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Borders and Ecotones in the Indian Ocean

 | 
Markus Arnold
, 
Corinne Duboin
, 
Judith Misrahi-Barak

II—Individuals and Communities: The Human and the Nonhuman Ecotone

‘A Mesh of Lanes and Voices’ Kolkata’s Para as a Transitional Zone in Contemporary Indian Anglophone Literature

Marianne Hillion

Résumé

This article examines the literary representations of Calcutta in contemporary Indian Anglophone literature and interrogates the urban-rural hybridity of the metropolis that is often put forward in fiction as well as nonfiction on Calcutta. Based on novels and essays by Amit Chaudhuri and Saikat Majumdar, among others, it contends that this imaginative geography of communal leisure and familiarity, at odds with the stereotypical image of a big city, derives in part from the ‘most ubiquitous institution of Calcutta, and the most invisible’ (Supriya Chaudhuri), the para. More than the geographical reality of a neighbourhood, para refers to a social and imaginative reality, a ‘locality’ as Appadurai defines it, constantly invented by the collective ‘work of imagination’ (Appadurai 1996) even if rising from specific architectural and urban features that the article will address. Often focussing on a small network of lanes and houses, Kolkata’s narratives capture the ecotonal dimension of the para, a transitional zone between private and public space, village and city practices, geographical and imaginative reality. This extended realm of familiarity appears crucial in the constitution of Calcutta’s cultural identity as an amalgam of villages. The polycentric map of Calcutta’s paras that these narratives draw ultimately challenges the North-South divide of the city inherited from colonial urban planning to offer a more nuanced understanding of urban space.

Texte intégral

1Consider two writers pondering upon the paradoxical urban-rural metropolis that Kolkata is. Remembering the drive from Kolkata’s domestic airport to his uncle’s house in the 1960s, Amit Chaudhuri reflects:

  • 1 Chaudhuri, Amit. Calcutta: Two Years in a City. London: Union Books, 2013; 125.

Could a city be a village and a city at once? Could it be both what it had become after Job Charnock, supposedly the founder, had first arrived there—the great metropolis of the East—and still retain to itself the shadows of Sutanuti and Kolikata and Gobindapur, the three villages from which it had risen? On the way inward from the airport, it certainly seemed so: not only to me, but, I felt, to the Bengalis who lived there—that they were at once in the midst of the modern and the ancestral and fabular.1

The city’s spatio-temporal hybridity, palpable in the pastoral scenes the writer witnesses from the car, is regarded as a persistent trace of Kolkata’s pre-colonial history and of the rural space upon which the modern metropolis was built. Calcutta is conjured up as a perpetually nascent city, its unfinishedness linking it to the Bengal of folk tales and legends which surrounds it. This profound porosity between the urban and the rural, the modern and the ancestral, which could be considered as typical of unevenly developed postcolonial cities, singles out Calcutta in the eyes of the Amit Chaudhuri.

2Warning the reader about the biases of his Short Biography of Kolkata, Indrajit Hazra writes:

  • 2 Hazra, Indrajit. Grand Delusions, A Short Biography of Kolkata. Delhi: Aleph, 2013; 5.

I can only write a biased, coloured, palimpsestic story of a village that pretends to be a city. (. . .) And in the end, I feel like a Fyataru, one of the flying narco-anarchic characters created in the writings of Nabarun Bhattacharya. The Fyatarus are a cross between angels and ‘rocker chhele’, the men-boys who sit about on a neighbourhood ‘rock’ (from ‘rowak’, a raised terrace in front of buildings), smoking, drinking tea from narrow glasses and commenting on everything and more.2

  • 3 A multilingual intertextual connection which is consistent with his fictional writing, such as in (...)
  • 4 Though the flying Fyatarus are also able to perceive the city from the heights: see Sujaan Mukherj (...)
  • 5 Chattopadhyay, Swati. Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny. New (...)

The village-city hybridity is here intimately entwined with the Fyataru identification, interestingly locating Hazra’s essay in English within a Bengali literary landscape.3 The parallel with these fantastic creatures suggests that the relevant position to describe the city is that of the loiterer, observing the neighbourhood from a static restricted vantage point.4 This street-corner perspective chimes with other literary representations of Kolkata, which stress the city’s slow rhythm, the importance given to communal leisure and to family or locality ties, all characteristics usually associated with village life. Swati Chattopadhyay argues that late 19th century and early 20th century Bengali literature, which has thoroughly shaped the spatial imagery of Kolkata, evinced the writers’ ‘abiding affection (. . .) for the city as a space of communal pleasure’.5 Kolkata as a literary object seems to be predominantly imagined through its close-knit networks of familiar lanes and houses, including in Indian Anglophone writing. Novels by Saikat Majumdar, Amit Chaudhuri or Indrajit Hazra revolve around one locality or even one lane, showing the ways in which this delimited space circumscribes and affects the characters’ lives.

  • 6 kipling, Rudyard. ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1885), in Life’s Handicap. London: Macmillan, 1891 (...)
  • 7 Simmel, George. ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903), in The Blackwell City Reader. Gary Bridge(...)
  • 8 Dasgupta, Rana. Capital: The Eruption of Delhi. New York: Penguin Books, 2014; Mehta, Suketu. Maxi (...)
  • 9 About the journey from the village to the city in Bengali cinema, see Jamaibabu (Kalipada Das dir. (...)
  • 10 Sengupta, Kaustubh Mani. ‘Community and Neighbourhood in a Colonial City: Calcutta’s Para’. South (...)

