After all, greater Calcutta is packed with 14 million people, many of whom live among deprivation, overcrowding and general chaos. The teeming seemingly out-of-control metropolis is a kind of madhouse, perhaps never having recovered from its oft-described beginnings as having been built between a river and a swamp, producing swarms of maddening mosquitoes in the humid air. At least in recent years the free-to-wander holy cows have been moved out of the very centre to further areas.

Choudhury admits it is no easy place to live: “For six months of the year, you are never dry. You take two or three showers a day to keep cool, but start sweating the moment you turn off the tap.” From April until October, your clothes “adhere to your body like duct tape.”

The capital of India, the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, until 1911 was once the industrial and cultural hub of one of the world’s biggest and most vibrant countries. But the metropolis has been in decline for decades, lagging behind in booming India. Everything that could be wrong with a city is wrong with Calcutta, everyone says, so why return?

Well, America isn’t perfect either, there is the strong pull of one’s homeland and there is a potential book in making the move. Also, it does not seem that Choudhury is back for ever, or as long as he can stand it, and once the book is finished he will return to the US of A.

Choudhury, as far as we can work out, was actually born in America. His parents were Indian scientists who twice moved to America and twice moved back. They were unwilling to leave their country and they were unable to stay, “torn between nation and vocation”.

When he was almost 12, the family moved to New Jersey, by which time Choudhury says he had already migrated halfway around the world four times, having twice been taken for stays in India. But now, he writes, in New Jersey his Calcutta life was gone, though still part of him was elsewhere, in another country, in another city.

A seed of yearning had been planted, and in 2001, after graduating from Princeton University, he went back to Calcutta to work as a reporter at the Statesman, the city’s leading newspaper. He had planned to stay forever but enduring two monsoons changed his mind: “I had done my time in Calcutta. The city had no future. It had no place for me,” he recounts.

Choudhury returned to the US – home – and enrolled in a doctoral program in political science at Yale. There, he met a young woman, Durba. She went to Calcutta for a year and he visited. Its draw was seductive, and for his doctoral dissertation he embarked on a year-long study of the cacophonous city.

Calcutta (which has actually reverted to its former name of Kolkata since 2001, thus reflecting its original Bengali pronunciation) was the biggest city in the country and an important manufacturing centre in the nation’s wealthiest state, West Bengal. Since then there has been a dramatic decline, with silt making the Hooghly River unnavigable and union militancy helping produce hectare after hectare of rotting factories.

Choudhury examines history, politics, society and culture. “The lasting legacy of the British in Bengal was famine,” he says. In 1943, 3 million starved to death. And the British mandate of Partition in 1947 pitted Hindus and Moslems against each other in fierce religious wars that forced Bengalis from their ancestral land. Millions were uprooted, arriving as refugees in Calcutta. Thousands of refugees from East Pakistan, now called Bangladesh, arrived in the early 1970s.

Film-makers and writers such as Louis Malle, Anita Desai and Günter Grass, who came to live for a while and recorded the city, ultimately fell back upon the trope of the urban hellhole that was “dirty, disorderly, teeming” Calcutta. Rudyard Kipling called it the “City of Dreadful Night”.

This is a city were many people live life in the raw: eating, sleeping, washing on the streets. It may be the last place in the world where scrawny men pull rickshaws, like human horses.

But Choudhury evokes the world of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and the Bengali poets, with their little magazines and literary gatherings, and of the second-hand bookshops and famous Indian Coffee House of the College Street university quarter (“a labyrinth made of books”).

There is also a lot about the great landmarks of the Bengali year such as the great city festival of Durga puja, and the wonders of Bengali cooking: kochuris, luchis, “rice, dal, fritters and greens” and “14-course meals brimming with… platefuls of rich goat curry and hilsa fish in mustard sauce.”

“The Epic City” is his first book, and an auspicious debut, frank, informative and insightful. It may make you want to hop on a plane tomorrow – or steer a wide berth. Calcutta/Kolkata is that sort of place.

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