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Urban Spaces and the Materials of Memory

Growing up in central Kolkata, I was no stranger to the chaotic sides of urban life.
Short story Urban Spaces and the Materials of Memory by Anupam Basu
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Cities are a strange mix of order and chaos. On the one hand, they represent our ultimate attempt to exert control over nature – to impose design on randomness. A modern city is the quintessential apparatus – it has plans, regulations, licenses, zoning committees, transport systems, power grids – an elaborate paraphernalia of mechanisms to keep things moving. This desire for control extends into the past. One could argue that urban spaces mature when they begin to self-reflect – when they go from organic self-organizing extrusions of the earth to conscious shaping fantasies. As cities thrive, they incorporate, they invent founders and providential myths, they write their own histories and celebrate identities. In other words, they give themselves a memory.

But the lived experience of a city is often something more visceral, throbbing, immediate. There is a kind of intensity to urban space – a sense of both anticipation and dread that anything can happen. We celebrate the chaotic as an essential part of the urban fabric – the melting pot, the city that never sleeps, the churning lonely seas of faceless humanity. What self-respecting city doesn’t have endearing sayings about how bad its traffic is, or how dangerous some neighborhoods, or how rundown some buildings. “In New York,” the joke goes, “a traffic signal is just the beginning of a negotiation.” It’s a quip that derives its ticklish comfort from the reassurance that chaos still lurks at the heart of all our attempts at order – that grit and street smarts still have an edge over dead efficiency.

Growing up in central Kolkata, I was no stranger to the chaotic sides of urban life. In fact, I differentiated between what I considered to be the “proper city” and what, for all practical purposes, was the rustic joys of the countryside, based on the presence or absence of such chaotic sensory overload. So, my grandparents’ house in Behala, well within city limits but where, in the eighties, there were still a fair few ponds and fields, the occasional buzzing honeybee or grazing cattle, seemed to my childish eyes the very setting for a pastoral. Like Hercule Poirot commenting about nature that “we pay the artist, for exposing himself to these conditions on our behalf” and bringing it to us, I felt staunchly that urban intensity was my native element. Our house was bang on Mahatma Gandhi Road, the main artery connecting Sealdah and Howrah railway stations. A very torrent of traffic and commerce would flow past it every day. On occasion, my mother would put a little note in a bag, shout at someone from the balcony and lower the bag on a nylon rope, and lo and behold, it would come back up a few minutes later, filled with groceries. I’d laugh at the setup, but was secretly proud that this was how much at the absolute center of things we were – urban efficiency that would have put Amazon to shame. Everything one’s soul (or stomach) might crave was, at most, within a short walk. But city life was also celebrated as much in its disruptions as in its efficiency. Flooded streets during the monsoons would mean no school. Paper boats were made and sent down from the balconies to see whose barge was sturdy enough to make it across the raging ocean that was M G Road. At times, a neighbour would claim to have caught fish right at their doorstep – “thiiis big,” they’d say, stretching their arms and the limits of belief at the same time. In the Kolkata of the eighties, political strife and violence disrupting daily routine was commonplace. Impromptu cricket matches on the road during general strikes are fondly remembered nostalgia for many a Kolkatan. Our house being close to Sealdah station and several quite politically charged colleges, actual violence was not an uncommon occurrence. I remember being delighted whenever the news of such violence arrived because it meant no homework for the day. We could huddle up at the windows or the verandah munching on jhaal-muri while pitched battles involving student political organizations would unfold on the street below, often involving improvised bombs – “peto” in the local parlance, or “naru” if you were one of the cool kids.

Any reader not having nostalgic investments in the utter chaos that could be life in Kolkata might find the celebration of these events somewhat grotesque. And later on in life, as I went to graduate school and spent most of my time in the orderly, quiet – or bland, depending on perspective – university towns of the American Midwest, I found myself increasingly trying to articulate exactly what about this pandemonium I missed. At times, my friends would look on aghast as if I had survived some warzone to have finally found refuge in sleepy American suburbia. That I was describing a flourishing, vibrant, albeit more than a little chaotic city was something utterly incomprehensible to them.