3This imagined geography of idleness and familiarity contrasts with that of the proverbial ‘city of dreadful night’6 but also with the archetypal representation of the metropolis as an alien territory, both dazzling and crushing, defined by its frantic rhythm, a sense of anonymity and, in Simmel’s words, ‘the unexpectedness of violent stimuli’.7 The modernist conception of the city permeates contemporary accounts of other Indian cities, such as Delhi or Bombay, characterised in Rana Dasgupta or Suketu Mehta’s essays by perpetual transformation and economic opportunity.8 Calcutta has marginally been pictured as a bustling metropolis, a tantalizing yet cruel place of ambition and misery, mostly through a rural migrant’s viewpoint and particularly in films.9 The image of a quiet urban-rural Calcutta can thus be related to the city’s singular history, to the writers’ positions as middle-class insiders-outsiders in the city but also to the importance of the para (the Bengali word for neighbourhood) to Kolkata’s cultural identity, ‘representing some rural imagination within the space of the city’.10

  • 11 Chaudhuri, Supriya. ‘Remembering the Para’, in Strangely Beloved, Writings on Calcutta, Nilanjana (...)
  • 12 Bandyopadhyay, Haricharan. Bangiya Shabdkosh (vol. 2). 1932–1946. Kolkata: Sahitya Akademi, 2014.
  • 13 P. Thankappan Nair, P. ‘The Growth and Development of Calcutta’, in Calcutta, The Living City (vol (...)
  • 14 Guha, Ranajit.‘ A Colonial City and its Time’ (1997), The Indian Postcolonial, A Critical Reader, (...)
  • 15 Thus, Darjipara originally refers to the tailors’ (darji in Bengali) locality, while Kumartuli is (...)
  • 16 Appadurai, Arjun. ‘The Production of Locality’, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globali (...)

4'The most ubiquitous, yet in some respects most invisible' of all the institutions of Calcutta,11 the para has rural foundations, primarily referring to a part or portion of a village, one’s home, one’s area.12 Migrating to the colonial city, it has become ‘the primary unit of Old Calcutta’,13 designating ‘a close-knit neighbourhood of families who had long known one another, sometimes for generations, and were bonded in some instances by kinship, craft or trade’.14 Nair suggests that ‘there would be a natural tendency for particular castes, professions or communities, or migrants from the same village, to live together’ in the city (Nair 1990: 20), which would explain the term’s urban use. In her architectural history of colonial Calcutta, Swati Chattopadhyay recalls that the term has appeared on colonial maps of Calcutta at least since the late 18th century, along with other indigenous urban patterns such as tolas and tulis.15 If the para’s porous physical boundaries eventually made it disappear from the maps in favour of other units, it remained part of Bengali cultural memory and is still largely used on a daily basis—even in English. One can draw a parallel with the word mohalla (Sengupta 2018: 41) and its sense of community, yet the undefined boundaries of the para and its association with a particular type of loitering makes it specific to Kolkata. Chattopadhyay emphasises the social construction of the para, ‘a product of everyday encounter’, a community generated by a ‘sense of local rules and familiar faces’ (Chattopadhyay 2005: 210). As a liminal space between one’s home and the city at large, the para thus rests on a shared sense of belonging to an area and of loyalty to its people, ‘its boundaries understood though undefined’ (Chaudhuri 2014: 120). It thus corresponds to Arjun Appadurai’s conception of localities as ‘life-worlds constituted by stable associations, known and shared histories, collectively traversed and legible spaces and places’.16 Appadurai identifies a dialectical relationship between the locality, ‘primarily relational and contextual rather than scalar or spatial’ (178), constantly produced by a collective work of imagination, and the neighbourhood, referring to ‘actually existing social forms in which locality is variably realized’ (178).

5In her personal and nostalgic piece on her childhood para in South Kolkata— reflecting a geographical circulation of the term beyond the ‘old town’ in the North—Supriya Chaudhuri defines it as a domesticated public space, an outdoor extension of one’s interior:

The para has historically been Calcutta’s most distinctive public institution, one that is in some sense both private and public. By creating a kind of social interior within the exterior, it domesticates the social, and places public and communal action within a familial framework. It allows the private to be publicly monitored, and makes the public a private matter between friends. (Chaudhuri 2014: 124)

As a threshold between public and private space, village and city practices, the para appears as a singular ecotonic space, geographically and semantically fluctuating, upon which recent Indian Anglophone literary texts offer an illuminating gaze.

6Based on several novels (Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address (1991), Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird (2015) and Kunal Basu’s Kalkatta (2015)) and literary nonfictions on Kolkata (Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in a City (2013), Indrajit Hazra’s Grand Delusions (2013), and Kushanava Choudhury’s The Epic City (2017)), this article contends that the para as a geographical, affective and imagined reality is the predominant scale through which writers approach the city, revealing its singular urban-rural character while debunking a clear-cut partition between tradition and modernity. Both protective and oppressive, this site of contested identities and powers encapsulates the literary imagination of Calcutta as an amalgam of villages.

