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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Grand Delusions


A city of joy and despair
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Grand Delusions | A city of joy and despair | Indrajit Hazra |

Few readers would be aware of the existence of a man named Kartick Chandra Paul. In his 70s today, the Class 8 dropout from Howrah continues to believe in a ‘discovery’ that he made way back in 1962 – ‘the sun goes around the Earth once in a year’.

For many years since the mid-1980s, his scrawls pushing his geocentric theory were everywhere on the walls of Kolkata – then Calcutta. They have all but disappeared now. No big deal, KC Paul still clings to his crazy belief and is confident that he will be proved correct one day.

Journalist and writer Indrajit Hazra, who has lived away from Kolkata for 15 years, likens KC Paul’s story to that of the city that the man inhabits, a city “That still believes in its utterly special, if no longer central, position in the country it is a part of”.

In this thin tome, the author strings together numerous little nuggets of experiences, impressions and information drawn from his own life and from the history of the storied city in an attempt to make sense of chaotic, squalid, defiant, dogged Kolkata.

Grand Illusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata is too whimsical to be of much use to somebody who is looking for the last word on the metropolis. To be fair to the author, the book doesn’t lay claims on being a historical and cultural overview. It merely seeks to collate memories of disparate encounters and spaces that formed the core of the author’s growing up years in the city.

He writes: “…While there are many meeting points between my notion of Kolkata and the Kolkata that ‘lies spread out there’, I can’t write a history of the city in the empirical, objective sense. I can only write a biased, coloured, palimpsestic story of a village that pretends to be a city.”    

So while Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata is short all right, it isn’t quite a biography of a city that has seen many ups and downs, probably more of the latter than the former, over the centuries. The book is made up of diverse elements – it is part political/social/cultural history, part freewheeling confessional, part stray remembrances of times past, and part guide to the clubs, watering holes and recreational diversions that Kolkata offers.      

Among the many things that Hazra laments about Kolkata in particular and West Bengal in general is their culture of rampant political violence. He traces it back to the Naxalite uprising that, in the late 1960s, spread from a nondescript village in North Bengal to the heart of Kolkata and sparked a year-and-a-half-long nightmare. It left behind a trail of blood and lives snuffed out in their prime.

Far from learning from those awful 18 months, the political class in the city has only sunk deeper into a bottomless quagmire. “Kolkata was quickly cured of its Naxal ailment. But something entered the bloodstream of its political culture that made it especially impervious to the plight of individuals and beholden to ideology and a ‘cause’.
 Violence was hardwired into the ‘bhadralok’ politics of the Left, and it remains integral – if more visible – in the post-CPM landscape…”

But Grand Delusions does not focus only “the constant fighting of rats at the bottom of an empty barrel”; it raises a plethora of questions about several other aspects of the city that many like him and Jennifer Huang, one member of the fast dwindling Chinese community of Kolkata who has left the city for Toronto, have deserted in search of “a better life”.

But there is life in Kolkata for sure and it is difficult for the hardiest of deserters to live down those formative years spent exploring the city’s many secrets and delights. So those that have left do keep coming back at every opportunity, be it out of a sense of guilt or in response to a need for regeneration or simply to “Feed an addiction”.

Hazra explores many facets of the city, the most prominent being its north-south divide and the “Ugliness (that) stems from disrepair”. He recalls, among other things, the days of load shedding, the harsh reality of lockouts and the crumbling edifices that are everywhere in a city that has often been negligent to its architectural heritage.

Readers familiar with the city might not necessarily find anything startlingly new in Hazra’s account. It only presents a personal take on a city that refuses to let the pace of the world push it out of its own rhythms, no matter how outdated they might have become. Whether you love or abhor Kolkata, Grand Illusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata is worth a read. Either ways, your predisposition will be palpably strengthened.

Author : Indrajit Hazra
Publisher : Aleph
EDITION: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-93-82277-28-6
PAGES: 145
PRICE: Rs 295

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017