Finishing in Kolkata

I am back in Kolkata winding down the last few days of my trip. I will be home in Calgary on the weekend, and while returning to a Canadian winter and the Christmas nonsense holds little appeal I am glad, in a way, that this trip is over. It has been a frustrating couple of months. Early snowfalls, security bureaucracy, controversial elections, official-but-undeclared curfews, and the occasional terrorist attack scuttled much of what I wanted to do. At least I’ll be home for Christmas Eve dinner at my grandmother’s house.

(My wife has been printing off my blog entries and giving them to my grandmother to read. This is no small task. Nonna is in her eighties and English is her second language. She manages to read through the blogs alright, but apparently it takes the better part of a day. Each time I write a word she might find difficult I feel a brief snap of guilt. Wait until she sees all the Indian names in the next paragraph….)

I’ve been spending the last few days eating Bengali and Hakka Chinese food, and immersing myself in ‘Indian Lit.’ Having given up on ‘wall’ research for the time being means I can devote serious hours to other people’s books. The shops and streetstalls are filled with wonderful Indian authors that I never read before. This is a welcome change from North African travels earlier this year when I could not find English books anywhere. In India, I’ve ‘discovered’ Kirin Desai (I am the last to read Inheritance of Loss, no doubt), Amitav Ghosh, Siddharta Deb, Basharat Peer, Amit Choudury, Sanjoy Hazarika, and Calcutta literary saint Rabindranath Tagore.

What most of these writers have in common is a remarkable eye for detail and a poet’s gift for description. Even when the narrative fails to hold my attention, which happens once in a while, I am happy just to give in to the beauty of the language.

It is strange to me, then, that the same community that produces such rich and observant fiction can write such bland nonfiction. I read an anthology of Indian nonfiction early on in this trip and was alarmed at the clichés and flat prose. I found the same phenomenon in another anthology, called AIDS Sutra. Even gifted Indian novelists – with some exceptions, my friend Jaspreet Singh being one of them – tend to write stilted nonfiction.

I wonder why this is. In spite of India’s pantheon of great writers, nonfiction is a genre that does not seem to be fully embraced or explored. The abundance of Bollywood biographies in the ‘best of nonfiction’ anthology is, perhaps, a good indication of this.