7Both fictional and nonfictional texts enhance how permeable the boundaries between interior and exterior are within the para, which becomes an extension of one’s home, likely to elicit a strong sense of belonging or suffocation. Kushanava Choudhury’s portrait of Calcutta in The Epic City, which also narrates his return from the United States and his family history, expresses the author’s deep-rooted attachment to his North Calcutta neighbourhood (Maniktala), which he minutely delineates.

I am a North Calcutta guy. When my foot touches down on Maniktala More, no matter how late at night or how much flooding there is, when I see the familiar clock tower of Maniktala Market and the naked bulbs of the vegetable sellers squatting on the footpath outside, I know that I am home. From the clock tower, a couple of blocks west past Amherst Street is Dida’s house. Go the other way, past Raja Dinendra Street and cross the Beleghata Canal and you are in Bagmari, where we used to live with my other grandmother, my father’s mother, until I was six. (. . .) In Calcutta, my life is circumscribed by that one-mile radius from Maniktala More. (21)

Relying on personal and public landmarks, the writer becomes a cartographer, drawing a mental map of his sphere of familiarity. The sense of intimacy also emanates from everyday habits, such as the traditional morning gathering at the tea-shop or sweet-shop for endless informal conversations (‘adda’), which Choudhury recounts in detail.

They were having tea out of clay cups served from the cubby underneath the cigarette stall, debating the merits of the various dance competitions now on Bengali TV. They lamented the rise of Bollywood’s Hindi music over Bengali standards. Why not more Tagore’s songs? One said, and the other nodded. Their shorts suggested they had left home with the stated purpose of walking, while their bellies suggested that they often succumbed to the pleasures of adda at Niranjan’s Sweet Shop. (28)

  • 17 On the specific rhetoric of ‘culture’ that informs the Hindu bhadralok identity, see Tithi Bhattac (...)

The sweet-shop becomes a second home outside home for this small male community, redolent of a typical bhadralok rhetoric of culture (‘Why not more Tagore’s songs?’).17 It echoes what K. Sengupta describes regarding the colonial para, in which men would seek a paradoxical form of privacy and freedom outside the private family space ‘where the general regulations and norms of blood relations would hinder close interactions between people of various ages or occupations’ (Sengupta 2018: 46–47). Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Firebird also hints at this form of public privacy with a scene at the beauty parlour where the protagonist’s cousin calls her lover away from the prying ears of her extended family though in front of the parlour’s employees. The depiction of everyday life in the neighbourhood, buzzing with the music of news, gossips and laments recalls a poem by Tagore evoking the voices filling up the neighbourhood and hinting at the social and spatial features allowing such familiarity to develop:

  • 18 Tagore, Rabindranath. ‘This Side and That’ (‘Epaare Opaare’). 1939. Sukanta Chaudhuri transl., in (...)

Picking out left-over scraps of news
From the papers, all Sunday afternoon they’ll bandy views,
Or wage their wars
Over which is the prettier of two movie stars.
So hot grows the debate,
Their very friendship seems at threat.
Hookah in hand, beside their doors they sit
And haggle with the peddlers in the street.18

If Tagore’s poem light-heartedly alludes to the potential hostility contained in para sociability, Saikat Majumdar’s novel fully delves into it, as the rapidly disseminating rumours about the protagonist’s family turn the locality into a distressing confined sphere. The novel, set in a neighbourhood of North Calcutta in the 1980s, charts the collapse of a landowners’ family through the anguished psyche of Ori, a ten-year-old child who witnesses the fall of his actress-mother. The narrator describes his para as a ‘mesh of lanes and voices’, thus capturing the locality’s interweaving of material and human elements. In the novel, the domestication of public space comes across as the omnipresent chatter surrounding Ori’s house, as well as the web of eyes staring at him as he walks through the neighbourhood.

Once upon a time, the familiarity of his neighbourhood was a deep comfort to Ori. The lanes were fringed with familiar shops from which faces smiled at him as he walked. It was more than a neighbourhood constructed form bricks and mortar; it was a para, a mesh of lanes and voices that chatted tirelessly with one another. But these days, he avoided the front gate of their house. He didn’t like to face the neighbours. He wanted to hide from their keen glances. (. . .) Scattered pairs of eyes gazed out all day, the women through the bent mullions of the windows, the jobless men from the ledges and steps outside their homes where they lounged all day. They missed nothing. Sounds and smells told them what was cooking in their neighbour’s kitchen every day, and the wind carried words from one house to another. (31–32)

  • 19 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 'Adda: A History of Sociality', in Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thoug (...)

The reference to ledges (a translation of ‘roak’, the elevated platform outside the house), steps, and mullioned windows, register distinctive features of North Calcutta houses built in the latter half of the 19th century. According to Swati Chattopadhyay, these features (such as the ‘roak’ or the veranda) expressed the Bengali upper- and middle-class men's new desire for permeability between their house and the street, as a way to claim one’s presence in the public space but also to watch the spectacle of the street (Chattopadhyay 2005: 194–202). These architectural elements, as well as the narrow lanes and the growing commercial use of the street (lined with tea-shops, street-vendors, etc.) have thus shaped urban social practices and fostered a sense of community. The use of the neighbourhood as an extension of one’s living room is also evidenced by another institution of Calcutta’s modern urban life, the adda, or ‘the practice of friends getting together for long, informal, and unrigorous conversations’, freed from any utilitarian purpose.19 In his famous essay on the adda, Dipesh Chakrabarty defines it as an integral component of the Bengali urban middle class identity since the early 20th century. He underlines the rural origins of these convivial conversations and the word’s double reference to a place of gathering and a social institution, thus highlighting its close connection with the para.

