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A Tale of Two Cities


‘Calcutta’ and ‘Tashkent’ in the contemporary Literary Imagination

Ranjana Saxena
University of Delhi

“It all depends on the fact. as to what kind of agreement, we get into with ourselves and with the
society” - S. Chuprinin
“Over the last two decades, a methodological shift has occurred in the area of cultural studies - the
traditional interest in time and its analytic virtues has been significantly superseded by the obsession
with spatial phenomenology. A significant side effect of this turn-around is the recent treatment of
categories such as lieu, place, landscape, territory, architecture, topography, geography, mapping,
region, realm, area, location, dwelling and so on”.1

Introduction

Perhaps the image of the city as an autonomous cultural phenomenon is as ancient as the emergence
of ancient cities. Over the centuries of the history of human civilisation, references to the city have
appeared in mythology, religion, philosophy and of course, in art forms and literatures. Indeed, the
city and the city life have contributed towards the formation of the city-dwellers and vice-a-versa.
As the critic rightly points out that the “city has always attracted the attention of the thinkers, writers
and poets. Aristotle and Plato were the first who had investigated the city mores. At later stages
T.Moore and T. Campanella wrote the city. Interestingly, during Renaissance the people thought of
the ‘ideal city’ and their utopian ideas were forwarded in the writings of the wisest amongst them.
With passage of time, unfortunately, the city came to be linked with gloomy prophecies. Gradually,
its image also acquired negative, apocalyptic features. Two approaches came up to describe the city
– humanistic and dehumanized, indifferent. If the adherents of the first approach saw the city as
bright, happy and optimistic, the latter saw it as a glum, cold and hostile place. The writings of the
former are permeated with a spirit of optimism and faith in the future. The other came up at the turn

1
Spiridon M. Spaces of Memory: The City-Text.
http://www2.lingue.unibo.it/acume/sb/Spiridon_Spaces_of_Memory.htm)
2

of the 19-20th century, when human beings began to lose optimism and many plunged into self-
isolation, seclusion and despondency”.2
Today while we look into the representations of the city it may well be argued that there is a definite
movement away from the way city images were created in the earlier periods. Though,
“understandably, the city provoked ambivalent attitudes and feelings in many who were thrilled by
the opportunities it afforded for their self-realization but who, sometimes hypocritically, also feared
its vices and abhorred the crudity of its life”.3 As we would see that the city-text today serves as an
agency for “interpreting our surrounding”4, for discovering and rediscovering the self and the world
around us.
This paper is an attempt to deal with the contemporary literary images of the city of Tashkent and
Calcutta in Russian and Indian English literatures respectively. These two cities, falling within the
geographical boundaries of Central Asia and South Asia, do not have any direct connection between
them. Nonetheless, it would be significant to highlight that both the cities seemed to have assimilated
the diverse cultural experiences thereby creating unique multicultural, multiethnic and multi-
religious societies. The disappearance and or degradation of these unique cities, Calcutta and
Tashkent, is the subject of the two books – ‘On the Sunny side of the street’ (2006) by Dina Rubina
and ‘Calcutta Two Years in the City’ (2013) by Amit Chaudhari.
“The Calcutta I’d encountered as a child was one of the great cities of modernity; it was that peculiar
thing, modernity, that I first came into contact with here (without knowing it), then became familiar
with it, and then was changed by it.”5 - says the author of this work of non-fiction. The Russian novel
‘On the Sunny side of the street’ by Dina Rubina, which is a fictional account of the writer’s city of
childhood, is a city novel from the South Asian region that talks about the city of Tashkent,
highlighting its diverse culture. As I set to compare Tashkent with a city from South Asia, my
obvious choice was Calcutta. Perhaps the selection was guided by my strong desire to delve deep
into the heavily shielded memories of the city of my own childhood. Having lived in Calcutta as a
child one still has the vivid impressions of the Anglo-Indian cultural milieu; the Chinese shoemakers;
and the green slated French windows, and of course, the Christmas celebrations on the Park street;
not to forget the house my family lived in on the park street behind the famous Karnani mansion.
Interestingly, while giving a critical account, both the writers are lamenting the loss of their cities.
Commenting on Calcutta A. Chaudhari writes “As a city, it’s neither too threateningly alive, nor too

2
Nabilkina L. N. THE IMAGE OF A CITY IN WORLD LITERATURE (translated from the original Russian by the
author). http://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/obraz-goroda-v-mirovoy-literature
3
Cholupsky P. Grmelova A. Introduction: Urban Spaces In Literature. webkajl.pedf.cuni.cz/documents/publications/lp_
4
Jaffe E. http://inosmi.ru/world/20131124/215064742.html
5
Chaudhari A. Calcutta –Two years in the city. Hamish Hamilton. Penguin Books India. 2013, pg. 10
3

