Calcutta: Getting under the skin of India’s new literary capital

A writer’s journey through India’s city of books.

I walk through the enormous doors of the International Club of Calcutta and I’m flabbergasted. Ageing men lounge around tables, children are bopping around playing games, and a group of well-dressed women in their forties are in fits of giggles. This is not what I expected.

Since I arrived in Calcutta two weeks before, it’s the first time I’ve walked into a place full of locals and almost everyone has been drunk. The International Club is an Indian take on a social club – all cheap beer, big laughs and anything else that helps you wind down after a hard day. We’re the only Westerners in attendance tonight.

A frail elderly gent is banging out Beatles numbers interspersed with classics like Jingle Bells on a wonky old piano, and overworked ceiling fans do little to keep the place cool. As bottles of Kingfisher beer flow for a dollar a piece, I learn that this place was opened in competition with the Bengal Club – a British haunt in colonial times whose only rule was ‘no dogs or Indians.’ Kuber, who may or may not be the owner of the club, raises a triumphant fist in a Communist salute and declares every so often: “WE ARE THE INTERNATIONAL CLUB!”

Soon I discover that I’m surrounded by professors, writers and poets. The upcoming Indian elections and the state of modern Bollywood cinema are on the conversational agenda. Everybody has a well-articulated opinion on both subjects, and the drunken haze that inhibits the room doesn’t stop them from expressing it.

Most writers go on literary pilgrimages to places like Dublin or Paris, maybe Portland or New York. For my journey, I chose the most chaotic country in the world, and one of India’s most intriguing cities. Like my hometown of Norwich, England, Calcutta is a subtler literary centre than the world’s most celebrated cultural destinations. I’d been tantalised by the prospect of visiting since reading Amit Chaudhuri’s book ’Calcutta: Two Years in the City’ a year before. Amit, a professor on the UK’s most esteemed creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia, paints a fascinating portrait of this lively city.

“Calcutta is a place where new and old ideas are constantly battling,” says Devdan Chaudhuri, a lifelong Calcutta native, over drinks at the Wise Owl Café. He’s the owner of the Bodhi Tree guesthouse, my home for two weeks, and his interests centre on business, travel and the arts. “The rich and the poor – contradictions – live side by side; they are not being pushed out of the city and into the suburbs or the countryside. The poor are still very visible, and that changes our society.”

The Indian region of West Bengal, the namesake of Calcutta’s inhabitants, has a long history of artistic and literary pursuits. Influenced by Western thought from the French and Industrial Revolutions, the 19th century saw a wave of socio-cultural movements and religious reform here, which collectively became known as the Bengal Renaissance. Under British colonial rule, English language education was introduced, and the result was cultural and social advances for Bengalis, and a new awakening of political consciousness.

Later in its history, between 1977 and 2011, Calcutta was home to the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist government. As 34 years of communism came to a close, cultural and artistic rebuilding began. Amit Chaudhuri believes that there’s a second Bengal Renaissance happening in today’s Calcutta, and that literature is a significant part of it.

Walking down College Street – nicknamed Boi Para, meaning Colony of Books - it’s easy to agree. College Street is the largest outdoor market for secondhand books in the world, stretching more than a mile and featuring stalls large and small, specialist and general, traditional and peculiar. Among the university students browsing for new textbooks, groups of street kids scurry about, hoping for a rupee or two. My boyfriend buys smoothies for a group of them and the book vendors nod their approval.

And it’s not just College Street; books and literature are a visible part of the city’s architecture. Every district of Calcutta is littered with forgotten era-style bookshops run by old men smoking inside them, and bookstands stretch out over street corners all over.

A few subway stops away from College Street is Park Street, the most developed and Westernized part of Calcutta. There are a few tourists milling around, but even this globalized stretch of high-end shops is a landscape largely uninvaded by foreigners, at least in its appearance. Nestled between the global brands here is the Oxford Book Store, now almost 100 years old; it’s a landmark site that has made its home on Park Street since 1919.

Past its newly renovated interior and uncomfortable air-conditioning, the two-storey haven exudes aspiration. The clean, prosperous space is a stark contrast to the poverty-ridden streets just outside its doors. The store is a key literary hotspot, and its customers are middle class types with an appetite for books, many of the patrons aspiring young writers themselves.

“There’s a good market here for literary fiction, and publishers are aware of that,” says Devdan, who as well as being the owner of my guesthouse is a newly signed author with Picador India. “Calcutta has an image problem, but there’s energy in our youth, and a great revival of art is happening.”

