Finding Magic In Kolkata

It makes a lot of sense that magical realism plays well in the backdrop of the Third World, particularly as the genre reads in the developed West. Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude is hard to imagine without the sweaty ruins of Macondo.

While Shome Dasgupta’s latest collection Anklet and Other Stories isn’t strictly magical realism, Dasgupta’s use of the poverty-steeped metropolis of Kolkata, India, as the stage of his self-discovery hearkens to the slum-world surrealism of Márquez’ own making.

Unlike Macondo, Kolkata is a real place, which makes what happens in the collection to Dasgupta himself — the collection’s unifying narrator — all the more surreal. Written in chopped and lucid scraps of phrasing, Anklet’s vignettes read with the intimacy of a conversation. To get a taste of the collection, read “Samosa,”Twilight Zone-like case of confused ego-identities, dramatized on the streets of Kolkata.

A high school English teacher by trade and a Lafayette resident, Dasgupta comes from a literary family. He’s the grandson of noted Bengali scholar R.K. Dasgupta.

The Current’s Christiaan Mader spoke with Dasgupta about his latest offering:

CM: Given the first-person perspective, it’s hard to imagine this not being at least semi-autobiographical. Each story seems to be seen through the eyes of the same narrator, whom I’d imagine is a direct stand-in for you in your own trips to Kolkata.

SD: They are very much so, semi-autobiographical. The stories, I would say, are blends of my memories spent there, my perceptions, observations and experiences, as well as the surreal kind of aura that Kolkata exhibits from its people, its animals, food and everything else in between. The city is so beautiful in so many ways. When I think back on those trips it automatically becomes tinted with a sense of magic. The collection isn’t all from one single trip. The latest trip certainly had the most influence on the stories, as my conscience was much more in tune.

CM: The collection’s title story “Anklet” begins with you getting knocked into the River Ganges and tasting it in your mouth. That sounds, let’s say, dangerous. Did you ever really drink from the Ganges?

SD: My family and I, this was when I was younger, during the summer before my eighth grade year, were on a small boat going down the Ganges. I wanted to taste the water, but my mom wouldn’t let me for obvious reasons, as my body wasn’t accustomed to the Kolkatan way of life. I do hope to go back one day and taste it, as another way to let the city diffuse into my system.

CM: There’s a theme in this collection of “otherness” as a visitor to India, despite having family roots there. In “Anklet” the narrator is taken in by an Indian family, and he kind of fumbles through understanding their mores. Do you have a conflicted sense of belonging to the West or the East? 

SD: There is definitely an odd mixture of how I am perceived or how I feel like I’m being perceived, and how I call both places home. Here in Lafayette, or in the U.S. in general, it’s quite clear that my family isn’t from America, because of our names and skin color and so on. But at the same time, whenever I visit India, it’s also quite clear that I’m not from there either. My parents blend in naturally, as it’s their motherland; however, Kolkatans can tell, no matter if I’m dressed in Indian garments, that I’m from America. They have this keen sense of harmony and nature. That feeling of strangeness transformed into the characters in this collection.

There is definitely some kind of search for personal identity having both Eastern and Western backgrounds. I don’t know if it’s a conflict, but a search, more than anything else, to find harmony between the two in regards to how I see myself. I’m lucky to grow up in Cajun culture, as there are several similarities to East Indian culture, so that helps to smoothen the process, which I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully realize. But I certainly enjoy the search.

Every time I read Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” I am reminded of my own background and how it relates to what I experience in Kolkata.

CM: What are the similarities to Cajun culture?

SD: It’s a way of life, more so than anything else. Being in tune with one’s surroundings and keeping life simple. Kind of like what I had mentioned before, related to that idea that every movement has purpose and thought behind it, I find that in both Cajuns and Kolkatans. Kindness. Certainly the love for spices and the love to dance and celebrate–I find that these two cultures are connected specifically in this way, too. Perhaps they are not similar, but for me, it helps to make that connection, because I love both cultures so much, and it allows me to identify with each background. 