  • 20 Ray, Satyajit, dir. Charulata. India: R.D. Banshal & Co, 1964.
  • 21 Reflecting on the famous actress Binodini Das’ memoirs, Chattopadhyay argues that ‘the relegation (...)

8The passage from Majumdar’s novel also emphasises the gendered partition of the para since men sit outside even as women gaze upon the street concealed behind mullions—recalling the powerful opening scene of Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata20 in which the heroin observes the street through binoculars from behind the shutters of an old North Calcutta mansion. Chakrabarty and Chattopadhyay respectively insist on the male-centred construction of the adda and the para and it is precisely because Ori’s actress-mother steps across this gendered line and occupies public space, that she is ostracised by the community and that the child feels besieged by the whispering ‘knot of neighbours’ (33).21 The spotlight metaphor (‘he couldn’t shake off the white glare of the spotlight around him’, 41) borrows from the world of performance to convey the stifling lack of anonymity and the direct link between his mother’s exposure on stage and his own on the street, the para itself being turned into a stage.

9Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction and nonfiction similarly highlight the porosity between interior and exterior in Calcutta houses (which he deems more emblematic of the city than its monuments), notably owing to the ubiquitous French windows which signify the city’s devotion to ‘spectating’ (Chaudhuri 2013: 10, 213). His first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, revolves around Sandeep’s holiday visits to his family, mostly spent in the house and in the ‘short stretch of world’ (218) of his uncle’s neighbourhood in South Calcutta. Life in the family house is constantly interwoven with that of its surroundings and the child mostly appears as a spectator, peering at the ‘untidy but regular activity’ on the pavement (Chaudhuri 1991: 25) and ‘watching the balconies on the opposite side, each with its own characters, its own episodes’ (23). Similarly, the comical spectacle of his uncle’s recalcitrant car in the morning, ‘changed into a difficult, obstinate animal’ gathers the whole neighbourhood (34). South Calcutta’s architecture and urban patterns differ from the narrow congested lanes of North Calcutta, but the wide roads, the low houses with balconies and rooftop terraces surrounded by trees also induce a certain permeability between inside and outside, giving rise to spying and daydreaming. This is pitted against Sandeep’s everyday life in Bombay, where his twenty-third-floor apartment gives him a spectacular panoramic view of the metropolis which remains a distant horizon: ‘no sounds, no smells, only a pure, perpetually moving picture’ (91). Offering a street-corner perspective on the city, these texts by Choudhoury, Majumdar and Chaudhuri thus emanate from and powerfully recreate the liminal space of the para, showing how crucial this unit is to Kolkata’s identity.

  • 22 The Left Front (a coalition of left-wing political parties dominated by the Communist Party of Ind (...)

10Swati Chattopadhyay puts forward the critical role played by the idea of an ‘extended family’ of the para in the formation of Bengali nationalists’ ideology (Chattopadhyay 2005: 13), depending on the social and political use of the para as a public forum. The essays and novels under study grasp the political potential of the para but also the power dynamics at work in this confined space. They shed light on the Communist Party’s use of this space as a heavily controlled political battleground.22 If the street is turned into an extension of the living room, conversely the living room can be subjected to the public gaze and spectating can easily turn into monitoring the residents’ private lives.

  • 23 See Saikat Majumdar, ‘The Ashes of Pleasure, How the curtains came down on Calcutta's professional (...)

11In Majumdar’s The Firebird, the erasure of boundaries between private and social space entails the dissolution of the family, embodied by the crumbling house, intruded upon by external forces: ‘the house felt cut open, left raw and blistered under the gaze of their neighbours. Everybody at home was bitter and quiet. (. . .) The para people march in and out of the house at all times’ (Majumdar 2015: 155). Ori’s grandmother, a formidable matriarch reminiscent of Kushanava Choudhury’s own grandmother and of the narrator’s great-aunt in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, has no grasp on her household anymore: ‘the house was slipping away, out of her hands’ (106). The fissuring of the house stems from the collective indictment of Ori’s mother’s profession and agency, resented and finally crushed by middle-class patriarchal morality embodied by an anonymous citizens’ council obsessed with ‘clean[ing] up the neighbourhood’ (29). Yet her condemnation also comes from the local branch of the Communist Party (simply referred to in an Orwellian manner as 'the Party') which was at the height of its power in the 1980s. The novel shows how the Party turned the liminal space of the para into a panoptic structure to keep watch over people’s lives. Several scenes depict the local cadres using Ori as a reluctant informer, sweet-talking him into sharing information about his family. The text also renders the Communist party’s suspicion of Bengali popular theatre, regarded as a bourgeois indulgence at odds with experimental avant-gardism.23

  • 24 Before and in the aftermath of the partition of India in 1947, a massive influx of migrants from E (...)

