Kunal Basu’s latest novel Kalkatta is unlike his earlier four. It is not historical in scope and neither does it contain the soaring drama that distant time lends to his period narratives. Like its predecessors, however, Kalkatta lets an iconic novel or two hang like a noose around its neck. If Racists replayed the primary tension of Lord of the Flies and The Miniaturist that of My Name is Red, Kalkatta unfailingly reminds one of Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or more tellingly of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. The good news is that Kalkatta still manages to hold on because it embodies a part of contemporary Kolkata that bhadralok fiction has programmatically avoided — in English surely, and surprisingly in much of Bengali fiction too. Kalkatta is not about Kolkata, it’s about a Kalkatta within the belly of Kolkata; a part of a whole which desperately desires to become like the whole.

Basu’s disruptive aim is clear from the very beginning. By setting his novel and the narrator-protagonist Jamshed in Zakaria Street in central Calcutta, Basu wants to go where not many English novels would want to go. Zakaria Street – with Nakhoda Mosque’s Turkish dome dominating its precincts – is a ‘district’ populated by the Hindi-speaking, Bihari- Muslim’ community; a no-go ghetto for the city’s prevailing, mostly Hindu, Bengali-speaking, navel-gazing bhadralok. Calcutta has long lost claim to lend its name to being a Maximum City; neither is a Shantaram or Narcopolis potentially realisable in a city which prides itself on its incestuous, know-one-know-all fraternalism. But there are still few nether neighbourhoods in the city where survival is another name for subverting the ‘normative’, punctuated by the perpetual paranoia of being the outsider. Zakaria (Jacquaria) Street is one of them. Hence Basu spends considerable time in establishing the setting, conscious that the atmospheric details of Calcutta’s own ‘Little Baghdad’ would spare the book the banality of another Indian novel set among a customary web of relationships.

From the beginning, Jamshed (Jami) remains a kind of phlegmatic, taciturn, dissociative narrator of his own story, fuelled by a lingering sense of hunger — a hunger for possessions, but more for recognition and for deliverance into a better, more meaningful life. This is another reason why the setting of the novel remains far more compelling than the plot, which is simple and devoid of any sharp enunciation, until at least the concluding stage. It follows the simple and sequential tale of Jami, a refugee of Bihari origin, who was born in the Red Cross-run Geneva camp near Dhaka and made a ‘return’ journey, illegally, to India with his family. They find refuge in Zakaria Street’s Number 14, expectedly, because they are ethnically Bihari-Muslim and because their patron is Uncle Mushtaq, a leading organiser of the Communist Party in the area and a potential member of the regional government.

The novel begins the day Jami nervously receives a stamp on a piece of paper – thanks to Mushtaq – that declares him a citizen of India and enables his long-term free movement and short– term admission into a local municipal school. Jami’s Abba, a quiet, hapless man with an endemic ulcer, ingratiatingly resigns himself to the new city while the despondently maternal, hardworking and ever-suffering Amma prods Jami to become a true Kalkattawallah, to whose vague connotations he grows up to pay pervasive attention. Jami also has a sister, Miriam – named after the only women named in the Quran – who is depressive, disabled, dogmatic.

Number 14 is the true Madeleine of the novel, each of its many brooding chambers and their occupants so utterly alive and their miserable, fratricidal, dog- eat-dog life so up-close that the reader might find him/herself entrapped inside their claustrophobic, crumbling walls. Basu, his ambling prose notwithstanding, spares no punch to bring this part of the city to life, an underbelly mired in dirt, gore and slime, rotting away at the margins of the corporation as much as that of the city’s consciousness. In an early paragraph, for example, Jami describes a rare evening that his family spends on the roof on Number 14. “Eid was approaching and the street below was full for the Maghrib prayer. The moon looked as large as the mosque’s dome but not as clean. Smoke from street ovens set up by vendors rose in a steady stream mixed with that of dry dung cakes smelling of an intoxicating spice.” There is also the smattering of lingua Zakaria: ganda books, men with mamoos, randi enticing the trespasser covered in a heavy blanket of attar.