CM: Even today, India seems exotic and alien. It seems like a useful backdrop for exciting a sense of wonder or magic in your stories. A homeless man sucking on a mango seed is surreal, even comical. It’s childlike in a way. Has your image of India changed in adulthood? 

SD: I remember being stuck in traffic (which is quite brutal in Kolkata) and in the median, there was this man with long dreadlocked grey hair sitting on the ground. His garments were dirty, he didn’t have any shoes, and he had wild eyes. Next to him was a mango seed. As we waited in traffic, I saw him pull out a lime and he peeled it and pressed on it to get the lemon juice all over his fingers. He was washing his hands. It is one of the most beautiful memories I have of Kolkata, and it exemplifies my experiences there. This was during my last trip there, when I was old enough to realize the harsh realities that come with visiting such a wonderful place; however, it’s a way of life, it’s a natural harmony that seeks nothing else other than living in the present, while absorbing the past to get ready for the future. Every time I read Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” I am reminded of my own background and how it relates to what I experience in Kolkata. That particular poem really stands out to me in that regard, and I feel like this particular lemon juice man exemplifies this feeling.

CM: I feel like Kolkata in particular, maybe because of Mother Teresa’s work there, is hard for Westerners to imagine as anything other than impoverished. What about its poverty or beauty do you think is misunderstood?

SD: There is a special sense of gracefulness in how Kolkatans live from minute to minute, regardless of wealth or lack of wealth. It feels like every movement, even the slightest movement, has a purpose whether we know it or not, whether it’s intentional or not, and I find something beautiful in that.

CM: Poverty and hardship figures prominently in these stories, not centrally, but more as an environment. I imagine it’s hard to avoid it topically. Still you don’t seem to pity your interlopers with condescension. The visitor (narrator) seems awed by these people most of the time, in a way that most Western visitors would not. Is that because of your familial connection? Can you imagine feeling that way if your parents didn’t come from India? 

SD: It’s definitely hard to avoid it, and I didn’t want to avoid it. I think I wanted to incorporate it in the most natural way, as well as a surreal way, to shed light upon the light, as somewhat mentioned in the question before. They have so much experience and wisdom and there is so much they can teach us, just by seeing how they live. It’s a sense of inherent knowledge that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to obtain. I do believe having this background has helped me to see Kolkata in a different way than not having this heritage, especially spending time with my grandfather, R.K. Dasgupta, who was the gentlest person I knew, and he taught me so much about humility–the same with my parents and my older brother. I’ve been very fortunate to have such an upbringing, and I can’t imagine any other feeling, or I wouldn’t know what I would feel without having this background.

CM: I read that R.K. is generally commended for being among the last scholars to write fluently in Bengali and in English. That’s from Wikipedia anyway, so take it for what it’s worth. Do you speak any of your family tongue? Is it intimidating to come from a literary line and deviate in the manner that you have?

SD: My goal in life, before my grandfather’s passing, was to write a letter to him in Bengali. Years ago, I started to learn to read and write in Bengali; however, I never fully completed my endeavor, though I do intend to go back to it. I think, speaking-wise, I am more fluent in talking in Bengali more so than French (which I learned in high school and college), but it’s still a bit broken. But I am confident that I could get around town with my family’s native language. I can definitely understand the language, especially when my mom is angry with me. I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating, but more so inspiring. It keeps me going; it gives me a goal, in a sense. I guess it all relates back to Hughes’ poem, knowing where you come from and seeking to continue in its lineage.

Shome Dasgupta is the author of i am here And You Are Gone (Winner Of The 2010 OW Press Fiction Chapbook Contest), and The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India, 2013) which has been republished in the UK by Accent Press as The Sea Singer (2016). His stories and poems have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, New Orleans Review, NANO Fiction, Everyday Genius, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. Anklet And Other Stories was published by Golden Antelope Press in 2017.