12The party’s encroachment upon the residents’ privacy stretches to a form of narrative control, which takes us back to Appadurai’s stress on the work of imagination in the production of the locality, yet with a harmful twist. Confusing reality and drama, Ori tells his grandmother about his mother kissing a man on a bed without making it clear that this was a scene witnessed on stage. Once the story reaches the local party leaders, they use the muddled boundary between reality and fiction to spread the story around the neighbourhood and ruin Ori’s mother reputation, revealing the nefarious powers of disseminated rumours: ‘The story returned. (. . .) Now it belonged to the Party. The Party which ruled these narrow alleys and the chipped walls and the balled fists of millions of angry men painted on them in red’ (72). Steeped in stories about the family’s past and present, the neighbourhood reads as a corrupt saturated palimpsest, where the excessive sedimentation of legends and memories leads to the locality’s crumbling down. Interestingly, the refugee colony where Ori’s mother moves is constructed as an antithesis of the haunted cluttered lanes of the family neighbourhood.24 The area, ‘a township fighting the wilderness in order to be born’ (154), is pictured as empty, without a history, as though stories could not sediment there. This lack of sedimentation may derive from the refugees’ specific history of uprootedness and the constant threat of demolition hovering upon these vulnerable informal structures, but also from the outsider’s view on the colony, unable to perceive its multiple temporal, social and narrative layers. The novel thus hovers between two equally distressing spaces, in which sedimentation is either excessive or insufficient.

13Monitoring the para essentially relies on local intermediary agents between citizens and the party or the local gang. In The Firebird, Abir is a streetwise young idler who appears as an archetype of the savvy go-between.

The guy (. . .) was just some low life from some dingy lane near the big railway station. Some slum perhaps. He had that kind of split-and-curse aggression. And windbag knowledge of everything that belonged to the ancient lanes of north Calcutta. (. . .) He was even thick with the mean guys in their neighbourhood, and lounged around the tea stalls and boys’ clubs, waiting to meet Shruti whenever she could slip out of home. (28)

  • 25 Blom Hansen, Thomas, Verkaairk, Oskar. ‘Introduction—Urban Charisma, On Everyday Mythologies in th (...)

Though not originally from the neighbourhood, Abir is able to take part in the party’s scheming and manipulation of Ori. A similar figure features in Kunal Basu’s novel Kalkatta (2015), which mostly takes place around Zakaria Street, a commercial area of North Calcutta. This local gang man is not connected to the Communist Party (embodied by the protagonist’s Marxist Muslim uncle) but tries to enrol the locality’s youth in his criminal activities. Thomas Blom Hansen and Oskar Verkaairk define these local hitmen or hustlers as ‘diviners of the urban space’, urban specialists whose sharp practical knowledge of the city’s opaque streets is suffused with magic, fuelled by semi-legendary narratives.25

We propose to see the hustlers, the street smarts and the local big men as diviners of urban space, as people needed for their knowledge and agility. Political organizations need credible mappings of localities in order to garner support and numbers. Police departments need local informers; civic authorities need spokespeople and representatives (. . .). The charisma of such figures is powered by a fantasmic surplus—rumours and circulating stories of certain deeds of these individuals, their past life and career and so on. These are semi-public lives akin to the classical images of the ritual specialist and the diviner whose powers derive from an invisible realm of the sacred and the dangerous. The full expanse and heterogeneity of the city can be read and interpreted through these figures. (17)

  • 26 Ali, Syeda Ayesha. ‘Ekbalpore’, in Strangely Beloved, Nilanjana Gupta, ed. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014: (...)

In a humorous ‘flat hunt’ chapter, Kushanava Choudhury also emphasises the ubiquitous charismatic presence of these para party men, constituting an informal network of service and information exchange (or extraction). He describes the puzzling mechanisms of this subterranean system from an external viewpoint, which hints at his ambiguous insider-outsider position as a foreign-returned to his para. As he is desperately looking for an apartment, people start approaching him in the street: a tall stranger, ‘leaping from the darkness into the light like a lumpen genie’, asks him questions to help him before ‘melt[ing] back into the darkness’ (14), and turns out to be a cadre of the ruling Communist Party. Street vendors, such as Shombhu the cigarette and paan seller, also appear as the ‘para’s closed-circuit cameras’ (15), the text comically enhancing the multi-limbed surveillance system at work in the locality. In her short essay on everyday life in the neighbourhood of Ekbalpore, Syeda Ayesha Ali similarly portrays Jahanara Bibi, the widow of a rickshaw-puller who lives on the pavement and who ‘had taken on the role of self-appointed guardian of the locality’.26

14These power dynamics are often shown to be restricted to the locality, as though these people’s aura emanated from the place itself, and could not be extended to the whole city. This circumscribed influence is all the more palpable when the characters venture out of the para into the city at large, a terra incognita which is illegible to them. It thus points to the literary conception of Kolkata as an amalgam of self-sufficient villages.

