The son of immigrant parents creates a vivid, affectionate, and gritty portrait of a complex city.
Born in America to Indian scientists who felt “torn between nation and vocation,” Choudhury grew up in New Jersey, taken twice for stays in India. Those experiences planted a seed of yearning, and in 2001, after graduating from Princeton, he went back to Calcutta to work as a reporter at the Statesman. Although he had planned to stay forever, enduring two monsoons changed his mind: he returned home and enrolled in a doctoral program in political science at Yale. Calcutta’s draw was seductive, though, and for his doctoral dissertation, he embarked on a yearlong study of the city. That study informs his literary debut, an insightful melding of family memoir, autobiography, and history that illuminates the politics, society, and culture of “dirty, disorderly, teeming” Calcutta. Until the 1970s, Choudhury writes, Calcutta was India’s largest city, an impressive manufacturing hub in the nation’s wealthiest state. But in the ensuing decades, the city declined drastically: silt piles made its river unnavigable, and unions killed manufacturing, leaving 45,000 acres of rusting factories. Yet what others deem “an urban hellhole” the author sees as a rich palimpsest of cultural memory, “an infinite regression of experiences of longing and loss.” Besides describing Calcutta’s thronging, cacophonous daily life, the author examines the dire consequences of British colonialism. “The lasting legacy of the British in Bengal was famine,” Choudhury reveals. In 1943, 3 million starved to death. The British mandate of partition incited fierce religious wars between Hindus and Muslims, forcing Bengals from their ancestral land. His own family suffered in the upheaval; millions were uprooted, arriving as refugees in Calcutta. Colonial rule left India deeply demoralized, believing itself doomed to “failure upon failure”: “failure to not spit and piss everywhere,” “failure to cover our drains, to provide clean drinking water or clinics or schools or the basics of a dignified life.”
A candid and often moving history of a city’s dramatic past and roiling present.