defunct (if extinction can be measured and graded). Anyway, if Calcutta today suffers in comparison,
it’s not really to other cities, but principally to itself and what it used to be. Anybody who has an idea
of what Calcutta once was will find that vanished Calcutta the single most in surmountable obstacle
to understanding, or sympathizing with, the city today.”6
D. Rubina, while grieving the loss of the city of her childhood, gives a delightful description of the
multicultural Tashkent, where she spent her childhood and grew up. In an essay which was written
before this novel she wrote about this aspect of her native city: “In my youth (and that was in
Tashkent, a city that for many reasons, special, and someday I'll write about it), boiled in a strong
broth, standing on hundred and four nationalities, I was deeply convinced that the feelings, reactions,
and ethical content of all the people in the world more or less corresponds to a single image. Now I
understand that Tashkent has been a diminutive model of the same melting pot, about which the
Americans and the Israeli sociologists have dreamt. <.....> . Thus, under the Tashkent’s sun, I and all
of us, children were – made of some kind homogenous clay, <....>. So, it's not that we all lived in a
friendly manner, (we all lived in different ways), but the point is that notwithstanding the skirmishes
and breakups, which are inevitable in childhood and adolescence, the national question was far
removed from our consciousness”.7
The beginning of the 21st century has been witness to upsurge of singularity of thoughts and
identities as an inevitable corollary of homogenization caused by globalization. Paradoxically
enough the processes creating global connectivity also raised the need for highlighting separate
identities. “Globalization, the decline of the welfare state, increasing social mobility, greater
flexibility in employment, insecurity in personal relationships—all these developments are
contributing to a sense of fragmentation and uncertainty, in which the traditional resources for
identity formation are no longer so straightforward or so easily available”.8
In the abovementioned context it is significant to explore into these novels to understand how one is
negotiating the issues connected with identity crisis. The fact that these writings of the city bring
forth a view that pluralist societies have existed and contributed to the fundamental evolutionary
processes, be it South Asia or Central Asia, hold great significance.
Generally speaking, when we talk about the city and its character, we are primarily interested in the
engagement that the city provided to its dwellers and the impact it created on the human beings, their
consciousness, and their creativities. Through these imaginative accounts of the city we observe how

6
Ibid pg. 71.
7
Rubina D. Майн Пиджак ин вайсе клетка. Http://www.dinarubina.com/texts/
8
Introducing Identity David Buckingham Institute of Education, University of London, Centre for the Study of Children,
Youth and Media https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262524834_sch_0001.pdf
4

the literary imaginations interact with history, culture, and society, its transformations and
evolutions.
The main thesis of this article and the reason for comparing the two abovementioned cities is to
highlight the characteristic similarities of the city and the approach of the writer in their tellings of
the city.
We are aware that the regions of South Asia and Central Asia have been in close connect over the
centuries. The Silk Route trade dynamics brought in varied interaction. Perhaps, that is why the
same, unique spirit permeates both the cities, the same multicultural ethos characterise both the
cities.
Both the books are contemporary writings wherein their authors depend on personal and collective
memories to recreate an image of the city. Both the writings are of autobiographical nature. Though,
while “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Dina Rubina is a novel and “Calcutta – Two years in a
City” by Amit Chaudhari is in the genre of popular writing on the city. The cities that form the focus
of these works, Tashkent and Calcutta, have experienced much civilization intermingling.

Central Asia and South Asia

The countries of Central Asia comprise Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and
Tajikistan. South Asia is made up of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan,
Nepal and Sri Lanka. Some also may include Myanmar (Burma) in this list.
Till recently five Central Asian countries used to part of the former Soviet Union. Four of them
(Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) are of Turkic origins. Tajikistan has
Persian speaking population. Russia had made moves to conquer this region and in 19th century it
had taken over this region completely.
According to certain views the region of Mongolia, Manchuria, and parts of Iran may also be
included in Central Asia. “It is an area that has witnessed tremendous amount of historical
incidences. It is about the most multi-cultural region that you can imagine. Every major religion has
passed through this area, such as Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, etc. Every artistic media, like
sculptures, ceramics, cave paintings, has also flourished in this region”.9 Diverse people and varied
cultural, religious entities like the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols and the Russians have all
interacted in this part of Eurasia not only to exchange commodities, but also cultures, and share
histories. Thus creating spaces for cross-cultural confluence amongst human societies. We are aware

9
Central Asia: A Historical Overview http://asiasociety.org/central-asia-historical-overview?page=0,2
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that the countries of South Asia and Central Asia have centuries old common historical ties and their
common heritage.
Understandably, Central Asia is a vast region and over the period the boundaries of the countries that
fall under this umbrella have been fluid. Though “researches include in this region Tibet and
Xinjiang (also known as Chinese Turkistan) of East Central Asia (now autonomous regions of
People’s Republic of China), West Central Asia with five former Soviet, and now independent, states
of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tazikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Buddhist regions of Russia
(Buriatia and Tuva) and Mongolia”.10
Human interfaces between the peoples of South Asia and Central Asia have resulted in many a
cultural product. One such interaction is the book ‘TutiNama’, or ‘Book of the Parrot’. This book is
a Persian series of moral tales written in the 14th century. Zia ul-Din Nakhshabi, a Persian physician
and Sufi saint, is deemed to be the author of the book, who has adapted the tales from ancient
Sanskrit stories. The ‘Tutinama’ consists of tales that are narrated by a parrot to the mistress, while
the merchant-husband is away from home attending to business.11
Nakhshabi was born in Nakshab, which was situated in the southwest of Samarkand. He migrated to
India, along with many other Sufi persons in the early 14th century. Nakhshabi recreated the stories
in a simpler, as well as, Islamic, vein. In his version the parrot becomes an erudite hafiz-i Quran,
telling tales based on both Persian and Sanskrit chronicles.12
As many other countries of South Asia, India also has a shared historical past with Central Asia.
Apart from Nakhshabi, Al-Beruni came to India, learnt Sanskrit and wrote ‘Tarikh-I- Hind’ (A
History of India). Abdurazzak Samarkandi, Ibn Sina and Al-Khorezmi were acquainted with Indian
scientific works and there was a continuous cultural flow between the two regions as inevitable
partner of trade practices.
The Silk route, which connected China, Europe and India, passed through Central Asia. A lot of
cities were established along the Silk route. There are evidences of the fact that the Indians settlers
lived in Central Asian cities and adhered to their own language, scripts, literature, art and religious
practices. Central Asian sites have revealed remains Buddhist shrines, stupa and monasteries with
similar designs as in India. Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit, Prakrit or local languages and in the
Indian scripts also are indicative of close connections. The spread of Buddhism became a significant