15The local hustlers’ powerlessness outside the para is comically illustrated in The Firebird, when the Party’s goons are faced with the foreign codes of Ori’s convent school near Park Street (in the former colonial ‘white town’); ‘In the narrow lanes of North Calcutta, Trinankur was a natural growth, a gnarled stem sprouted through chipped brickwork. Here he looked lost and hesitant, a big man who stood out amidst the flock of shrieking boys’ (119). The local municipal councillor, sometimes referred to as the para’s father, appears as an organic extension of the neighbourhood. Conversely, he is extremely uneasy in this ‘foreign’ part of town, in which his verbal and bodily language are inadequate: ‘Trinankur thrust forward his muscular shoulders, like he was about to plead for the vote of someone who did not understand his language’ (120–22). The emphasis on his halting English reinforces the idea of a geographically bounded know-how and of English as a socially and spatially demarcated language, somehow foreign to North Calcuttans.

16The separate worlds of Calcutta also surface in Amit Chaudhuri’s mental geography of the city, which is first restricted to his uncle’s neighbourhood in Bhowanipore (fictionalized in A Strange and Sublime Address). Both in his novel Freedom Song (1998) and in his essay Calcutta: Two Years in a City (2013), the visit to a relative in North Calcutta is imagined as a journey to another city and to another time: ‘No wonder it took me years to visit Mini mashi (. . .) it wasn’t so much the distance (. . .). It may have had to do with this sense of having to push in the opposite direction, of bracing myself to travel against the current’ (288). The cultural and psychological distance separating North from South is reciprocal: Indrajit Hazra recollects in a chapter revealingly entitled ‘North is North and South is South’ (Hazra 2013: 6) the self-sufficient life of his parents’ para (Beleghata) in North Calcutta:

Even a generation ago, middle-class Northerners wouldn’t, ordinarily, need to leave this part of town. They could go about their business solely in the North if they wanted to. Going to the South—the Maidan, Chowringhee, the Alipur Zoo, the Strand by the Ganga—was an excursion, an outing as for the people of Agra to the Taj. Both my parents’ sides of the family went to school, college and work without having to venture into the terra incognita of the South. (17–18)

This sense of foreignness, of being tourists in their own city, is rooted in ‘the bipolar geography of Kolkata’ (18), which also surfaces in Kunal Basu’s Kalkatta, in which the protagonist’s mother is fascinated by the tantalizing ‘real Kalkatta’ (53, 133, 155), referring to the Southern colonial part of town and pitted against Zakaria Street in the North. Far from being fascinated, Kushanava Choudhury flaunts his adamant refusal to move south in his essay, referring to this possibility as ‘unnatural’ and unappealing (Choudhury 2017: 21). He demonstrates his visceral bond to his para and its habits, but also an unwillingness to settle in purportedly ‘globalised’ South Kolkata—even as or perhaps because he is himself returning from the United States. His refusal strikingly chimes with Indrajit Hazra’s description of old North Calcuttans’ pride and hints at Choudhoury’s clinging to a dated mental geography of the city:

Even in the 1970s, living in the North suggested an automatic sense of belonging, immunity from a deracinated existence of those who lived in the ‘south’. North Kolkatans vested themselves with a middle-class Bengali heritage that didn’t require the level of Anglicization and stock gestures of ‘being modern’ that the Southerners embraced and strutted. (Hazra 2013: 18)

Though characteristic of an older generation, this bipolarity gets entrenched in Hazra’s own personality: as a Northerner educated in a South Calcutta school, he claims to practice ‘an artful schizophrenia’, being Anglicised, ‘southern-tinged’ in the North and a northern ‘slightly feral Bengali redneck’ in the South (18–19). The cultural divide between North as the site of an authentic Bengali past and the South as a globalised territory of modernity is here displayed as a playful construction by the author, whose trajectory epitomises the circulations occurring between North and South rather than a strict separation. In fact, the dual urban model of Calcutta and its postcolonial perpetuation have been both asserted and questioned by historians, and the para cartography of the city, based on vernacular patterns rather than colonial ones, seems to challenge the strict North-South separation. Sumanta Banerjee, among others, traces the internal split to colonial uneven urban development:

  • 27 Banerjee, Sumanta. ‘The Underside of a City Divided’, Seminar (559), March 2006. URL: http://www.i (...)

Kolkata (or Calcutta of the past) had always been a city divided. It was designed by its founders to be a split city, that bred a miasma of schizophrenia which continues to hang around it. (. . .) Ironically, even after more than 300 years of its establishment as a city, and now completing almost six decades of independence, Kolkata still retains the basic contours of the original topographical and social divide that was laid down by the colonial rulers. 27

  • 28 Banerjee, Sumanta. Memoirs of Roads, Calcutta from Colonial Urbanisation to Global Modernisation, (...)

He insists on the 21st century town planners’ abiding by the colonial rulers’ paradigm of urban development and on the neo-colonial dimension of recent modernisation. However, in his recent Memoirs of Roads (2016), he conversely underlines the local inhabitants’ resistance to the hegemonic urban planning in colonial times through the fragmentation of strict borders and arterial roads into lanes and by-lanes, named after local heroes.28 Similarly, Chattopadhyay challenges the model of the colonial city as split in black and white areas showing the porosity of both spheres and the role of Bengali middle class in the production of urban space. Amit Chaudhuri’s evocation of his journey northward as travelling back in time sheds light on the city’s internal fragmentation, embodied by the continuous southward flux of affluent city-dwellers. Yet, envisioning the city as an amalgam of paras or ‘life-worlds’ (Appadurai 1996: 191) complicates this duality inherited from colonial urban planning and offer a more nuanced imaginative map of the city.

