Naturally, I’m queried sometimes about why I returned to India—and why to Calcutta. Although India, in the so-called boom, might be a place for a certain kind of professional to come back to, Calcutta, on that boom’s outer reaches, with its precipitous political future, is a curious place to make a home. Unless, of course, you belong to that species condemned, all over the world, to uniqueness—I mean the only child—and you have ageing parents. Only recently, a woman whom I know slightly told me on the telephone that she was going to leave Bonn and her thriving career in the UN in Europe and return to New Zealand. “I worry about my parents, especially about my father, these days,” she laughed with some embarrassment. “It’s the curse of the only child.” If not the only child, then, in India, the sole male offspring. Not long ago, my wife met a young, good-looking, clearly successful couple in a friend’s house for tea. She heard the man had relocated from an enviable position in a foreign bank in Bombay to a similarly responsible position in what is, however, today’s Calcutta. Was it disaffection that had caused the move? Not really. It was something that’s older in this part of the world than disaffection, and more obstinate: the sense of familial duty. The father had aged, and the son decided (after discussions with a tolerant wife) that he should be nearby.
Yet living in Calcutta is hardly to live in Kabul or Baghdad or even Johannesburg—nor is it comparable to inhabiting a suburb in Atlanta, or moving to Ipswich. As a city, it’s neither too threateningly alive, nor too defunct (if extinction can be measured and graded). Anyway, if Calcutta today suffers in comparison, it’s not really to other cities, but principally to itself and what it used to be. Anyone who has an idea of what Calcutta once was will find that vanished Calcutta the single most insurmountable obstacle to understanding, or sympathising with, the city today.
I had several reasons for coming back; some of them emerged without warning in the late nineties, and others had been with me for as long as I could remember. For instance, homesickness. I couldn’t recall a time when I hadn’t been homesick and lonely in England. Partly, this had to do with my own—as I discovered, very human—need for light. I was impressed when, in the early eighties, I read a report in an English newspaper about how people in the north of England wilted, psychologically and spiritually, as plants do physically, from an absence of light in the winter. To this lack, I’d add my abhorrence of silence—a high-pitched pressure on the eardrum clearly audible to me in an English room.
Connected to this is the often problematic fact that I’m a musician. I turned, in the late seventies, from what had been till then my favourite form—American folk-rock—to Indian classical vocal music. The regime of classical music—practising with my teacher and with accompanists; picking up new bandishes and compositions and ragas—ensured I spent several months a year in India even when I was a student in England. To be in India—in Bandra in Bombay after my father’s retirement—was to be reborn, to experience sunlight, stillness, birdcall, morning, evening, for a limited duration only, to realise it was possible to revisit some of the first experiences of your life as if they were new. Those student years consisted of a series of such rebirths, because of the end-of-term breaks in British universities, and the cheap flights (when my parents moved to Calcutta, I began to fly Bangladesh Biman and Royal Jordanian) out of London. But there were the flights back. If I got to know birth, I also got to know death. There’s no rationality to this—to why I’m possessed by posthumousness, uselessness, torpor—all symptoms and traits of dying—before I leave. But who ever said that clinging to life could be explained rationally? I suppose what I mean is—India, for whatever reason, is synonymous to me with life; and you don’t love life by weighing its advantages.
The Bengali poet Joy Goswami saw me in the doldrums, in my Calcutta flat, on the eve of yet another departure to England in 2002. A meeting had been arranged by a journalist from the Statesman; Joy and I were to be in conversation, covering, randomly, a range of interests. The Statesman would transcribe and publish this conversation. The only available time in our calendar was this afternoon prior to the flight early the next morning.
Generally, on the day before I leave—sometimes, even two or three days before departure—I stop doing anything; I stop moving. I don’t like engagements on the day. I’m giving myself completely to the time left me—in the process, becoming a bore. I go through the motions, inwardly disengaged; I’m convinced I have no right any more to be here. Dusk is the worst time—the closing of the day, which is as beautiful a time as the day’s beginning, because it has its own signals of continuity, gesturing towards return and the day that follows. This is what is most insulting; that none of those multifarious signals—the stripe on a shaalik’s wing, a schoolboy’s shout on coming home from school—are addressed to me. I am alone in the universe in knowing that this orchestration of the day’s close, leading to the new day’s arrival, is absorbing everyone else in its rhythm, but that I’m irrelevant to it. Joy is shrewd enough to notice (as he and Chitralekha of the Statesman are served tea) my isolation, my disguised posthumousness. He calls it bishonnota—“deep sadness.”
