September 30, 2023
Conjuring up the City of Joy
Book Review

Conjuring up the City of Joy

Sep 30, 2019
Supriya Newar

Kolkata has been the subject of many books. While countless works dwell on the historical and cultural aspects of the city, few really evoke a sense of place and time through personal memory. Kalkatta Chronicles—Rear-View Reflections by Supriya Newar is one such book that’s built on personal nostalgia. Born in Kolkata, the author, like generations of other Marwaris, grew up in the city in the ’60s and ’70s. It was a time long before the advent of the internet, mobile phones or automatic lifts. It was an era differentiated from the present by trunk calls, clunky lifts and daily power cuts; when a visit to the cinema, reading books, playing board games and listening to the radio were some of the only forms of recreation.

It was an era differentiated from the present by trunk calls, clunky lifts and daily power cuts; when a visit to the cinema, reading books, playing board games and listening to the radio were some of the only forms of recreation

The book conjures up vivid imagery of Calcutta of yesteryears over 10 chapters. Harnessing a simple, easy-paced tone, the author draws the reader into her childhood, as she breaks down a way of life or custom that belonged to her past. That the book itself opens with a chapter on the heavy-duty lift of the author’s multi-storeyed home is nothing short of a well-meaning gesture that warmly welcomes the reader into the author’s world.

The book marks Newar’s debut in the world of commercial publishing, but this isn’t the first time she has been published. The communications consultant has conceptualised, curated and authored several coffee-table books, and her features have been widely published in magazines. In her new book, Newar’s writing is peppered with Bengali words, conveying her understanding and deep-rooted connection to the local culture. And, each chapter is perfectly summed up by a single accompanying sketch by artist Sayan Chakraborty. A glossary at the book’s end becomes a vital tool to aid in immersing the reader into what Newar calls ‘an incorrigible, idiosyncratic yet lovable chromosome called Calcutta’.

Front and back covers of ‘Kalkatta Chronicles–Rear-View Reflections’

Certain chapters bring to the fore well-fleshed out caricatures such as the indispensable liftman, the patient bookseller and the bespoke tailor. Characters such as the lift’s dutiful and loyal ‘masters’—from the dhoti-clad Rajput Thakarji to Bhogiram the Bihari with his booming voice and formidable whiskers—are summoned almost magically.

Newar relives her carefree childhood days throughout the book. She takes the reader through the innards of her home, such as when she reminisces about the yearly ritual of wrapping school books in brown paper in the living room; or, on her breezy veranda on particularly hot, humid evenings when, the locality faced daily power cuts due to the city’s customary phenomenon of load shedding.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the small joys of the arrival of a bookseller who visited her family home armed with a sack full of books, magazines and comics. Likening him to Santa Claus, the author remembers digging through a treasure trove of reading material that ‘temporarily unshackled us from the very predictable chaotic confines of North Calcutta’.

Calcutta and its quirks come alive in a chapter titled ‘Matinee Magic’. Here, the author paints a picture of the city when she tells us how movie tickets were procured after combing through the lanes and by-lanes of North and Central Calcutta. In another chapter, she takes a walk down memory lane as she braves notorious traffic jams on the chaotic streets of Howrah to get to the railway station in time to board a train. Thereafter, the chapter ‘Chhuk-Chhuk Gaadi’ is really about the nostalgia associated with train journeys. Newar reminisces about the delectable meals aboard the train and board and card games that were brought out to add ‘colour to the journey’. There’s always a takeaway from each throwback, and in this particular chapter, the author reminds the reader that it is as important to enjoy the journey as it may be to arrive.

In the final chapter, the author reflects on her trips to Calcutta’s markets with her mother. Although she may have been too young to purchase anything, her memories of these trips are conveyed as if they occurred just yesterday. In those days, it was rare for students to carry a school bag or a backpack. Instead, she remembers using a wooden school box with her name painted on it, bought specifically from the ‘old and unkempt’ New Market every year.

Kalkatta Chronicles—Rear-View Reflections carries a joyful narrative that is thoroughly relatable even to those readers, both young and old, who haven’t yet set foot in Kolkata. The 122-page book is a delightful scrapbook of nostalgia, a true rear-view reflection that taps into the awe-inspiring joys of living in the good old days when life was less complicated.

Copies of Kalkatta Chronicles–Rear-View Reflections’ on display


Kalkatta Chronicles—Rear-View Reflections
Author: Supriya Newar
Publisher: Readomania
Price: R295/-