BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTHEN LAMP JOURNAL/ KALKATTA by KUNAL BASU






Publisher: Picador India
Genre: Fiction
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 Shantaram.

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 and death.

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).



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