“It’s peculiar to musicians,” he says. “I have a friend who is a musician who’s exactly the same way before he travels.”
None of the reasons for my return had to do with Calcutta being what it’s still often stubbornly called—a “capital of culture.” When my parents moved here in 1989, I realised slowly that it had ceased being any kind of centre. Of course, over it (already stunned as it was by power cuts) still hung, like a presence that wouldn’t go away, the shadow of the Bengal Renaissance—that is, the great changes that had taken place from the late eighteenth century onward to produce figures like Rammohun Roy and Debendranath Tagore, who created the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist sect that decisively turned away from an “incorrigibly plural and various” Hinduism towards a unitarian, Upanishadic world view. And this unitarianism, through which, in effect, man discovers he’s suddenly alone in the universe (despite a putative God), would have deep philosophical implications for the appearance of liberal modernity in Bengal, with men like Madhusudan Dutt, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, and others feeling compelled, as it were, to take upon themselves the hard task of creating a new literature and culture: a new image of man himself. I had no illusions about the present-day inhabitants of the city having any real interest in this history.
The eighties was, as I said, a time of rebirth. There was the actual feeling of being born another time as I stepped off the cheap flight from Heathrow and experienced, in the hour after arrival, the onrush of life and traffic becoming real. Related to these student’s journeys was my birth as a writer—or perhaps, again, rebirth, as I’d been writing for more than a decade, trying to be, at different times, Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, one of the anonymous poets of the Bhagavad Gita, T. S. Eliot, Tagore, Samuel Beckett. Then, in London and later in Oxford, I had a deep desire to revisit home, to escape everything dead and still around me—by home I mean India, perhaps even Calcutta (though it wasn’t my home), and by India and Calcutta I mean “life.” I was possessed by a desire, especially when I was reading, to revisit life, and, in Oxford, I found it was possible to do so in R. K. Narayan’s stories—a writer I’d earlier dismissed, as D. H. Lawrence said the English once dismissed classic American writing as “children’s literature.” But, in those years, I found it possible to discover Calcutta in the oddest of places—in the mining town in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers; Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand, which she said she wanted to explore to the last detail, including the “creak of the laundry basket”; the across-the-balcony exchanges in Naipaul’s Trinidad; the economically conjured-up neighbourhoods and streets in the stories in Dubliners. Calcutta, for me, was a particular idea of the modern city, and I found it in many forms, works, and genres. Why, in 1999, did I move to it? Because I’d been rehearsing that journey for years: as a child, in trips from Bombay in the summer and the winter; and later—in my continual search for a certain kind of city—in my reading. And Calcutta would make its way back to me, unexpectedly, through Irish literature and Mansfield and Eudora Welty and the writing of the American South. There was movement on both sides, or from many sides. Even later, when I finally became a published writer, that city would be given back to me by my readers, from their strange identifications and instants of recognition. My friend Aamer Hussein, the British-Pakistani short-story writer, told me how Mai Ghoussoub, the publisher of London’s Saqi Books, had, on reading the section on Chhotomama shaving in the balcony in A Strange and Sublime Address, phoned him and laughed: “It reminds me of Beirut!” I was delighted, like a child, but not surprised. Was this a “contrapuntal reading,” in Said’s manner? Or was it evidence of how, even in modernity—perhaps particularly in modernity—we have shared, primal memories of the spaces we’ve inherited and which came to exist in the world in the last two hundred years? When we speak of shared memories, we hint at some uninvestigated, autochthonic past. But what of the world, the cities, that arose in the nineteenth century? Are we the exiles and travellers of the last two centuries, or our ideas and visions?
What do I mean by “modernity,” in the special sense I discovered through the Calcutta I knew as a child? Not electric lights, telephones, cars, certainly, though it might encompass these—we had plenty of those in Bombay. I’ll keep it brief: by “modernity” I have in mind something that was never new. True modernity was born with the aura of inherited decay and life. My first impressions of Calcutta from the mid-sixties are of a Chowringhee whose advertisements shone through the smog; and of my uncle’s house in Pratapaditya Road in Bhowanipore, which, with its slatted windows, seemed to have stood in that place forever. It was built, in fact, roughly forty years before my first becoming conscious of it. Similarly, the city itself—which is by no means old by the standards of Rome, Patna, Agra, or even London—is, actually, fairly new, its origins traceable to three hundred and twenty years back in time, the groundwork for the Calcutta we now know probably laid no more than two centuries ago. Yet if you look at paintings and photographs, and see old films of the city, you notice that these walls and buildings were never new—that Calcutta was born to look more or less as I saw it as a child.
I’m not referring here to an air of timelessness; the patina that gave to Calcutta’s alleys, doorways, and houses their continuity and disposition is very different from the eternity that defines mausoleums and monuments. It’s this quality I’m trying to get at when I speak of “modernity.”
Let me provide an example. In the Courtauld Gallery in London hang several exceptional Cézannes, among which is one of the painter’s several viewings of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, and the fairly empty countryside (barring a few houses nearby) before it. This view is framed by a large pine tree, its branches flailing against space, but not quite obscuring the view of the mountain. On the right-hand side, at the bottom of the mountain, where the empty yellow stretches and rectangular patches of greenery end, you notice something horizontal—except that it’s rising very slightly at an angle—with dark arches, like a bridge. It is a culvert. The curator’s small note points out that by including the culvert in the scene Cézanne is marking the incursion of modernity into the world of nature, or words to that effect. My first response was to disagree. For “nature,” in keeping with the simmering abandon of the time, and reminiscent of his younger contemporary Gauguin, is painted by Cézanne with a palette of incongruous colours, with pinks, oranges, and yellows: the scene, far away from the city, crackles with Parisian newness. The culvert, once you notice it, is the only thing that looks genuinely, deeply, old: instinctively, Cézanne paints it an organic, faded brown. Its colour is identical to the rocks on that side of the mountain; the rest of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire has iridescences of pink. Cézanne is telling us, with great delicacy, that modernity in the nineteenth century is indistinguishable from nature; perhaps it is nature—in some ways, the culvert, which has emerged from the rock, seems more of its place than the mountain itself. The shadows etched under the arches are mysterious, like a womb’s darkness; and since Cézanne himself is a progeny of the modern, how can he not feel that it’s older and darker than the earth and the mountain?
I spoke about my rebirth as a writer in the mid-eighties—which would lead me to start writing my first novel in 1986. About this time, India, too, was having a rebirth. But the two births weren’t coeval or connected; they took place near each other without being affected by that proximity in any way. I noticed, in a surly, suspicious fashion, the nation’s second birth, though I became aware of it as such only in retrospect; the nation, naturally, didn’t notice mine.
Mine was a sort of event that’s perhaps unsurprising in the lives of poets, but incongruous for a yet-to-be novelist. Allen Ginsberg describes it occurring in his life as an episode—in the late forties, he was masturbating (“jacking off”) in Harlem, his life having plumbed a new low, while (speaking of incongruities) he had a book of Blake’s poems open at his side. On that page, fortuitously, was “Ah, sun-flower”—”Ah, sun-flower! weary of time,/Who countest the steps of the sun:/Seeking after the sweet golden clime,/Where the traveller’s journey is done.” Ginsberg had just come, and was lying in a stupor—”that state . . . of hopelessness, or dead end”—his eyes “idling” over the poem, which he’d read so many times that “it didn’t make any particular meaning”—when he suddenly understood it was addressed to him; he was the sunflower. And, almost at once, he heard a “deep earthen grave voice”: “I didn’t think twice . . . [it] was Blake’s voice . . . so completely tender and beautifully . . . ancient.” And then a thought arrived: “I suddenly realised that this existence was it! “I’m especially struck, in this story, by Ginsberg’s account, in the light of this thought that had just come to him, of the view from his window: “What I was speaking about . . . was . . .that the cornices in the old tenement building in Harlem . . . had been carved very finely in 1890 or 1910. And were like the solidification of a great deal of intelligence . . . and love also. So that I began noticing in every corner where I looked evidences of a living hand . . .” I’m moved by the invocation of cornices; because no sooner had I had my intimation in 1985, when I was twenty-three (“that this existence was it”), than, for some reason, I thought of Calcutta, a city I had not grown up in, and recalled, particularly, those household features that had always absorbed me: the slatted windows, the lintel that came to rest horizontally to secure a doorway, the round iron knocker-like rings that hung from the stone sides of the terrace.