Kolkata. A city which has fascinated authors, poets and ordinary people at all times. A city, which exudes warmth and entangles you in a bond you cannot ever forget. In the sixth session of the day, we have three prominent personalities from varied field of interests talking about the one common aspect that binds them together- Kolkata. The panelists includes author Kunal Basu, actor Barun Chanda and founder of Calcutta Walks, Iftekhar Ahsaan.
Kunal Basu’s incisive wit is very much present today. He speaks in Bengali, addressing the audience after Iftekhar has quoted “A Tale of Two Cities” by Rudyard Kipling, and effectively addressing Kolkata itself. He calls himself “a failed artist” as the conversation turns to the cover art for his books, and adds that the cover art for his latest book was problematic, because the iconic representations of the city has lost its meaning: “I do not know what the Victoria Memorial stands for me anymore.” His novel swims in the murky waters between cities: the affluent city, the poor city, the sophisticated city, the cultured city and the city desperately trying to live. The many Kolkatas contained in our city is poignantly exposed.
Burrabazar is the “grey town”, says Iftekhar, talking about the walks through the area that takes you across cultures of the Arabs, Parsis, Armenians, Marwaris, Chinese and Bengalis. “It can feel like Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo. This Kolkata is not timid or gentle,” says Mr Basu. “I walked with it, I discovered it and only then I believed it.” I am reminded of the walks I have taken around New Market, looking at the thousands of people and cultures all jostling for space in this jigsaw town.
As Mr Basu talks about the underbelly of the city that the protagonist of his novel, a male gigolo, he points out the seamier side of life there that is ignored in glamorous movies: the real threat of violence, the poverty, the anonymity. “Come and see the blood in the streets,” he invites, quoting Pablo Neruda. Not everyone there is a criminal, not everyone in that other Kolkata wants to hurt us, the Other Kolkata.
The discussion ends on a personal note, with Mr Basu mentioning how researching for the novel, meeting the interviewees and being allowed into their personal and professional lives changed him as a person. “I am excited by the unfamiliar,” he says, “And that is why, as a writer, I was inspired to imagine this story,” he says, in reply to Mr Chanda’s pertinent question: “Why, as a Kolkatan, has it taken so long for you to write a story about Kolkata?”
The many Kolkatas we encounter- or don’t- every day are all fascinating and layered and complex. The session took us out of our comfort zones, and introduced every single person in the audience to all those other cities very poignantly.
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