  • 29 Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Return of the flâneur’ (1929), in Selected Writings II (1927–1934). Trans. (...)

17Reading together these contemporary narratives of the city thus allows one to grasp how central the para or locality is to Kolkata’s everyday life, and helps redefining the imaginative contours of the city. As they revolve around the ordinariness of urban life, the strong local social ties and the porosity between interior and exterior, these texts challenge not only the image of Kolkata as the archetype of the slum city, but also that of the metropolis as a space of anonymity and velocity. The polycentric literary maps of these transitional zones debunk the clear-cut divide between tradition and modernity, the rural and the urban, the white town and the black town. Yet, these novels and essays also powerfully demonstrate how Kolkata’s urbanism (epitomized by the para as a ‘mesh of lanes and voices’) generates specific literary narratives. Dipesh Chakrabarty insists on the productive role of literature and its democratisation in the development of the adda (itself a component of the para). I would venture in turn that the para is a matrix of stories, notably because of the key role of loitering and spectating. If the flâneur is usually associated with the anonymity and overwhelming stimuli of urban life, Walter Benjamin also relates this incarnation of the modern writer to the ‘knowledge of dwelling’.29 Kolkata narratives precisely emanate from this knowledge of dwelling and the sense of familiarity and stability derived from the para. Benjamin’s evocation of the flâneur as a ‘priest of the genius loci’ (Benjamin 1929: 263) aptly resonates with the ‘diviner of urban space’ portrayed by Blom Hansen and Verkaairk (2009). Therefore, the Fyatarus, the urban hustlers and the loiterers appear as myriad avatars of the Kolkata writer as a flâneur, observing, collecting and turning the scraps of urban life into narratives.

Bibliographie

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Appadurai, Arjun. ‘The Production of Locality’, in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996; 178–199.

Bandyopadhyay, Haricharan. Bangiya Shabdkosh (2 vol.). 1932–1946. Kolkata: Sahitya Akademi, 2014.

Banerjee, Sumanta. ‘The Underside of a City Divided’. Seminar 559 (March 2006). http://www.india-seminar.com/2006/559/559%20sumanta%20banerjee.htm. Last Accessed 5 January 2019.

Banerjee, Sumanta. Memoirs of Roads, Calcutta from Colonial Urbanisation to Global Modernisation, New Delhi: India Oxford University Press, 2016.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Return of the flâneur’ (1929), in Selected Writings II.1 (1927–1930), Rodney Livingstone et al. transl., Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1999; 262–267.

Basu, Kunal. Kalkatta. New Delhi: Pan Macmillan, 2015.

Bhattacharya, Tithi. The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (1848–85). New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Blom hansen, Thomas, Verkaairk, Oskar. ‘Introduction—Urban Charisma, On Everyday Mythologies in the City’. Critique of Anthropology 29.1 (2009): 5–26.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Adda: A History of Sociality’, in Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; 180–213.

Chattopadhyay, Swati. Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny. London, New-York: Routledge, 2005.

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Chaudhuri, Amit. Freedom Song. 1998. New York: Vintage, 2000.

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Chaudhuri, Supriya. ‘Remembering the Para’, in Strangely Beloved, Nilanjana Gupta ed. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014; 118–124.

Choudhury, Kushanava. The Epic City: The Worlds on the Streets of Kolkata. New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Dasgupta, Rana. Capital: The Eruption of Delhi. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

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Majumdar, Saikat. ‘A Playhouse ready to vanish, an interview with Saikat Majumdar. [Keri Walsh]’. Public Books, October 15, 2015. URL: https://www.publicbooks.org/a-playhouse-ready-to-vanishan-interview-with-saikat-majumdar/#fn-1365–2. Accessed on January 6, 2019.

Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

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Notes

1 Chaudhuri, Amit. Calcutta: Two Years in a City. London: Union Books, 2013; 125.

2 Hazra, Indrajit. Grand Delusions, A Short Biography of Kolkata. Delhi: Aleph, 2013; 5.

3 A multilingual intertextual connection which is consistent with his fictional writing, such as in The Garden of Earthly Delights (2003), in which he borrows characters from the Bengali writer Premendra Mitra’s stories.

4 Though the flying Fyatarus are also able to perceive the city from the heights: see Sujaan Mukherjee, ‘Cities from Above in Literature: Moscow, Kolkata’. Sanglaap 3.2 (March 2017): 286–320.

5 Chattopadhyay, Swati. Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny. New York: Routledge, 2006; 182.

6 kipling, Rudyard. ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1885), in Life’s Handicap. London: Macmillan, 1891; 321–328.

7 Simmel, George. ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903), in The Blackwell City Reader. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010: 103–110; 103.

8 Dasgupta, Rana. Capital: The Eruption of Delhi. New York: Penguin Books, 2014; Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

9 About the journey from the village to the city in Bengali cinema, see Jamaibabu (Kalipada Das dir., 1931), Jagte Raho (Amit Maitra, Sombhu Mitra dir., 1956), and Ashis Nandy’s analysis in Nandy, Ashis. An Ambiguous Journey to the City, the Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self in Indian Imagination. New-Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.

