uncle Mushtak, who provides shelter to Jami’s family, is a very powerful person in the beginning of the novel. H owever, the events of the election change the situation for him and therefore by extension, the residents of Number 14, Zakaria Street. What I am trying to indicate is: as people’s lives are governed by the choices they make, opportunities they have, they are also guided by the overarching political climate surrounding the city. The cataclysmic election was bound to be the mark in Jami’s life in terms of the relative power wielded by his protector uncle.
All the characters in the novel are either very opinionated or have strong beliefs. Yet Jami, from whose perspective we get to know the story, seems to be drifting from one fate to another without any thought or control. Why so?
It is because people like Jami are largely a product of their circumstances. Think of a young boy growing up in Zakaria Street, who is not a good student and therefore escapes school; he is not an entrepreneurial person and so can’t accumulate wealth in that regard; his parents do not have any assets; a person like this is largely driven by what comes his way and how best he copes.
This is not to say that he does not have opinions but simply is trying to navigate his way through a complex world. His recruitment at the travel agency and later as a gigolo were not conscious decisions but reflections of the helplessness of the individual. Yet he has a strict moral compass for which he does not want to hurt his family. The strength of his personality, his expressed opinion, is brought to the forefront when he throws himself into the service of a little boy dying of leukaemia.
Why do most of the characters in your work meet dead ends?
It is the dead end of Indian society that we have reached. Very few people have their hopes and dreams realised. The personal dreams don’t die, though; Miri still dreams while imprisoned of being free and uniting with Kalim. The residents of Number 14 continue to fashion their own survival. But it is not a matter of coincidence that people like Jami and Miri do not find great culmination of their endeavours. This is perhaps the harshness that many novelists shy away from, trying to provide endings that seem unnecessarily optimistic.
This is a Kolkata we hardly talk about. How did you feel about venturing into such corners of the city?
If you enter a world with all sincerity and the mind of an explorer, your vision broadens, many assumptions are broken. I am very tired of the way Kolkata is portrayed in contemporary fiction and film. The set association of Kolkata with Rabindra sangeet, Durga puja, Howrah Bridge and the overall permeating ‘Bengaliness’ is almost redundant. We tend to forget that 56 percent of Kolkatans are non-Bengalis. They are also our fellow citizens and we must consider how their lives are, what they think of ‘us’. A part of the novelist’s role is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. I have laid my soul bare and will continue to write what rings true to my ear.