The Epic City: The World On the Streets of Calcutta is Kushanava Choudhury’s first book. Choudhury, the books editor at The Caravan, was raised in Kolkata—though he chooses to refer to it as Calcutta—and New Jersey. After graduating from Princeton, he decided—to the surprise of his parents and extended family—to move back to Kolkata. Choudhury spent the next few years between India and the United States: he worked at The Statesman in Kolkata, then moved to New Haven for graduate school, and came back to Kolkata after getting married.
In Epic City, which is part memoir and part reported non-fiction, he recounts various episodes from life in the city, both his own and of those who surrounded him. These include remembrances of a childhood spent in a crumbling Kolkata house; of being one half of a young unmarried couple in the city, and then, a young married one; and on reconciling with Kolkata’s seeming refusal to let go of its moneyed past. In the following extract from the book, Choudhury recounts what it was like to work at the fabled Statesman—and in particular, how his experience differed from that of his colleague, Imran.
TheStatesman employed an army of men to serve tea at regular intervals. There were the liveried waiters in all-white uniforms, like Moulvi and Ashraf, who served tea in cups and saucers to the editorial department—the newspaper’s bourgeoisie—at our desks four times a day.
The Statesman House contained a whole society frozen in a time warp. Inside that stately edifice were hallways with hillocks of discarded files, patrolled by cats. They led to labyrinthine narrow corridors and secret stairs and mezzanine floors, to departments carved out by partitions and sub-partitions. In those back alleys of the building worked hundreds of peons, liftmen, waiters, cooks, typists, chauffeurs and clerks, and only about a dozen reporters. I had just started working there when I met the bard of the peons, Nanhe Singh.
“What’s your name?” he whispered, beckoning me like a bookseller on College Street as I passed him in the corridor. “I shall make a poem from it. I have written poems about hundreds of people at the Statesman.” Then he ratted them off one after the next. Over cups of half-pant tea, he would recite poems on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the Mughal emperor Akbar, or Indrani in the classified department. Nanhe wrote epic verse about Ram and Krishna, and he penned rib-tickling satires of local political leaders.