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The Kalkatta Chronicles

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Kunal Basu’s book set in Zakaria Street, Kolkata, is the story of that part of the city, which is not so nice and happy; there’s blood on the streets and struggle for identity and existence. “I look for the strange, the not so familiar,” says the author

kunal basu

I was never really taken by the Bollywood depicted Bengalness of Kolkata. Growing up and living in the city, I knew it has many facets and some of them are rough

His first novel was ‘Opium Clerk’, set in the 19th century Kolkata, second a Moghul novel The Miniaturist, third a Victorian novel set in Africa and the fourth a Portuguese story set in China all the four historicals; it is for his fifth novel, ‘Kalkatta’ that the Oxford academician, author, Kunal Basu explored the unexplored parts of the city where he was born and grew up.

The novel set in the contemporary Kolkata is about Jami, a Bihari-Bangladeshi refugee turned gigolo King of Kalkatta and his constant struggle to belong to the city he has gotten to love. “Kolkata is not just one city.

There is Calcutta, the anglicised version, the Kolkata, which is the Bengali middle-class version, to which I belong, and the Kalkatta that is inhabited by the subaltern over 50 per cent of the poor non-Bengalis, many of whom migrated from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and even Bangladesh, illegally. It is difficult to write about the city, and being from a middle class, it is quite obvious to write about the “Bengaliness” of the city.

But, the author that I am I look for the strange, the not so familiar, and that involved exploring parts of the city that I never did, otherwise. I used to go to Zakaria Street after Muharram when delicious haleem and biryani would be available, but never again.

However, for the book, I spent around three years exploring the area, I was introduced to people who lived there, I became friends, I became family friends, I flew kites on the roads, I ate with the families, hung out with the boys, I went to shady bars and encountered male prostitute, whom, normally, I would never have met,” Kunal shares.

Among other things, ‘Kalkatta’ reflects upon the refugee crisis, which is a burning issue in today’s world. And the book is intense and grey in its elements and yet fast paced as the characters come in one after the other taking the reader to unknown realms. Kunal agrees, “This is not a book that you relax and read at leisure or which, you will not reflect upon. It is not easy on the senses.
Kalkata Book Cover

But I hope there are lighter moments that are as much a part of daily life as are the emotional ones.” “I live in Europe for over six months in a year. And I see the refugee crisis that has impacted people in the West. I tell friends there that in India, the refugee crisis is not new. Through partition, from Tibet etc, we lived with a notion of people, who have sought refuge in India,” he adds.

‘Kalkatta’ focuses on a refugee and his family that wants to belong; become Kalkattawalas as they are tired of being migrants for generations. This is the story of the people rejected in India, Bangladesh and by Pakistan of people without a country. “Every book changes the writer, and not simply the reader,” he believes, “If one engages passionately in writing a book, and often if it is a full-fledged one, it changes you It changed my relation with Kolkata.

I was never really taken by the Bollywood depicted Bengalness of Kolkata. Growing up and living in the city, I knew it has many facets and some of them are rough there is blood on the streets. When will authors and readers wake up to it. Why should I repeat to the readers the lyrical aspect of Bengalis Its true in parts but it’s not truth in entirety? Working on the book has changed my view of Kolkata.

I now, do not view the man walking alone on the street, in the middle of the night with suspicion. I look at that person and wonder what is she or he looking for. It has made me more empathetic, more open to the personal risk of relationships.” Speaking of empathy, he says that there are two things that help the author reach his readers.

One is the amount of research done and the other is the empathy that one has towards people. “This is the main difference between Indian way of thinking and western thought when it comes to writing about India, and the western author usually misses on the empathy. Kolkata is my city and there is a rotten side to it.

But, when I write about it, I am empathetic and it connects with the readers at the subconscious level. There are a few Indian authors too, who lack this empathy and usually these writers enjoy a lot of popularity in the west, as they cater to the western psyche,” he shares. His other favourite book on Kolkata is ‘City of Joy’. “I like the gritty narrative,” he shares.

‘The Japanese Wife’ from the collection of his short stories was made into a film and he says, “Aparna Sen has done an outstanding job in directing the film, and in fact, I think a few of the scenes are better than my writing. Each time I watch the last scene of the film, I have tears in my eyes.”

The-Japanese-Wife Poster

Will his other books too get cinematic transformation? He expresses doubt, “I was lucky the first time; I may not be so lucky next time when someone wants to make a film of my book.”

‘Kalkatta’ is not a happy story, and though it is fiction and according to the author, the characters of the book are not based on real-life; it is the people and streets of Kolkata that find resonance in the book. And that includes the language that is intentionally kept street style, even though written in English.

“When writing a book, one usually thinks let me change a plot here, let me introduce a character there – to make the narrative interesting. For this book, I became so close to the community that I could not write anything, which is not true or that doesn’t make sense.
My research was painstakingly done, helped by a lot of people including the police; I had to meet gigolos, which I did, and they spent a lot of time walking around with me and hence, a degree of familiarity was born.

There are so many stories of which, some naturally fitted into the book and some didn’t. So probably, my future books may have a small part with untold stories from Zakaria Street,” says the author, who has recently written a yet to be published book in Bangla language that is also set in contemporary Kolkata.

However, Kunal does not like to repeat his themes and not necessarily all the books need to be set in Kolkata, or for that matter, in India; and a few of his novels do not even have an Indian character. “My next novel may even be based in Hyderabad; you may never know,” he keeps us guessing.
First Published in The Hans India
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