10
Kablukov E. India and Central Asia: Cultural Relations in Middle Ages . Dialogue October - December, 2004 ,
Volume 6 No. 2 http://www.asthabharati.org/Dia_Oct04/Kablukov.htm
11
http://uknowledge.uky.edu/world_yome_calligraphy/24/
12
http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/optical_character_recognition/the_parrot.html
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connect between the regions of India and Central Asia.13

What is a City To Us?

Historically speaking the development of cities can be attributed to the evolution and emergence of
human societies that came up in the river valleys of Mesopotamia, India and Egypt around 3000
BC. The rise of cities can be said to be linked with increase in food production and concentration of
human population in a region distinguished by literacy, technological progress, and highly refined
forms of social and political organization.14 Mohenjodaro in the Indus valley civilisation and ancient
China (by 2000 BC cities had also appeared in the Wei River valley in China) are other regions in
the east that produced major urban areas. Gradually the “overland trade routes brought about the
proliferation of cities from Turkestan to the Caspian Sea and then to the Persian Gulf and eastern
Mediterranean”.15
Arguably the city as a place of habitat came up «along with the rise of the consumer societies when
human beings were no longer satisfied with what was necessary and began to acquire surplus. The
condition of possessing required that wealth be protected from the encroachments of external
enemies. Thus the main task of the city became to defend its citizens.16
Gradually the city moved far away from this distinction and came to be characterized also as a place
of people’s aspirations, hopes and despair. As the city has was a place, apart from the flora and the
fauna, to be inhabited by people, it has also been termed as “the expression of human experience it
embodies, and this includes all personal history.”17
Today we may look at the city from the point of view of it’s economic promises, demographic
movement, historical development, traffic flow, housing, environmental issues, planning and
architecture etc., but it also is an “ aggregation or accumulation, not just in demographic, economic
or planning terms, but also in terms of feeling and emotion. Cities thus become more than their built

13
Kablukov E. Dialogue October - December, 2004 , Volume 6 No. 2 India and Central Asia: Cultural Relations in
Middle Ages http://www.asthabharati.org/Dia_Oct04/Kablukov.htm
14
Spielvogel, J. Western Civilization: Volume A: To 1500. 2014. pg. 65
https://books.google.co.in/books?id=LceiAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT65&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false Retrieved on
12.03.2016
15
Lampard E. E. http://www.britannica.com/topic/city
16
Nabilkina L. N. THE IMAGE OF A CITY IN WORLD LITERATURE. http://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/obraz-goroda-
v-mirovoy-literature
17
Bellow S. More die of Heartbreak. London: Secker and Warburg, 1987. Pg.124.
7

environment, more than a set of class or economic relationships; they are also an experience to be
lived, suffered, undergone…” 18
Often cities also get stereotyped in their description and are referred to as an unchangeable entity.
For example, Jerusalem – as the city of religion; Montreal- the city of languages; Singapore- the city
of nation-building; Paris - the city of Romance; New-York - the city of Ambition: Oxford - the city
of learning; Delhi - the city of people with big hearts or Calcutta - the capital of culture and so on.
One would well argue, “Does it make sense to think of cities as representing different political
values in the modern world? In comparison with ancient Greek city-states and ancient Chinese
walled cities, today’s cities are huge, diverse, and pluralistic, and it may seem peculiar to say that
one city represents this or that. …. Clearly, some cities do express and prioritize different social and
political values: what we can call an “ethos” or “spirit” of a city. Ethos is defined as the
characteristic spirit, the prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community.”19 Perhaps it is the
spirit of the city that touches our soul more the physical city. It is this idea that is being emphasized
by the travel writer and novelist J. Raban in ‘Soft City’ when he remarks that “the city as we imagine
it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city
one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and
architecture”.20
It is being highlighted that the cities we live in are made not merely of brick and stone, buildings and
streets, but are equally the creation of our memories and imaginings. The cities come alive not only
in the physical terms, but also our narration of them.
As we began to analyse the city-texts selected for this paper, one realises that the entering point into
the city for both the writers, Dina Rubina and Amit Chaudhari, happen to be blissful memories of
their past and nostalgia for the city of their childhood. “Throughout my childhood I’d encountered
Calcutta during the summer and the winter holidays – as a place of freedom from school and a realm
of childish anarchy. <…..> The Calcutta that I’d encountered as a child was a great city of
modernity; it was that peculiar thing, modernity, that I first came in contact with here (without
knowing it), then became familiar with it, and then was changed by it.”21
Rubina also remembers her childhood and says: “Perhaps, human beings are naturally attached to
places of their childhood, their youth…. Maybe, because like the mirror or on the mirror-like surface
of the lake, it holds the images of yourself of those days, when you were happy…. What if this

