Outside Looking In

Kunal Basu’s ‘Kalkatta’ seems too disingenuous and overly sensationalised to really be of consequence, says Devjani Bodepudi.

 
Read an extract from Kalkatta, or click here for an interview with Kunal Basu.

Kunal Basu’s Kalkatta is a kind of messed up, sour Cinderella story. Jamshed arrives in Calcutta as a young boy with this family of caricatures, a father whose farts are too smelly to allow him to sleep indoors, a lame sister fierce in her search for knowledge and independence, and a long suffering, ever-aging mother, whose only dream is for her son to become a real life “Kalkatta-wallah”.

The book is an attempt to glimpse a Calcutta rarely seen, through the eyes of an outsider, a Muslim migrant on the fringes of polite Bengali society. Unfortunately, it’s filled with clichés and familiar tableaux: gulmohar trees and hanging meat, rich Marwari Calcuttans who all seem slightly depraved and then, the Marxists of course, benevolent yet a little desperate. It’s written in the first person, attempting to draw the reader into a false sense of intimacy but it feels of no consequence until the very end.

On first reading, there is an emotional disconnect from the main character, Jamshed or Jami, although a familiarity develops and one cannot help but feel a niggling, mild interest in what he might do next. However, when one finds out, one is rewarded with nothing more than an “oh, ok.” You expect it and it all seems inevitable. Twists and turns there are a’many. Likely demons and unlikely angels in the forms of the bad influence, heroin dealer Rakib, and the hijra masseur, Rani, move the plot along and Jami moves along with it, like a stray wrapper from a stick of gum. A certain fatalism is present and one is forced to remain at arm’s length emotionally, most of the time.

Likely demons and unlikely angels move the plot along and Jami moves along with it, like a stray wrapper from a stick of gum. A certain fatalism is present and one is forced to remain at arm’s length emotionally, most of the time.

He becomes a gigolo in the same fatalistic vein which runs through the whole novel; he meets Monica at the travel agency, where he works. He inadvertently impresses her by saying nothing much when she asks about destinations he knows nothing about. And then he bumps into her again, where she invites him for a coffee. She then introduces him to a whole new world and Jamshed, the fairly innocent and poor, becomes tainted irreversibly and then becomes Jamshed the gigolo and very rich. For a short time, this is his world, where he is at most himself, a kind of transparent film for others to be seen through and then, of course, it all falls apart.

There is a love story there, though, thickly veiled in coincidence and then garnished lavishly with a sweet, talented (somewhat of a prodigy) dying child—why can’t dying children ever be dim-witted brats in books?—but even then, I could not connect.

The hazy love interest, Mandira is an ordinary, yet brilliant Bengali girl, clad in cotton saris and blouses with elbow length sleeves. She would otherwise be writing poetry if it were not for her husband leaving her with a sick and dying son. For this reason she works at a travel agency, where Jamshed encounters her for the first time.

 

It is not until much later, when Jamshed decides to take a solitary walk away from the rest of his troubles, when he sees Mandira again, standing on her balcony, no less, in sight of a gulmohar tree. A friendship follows, which leads to a more complicated arrangement and even more complex feelings ensue. Jamshed finds himself responsible for aforementioned dying son, Pablo, both emotionally and financially and all else becomes secondary.

Basu plays a truly cruel god here. Whilst giving Jamshed a taste of something real, albeit clichéd in its ultimatum, he takes away that other dream of becoming a Kalkatta-wallah. Jamshed’s gigolo business suffers and again, with that nasty twist of fate or author sadism, he becomes a police informant. His old gang finds out and Jamshed is on the brink of losing everything.

A few more twists and turns happen towards the end and then, that’s it. You’re left with a tragedy. Something that should have left you reeling in grief, but only just manages to touch the edges of empathy.

Reading this book felt more like an inadequate homage to all the other greater literature and film produced about this mighty city we call Kolkata. I wonder if it’s all been said before.

Reading this book felt more like an inadequate homage to all the other greater literature and film produced about this mighty city we call Kolkata. I wonder if it’s all been said before. Whether Basu had missed the boat. Sankar’s Middleman explored Calcutta’s underbelly so much more humanely and realistically and Ray’s celluloid offering of the book certainly did it justice. Here, from Rani the transgender with her own tragic backstory, to Ani the wise Bengali friend, I’m left feeling the whole thing is all a little too theatrical. Basu does try with Rani, no doubt, making her soft around the edges, giving her a conscience, but somehow he doesn’t go far enough. Even Jami’s father becomes a little more three-dimensional towards the end when he has a tumour removed, but that does not last long when he becomes a successful number crunching bookie.

I suppose Basu was trying to cover new ground with the whole gigolo thing, but if truth be told, that’s such a small part of the whole story. There is nothing sensational about this book. It is full of flat stereotypes and wise words which I can’t help but feel I have heard before. The scope of the narrative is perfect for film with action and drama on a myopic level. The bigger picture is a sprawling Kalkatta where all faces seem the same.

Perhaps that was what Basu was trying to do. With this book, he has created an alternate city, a parallel to the real Kolkata or Calcutta people are facing in real time, in real life, every day. Throughout the whole book he manages to parody the Kolkata reality, feigning empathy and understanding but somehow missing the mark, with his characters turning into cardboard cut-outs. The truer picture is when Jami is dead, you zoom out, and you zoom out again and then finally the bigger picture is revealed.

Throughout the whole book he manages to parody the Kolkata reality, feigning empathy and understanding but somehow missing the mark, with his characters turning into cardboard cut-outs.

His closing lines in the book are probably the most poignant, “Then he was gone, joining the millions, and I’d lost sight of him in the smoke and dust, the light and the darkness of his Kalkatta.”

We’ve all built up our own Calcuttas, no doubt, and to try and reproduce a reality from the point of view of an outsider, no matter how well researched, if one is not emotionally invested in that reality, will never be possible. For me, Basu’s Kalkatta seemed a little too disingenuous and overly sensationalised to really be of any consequence in the world of literary renderings.

It’s an easy read but leaves one feeling nothing but ready for something meatier in the next course.

“Speak English!' said the Eaglet. 'I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and I don't believe you do either!” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.. Devjani believes in simplicity and just telling it how it is.

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