Jami grows up smelling blood, fails school and runs the risk of succumbing to the phoney promises of his half-criminal peers, living on the spoils of smuggled goods, drugs and pistols, while trying to dart off the police. But Jami’s yearning for Kolkata brings him to ‘respectable’ Chowringhee, as a passport subagent at a travel agency, helped again – as is the rule – by a neighbour of Number 14. Soon Jami realises that he has no education, or birth or pedigree — stuff a man canvasses in a modern city. Instead, he discovers that he has the height, form and virility of a Lothario and it is as a gigolo that he finally manages to enter the bhadralok domain of an effective but secret transactionalism. His first service on a tourist ferry near the Sunderbans also happens to be the day when Uncle Mushtaq’s party, the CPM, falls resoundingly after a three-and-a- half-decade rule. Mushtaq too loses to his rival, Noor. Basu gives a wonderful description of the sound of that great fall, heard by Jami from inside the car on his return from the Sunderbans.

“It was unusual to see so many people on the road, so many crackers bursting, so many flags fluttering from rooftops. The newsreader’s excited voice came on the radio…a young boy dashed in front of the car, forcing Govinda to break. Hands reached out to us, banging the windows. A screaming rocket crashed onto the windscreen and erupted in a fiery shower. Honking horns made it impossible to hear anything, and I managed to catch the name of Professor Noor among the list of winners”.

Jami first befriends the rich and lonely Monica from Alipore. She uses his services to her content before passing him to her friends and then, more suitably, to a massage parlour near upscale Southern Avenue. Here is where Kolkata’s swish set resides and Jami gets ample employment. But of all his associates in his ‘line’, Jami only comes to trust Rani, the transgendered receptionist with a heartbreaking past of brutal discrimination not alien to the third gendered citizens of this country. Thankfully, his days of being the gigolo are described with accustomed narrative aloofness, sparing the reader turgid sex scenes, which is widespread in contemporary Indian writing. In stark distinction to Zakaria’s dwellers, Basu’s Kolkata is full of annoying caricatures of the city’s powerful and the city’s intellectual, their self-importance and complete apathy to a world unlike their own. The biggest caricature is Anirban, the Foucault-quoting travel assistant — Jami’s “Bengali friend” who “knows everything”. Anirban reminds one of Digital Dutta, the mind-travelling psycho-geographer in Sarnath Banerjee’s first two graphic novels but Banerjee’s salubrious and witty spoof is completely lacking in Basu. Even Mushtaq, the Lenin- spewing elderly Communist, is more of a caricature than a real character. Mushtaq, however, is somewhat redeemed in the end by a touch of authorly empathy, dignified in his quiet capitulation to the new political dispensation that unseats the CPM in 2011, heralding a world purged of all the dreams the comrades had, at least in their rhetoric, dreamt of.

It is mere serendipity that among the powerful, lascivious and opportunistic world of the city’s elite, Jami discovers the insouciant world of Mandira and her leukemic son Pablo, enclosed in their own sadness. With them and through them, Jami discovers a world outside that of transaction, a world uncorrupted by the dinginess and gossipy quagmire of Number 14, or by the triumphant pretentiousness of the Bengali middle class. Mandira and Pablo are alone in a city which they, unlike Jami, can apparently call their own. Jami gets drawn to the quiet life of the ailing, artistic boy, being at his beck and call. His gigolo life and employment are threatened while he watches from a distance his own family finally finding their feet on their own, without his abetment. In trying to save Pablo, Jami exposes himself to the law, leading to a series of dramatic twists in the concluding parts of the novel, twists that overwhelm Jami, his family and finally his life, irretrievably.

This is a tragic novel, a novel where redemption for the marginalised – in a searing, teeming, apparently all-embracing city – comes only at the cost of catastrophe. Basu’s Jami lingers with the reader, more than the talismanic street – full of biryani, zari and attar – more than the heat and dust of the city, more than its many mercurial selves. Jami’s desperation to overcome his ‘minorityism’ and to ‘belong’ is not, however, his ultimate tragedy. His real tragedy is that he is after all, unbeknownst to himself, a genuine bhadralok, a genteel raconteur of his own sordid life, an authentic interloper in a city, which in this novel, is only too eager to pretend to cultural autonomy while happily giving itself up for sale!

Kalkatta | Kunal Basu | Picador India, New Delhi | 312 pp | 2015