The Epic City: The World On the Streets of Calcutta is Kushanava Choudhury’s first book. Choudhury, the books editor at The Caravan, was raised in Kolkata—though he chooses to refer to it as Calcutta—and New Jersey. After graduating from Princeton, he decided—to the surprise of his parents and extended family—to move back to Kolkata. Choudhury spent the next few years between India and the United States: he worked at The Statesman in Kolkata, then moved to New Haven for graduate school, and came back to Kolkata after getting married.
In Epic City, which is part memoir and part reported non-fiction, he recounts various episodes from life in the city, both his own and of those who surrounded him. These include remembrances of a childhood spent in a crumbling Kolkata house; of being one half of a young unmarried couple in the city, and then, a young married one; and on reconciling with Kolkata’s seeming refusal to let go of its moneyed past. In the following extract from the book, Choudhury recounts what it was like to work at the fabled Statesman—and in particular, how his experience differed from that of his colleague, Imran.
The Statesman employed an army of men to serve tea at regular intervals. There were the liveried waiters in all-white uniforms, like Moulvi and Ashraf, who served tea in cups and saucers to the editorial department—the newspaper’s bourgeoisie—at our desks four times a day.
The Statesman House contained a whole society frozen in a time warp. Inside that stately edifice were hallways with hillocks of discarded files, patrolled by cats. They led to labyrinthine narrow corridors and secret stairs and mezzanine floors, to departments carved out by partitions and sub-partitions. In those back alleys of the building worked hundreds of peons, liftmen, waiters, cooks, typists, chauffeurs and clerks, and only about a dozen reporters. I had just started working there when I met the bard of the peons, Nanhe Singh.
“What’s your name?” he whispered, beckoning me like a bookseller on College Street as I passed him in the corridor. “I shall make a poem from it. I have written poems about hundreds of people at the Statesman.” Then he ratted them off one after the next. Over cups of half-pant tea, he would recite poems on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the Mughal emperor Akbar, or Indrani in the classified department. Nanhe wrote epic verse about Ram and Krishna, and he penned rib-tickling satires of local political leaders.
The last British editors at the Statesman had left in the 1970s but even when I arrived almost 30 years later, the trappings of empire were intact. Bengali old-timers still ate fish curry and rice lunches with knives and forks, deboning rohus with surgical skill gleaned from the sahibs, who were long gone. Willie, the operator, still announced “Stay-es-mun” when you called the main telephone line, his stentorian voice carrying the gravitas of its century-old colonial tradition.
One morning, Mike called Imran and I to his office. Topiwala’s son had gone missing. The boy was three and had wandered out of his mother’s sight sometime that morning. Topiwala—the Hat Man, so called because he wore a golf cap at all times—was a lift-man, one of the legions of men from the downstairs world who were to remain unseen and unheard. Topiwala had come to Mike knowing he would be the most likely man upstairs to help. Mike turned to us.
In the afternoon, Imran and I took a trip across the Ganga to the city of Howrah, a cemetery of factories whose chimneys stood like tombstones. Topiwala stayed in a couple of rooms around a courtyard in a tenement. Less than a mile away was Howrah Station, where you could take a train to any destination from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. If the boy had been kidnapped, he could be anywhere in the country.
Imran and I trawled the lanes and main roads. We spoke to the neighbours, the landlord, the local political dadas, the boys at the para club. We chatted with the paan and cigarette sellers. The boy had last been seen at around 11 am. There were a couple of Bihari women in the para who begged professionally at Howrah Station every morning. Imran bantered so well in Bhojpuri that the beggar women offered to buy us tea. But they had seen nothing. No one had any leads.
But we made our presence felt: we were from the biggest English paper in Calcutta, and we were watching. Topiwala was not a man to be pushed around.
Over the next couple of days, we kept making calls to the local police station so that they would actually look for the boy. Two days later, the police found Topiwala’s son not far from where he had disappeared. That was the only time in my life I have been bear-hugged by a battalion of lift-men.
To this day, Topiwala maintains that we found his son. Imran and I had done no such thing, really. We had only tried our best to help. We had exerted our influence. For anyone who was not in a position of power, who did not sit in an air-conditioned office, that was more than you could hope for.
Imran lived in Kidderpur, a vast Muslim area around the port. His coordinates in the city were thoroughly different from mine, and that difference was coded by religion. Calcutta was a segregated city, and at least the Hindu side, the side that ruled, had long ago decided not to see this fact.
At least one in five people in the city was Muslim. But you rarely found Muslims in newspapers, on television channels, on university faculties or even in government offices. A generation of Communist rule had stopped the riots and killings that happened elsewhere in India. The Hindu right couldn’t spew its ideology here. It was considered odious “cowbelt politics,” the madness of people from the North, with their backward, fanatical ways. When Bengali Hindus, whether Congress or Communist, spoke, they sounded like Frenchmen, parroting abstract universals. But like Frenchmen, they protected their bounded society with wordless codes.
The Statesman staff was full of Muslims. They worked in the kitchen, delivered tea, ran the presses. There were no Muslims in the newsroom until Imran arrived. There were no Americans either, until I did. But somehow I could slide back uneasily into a former self, Bengali, Hindu, bhodrolok. Imran had no such fallback.
Our friendship, in turn, was often suspect. Was I a CIA agent sent by the Americans to uncover terrorist plots, recruiting a young Muslim to help me penetrate clandestine worlds? Such were the divisions in Calcutta that this sort of theorising seemed more plausible than the friendship of young reporters.
The lines drawn by Partition went right through the city, pulling some people in and cutting others out. But everyone pretended not to see those lines at all. In the paper, there was no coverage of the Muslim parts of the city, unless there was a “communal” issue, meaning when Muslims complained that their religion had been offended and took to the loudspeakers and the streets. What was the need? Everyone knew all there was to know. Ask for directions and a man might get to talking about how you have to be careful these days who you ask—“Muslims are everywhere, you know, not that they’re all bad, but as a community they are full of criminals and pickpockets.”
For me, it became like a game to see how it would pop up, how the communal angle would be worked into the most unlikely conversation. I once did a feature article on one of the oldest neighbourhood Durga pujos in North Calcutta, a feel-good story that papers run during the holidays. One day, when I went to interview the elderly doctor who headed the pujo committee, apropos of nothing, he began ranting that there were too many Muslims in the next neighbourhood. For a time, Imran was part of a team of reporters who reported on civic problems in each municipal ward. The problems were always the same: power cuts, water shortages, and so on. One day, Imran was in a Hindu neighbourhood abutting Muslim-majority Rajabazar, interviewing residents about civic problems. He asked one local if he had any complaints and the man responded: “Our civic problem is Mohammedans.” Of course, had the interviewee asked the reporter’s name first, his response would surely have been, “Lack of drinking water.”
While working on an article about a banned Islamist student organisation, Imran and I were once caught in a jam together, surrounded by a mob of Muslim students at the university’s Muslim hostel (a relic of the colonial past when Hindus and Muslims ate and boarded separately). The local student-union dadas were leading the pack, accusing us of inflaming communal sentiments, threatening to call the police and their local political patron. They did not dare to pummel us—we were Statesman journalists after all—but they were scared, and their fear led them to swaggering bluster.
Imran and I had sufficiently diffused their fears to quell the mob, and left unscathed that day. A few days later, one of the union leaders ran into Imran on College Street. “Hey, aren’t you that Imran Siddiqui?” he said. Ever the artful dodger, Imran said, “Who, me? No, I’m Kushanava Choudhury. You must have confused me with the other guy.”
This is an extract from The Epic City: The World On the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury, published by Bloomsbury India. The excerpt has been edited and condensed.
Kushanava Choudhury is the books editor at The Caravan.