Kalkatta is a fictional saga of how two generations of a Bihari Muslim family move from Bihar to Dhaka during the Partition. There, in a refugee camp, the second-generation parents, Mirza Abu Alam and Ruksana, give birth to a daughter, Miriam, and a son, Jamshed/Jami. The family smuggles itself back to India by bribing the border guards and settles in Kolkata. As the mother puts it, “Our Jami can become prime minister of Kalkatta, whereas here (Dhaka) he’ll only be a bus driver if he is lucky.”
The family saga is told, first person, through Jami’s eyes. The family is given a home in a lower middle-class complex in “Zakaria Street”, dominated by Muslims. Their benefactor is “Uncle Mushtak”, the most endearing character of the book. A dyed-in-the-wool socialist who knows the “Communist Manifesto” by heart, he constantly reads Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s What is to be Done?, and sings the “Internationale”, while spouting phrases of the “proletariat losing their chains” and “the ways of the bourgeoisie”. He stands for election to the hitherto communist-dominated state Assembly, only to lose to the rival party, which is not identified but is clearly Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. After denouncing the capitalists, day in and day out, he turns into a landlord!
Jami, a school drop-out, becomes a “sub-agent” in a shady travel agency, while his father is a lowly “cutter” in a tailoring company. In his agency, Jami meets a rich and much-older lady, Monica Goswami, and becomes her “toyboy”. He takes up work in a massage parlour, a front for prostitution, and Monica persuades him to become a “gigolo”, servicing bored, dissatisfied, widowed, and divorced women. His parents and sister, who is crippled with a polio-afflicted foot, know nothing of his secret life.
A sub-plot is the transformation of Miriam into a fundamentalist who joins the “Young Islamic League”, with possible links to terrorism. Jami gets attached to a boy suffering from leukemia, and his mother. He is caught in a police “honey trap” and forced to become a “lizard” (police spy). Woven into all this are lyrical descriptions of Calcutta and of Bengalis (“culture rich and cash poor”). After footing the bill at a restaurant, Jami learns that Kalkatta-wallahs don’t pay; they expect “others to open their wallets just to hear them talk.”
However, I have two reservations. Jami’s development from a drop-out, to gigolo, to spy, does not convince me and his attachment to the boy with leukemia rings rather hollow. Second, Kolkata is not just a city of corrupt cops, wheeler-dealers, gigolos, sex-starved aging women, superficial corporate-types and poseurs, as the author makes out. It’s a city that also throbs with genuine creativity and warm humanity. Those reservations apart, this is a wonderful novel that I enjoyed thoroughly.