Title: Kalkatta; Author: Kunal Basu; Publisher: Picador India; Pages: 314; Price: Rs.599 To realise his aspiration of becoming a pure "Kalkatta-wallah", the protagonist of this tale of a fervent, pervading desire for belonging and acceptance is advised to follow four key rules - believe that you know everything, accept rumours are more important than facts, make a grand gesture every now and then and most importantly, have a low enough ambition to be envious of those with higher ones. But can he follow them without irrevocably losing his identity and moorings and will he survive the transition? This is the premise of acclaimed story-teller Kunal Basu's latest work - a searing, visceral narrative of the life and aspirations of the under-privileged outsiders in a metropolis and how their success is only a thin line away from disgrace or worse! Jamshed Alam or Jami, who with his parents and polio-affected sister exchanged one limbo - a refugee camp for Bihari Muslims in Dhaka optimistically called "Geneva" - for one marginally better, a chaotically, colourful Kolkata tenement thanks to an uncle who is a ruling Communist Party leader in the city and his zari factory-running mother, has one fixed dream - becoming a pukka Kalkatta-wallah. With his childhood entanglement with a local gang leading to an unceremonious early exit from school, he becomes an assistant to a passport agent, who is also engaged in some dodgy work. A chance encounter with a lonely, high-society woman during the understaffed Durga Puja holidays at the travel agency where he is working seems to open the door to a world of luxury and privilege and more so after she introduces him to a friend who runs a massage saloon with "other benefits" and he takes to this work with gusto. A world of the rich and famous - and the kinkily dangerous - is now accessible but also heightened is the danger from jealous rivals, police, and most from the world he grew up in. After he meets again and befriends a former co-worker - a single mother with a sick boy, Jami's various worlds - family, neighbourhood and the gang, massage and other 'services' clients, and the world of culture he sought to become part of and succeeded to some extent though at a personal cost - collide after the old familiar things change in 2011, the cat-and-mouse games of terror and security rear their head, and he is at the marked risk of losing all that is dear to him and has painstakingly worked for, and even his very existence. Playing key roles in his chaotic journey are a multitude of well-drawn characters - his ulcer-suffering father, his hard-working but determined mother, his clear-thinking but sarcastic sister Miriam, Uncle Mushtak, the Communist party fixer (who is later dethroned), Jahanara, the local temptress, Rakib, the near psychotic gang-leader, Rajesh Sharma, the travel agent whose apprentice he becomes, Ani Mitra, his first Bengali friend and fount of wisdom for the city, Mrs. Goswami who changes his life, Rani, the hijra who manages the massage parlour, and Mandira and Pablo, who not only make an empathetic human but also ultimately endanger him. Basu's narrative is not a very comforting - in fact, is most unsettling - account of aspirations of migrants to become an anonymous part of a big metropolis where they land up in the hope of sustenance and once managing to climb out of the flotsam and eke out a basic livelihood, not matter how deprived and how filled with small and big acts of treachery towards loved ones and others, to dream to achieve some part of the opulently plush lifestyle they see around them and help to facilitate for the better-off. A key plot is also the basic absurdity of subcontinent's affairs - farcial had it not been tragic - that runs through the principal protagonist's origins. His family fled their ancestral home to a nearby part of a new country where they could be safe and prosper, but soon found themselves unwanted and under a new threat when this itself became a new country, and were forced to seek refuge again in the very country they originally fled from - and in a city which is anything but a City of Joy for them. It is a picture of Kolkata at its most unsympathetic and unwelcoming - and from a viewpoint most should thank for being spared - but still necessary viewing. Don't shirk it!
No City of Joy for refugees