Publisher: Picador India
Extent: 312 pages
Price: Rs 599
The city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is more
than mere backdrop in Kunal Basu`s sixth
work of fiction: it is a heaving, twisting, tortuous companion to the hero
Jamshed Alam. In order to traverse his life,
Jami has to first learn to traverse Kalkatta. The author presents the
city in the most markedly unsentimental manner ever, seen through the eyes and described in the voice of Jami, yet
by the time the reader comes to the end of the book, the love is laid bare, for
all to see and savour.
Talking of savour, basically this is an unsavoury tale about
unsavoury beings. Basu has chosen a young Bihari Muslim refugee as his
protagonist, and we watch with slightly detached dismay as Jami grows up to
become a classic ne`er – do- well. Repeatedly failing his school exams, he is
placed as a sub-agent in a travel agency, basically assistant at a shady passport- forging agency. From there it is but short and seemingly
gradual steps to becoming a gifted masseur at an unisex parlour, expert at
giving Swedish, Shiatsu, Acupressure, Hot Stone, Thai, Deep Tissue massages. Then
Jami turns gigolo, and becomes so good, he is the unofficial King of Gigolos in
the city. Meanwhile, he experiments with dope, and is more or less press-ganged
into becoming a kidney runner for his mentor-hero Rakib in that gentleman`s kidney racket . The reader
watches the trajectory, knowing fully
well that Nemesis lies in wait for this boy. Which, of course, it does. We watch as gradually all the
innocence leaks out in spurts from Jami,
to be stoppered with bitterness. We watch as he tries to acquire the spit and
polish of a Bengali babu, only he never does.
As Jami starts to make more money, he tries to help his
ailing Abbu, his once beautiful Ammi who works in a zari shop, and his beloved sister the club-
footed Miriam. The characters are all sketched out in detail, as is Number 14, Zakaria
Street, the slum tenement the Alams live in.
Jami, as indeed his
parents, want to escape the gutter most youngsters of his ilk find themselves
in; to quote his Ammi: ` stay illiterate, grill kebabs, sing qawwalis, call
azan, play football…become a criminal, carrying a knife under his belly.` He wants to become a true Kolkata man. At best,
he becomes a true Kalkatta man.
The pain of the refugee is beautifully delineated, a pain
mixed with pragmatism and a downscaling of expectations…in everyone except Jami,
that is. Jami`s Ammi is a quietly
accepting soul most of the time, except when roused. There is a beautifully
etched line that reads: `My mother was petitioned to (give something for free),
bringing out the real refugee in her, the one who had to put up with a dark and
damp room, low water pressure, hours of power cuts, her daughter`s faulty leg
and a husband who made such loud noises and awful smells at night that there
was no choice but for him to sleep alone in the red balcony. `
Jami is a quiet sort of fellow; his emotions are all pitched
low. Where he loves, he loves in low-key manner. This same restraint comes into play when he meets the love of his life Mandira Gupta,
abandoned wife, classy Bengali bhadralok, with a cancer-stricken little boy Pablo
in tow. Jami grows closer to Mandira, grows to love Pablo like a father.
A blurb called this book `bawdy.` I wouldn’t agree because that term implies a
cheerful vulgarity which Kalkatta
does not have. In fact, the sex scenes are written with masterly restraint ,
almost a conservative moderation. There is a deep vein of sadness in characters
like the transgender Rani , easily the most compelling character in this book. Jami`s
uncle Mushtak is a Marxist leader and Left
politics threads itself into the story on and off, neither contributing much to
it nor taking anything away.
A `real Bengali` friend of Jami`s tells him that to be a Kalkatta-
wallah, he needs to follow certain
rules: believe that you know everything. Accepts rumours to be more important
than facts. Make a grand gesture now and then. And have a low enough ambition
to be envious of others with higher ones. Indeed, a cynical outlook but one that Jami half- heartedly
tried to follow and fails. Jami always remains an outsider even when he attends tony parties, moves in and out of
gracious homes in leafy suburbs, and
meets the Who`s Who of the city, the `culture rich and cash poor` haute monde.
This alienation is in his mind, seeps into every pore of his skin, gets into
his heart, and eventually, becomes part of his fate, too. There are faint shades of Shantaram in Jami, in that he is really a
man for all seasons and almost all trades. But this is a more refined
Why Kalkatta? Apparently that’s how outsiders pronounce Kolkata.
There is nothing raw or savage about Kalkatta. There is a miasma of
pragmatism, everyone does what they do without any fuss, whether it is
pleasuring people, being pleasured, running a beauty parlour that moonlights as
a brothel, then abruptly deciding to
shut shop and turn the place into a kindergarten, dealing with love, loss, pain
So. Life serves this little refugee kid lemon after lemon
and he tries his level best to make some
lemonade. Except, in the end , that very lemonade chokes him.
Sheila Kumar is an independent
journalist, manuscript editor, and author of Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications).