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Oh, Calcutta: Bishwanath Ghosh and his 'Longing and Belonging'

08/25/2014 12:40 pm ET | Updated Oct 25, 2014

Writing narratives about cities is different from penning travelogues. In a travelogue, the journey is often long, and the landscape is often vast. Perhaps the best known of those who made such journeys is the 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan, who reportedly traversed 77,000 miles from Tangier to China, the equivalent of 44 present-day countries. He produced a manuscript, Rihla, or The Journey; Ibn Battuta had not kept notes during his travels - Rihla was dictated from memories of his encounters in the lands that he visited, and there are historians who contend that some of his accounts may be fictional.

A memoir about a city, on the other hand, requires concentrating on a specific bit of real estate, and on its occupants. There are several masters of this genre. There's Jan Morris with her memorable books on Venice and Manhattan; there's William Dalrymple's City of Djinns, an account of Delhi; there's Ernest Hemingway's classic about Paris, A Moveable Feast; there's Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, a fascinating work on Mumbai. These authors transport readers to where they've been, capturing the sense, senses and sensibilities of those cities.

Perhaps no other city in the developing world has featured more in non-fiction as well as fiction than Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). Among the best known chroniclers of this city of 15 million people: Joseph Lelyveld, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Amit Chaudhuri and Dominique Lapierre. Calcutta has also provided a setting for acclaimed novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. And, of course, there's the great Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose astonishingly prolific output is limned with the ethos of Calcutta and of his native Bengal.

Bishwanath Ghosh has very formidable competition indeed, both historically and contemporaneously. But he's certainly belongs in this class of outstanding writers. His earlier book, Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began, was about his adopted city Chennai; another book, Chai, Chai, was a journey by train around India.

In his latest book, Longing, Belonging: An Outsider At Home In Calcutta (Tranquebar Press, Delhi), Mr. Ghosh -- a senior deputy editor at The Hindu -- demonstrates a remarkable eye for detail that characterized those works, and an enormous capacity for patience with people. He gets even the most stoic denizen of Calcutta to talk to him; the dialogues are authentic, and his descriptions of this sprawling metropolis are such that Mr. Ghosh takes you with him everywhere he goes, he makes you smell what he smells, he makes you taste what he tastes, and he makes you feel what you feel.

Bengalis are not necessarily known for being reticent about their culture: they believe that their literary and social traditions are transcendent. That may be hubris, to be sure, but Calcutta in particular has long been an incubator of literary and theatrical works, not to mention glorious films such as those by Satyajit Ray.

Here's what the author says about the people he met, particularly the old-timers:

As I prodded them for more clues about how long was a long time ago, I realized that these people have been living in Calcutta, doing the same thing they are still doing, from the time I was born -- or sometimes even before. They are still around, so are the places. This meant I could still, in some small ways, make up for not having grown up in Calcutta.

At the same time I could not think of relocating to Calcutta, mainly for the fear that its charm may begin to wear off once I had become a resident. Surely there must be other ways of knowing a city where I could not be born but would like to die--someday--to eventually be one with the soil that had given me my surname?

What made him decide to write this gem of a book?

Here's Mr. Ghosh's response:

I had never thought Calcutta would figure on the map of my adult life until, at the age of 35, I married a woman from the city.

Like most non-resident Bengalis -- probashi Bangali -- I had grown up in the absence of Calcutta, and was certain that I could do without the city, just as it could without me.

I had no special affinity for the place, no compelling connections beckoning me. Calcutta, at best, had been a piece of old furniture stored away in the attic.

As a child I would pay a visit nearly every year with my parents to see my grandmother, always taking the steam- pulled Toofan Express from Kanpur, where I was growing up. But I absorbed almost nothing of Calcutta from those trips. The memories that I have relate mostly to our stay in the homes of various paternal uncles and aunts, who were scattered across the city and took turns in looking after my grandmother.

That there is an India beyond Delhi, I realized when I moved to Chennai in 2001. I began exploring the south: Kerala, Bangalore, Hyderabad. Calcutta was now more distant than ever.
"Then, in the summer of 2006, I got married. Calcutta became my hometown-in-law. I was no longer the poor cousin from Kanpur.

Annual visits began all over again; sometimes more than once a year. I began to like the city. It smelt of my childhood. The dishes were all too familiar, so were the habits and mannerisms of people. The local language was no longer just background sound -- which happens to be the case for me in Chennai -- but my mother tongue. At the same time, it bore comforting similarities with Chennai: simplicity, absence of ostentation, pride in culture, spiritual bent of mind, worship of knowledge. I felt rooted.

Calcutta was no longer an old piece of furniture in the attic. It was an antique whose value I had realized.

The value of Longing, Belonging lies in that Bishwanath Ghosh not only paints a broad brushstroke of this complicated city of much history and social and political activism; his evocation of encounters with Calcutta's people is absolutely gripping. After reading his manuscript, I felt that I'd indeed been to the places he's been, and met the people he'd met.

Mr. Ghosh is a "Bong" -- shorthand for Bengali. He may not be a native of Calcutta - it will always be Calcutta for him, and not Kolkata - but the city's allure and Bengali culture have produced in him a superlative observer of the human condition. May he visit -- and write about -- many more cities. He's very good at it.

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