Jhumpa Lahiri on Kolkata | Conversations with Tyler

Jhumpa Lahiri on Kolkata | Conversations with Tyler


COWEN: You bring up Lowland. I’d like to
ask you a few questions about Bengal. If someone’s visiting India, and they ask me for advice,
I say, “You simply, absolutely must go to Kolkata.” To the extent you feel the same
way, how would you articulate why it is people ought to go visit Kolkata?
LAHIRI: Because it’s one of the most fascinating places on earth. It’s a city that is like
no other, with a life, a cultural life, a history utterly its own, and hard, and beautiful.
Its beauty is not conventional. People say, “Is it a beautiful city?” Well, no. I
mean yes, parts of it can be. Yes, of course, but not in that conventional sense, and it’s
challenging on a whole host of levels. Of course I don’t know it as a tourist because
my family’s from there, and I’ve never known it in any other way other than — when
I was very young — where my grandparents lived, and then my aunts and uncles, my cousins,
and so forth. So I have my own relationship to it. But it’s like not knowing New York
City in the American context. It’s just its own thing, and it’s so strong in its
flavor, and its power, and its energy. So it has to be reckoned with, I think.
COWEN: If I think of Indian economists, two of the best known would be Amartya Sen and
Abhijit Banerjee, and they’re both Bengali, of course. Why does it seem that so much of
the Indian intelligentsia comes from Kolkata or Bengal? What is in the water, so to speak?
LAHIRI: I don’t know. I hate to make these kind of sweeping generalized comments. I don’t
believe in them. But it’s a city that believes in its poets,
that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme
there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the
test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted
about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness,
but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over,
if you protect yourself. COWEN: If I were to take a superficial reading
of Indian history, earlier Kolkata is the central capital for the British Empire in
India. You could argue that, as the British left India since World War II, Kolkata has
become significantly less central in some ways. Delhi and Mumbai seem to become more
important. (a) Do you think that’s true? And (b) if it is true, do you think that,
in part, accounts for why Kolkata has stayed so interesting? That loss of centrality or
existing on the margins? You even have a nice Italian word for this.
LAHIRI: Well, I think it’s retained a certain character, that the other big cities have
a more Western overlay at this point. Kolkata is not far behind, and it’s changed radically
from the city I knew when I was a young girl. With developments, globalization, what have
you, you have lots of development. All the five-star hotels you could ever want, and
all the companies and banks and things and fancy roads, all of that stuff that back in
the ’70s, Kolkata didn’t have. Then the airport was distinctly not glamorous, and
all of these things. So you felt, “OK, this is a different kind
of experience.” Not designed for the tourists, not designed for the important person, shall
we say. So that has already changed, and that distance is smaller, significantly smaller.
But in some sense, yes, I think it still retains its own particular flavor and energy because
of this, maybe.

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