It’s not easy to be a young artist here though; opportunities are rare and highly sought. Despite its role as a cultural capital in the past, Calcutta has suffered over the past century. Since the 1980s, the city has been in decline. The destruction of old buildings since the nineties has resulted in a derelict and unfinished feel, particularly in residential areas. Yet Calcutta’s dilapidated character also gives it a unique energy – an energy that is gradually turning it into one of the most interesting new cultural capitals anywhere in Asia.

“The spirit and talent is there, but there are a lack of platforms and mentors for young artists,” says Mona Sen Gupta, co-owner of arts organisation Ahava Communications. “We’re trying to change that from an early stage, through education.”

Mona runs social enterprise projects with the aim of attracting schoolchildren to books. A project called ‘Books and Beyond’ runs storytelling and writing workshops for children aged 7-12, and through the Ahava Book Club, Mona is setting up initiatives to promote literature through author talks and reading groups.

“With the distraction of modern technology, children are reading less. We want to encourage a curiosity about books,” she says. “We’re trying to revive the love for reading. To show that reading can be fun.”

But organisations like Ahava are a rarity, as Devdan highlights. “Literature is important here, but art is not well-funded. Where it is funded, it’s funded by private enterprise. You need somebody who is making money from other projects and choosing to fund art,” he explains. Devdan himself is one such patron.

The Bodhi Tree Monastery of Art, to give it its full name, is a guesthouse and an independent gallery space, inspired by Devdan’s travels across Southeast Asia and Europe. After staying in hostels and meeting other travellers, he returned to Calcutta to create a space for visitors to experience Bengali art and culture. The Bodhi Tree provides guest rooms themed in different Indian styles and runs retreats for new artists, as well as both on-site and digital exhibitions.

Devdan believes investment in the country’s youth will have a huge impact on social progress in India, and Bengal in particular. “There is lots of new talent in the city. Bengali people are interested in art. Bengali culture is artistic – dancing, singing, painting – and an important part of the tradition is to enjoy culture,” he explains. “Today, Calcutta is a place where if you hold a poetry reading, 200 people will turn up.”

A few days later, I am on my way to Seagull Arts Centre, the base of operations for one of India’s oldest independent publishers. I get lost trying to find the place, an occurrence that has become commonplace since my arrival in India, and I stop on the main street to ask for directions.

“Lost?” asks one of the street vendors as I walk by. He’s clothed in a loose green t-shirt and worn-out khakis. I glance at his feet and notice that the top part of one shoe is hanging off.I nod.

“Yes, I’m looking for Seagull Arts Centre.”

“Yes, yes, this way, this way!” he tells me, pointing towards a narrow sidestreet.The woman on the next stall, decked out in a sari of vivid green and gold, nods vivaciously. “Seagull, this way, yes.”

I say thank you and move along, leaving them to grin at each other, seemingly happy to have helped. Tucked away between falling down houses and street kids kicking around a half-flat football, I find Seagull Arts Centre. The building is modern – all glass-panel partitions and floor-to-ceiling invisible doors. The downstairs gallery is filled with photographer’s prints and artist’s canvases, and the conference space and offices upstairs are decked out with coffee-table hardbacks and desktop iMacs.

Naveen Kishor is a man who radiates wisdom, passion and experience. “The only work that gets published at Seagull is work that desperately affects me,” he says. “Books that need to be read, words that must be written.”

Naveen built Seagull from the ground up with no previous experience in publishing. The business has been going for thirty years, and now incorporates a publishing house, a gallery and an arts foundation. He started off publishing big hardback art books, and eased into fiction and non-fiction paperbacks in the nineties. Seagull has always approached its work with a global perspective, a rarity in India, and it was the first imprint to ever publish Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan.

“As an independent publisher, it’s important to resist the monoculture. You should exist out on the limb, and you should be at home there,” he says. “Why do writers write? Perhaps because of universal truths. But perhaps also to refurbish old or new ideas.”

As I walk back out onto the street, I am struck again by Calcutta’s contradictions. The sidewalks are full of people ambling around, nobody heading anywhere in particular. Alongside the sound of animated conversations in Hindi and Bengali, the taxis speak their own language of honks and screeches. There’s not a tourist in sight.

Despite it being a late spring evening, smog-ridden heat pumps through the air in what feels like a bass drum rhythm. Nothing happens softly in this city. It’s a place that steals energy from its people and its visitors, and pumps it back out in heatwaves.

Originally published by Contributoria. Image above by Jesse Norton (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

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