18
Preston P. And Simpson-Housely P. Writing the City. In The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. By Gary Bridge and Sophie
Watson. Wiley-Blackwell. 2010. Pg. 317.
19
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9544.pdf
20
https://thinkingcity.org/2012/11/27/soft-cities/
21
Chaudhari A. Calcutta –Two years in the city. Hamish Hamilton. Penguin Books India. 2013. pg. 8
8

mirror is no more? What if those streets and the buildings, the trees and the people, who remember
you, disappear one day? This is not fair… you know…the cities should live longer than the
people”.22
There comes a point in our lives that the desire to ‘come home’, to identify yourself against the past
idea of a ‘home’ and the ‘home-city’ becomes very strong. The city of the past or of our imagination
provides for yet another identity – the place identity. “There are many ways of building identities:
the starting points, the dimensions, the purposes of the projection and especially the audiences which
they address are always different. Yet, all these processes have something in common. Individuals as
well as communities have to imagine their identity in relation to some landmarks, selected by the
individual and the public perception. These landmarks organize identities along some important
lines: to be more specific, they help understand, justify and evaluate – either positively or negatively
– their self-perception and the perception of the Other.23
Much in the same vein writing the city of Calcutta for Chaudhari is an exercise not just to understand
the cultural, political development of the city, but also serves as a landmark to locate the self. As he
says, “..I identified Calcutta as a place that was home. Home was interwoven with the Bengali
language, my mother tongue...which was hardly spoken out of my immediate home. In school I
spoke only English, so to go back to Calcutta was to re-enter the Bengali language...”

The City in Literature – Calcutta

“How do you write about city? How do even define a city? A place, a history, geography,
sociology, centres and peripheries, monuments and wastelands. A map of possibilities, an elusive
map, coming in and out of focus, full of gaps and smudges. City is an abstract word like world or
nation or country. You write from your particular apprehension of it, out of your own particular
moment. May be you don’t write about it at all. From it, out of it. I’ve always liked what Roy
Fisher said about Birmingham–Birmingham’s what I write with. The city as instrument, mode of
exploration, investigation”.24
The port-city of Calcutta, like other cities such as Surat, Goa and Madras may also fall in the
category of places of European settlements. But the difference was that the latter “were more nearly
traditional trading factories and forts rather than fully developed urban bases of widespread

22
Rubina D. ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’. Moscow. Eksmo, 2011. pg. 160-161 (in author’s translation from the
original Russian)
23
Spiridon M. Spaces of Memory: The City-Text.
http://www2.lingue.unibo.it/acume/sb/Spiridon_Spaces_of_Memory.htm)
24
Sirr P. Writing the City. http://www.ucd.ie/scholarcast/transcripts/writing_the_city.pdf
9

commercial enterprise and investment.”25 Founded in 1690, the city of Calcutta or todays Kolkata
has seen an influx of various peoples and cultures over the centuries and has the distinction to be the
“first city established in Asia on the modern Western commercial/ urban model.”26
Way back the court of Emperor Akbar saw the Armenians settling in India. The Armenians were
among the first trading communities that came to the city of Calcutta. The city still bears the
footprints of this spirited group of people that lived in it. There still exists a locality in Barabazaar
named Armanitola where the Armenians stayed initially, and nearby a street that bears the name
Armenian Street. “The Armenians had also populated an area close to Free School Street, called
Armanipara, or the neighborhood of Armenians”.27 They had come as merchants and eventually
settled in Calcutta and other places.
Another trading community that came to this land was from Greece and Asia Minor. Most of the
Greeks who landed in India came from Phillipopolis (now known as Plovdiv located in present day
Bulgaria). Calcutta and Dhaka became the place of abode for them. An Alexios Argyree Panaghiotis
descendant anglicized his name to Panioty was the first head of Greek community in Bengal. He
succeeded to build the first Greek church in India. Later Panaghiotis “shifted his commercial
operations to Dhaka where he died in 1777.”28
Hence, this happened to be the first place, where the West encountered the East. Founded in the
1690s by East India Company merchants beside the Hugli River, Calcutta came to acquire fame as
the capital of India during the British Raj.
Calcutta has aroused the literary imagination of writers like Bimal Mitra, Bharti Mukerjee, Anita
Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amit Chaudhari, Dominic Lapaiere and many others. Calcutta
has a very multicultural, rich and distinct past and the city abounds in its literary representations.
Calcutta has been named as the city of ‘Furious creative energy’; the city has also fondly called the
cultural capital of India. Other names by which this city is also known are – the City of Palaces, the
city of processions and ‘the city of joy.’ Calcutta was also home to extraordinary Bengalis such as
Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel laureate, and Satyajit Ray, who stands tallest among the
geniuses of world cinema.
Amit Chaudhari’s ‘Calcutta, Two years in the city’ is a an account of the city and its inhabitants. In
the book he moves between the 19th and the 20th century Calcutta. He is constantly comparing the
two periods in the history of the city, the first when it was a dynamic city and the second period

