Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Kolkata in Jhumpa Lahiri's 'The Lowland'

Booker short-listed 'The Lowland' by Jhumpa Lahiri is another one of her Kolkata-USA transitional novels, the kind she specialises in. Two brothers born in pre-Independence Kolkata, through the troubled naxal revolution times. Then one brother (Udayan) becomes a Naxalite, and the older brother (Shubhash) moves to study in USA and hence, their heretofore joined-at-the-hips lives develop in completely different ways. Obviously, tragedy strikes when the younger brother is killed and then starts the journey of Subhash with his brothers pregnant wife, who he marries to save her from an uncertain future. Bela is born and raised, and then she has a child and it goes on and on. 

However this is not a review of the book. This is about the city of my childhood being described on a global stage by one of the best story tellers this age has seen. The novel starts with the two brothers growing up and going to college- Udayan to Presidency and Shubhash to Jadavpur University. Udayan then slowly gets influenced by the Naxal Movement and eventually joins it. I grew up in Tollygunj, next to the walls of the Tolly Club, near Technicians studio. I grew up in the Lowland! In my growing up years, here, the Naxal movement was still clearly remembered, deeply felt.
The time being described in her novel is of course, the 60-s, when the Naxal movement was at its peak. This is the time of my mother's growing up. She lived right there, very close to where our house is now. Here, in the heart of the uprising, I met parents whose children had been taken, never to be seen again. I was pointed out trees, under which someone had been murdered by the police. I was shown fields, or erstwhile fields, where someone's son or brother had been taken, asked to flee, escape... and then while the incredulous boy-man would start running to his imagined freedom, there would be a gun-shot from behind. This was supposed to be an 'encounter'. This is how Lahiri has Udayan die. And this is how, hundreds of a generation ware wiped out.
Golfers at the Tolly Club
Jhumpa Lahiri writes about how Udayan and Shubhash entered the Club, the symbol of decadence back then, while thousands in the city were impoverished, scavenging for food. When we were kids, the Tolly Club was another one of our play grounds. We located a hole in the wall, almost unnoticeable by the naked eye, through which dogs and kids could pass. We would sneak in and play among the verdant greenery. Tolly Club is a golf club and there would often be golf balls lying around. We would sometimes see the odd golfer putting. We were always careful not to get caught, hiding among the bushes, coming out only when no one was there. Then one day, suddenly, we found the hole closed. Someone had discovered it and bricked it shut! That was the end of sneaking in. Much later, I entered the Club, this time through the gates, as a bona fide member of the society. But this I can vouch for, I loved the Club only when I was sneaking in. Later it just became one of those places which I hate- where people come to see and be seen, to proclaim their superiority over the rest of the human race.
Inside the Tollygunj Tram depot...
just as it used to look. To get a seat,
we would catch our tram from here.
When they decided to take trams off the road,
we were amongst those who petitioned against it,
with signature campaigns et al.
Tolly Club is a beautiful place, a haven for birds, and our house garden, which is probably 200 mts from the club still receives rainbow hued guests from the club. This place with its thousands of native and imported trees is the lungs of South Kolkata. When my mother was small, the club was still there, with its odd hole in the wall, wherein she would sneak in with her rowdy group of friends. I have heard stories of how they were caught by the guard and given a hiding and threatened to be arrested if they were ever seen in the premises again. Just like Udayan and Shubhash!
Lahiri describes the locality around the Technicians Studio in absolute perfect detail. It is just as she says in the book. The mosque, the roads weaving in and out, too narrow for the huge Ambassador taxi cars. It was so close to home, that I even felt a bit angry to read her describe MY territory. I felt she stole MY story. Of course she didnt. But she almost described my house, dammit!
The Mosque
She also describes Anwar Shah road, Tipu Sultan's mosque, the graveyard, everything you can see even now if you visit that area. She describes how, during partition, waves of displaced Bangladeshis settled down in the lowlands of Tollygunj, these were called "Colonies" when I was small. Now they have proper names. We have heard stories of people scavenging the gutters for fish and the lowlands for leaves to eat. It was still too fresh in people's memories. Many reminisced with palpable horror, many proudly described how they had survived, one day at a time.
College Street stalls... there are hundreds of these
Part of the staircase, leading past English to the
Philosophy Department
She talks about Presidency College and College Street. She talks about Udayan watching as Gowri descends the grand staircase- "our" staircase! How unhappy we were, when the grand old staircase got a face-lift and the college authorities put golden railings by its side. We loved the staircase just as it was, where history was made when Subhash Chandra Bose, then a student, pushed his professor down. College street, where Gowri and Udayan's love blossomed, was second home for 3 years. My closest friends today are from here and from Jadavpur University engineering department (Shubhash's department). 
Burra Bazaar in North Calcutta... notice the verandahs
(Lovely Kolkata images from www.doornumber3.in)
Then there is the South Calcutta- North Calcutta love story of Udayan and Gowri. Tollygunj is extreme south, at that time, almost a suburb of Calcutta. Gowri lived in the North, where verandahs look down on busy streets. Tolly is a haven of peacefulness, or was, should I say, for things are so different now. When we were children, we would cross the railway over-bridge and my father would joke that the temperature just went down two degrees. Yes, it was cooler, greener, more silent, more liveable. North Calcutta is noisy, polluted, populated and OLD, all caps. But dare you say that to a North Calcuttan. Of course, I hear ya, it is the centre of culture, it is the REAL Calcutta, the traditional seat of the Babus of Bengal...no doubt about it. When we were growing up, North Calcutta was a city, South was still a rapidly growing town. 
The book took me back two decades, in the Tollygunj of my childhood, and then, to the Presidency of my early adulthood. It made me want to go back and see them as I saw them then. It is almost an anti climax now when you go there. Yes the Club is there, the tram depot, which also has the metro station now, and then you cross the Sangeet Research Academy (later than the period of the book) and reach Technicians Studio. You can see the mosque, the market which the book mentions in passing. No, the lowland is long gone. It is bustling city now, in all its squalor and glory. In all its ambitions and capabilities. But it is still my Tollygunj. It is still my Calcutta.

All images from google images.

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