10 Sengupta, Kaustubh Mani. ‘Community and Neighbourhood in a Colonial City: Calcutta’s Para’. South Asia Research. Sage Publications, 38 (1) 2018: 40–56; 42.

11 Chaudhuri, Supriya. ‘Remembering the Para’, in Strangely Beloved, Writings on Calcutta, Nilanjana Gupta, ed. Delhi: Rupa, 2014: 118–124; 118.

12 Bandyopadhyay, Haricharan. Bangiya Shabdkosh (vol. 2). 1932–1946. Kolkata: Sahitya Akademi, 2014.

13 P. Thankappan Nair, P. ‘The Growth and Development of Calcutta’, in Calcutta, The Living City (vol. 1), Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990: 10–23; 20.

14 Guha, Ranajit.‘ A Colonial City and its Time’ (1997), The Indian Postcolonial, A Critical Reader, Elleke Boehmer and Rosinka Chaudhuri, eds. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011: 334–354; 345.

15 Thus, Darjipara originally refers to the tailors’ (darji in Bengali) locality, while Kumartuli is the potters’ (kumar) neighbourhood.

16 Appadurai, Arjun. ‘The Production of Locality’, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996: 178–199; 191.

17 On the specific rhetoric of ‘culture’ that informs the Hindu bhadralok identity, see Tithi Bhattacharya, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (1848–85), New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

18 Tagore, Rabindranath. ‘This Side and That’ (‘Epaare Opaare’). 1939. Sukanta Chaudhuri transl., in The Oxford Anthology of Bengali Literature (vol. 1), Kalpana Bardhan, ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010; 28. This translated passage is a mere glimpse at the immensely rich Bengali literature on the para, which we can only briefly touch upon in this article.

19 Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 'Adda: A History of Sociality', in Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000: 180–213; 181.

20 Ray, Satyajit, dir. Charulata. India: R.D. Banshal & Co, 1964.

21 Reflecting on the famous actress Binodini Das’ memoirs, Chattopadhyay argues that ‘the relegation of actresses to the margins of community memory was accomplished more blatantly by denying them any "public" space outside the domain of theatre’ (Chattopadhyay 2010: 216), an exclusion which Majumdar shows to be ongoing up to the late 1980s.

22 The Left Front (a coalition of left-wing political parties dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)) ruled the state of West Bengal from 1977 to 2011.

23 See Saikat Majumdar, ‘The Ashes of Pleasure, How the curtains came down on Calcutta's professional theatre’, The Caravan, September 1, 2014. URL: https://caravanmagazine.in/reviews-and-essays/ashes-pleasure; ‘A Playhouse ready to vanish, an interview with Saikat Majumdar’. [Keri Walsh] Public Books, October 15, 2015. URL: https://www.publicbooks.org/a-playhouse-ready-to-vanishan-interview-with-saikat-majumdar/#fn-1365–2.

24 Before and in the aftermath of the partition of India in 1947, a massive influx of migrants from East Bengal (a region which became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971) came to Calcutta, hurriedly and precariously settling in on the southern fringes of the city, squatting empty military barracks, wastelands. This unprecedented wave of migration, which the city’s infrastructure failed to cope with, has profoundly marked the development and the culture of Calcutta in the second half of the 20th century. See Tanika Sarkar, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (eds.), Calcutta: The Stormy Decades, New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2015; Manas Ray, ‘Growing up Refugee’, History Workshop Journal 53 (2002): 149–170.

25 Blom Hansen, Thomas, Verkaairk, Oskar. ‘Introduction—Urban Charisma, On Everyday Mythologies in the City’. Critique of Anthropology 29.1 (2009): 5–26; 17.

26 Ali, Syeda Ayesha. ‘Ekbalpore’, in Strangely Beloved, Nilanjana Gupta, ed. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014: 132–136; 134.

27 Banerjee, Sumanta. ‘The Underside of a City Divided’, Seminar (559), March 2006. URL: http://www.india-seminar.com/2006/559/559%20sumanta%20banerjee.htm. Last Accessed 5 January 2019.

28 Banerjee, Sumanta. Memoirs of Roads, Calcutta from Colonial Urbanisation to Global Modernisation, New Delhi: India Oxford University Press, 2016; 28.

29 Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Return of the flâneur’ (1929), in Selected Writings II (1927–1934). Trans. Rodney Livingstone et al., eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1999: 262–267; 263.

Auteur

Marianne Hillion is a PhD candidate in English at Sorbonne Université and the University of Warwick. Her research examines the imaginary geographies of the city in post-1990 Indian Writing in English, drawing on fictional and nonfictional works by Rana Dasgupta, Aman Sethi, Arundhati Roy, Raj Kamal Jha, Sampurna Chattarji and Amit Chaudhuri. She is interested in showing how the literary conceptions of Indian cities are shaped by the evolution and globalisation of urbanism and architecture, while analysing postcolonial texts as tools to better grasp urban transformations. Her previous papers and articles dealt with Indian writers’ critical imagination of the global city, the representation of city margins by ‘returnees’ and the writing of the urban banal. She teaches literature and translation at Sorbonne University. She has contributed to the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of South Asian Literature.

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