25
Murphey R. The City in the Swamp: Aspects of the site and early Growth of Calcutta. The Geographical Journal, Vol.
130. N0. 2. 1964. pg. 241
26
Ibid
27
Seth MESROVB J. Armenians in India 1937. https://puronokolkata.com/tag/armanitola/
28
Stavridis Stavros T. Footprints of Odysseus in India. http://www.helleniccomserve.com/stavridisone.html
10

when it should have moved ahead and did not. The author is convinced of the greatness of the
glorious past of Calcutta. And if today Calcutta suffers in comparison, it’s not to other cities, but
principally to itself and what it used to be, says A. Chaudhari.
The book is an account of two years that he spent in the city after his return in 1999 after spending a
long period in Norwich, UK. It is a personal journey and simultaneously an exploration of a
childhood city that had undergone drastic change. The author had many reasons for coming back to
Calcutta; the writer had parents entering a critical age and he himself had got fed up with Britain – its
weather, rain and loneliness, its television, newspapers and bookshops. He says that the “in new
Britain of the nineties, many (names) continued to carry old resonances, while they were being
hollowed of meaning”.29 Coming back to India was also guided by his “need for light” and being
here “was to be reborn, to experience sunlight, stillness, birdcall, morning, evening, for a limited
duration only…… India for whatever reason, is synonymous to me with life; and you don’t love life
by weighing its advantages” 30- says Chaudhari.
Having come back home Amit Chaudhari in this book takes the readers along with him to explore
the city once called Calcutta and now renamed as Kolkata. The writer keeps moving back and forth
from the Calcutta of the 18th century, through the 19th to the Calcutta of that of today. The structure
of the work is as fluid, as the memories themselves are.
Amit Chaudhari’s book tell us stories of the people who inhabit this city: the rich, the poor, the
politicians, the plebeians, the ‘bhadralok’, the ‘kajerlok’ and many others. The author flaneur, as he
is called by one critic, walks through the physical city, describes the eating joints, the restaurants, the
clubs, the malls of the city. These walks are inter spread with his meeting with politicians, Italian
chefs, aging and old bhadralok, beggars, and, of course, the “Kajerlok; The writer says that “Calcutta
is fairly safe to walk and travel through , and you won’t as a rule be robbed or shot or lacerated or
raped (though you may be run over by a bus). This is not so much because the police are vigilant, but
because the working and homeless people who populate the pavements at any given point of time
are, despite their conditions, intrinsically bhadra”.
The writer brings forth the many moods and periods in the history of this city called a “capital of
culture”. We are introduced with the Calcutta of the days of the British Raj with its clubs, where
turkey is still served during Christmas, the several villages that pre-date the East India Company, the
contemporary city, and also the abandoned city left behind in India’s surge for progress.
The entire narration of the city of Calcutta given by the writer exists under the over powering
shadow of the Bengal Renaissance. As we are aware that the early nineteenth century, or the whole

29
Chaudhari A. Calcutta –Two years in the city. Hamish Hamilton. Penguin Books India. 2013. pg. 96
30
ibid pg. 72
11

of the nineteenth century, had witnessed an intellectual awakening that had been called as
Renaissance in the European style. This is the period of various protest movements, formation of
societies and associations, religious reform movements, coming of new styles in Bengali literature,
political consciousness, and other emergent socio-political phenomena.
The Bengal Renaissance of the nineteenth century included names of social reformers like Raja
Rammohun Roy, Debendra Nath Tagore and his followers, Akshay Kumar Datta, Ishwar Chandra
Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Viveka Nand and
others. The social activity and these liberals were inforned by the idea of rationalism, humanism,
positivism, socialism, nationalism etc. They stood up for upliftment of women and their
emancipation from religious dogmatism, aagainst child marriage, for widow remarriage and other ills
of the society.
The idea of Bengal ‘reawakening’ was the consequence of institutions such as the Asiatic Society of
Bengal, which was created in 1784, the Baptist Mission of Serampore in1800, Fort William College
in 1800, Hindu College in 1817, Calcutta School-Book Society in 1817, Calcutta Medical College in
1835, University of Calcutta in 1857 and so on.
Reacting to the fact that Calcutta has ‘stubbornly’ been called the cultural capital of India,
A.Chaudhari says that he doubts that any present day inhabitants of the city having any real interest
in that history. Though it is a matter of pride that the city and the region had lead the movement of
great social changes “from the late 18th century onward to produce figures like Rammohan Roy and
Debendranath Tagore, who created the Brahmo Samaj”.31
Perhaps, what has also facilitated the “new awakening” or the “naba jagran” and shaping of the
modernity in Bengal and Calcutta is the fact that this region had been, since long, a meeting place of
various people, communities and culture. We are aware of the communities, which constituted the
initial arrivals to the city were the Greeks, the Armenians, Portuguese, the Jews. As a matter of fact
the population of Eurasians & Portuguese exceeded that of the English in 1837 in Calcutta. The
Chinese also came and made this city their home and contributed towards the creation of ‘little
China’ in India. ‘Chinapara’ in East Calcutta had seen the coexistence of Buddhism, Christianity and
Confucianism making for a very multi religious and multi cultural society. There had been separate
regions for the Portuguese – Murghihatta and for the Armenians – the Armanitola.
A. Chaudhari’s telling of Calcutta neatly delineates a trajectory that the city of Calcutta took in
transforming from being the ‘city of culture’ to turn into a ‘the dying city’. Though the point that one

31
Ibid pg. 73
12

cannot ignore is that this is the city about which you can say, “You feel something happened here”,32
This point has been very forcefully driven home by the writer. A.Chaudhari writes that “something
did. Under the Crown, Calcutta, capital of the new India, became ‘second city’ of the Empire, till that
privilege was rescinded in 1911…”33
This shift of the Crown capital from Calcutta to the “less political and a quieter place” i.e. Delhi, has
been interpreted by the writer as turning away of the British from the “modern man, everyman, the
‘little man’ of modernity” residing in the city of Calcutta. In the view of A.Chaudhari, Calcutta did
not just remain as one of the important administrative port cities of the British or just an episode in
the colonial history. Calcutta had been a place of intellectual growth, as well as, a city, which
underwent religious, political and social reforms. And above all having acquired the status of being
the seat of learning, the city and its various institutions helped in developing the critical mind. “The
Asiatic society, where the Indo-European family of languages was first identified, was founded;
institutions came into being, including the great educational ones,”34
Chaudhari says “you get the feeling before Calcutta was appointed the Indian capital, and well after
it has ceased to be one, it was the capital of nineteenth century and modernity.”35 While accepting
the influence of the “colonial contact” in making of the city, he debunks the notion of Western
influence as the exclusive contribution in the making of this city. The writer is of the opinion that the
British were unaware of the cultural life of Calcutta and “invisibility was one of Bengali modernity’s
prerequisites and cardinal achievements. It conferred invisibility too; if you read Bengali literature,
you won’t find out a great deal about the British rulers”.36 This ignorance or the pretense of
ignorance about each other was mutual as the British did not noticed Indian modernity. A. Chaudhari
interpretation of Kipling’s writing set in India is a proof of the same. As ‘Kipling’s writing in the
midst of the Renaissance populates his magical stories of India with talking wolves, tigers, cheetahs
and orphan Indian children who have no trouble in communicating with animals. No one would
know, reading Kipling, that Bagheera, Sher khan and Mowgli are neighbors and contemporary of the
novelist Bankimchandra Chaterjee and the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt”. 37
Further he says that one “get the feeling that well before Calcutta was appointed the Indian capital,
and well after it had ceased to be one, it was the capital of 19th century and modernity.”38

32
Ibid pg. 125
33
Ibid pg.125
34
ibid pg.126
35
Ibid pg.127
36
ibid
37
Ibid pg. 292
38
ibid pg.127
* In 1814 Rammohun came and settled in Calcutta and in 1815 founded the Atmiya Sabha - an association for the
dissemination of the religious truth and the promotion of free discussions of theological subjects. Amongst the rich and
13

Bengal Renaissance had been termed as an organic phenomenon and had begun to take roots and
develop in the early nineteenth century, when Raj Rammohun Roy forms the Atmiya Samaj.*
Describing the character of the Renaissance Chaudhari candidly says that since the Bengal
renaissance lacks in European grandeur and resplendence, as it was not the upshot of any empire, but
“of a home grown bourgeoisie”. Hammering this point A. Chaudhari writes, “Its protagonist isn’t the
soldier on the horseback, or the gods, or the regent in the hall or the garden; it is really the loiterer.
Jean Renoir sensed this on his visit to this city in 1949, when he remarked, when describing Calcutta,
that ‘all great civilisations are based on loitering’”.39

The City in Literature – Tashkent – Istanbul of the Poor **


The city of Tashkent represents another great civilization having deep roots in the past and the novel
“On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a captivating telling of this city. As D. Rubina, the writer,
mentions in an interview, the book is a journey in to self – a journey in search of the lost city, “in
search of lost places, searching for one’s lost youth, in search of the lost city. My town-it was
Tashkent, it was a great civilization. A civilization that has disappeared, as the city of Atlantis. And
I'm like a diver, diving down to pull out pieces of this civilization, because it seems to me that only I,
who has grown up and lived there, can preserve some bits and pieces of this civilization so that it
does not vanish completely”.40
D. Rubina’s novel, On the Sunny Side of the Street, can be well termed a novel-memoir. In this
novel the writer recreates the life and times of a ‘vanished city’, goes down the memory lane to
recollect her childhood and her youth spent in Tashkent. The novel begins with the description of
post-war Tashkent. The plot covers a couple of decades of the main protagonist’s life and the plot
moves through various geographical spaces along with the main characters of the novel.
In short it is a life account of the young, talented Ekaterina Sheglova who as a child, had been
evacuated to Tashkent during the II World War and her extremely talented daughter Vera Sheglova
who grows up to be a reputed painter. Since the days of her childhood Vera grows up, completely
abandoned by her mother, thanks to the mercy of the neighbors. Her talent is honed and guided by

influential who gathered around him at that time were Prince Dwarkanath Tagore of Jorasanko, Prasanna Kumar Tagore
of Pathuriaghata, Kali Nath and Baikuntha Nath Munshi of Taki, Raja Kali Shankar Ghoshal of Bhukailash etc. But the
meetings of the Sabha were not the only means to propagate his doctrines. Here recital and expounding of Hindu
scriptures were done and Govinda Mala would sing songs composed by Rammohun. In 1819 there took place a
celebrated debate between Rammohun and Subrahmanya Sastri on the subject of idol worship in presence of the leading
citizens of Calcutta including Raja Radhakanta Deb and Rammohun vanquished his adversary.
http://www.thebrahmosamaj.net/founders/rammohun.html
39
Chaudhari A. Calcutta –Two years in the city. Hamish Hamilton. Penguin Books India. 2013. pg. 293
** The title was given to Tashkent by A. Tolstoy when he was evacuated to Central Asia.
40
Dina Rubina in an interview to Radio ‘Kultura’ tvkultura.ru/brand/show/brandid/32849/
14

with Uncle Misha, who had been in and out of the prisons for anti-Soviet activities and once
rehabilitated, settles down in Tashkent. Vera, eventually moves out of Tashkent, becomes a very
successful painter and lands in California. Throughout her stay out of Tashkent, Vera is constantly
haunted by the memories of Tashkent and longs to come back to the place that she belongs to. But
there are others from the Tashkent diaspora who try hard to convince Vera that Tashkent of those
days does not exist anymore. The nostalgia for the city of Tashkent becomes a reference point for
one and all in the novel.
The narrator begins collecting memoires, “the voices – that have gone with the winds”, of the former
inhabitants of this city. In the process many former inhabitants of Tashkent appear in this novel with
their stories, memoirs about Tashkent. Eventually the plot becomes very engrossing as it develops
into a vast canvas of the stories of an entire post-war generation of the Soviet people living in
Tashkent. The novel provides for a “very powerful polyphony of voices that amalgamate into a
passionate hymn not only to the beautiful city, but also to life itself; to the human spirit, which has
been capable of overcoming, ‘all the filth of life”.41
As mentioned earlier the novel is permeated with nostalgic tones and the fabric of Rubina’s novel is
made of many small stories that keep coming up in between the main story by virtue of they being
the memoires of the former inhabitants of this city. In the novel the author does not follow any
chronological order in terms of time as she says that she is not “bothered about any chronology of
this narration as there is no chronology deep down in that ocean where all the cities get submerged
forever”.
D. Rubina writes about Tashkent, a city that “for almost 150 years was at the crossroads of migration
processes, and therefore it has become a part of these ‘folkloric discourse’. Many people travelled to
Tashkent - to civilize, and to escape from hunger, even war, from the anger of the cosmopolitans ...
they went to rebuild the city after the earthquake ... and many settled there, gave birth to children ...
Who had not been there, people came from all over the Soviet Union. Tashkent has never been seen
as a corner city of the Soviet Union, it always held a unique niche – it was a symbol of friendship of
peoples”.42
Tashkent, as we know, has been the capital and the largest city of Uzbekistan, The city was ruled by
the Arabs and the Turks and in 1865 was conquered by the Russians. Jeff Sahadeo in his book
‘Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent’ emphasizes the fact that Russian did not simply rule Muslims
in stereotypical colonizer-over-colonized fashion. Tashkent was home to multiple and diverse
Russian and Muslim hierarchies that grew with each other. Russia was the not colonizer in that sense

41
Dina Rubina in an interview to Radio ‘Kultura’ tvkultura.ru/brand/show/brandid/32849/
42
Yanovskaya M. http://www.fergananews.com/articles/6600
15

of the word. “In fact there was no black and white between colonizer and colonized in Sahadeo’s
colonial Tashkent, but there was always an upper hand maintained by the Russians who commanded
military forces…”. 43
Sahadeo says that in tsarist Tashkent, west was not always west, east was not
completely east, and the twain most certainly met. The result, as he argues, was the creation of a
“unique colonial society”.
The multi-genre nature of the novel and the predominance of the lyrical in it, combined with the real-
istic picture of history, are the main features of D. Rubina’ s imaginative reconstruction of the birth
and decline of a unique “strange civilization” inseparably connected with the history of Russia. The
spacio-temporal unity of Tashkent, the real Central Asian city, a Babylon- resembling city, “Noah’s
Ark” is created by means of narrative patterns representing various “points of view”, multifaceted
visual, auditory and colour memories, the integral shift of time-and-space picture planes.”44
The, post war Tashkent has been the place of ‘shelter’, ‘evacuation’, and ‘survival’ for many from
Russian and Soviet Union. Tashkent in D. Rubina’s description is a multi-colored and multi-ethnic
space filled up with communities of the Russians, the Uzbek, the Georgians, the Ukrainians, the
Tajdziks, the Germans and many others.
This capital of the Soviet Uzbekistan became a meeting point for refugees evacuated from the Soviet
territories occupied by Nazi Germany. Tashkent gave many a place to live when the whole of Russia
nation was moving like an orphan, it was Tashkent – the ‘city of bread’ that gave them a place to
have a foothold. Postwar Tashkent is described as a sort of a “Soviet Noah’s Ark, where people of
various ethnic groups live a hard, but harmonious life”.45 As compared to Moscow or Leningrad life
was simpler in Tashkent as there was more of sunlight and warmth.
The higher levels of intellectual quotient of the people in Tashkent, as compared to the general levels
in the country, are also linked to the interaction between the evacuated writers, cinematographers,
actors, scientists and the common people who were thrown away by the winds of shocking historical
events. D. Rubina is convinced about the positive character of this kind of model of a society that
was presented in the form of Tashkent. The present success of the Tashkent diaspora is also
attributed by her to their past multi-cultural experience accumulated in Tashkent.
The literary representations of Tashkent are as multifaceted as the city itself. The myth about
Tashkent appeared in the Russian mass consciousness, when the Russia brought Turkestan under its
rule in the 19th century. E.Shafranskaya notes that before the October Revolution in 1917 the word

43
Martin V. In review of Jeff Sahadeo’ Russian colonial Society in Tashkent (1865-1923).
http://www.jstororg/stable/pdf/
44
Alekseeva N.V. TASHKENT NOVEL «ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET» BY D. RUBINA. Политическая
лингвистика 3(33) 2010 pg. 124
45
Ibid
16

