Kalkatta begins with young Jamshed Alam trying to become Indian. He is the boy from Geneva—not the Swiss city, but the biggest refugee camp of Bihari Muslims in Dhaka— whose family bribed its way out of the miseries of Bangladesh for a new life and a new identity in Kalkatta. Jamshed’s ammi, Rukhsana, tells his father, Abu Alam, “Our Jami can become the prime minister of Kalkatta.” For, in her dreams, the city is ‘paved half and half, with dirt and gold’, and it will be her last stop, her last camp. Uncle Mushtak of the Communist Party of Bengal helps Jami get a fake birth certificate, a scrap of paper to show that he is Indian. His new birthday is 25 October, “the same as the Soviet Union’s”, Uncle Mushtak reminds him with glee. The distance between Bangladesh and Bengal can be covered, but can Jami cross the road and take the flyover into the heart of Kolkata?
Basu’s shift in focus is welcome. He moves away from the Bengali Kolkata and its bhadralok anxieties to Uncle Mushtak’s bungalow Number 14 on Zakaria Street. It is Mushtak’s version of a commune where the misfits and the impoverished who have nowhere else to go live. Basu is trying to take “hazy people and making them real”, as a character in Kalkatta says. They are ‘hazy’ all right, but ‘making them real’ is the hard part.
Number 14 seems like a delightful setting, a place of character and incredible characters, including Ghanashyam, a Marwari ghost who tickles women and loosens their veils; and Jami’s spirited sister Miri who squirrels away Britannia Encyclopaedia volumes and reads ‘Maulvi’ Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but takes up the burkha the day she finishes school, decides not to go to college and begins counting her rosary. Number 14 seems like a place a novel would like to stick around.
Basu, however, is intent on showing Jami crossing over to Kolkata. He helps people fill up application forms for passports at Galaxy Travels until one Pujo day, when every Bengali is out celebrating, Mrs Monica Goswami, a ‘proper Kalkatawali’ arrives. She laughs: “How funny that an illegal should be helping Indian citizens get their passports!” Soon they meet in her car, at her club, in cafés and restaurants, on a steamy boat ride to the Sundarbans, their ‘days turning into pages of a ganda novel’. Jami finds himself being turned into ‘a launda from being a friend’—a gigolo—and then a masseur at a parlour that offers Plus and Plus Plus services for ‘parties’.
The problem with Kalkatta begins here. Characters are reduced to clichés: the rich woman who takes a young lover; a poor man who thinks, ‘When I am with Mrs Goswami, I felt visible.’ There are no shades to them, no new angles, no new dimensions to surprise you. Predictability makes a ruckus in this novel, drowning out everything else, like a can tied to a dog’s tail. There seems to be some relief from neon-lit stereotypes when the scene shifts from Jami-Mrs Goswami to Jami- Mandira, but not much. How can it be when Mandira is a single mother of a gifted child with blood cancer?
Can Jami, who passes through the corridors of the elite in Kolkata, who can touch and caress them, become a part of it? What is the fate of a devout Muslim girl in the city? Why is leafy Keyatola as far from meat-smelling Zakaria Street as Earth is from Mars ‘in this universe called Kalkatta’? These fissures and contemporary concerns should have made this a novel of today, but the book never quite takes off.
Rani, the hijra who manages the parlour Champaka, loves watching car chases in movies: “When you see cars banging against cars… you forget how much you have been banged around and dented.” But the best, she says, is a car chase inside a dream sequence “where you had all the drama and none of the pain”. Kalkatta eventually is like that, a middling portrait of a city’s underbelly, ‘a car chase in a dream sequence’ where you feel none of the pain.
(Charmy Harikrishnan is a Kerala-based journalist)