And so, perhaps to find a language for cultural translation, I looked for comparisons – other registers of communicating the sense of structured chaos turned to memory. When an academic mentor asked me what to expect on her upcoming visit to India, I said if she went with an open mind, she’d relive Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, a play that celebrates chaos as nostalgia, where the madness of the fair provides a refuge from the dry clinical cynicism of the world beyond it. Thankfully, my mentor took my advice, thoroughly enjoyed her trip to India, and regaled us upon return with wild stories of her adventures. But my choice of example was not accidental. Being an early modernist by training who studies the drama and print culture of the age of Shakespeare and Jonson helped. My thinking as a scholar about early modern London has always been tinged by my lived experience of growing up in Kolkata. Centuries and worlds apart, one might say – or perhaps point to colonial cliches or current political revelry about how Kolkata is about to turn into contemporary London. Yet, what appealed to me most was the process of myth-making, of reimagining oneself, of turning matter into memory that defined Shakespeare’s London and, I have always felt, the Kolkata I knew.

Consider the old commonplace about William Shakespeare being a great inventor of words and phrases. Now that we have massive numbers of digitized texts and computers to analyze them with, we can put this claim to the test. It turns out Shakespeare wasn’t, after all, an exceptional coiner of words – his strength lay in doing unexpected and exceptional things with the mundane. But what struck me was that Thomas Nashe, an early chronicler of urban life in London, along with his friends and colleagues Thomas Dekker and Robert Greene were, in fact, at the cutting edge of linguistic invention and improvisation. Why, one might ask. The answer is strikingly simple – they are in the process of inventing a unique linguistic register for describing the urban phenomenon. Elizabethan and Jacobean London went through massive social, demographic, and economic turmoil as its population more than quadrupled. Alongside this growth came a sense of impending crisis and collapse coupled, perhaps strangely, with a deep sense of nostalgia and pride. Urban chroniclers like Nashe wrote of this vibrant, dynamic, yet chaotic city – as cynical and sinful as it was spirited and hopeful – and, in the process, found themselves inventing a new language of urban description. Others, more staid like John Stowe, felt the need to chronicle the proud history of a city they saw being eroded before their eyes. Stow’s monumental A Survey of London begins with a layout of the city – its walls, its rivers, its sewage, its bridges – and moves on to a ward by ward chronicle of the city. It is a process of memory making, of self-reflexive documentary. When Stow says that London’s streets are blocked up because the nouveau riche ride around on coaches imported from Germany – “the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot” – it is hard not to hear resonances with the kinds of laments we have all heard from our elders. And yet, there is celebration in this lament. In fact, the very documentation is an act of pride. My favorite book on early modern London is one that reminds me of Kolkata the most – a book of woodcuts called The Cries of London Town. On each page is a woodcut of a peddler selling something, labeled with their unique cries that householders would look out for. There are no shortages of complaints about what a nuisance and disturbance such street vendors were, yet it takes a unique relationship with urban space, a particular sense of pride, a sense of belonging and identity to want to own a book celebrating it.

It is thus suspended between exasperation and love, chaos and memory that the urban experience unfolds. My nostalgia-tinged view of growing up in Kolkata is neither accurate nor inaccurate, neither right nor wrong. Like the old joke about the Kolkata gentleman who is asked in the morning how he slept and replies, “It was a close contest – if the bedbugs hadn’t pulled me down, the mosquitoes would have flown me away,” we are caught in between the structure and chaos of urban life. We pick at strands as we collectively weave the quilt of our shared experience.

Anupam Basu teaches and writes about the intersection of culture and technology. He is currently working on a book on how computation changes our notions of literary form. When he is not reading a single book closely, he can be found tracing patterns in thousands of books at once.

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