Book Review: Grand Delusions
Every year, come Durga Puja, all my Bengali friends go slightly crazy. Those who can, run back to Kolkata; those who can’t, enthusiastically flock to CR Park – Delhi’s mini Kolkata. If you talk to anyone who has lived in Kolkata for a considerable length of time, they will assure you that there is no place quite like it. And if you read Jhumpa Lahiri, you will wonder why Bengalis find it so difficult to cut their umbilical cord with Kolkata.
Even Hazra, who has written a paean to Kolkata, is hard pressed to give you a defining reason for his continued fascination with the city of his birth and youth, ending as does with these words:
“To love Kolkata indiscriminately is to love it falsely. It’s like telling a woman with a squint whom you love that she has perfect eyes. The same holds for disliking it unconditionally. The power – a strange word to use for this town that constantly celebrates making molehills when other cities prefer mountains – of Kolkata derives from the fact that it can be loved and liked for reasons that no other town can be loved and liked for. It isn’t so much that the city marches to a different drumbeat. It’s just that its favoured activity is lying down, a radical act that has its expected consequences.”
But as you read Grand Delusions, you realize that there is something … a thing that cannot be expressed in words … a thing that holds sway over the lives of its citizens – both those who continue to live in its folds, and those who run away from the somnolent city.
“It is a world I detest and love, reject and feed off, am shamed by and proud of, attack and defend at the same time.”
For Kolkata hasn’t really come out of its grandest delusion of all – that minimal change is the best kind of change. Be that in its politics or in its buildings – most of which are crumbling away. But “The Kolkata that bears the two hallmarks of a true city – the presence of utilitarian comforts and beautiful buildings – is overwhelmingly a hand-me-down, most of which exists in a state of disrepair, or perversely haughty neglect.”
Hazra regales the reader with insights into his own formative years – like the impromptu singing sessions during load shedding, shoplifting from Oxford Bookstore, and hunting for second-hand records at Free School Street. He casts a light on Kolkata’s history, ranging from the establishment of North and South Kolkata, the city’s brief brush with the Naxalite movement, the divide between Bengalis and “outsiders” – which includes the Marwari families who have been living in Kolkata for generations. And he talks about its culture, the thing that Kolkata prides itself on the most. He touches on Satyajit Ray’s directorial brilliance, moves on to the rundown cinema halls haunted by lonely men, discounts rabindrasangeet, and sings a homily to Koklata’s eating institutions.
Along the way, he also takes you to his mamarbari (maternal uncle’s house), where he
“would be able to see the progress, in a slowed down, stop-motion manner, of wood turning into straw, turning into wet clay, turning into hard clay, turning into form, turning into colour, right until covered by a cloth before the first day of Pujo, the magical creation would rise to one step short of flesh.”
while telling you the tale of how Durga Puja came to be the social event that it currently is rather than the quiet family ceremony it used to be.
Hazra’s Grand Delusions is a very interesting read – neither is it a saccharine love song to the city, nor is it a venomous debunking of Kolkata. It’s honest, interesting and insightful – recommended for lovers of the city, travelers to the city and for those who look on in bemusement at their Bengali friends and wonder why they love their crumbling city so much.
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