The fascinating lives of Kalkatta


Kalkatta Chronicles by Supriya Newar is a book you are going to remember long after you finish it. It is a collection of chapters talking about different people and cultures of Kolkata the author experienced in her childhood. The prose is lucid and measured. It starts with the memory of the lift-operator whose character and duty effects the residents in unsuspecting ways. The observations are unique and sharp. They has to be seen first hand and not thought up because of their originality. For example, when the lift would get a makeover after maintenance,

the liftman too sat up straighter and prouder on his designated stool donning his newly stitched, ironed and monogrammed uniform.

This sense of childlike ownership has come out so endearingly solely due to inclusion of such excellent details.

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While reading through the book I was nodding and smiling because there are so many things similar to what I had experienced in my childhood. For example, the brown paper clothing of books every year, the excitement around it, the joy of writing your name on stickers on the newly covered books, the process of flattening the books so that the brown paper covers get settled well. And I wonder how across different cultures, we lived the same lives.

The stories of grandiose train journeys, the world of cozy candle-lit rooms during routine loadsheddings, the struggles of getting tickets on black for the latest Bollywood flicks are all too familiar and made me nostalgic.

More than the world inhibiting in the book, I love to read about those different people living in various strata of the society. The family tailor is a businessman who is confident about his craftsmanship even if, at times the fitting would not be perfect. Still the family manages to keep him for years to come. The book and magazine seller is also a man who keeps his account meticulously and is the sole supplier of weekly magazine and comics. In the pre-era of globalization and commercialization of everything, there were personal touches everywhere, because things were not automatized or taken care by unknown persons behind websites. And even though sometimes things got inconvenient, the human touch made them personal memories, something to reminiscence, to cherish forever. 

I’m not sure what made him a success across the family for ears together, for he wasn’t necessarily the finest tailor around. […] Whatever may have been the secret arrangement, each party got used to the other and in the process, Iqbal […] became a bespoke family heirloom.

Apart from its literary appeal for all the above reasons, it is an important book for another thing. Present day Kolkata is a rich mixture of different cultures and people coming from all over the country. Getting to read how they fuse in the old culture of Kolkata and how still they manage to maintain their independent culture is not only fascinating, but also heartwarming. This book is a burning proof how different worlds can thrive together and create a culture that is so rich and yet so distinct.

The quotidian details of the homely world in this book often reminded me of Amit Chaudhuri’s splendid A Strange and Sublime Address and I congratulate the author for being able to write something so special. Strongly recommended.

P.S. Just look at those stunning illustrations!

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