ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Irrepressible City of Modernity

Calcutta: The Stormy Decades edited by Tanika Sarkar and Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2015; pp xii+474, price not mentioned.

Historiography of the modern city must be cognisant of the historical moment in which the metropolitan space made the first gains from modernity as a deterritorialised and yet organising principle of self-articulation. The modern city is the first global space in the modern period, a space beyond narrow nationality, compressed social hierarchy and older orthodoxy. Moreover, that historiography is to be, unsurprisingly, contestable, complicated as it gets by the multiplicity of articulation, the expanding geography of inclusivity, the multitudinal excesses of its spaces and the continuing possibilities of its reinvention. As much as the modern metropolis is a product of modernity’s inexhaustible possibilities, there is always an excess, an overreach, which cannot be cognitively historicised or theorised within the existing framework of disciplinary mapping. The conditions that fuelled the modern city also produced its essential unknowability, more specifically the city’s irreducibility to its constituent components. Calcutta, India’s urbana prima through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, is an archetype of the modern city and its uncontainability, both of them spilling over into discursively unmanageable domains. It is a city whose borders are more breached than honoured, its spaces more encountered than lived. Moreover, the 1940s were unlike any in the city’s tercentennial-and-a quarter history. Bombing and wartime exigencies, a debilitating famine, ruthless communal violence and a massive human movement during partition—all within a span of half a decade—undid many of Calcutta’s older recompenses, sometimes irreversibly; and many of its time-honoured charms, sometimes devastatingly. Historicising that decade is hence not just about re-reading the past but also meditating on the extent of the city’s brutalisation.

The anthology under review takes this task seriously and manages to pull it off successfully. The collection is bookended by essays of the editors, both, in their own right, being two of the leading historians of our time. Among them and in between them one finds explained the intellectual architecture under which the essays are brought together. Cataloguing the long list of devastations that befell Calcutta in the 1940s and early 1950s, Bandyopadhyay writes in his introductory essay,

these were the best and the worst of time, occurring in crowded sequence, churning up catastrophe and exhilaration in equal measure and ruthlessly compressing vast, unprecedented, indeed, unimaginable changes in urban landscape and demography within a span of little more than ten years. The city that was forged in and by these years was a very different Calcutta… (the anthology) thus focuses on some elements of continuity but more on some cardinal changes that have not marked previous histories of Calcutta (p 4).

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