"Tashkent" in the minds of the Russian people had a negative subtext: people travelled to Tashkent,
"to make a fortune". Most of these were supposed to be cheats, thieves, tricksters, self- centered
persons. “In the day-to-day mythology 0f 1860s-70s, Tashkent acquires an ambivalent image: a place
of exile and the new Eldorado”.46
According to the critic this representation went for a makeover in the writings that came after the
October revolution and it dropped the earlier image while acquiring a positive image and becoming a
synonym for ‘survival’. It then became the city of bread, the city of refuge, the city of survival.
“Around ninety eight nations and nationalities resided in Tashkent; a spontaneous international,
Noah’s Ark…nobody was surprised if you said that you were an Armenian, Assyrian, Jew, Greek,
Tatar, Uyghur or Korean”.47And they condemned each other, loved and fought with each other,
robbed; celebrated – their own and the festivals of others too and it sailed in the ocean of eternity,
intersecting the waves, carrying on its deck the whole universe, everyone – pure or impure, equal or
inequal, and most importantly, all those who loved to be there and did not think of leaving it. Such
was the city of Tashkent!
The novel projects a very positive image of Tashkent - a city that stayed the celebration of life; the
city that promoted life – with its variety, deviation and nonconformity. The telling of the city puts
forward the image of the loiterer – one of the main protagonists of the novel – uncle Misha aka
Mikhail Lifshits. “The three-in-one uncle Misha was an orphan, served the concentration camp and
was an alcoholic. His parents were wrongly accused of espionage. The young, orphaned Misha was
put under state protection. In 1949 as a student of the chemistry faculty was charged under section
58-10 for anti-Soviet activities and sent to the camp for seven years. All this could just break his life,
but not his indomitable spirit”.48
As Dostoyevsky had said that beauty would save life, it was the beauty of art and culture that saved
Misha in the face of onslaught of the ‘regime’, it was this beauty that saved Vera form sinking away
in the murky criminal life of her mother. Uncle Misha - had a profound influence on the sensibilities
of Vera, the future artist. Uncle Misha exposed her the world of other people and his own circle;
through them Vera gained accessed to “extraordinary ideas, knowledge and culture”, as much to the
people of his circle who were equally extraordinary. He plays an immensely positive role in the life
of Vera and was responsible for shaping the modernity in her persona. Indeed, it was beauty that
saved Vera.

46
Shafranskaya E. Tashkent Text in Russian Culture. M. Art House Media. 2010. Pg. 27g.
47
Rubina D. ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’. Moscow. Eksmo. 2011. pg.157 (translated from the original by the author
oft his article)
48
Alexeeva N.V. CHRONOTOPIC “FIELDS” OF THE HERO AND THE AUTHOR
IN DINA RUBINA’S NOVEL
“ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET”. Политическая лингвистика 3(33) 2010. Pg. 126
17

Conclusions: Calcutta and Tashkent


The city of Calcutta and Tashkent, both happen to be the cities of childhood for the writers. Both the
writers are describing the their cities with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of loss for the past, bygone
era. For A. Chaudhari the streets, the houses, the restaurant ‘Flurys’ on the Park street, the
‘bhadralok’, the ‘kajerlok’, their changing perceptions of life and the altering politics of Calcutta and
Bengal is very important.
Rubina’s love for Tashkent, the city of her childhood can hardly be missed. D. Rubina is almost
lamenting the fact that Tashkent was a city that preserved, saved one and all, but the people were
unable to preserve it. The narrative of D. Rubina’s novel “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”
resolutely brings out the legacy of the multi cultural heritage of Tashkent with all its constructive
facets. For Rubina Tashkent is home, where she would want to return!
It is true that we all “build cognitive maps of those places, which we consider to be our homes. This
‘image of the city’, as termed by Kevin Lynch in his eponymous book, written in 1960 helps us to
interpret our surrounding and guides our actions. As opposed to the static and exact lines in the atlas,
our mental image of the city is fragmented and flexible: it is a collage of streets, landmarks and
routes, defined by our personal unique memories and movements. In other words, our perception of
the city is guided by the fact how we interact with the city.”49
A. Chaudhari – himself a loiterer in the city of Calcutta, moves up and down the streets of Calcutta,
taking the reader on guided tour of the city. D.Rubina brings the flaneur – by way of the character of
uncle Misha. Interestingly, for both the cities, Calcutta and Tashkent, the metaphor of “city of light”
is invoked by A.Chaudhari and D.Rubina respectively. For a. Chaudhari Calcutta personifies
‘enlightenement’ and indegenous Renaissance. D.Rubina’s Tashkent is the city of ‘enlightenement’,
as well as, the city of ‘light’ and ‘warmth’.
The portrayals of the two cities are distinctively different. While Rubina’s novel is written in
celebrative tones, the description of Calcutta borders on dystopia. While writing the city, both the
writers are using the city, in the words of Peter Sirr, as instrument for exploration and investigation.
Nevertheless, both the city of Tashkent and Calcutta, for various civilizational and historical reasons
evolved as multiethnic and multicultural societies that helped create special cultural synergies. In the
present context the challenge for the societies of Central and South Asia lies in preserving this, fast
vanishing, ethos of the societies.

49
Эрик Джаффе (Eric Jaffe) Как способы передвижения влияют на ваш «образ города»
http://inosmi.ru/world/20131124/215064742.html
18