This is the first installment of Amit Chaudhuri’s new column, The Moment.
When do we start noticing a house? We know it’s there, but don’t look at it. We might die without actually having seen it.
I ask this because of my interest in Calcutta’s residential houses. Calcutta is where I was born, but I grew up in Bombay. I rehearse this sentence yet again for strangers to explain my discombobulated sensibility. I used to visit my uncle’s three-story house in Calcutta over my summer holidays as a child, and think of it as home—because my aunt and uncle and three cousins exuded a Bengali dysfunctionality that I associated with that word. But, in comparison to the twelfth-story flat where I grew up in Bombay, in Malabar Hill, and from where, when I was ten years old, I had an uninterrupted view of the sea, the house in Calcutta absorbed me.
At some point, I must have gained clarity about two things: first, that the low houses of South Calcutta, and the opportunities they offered me to study the street outside and the houses opposite—to eavesdrop and spy—were preferable, to me, to the panoramic and godlike perspective that the twelfth-story flat provided. Second, I understood retrospectively that these Calcutta houses meant something not solely because of my personal memory but because they comprised areas that bore the imprint of a modernity that was to be found in some other cities, too—in Istanbul, Montevideo, Berlin, New York—though not, when I was growing up there, in the bit of Bombay in which I lived. These areas involved an encounter with the “historical.”
It’s now difficult for me to say whether these thoughts came to me at a single moment—related to an instant at which I began to look at the houses I already loved—or if there were a series of such moments. When I began to notice them only eleven or twelve years ago, it had to do with their destruction: over the first decade of the new millennium, the houses were making way for property development. This was happening in other parts of India, too, but the decimation was clearest to me in Calcutta, especially South Calcutta, where commercial activity was located and demand for new residential property strongest. These houses, built in the first half of the twentieth century, were smaller in scale than the colonial institutional buildings, built by the British, in the central business districts of the city. They had few neoclassical features, unlike the colonial buildings or the nineteenth-century landowners’ mansions in North Calcutta. They had a particular mix of characteristics—red oxide stone floors; slatted windows, mostly green; round knockers on doors; ventilators on walls made up of perforations, each house with a subtly different pattern of perforations; verandas with wrought iron railings; open rooftop terraces that looked out on other rooftop terraces. Many houses had Art Deco features—porthole windows; curved balconies; the sunrise motif on grilles; residences that were called, because of their eccentric structure, Jahaaj Badi, or “ship houses”; vertical strips on facades that recalled the Odeon cinemas in London, but were actually an echo of the Metro, Calcutta’s own cinema hall near the Esplanade; vertical glass panes, again on the facade, partly occluding and partly disclosing a stairwell. When I began first recounting these characteristics, I called them “family resemblances,” because though many houses shared these features, no two houses in a lane were built to the same design. Each house was, in terms of shape and spatial proportions, an experiment. Nowhere have I encountered such heterogeneity in a single lane.
I’ve been writing about these houses for five years. A sort of campaign has begun in Calcutta to save these buildings that are neither historical monuments nor, in a conventional sense, “heritage” buildings but were erected through partnerships between anonymous builders and the Bengali professionals—lawyers, doctors, civil servants, even academics—who lived in them from the 1920s onward. My concern here is with that moment of noticing when you also become simultaneously aware that you had previously ignored what now reveals itself to you in detail. How is it possible not to see something at one moment and to see it inexhaustibly at another?
The change of perception that occurs then leads to a realignment. That is, it has to do with a reordering of ideas you already have about what’s unimportant and what’s consequential. So it was with these houses. For years you don’t see them because they are not monuments. You don’t already know what to think about them, as you do when viewing a landmark. And, being modern, they belong to the realm of the everyday; they don’t embody heritage or a glorious past. So you don’t study them. Then a moment occurs when you do see them. This moment introduces an inversion. The everyday now seems unfamiliar; famous landmarks appear, in comparison, tedious. The moment in which radical realignment takes place is, then, akin to a work of the imagination. In every domain of knowledge—in the sciences, in history, in the news—there is relative consensus about what constitutes significance. Only in imaginative works—in poetry and fiction—is there a reformulation of what we think to be important or unimportant.
This moment of noticing the obvious occupies a place in our lives not far from the role Foucault ascribed to philosophy—“not to discover what is hidden, but to make visible precisely what is visible, that is to say, to show that which is so close, which is so immediate, which is so intimately linked to us, that because of that we do not perceive it.” Now that people—especially with the campaign gathering momentum—have begun to notice the middle-class houses in South Calcutta, they wonder that there was a time when they didn’t see them.
To find the banality of what’s in front of you engrossing is key to a certain writerly relationship to the world. Allen Ginsberg, in his 1966 interview in The Paris Review, delineates the events leading to this moment of self-consciousness. The year he’s referring to is 1948. He was prepared for what was to be a quasi-mystical experience by Shri Matakrishnaji, a “lady saint” from Vrindavan in India, who instructed him to take the poet William Blake “for my guru. There’s all kind of gurus, there can be living and non-living gurus …”
By the time the Blake experience occurs, Ginsberg is in Harlem. He’s been dumped by his lover Neal Cassady. He’s written nothing of note and is yet to find his voice. It is summer. Ginsberg, recovering from “a very lonely solitary state, dark night of the soul sort of,” is in bed, just having finished masturbating, “my pants open, lying around … by the windowsill, looking out into the cornices of Harlem and the sky above.” Oddly, Ginsberg has been “jacking off” while simultaneously reading Blake: “I wasn’t even reading, my eyes were idling over the page of ‘Ah, Sun-flower,’ and it suddenly appeared … that the poem was talking about me.”
The lines Ginsberg quotes to the interviewer are “Ah, sun-flower! weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the sun; / Seeking after the sweet golden clime, / Where the traveller’s journey is done.” Ginsberg hears the lines recited by a “deep earthen grave voice in the room,” which, he realizes, is Blake’s. Then another thing becomes plain: not only is the poem about him, it’s about where he is (Harlem): “looking out … through the window at the sky … suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very ancient place that he was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And, that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience … ”
As Blake introduced the boroughs of London into his mythologies, Ginsberg opens his moment—for which the window is a trope—onto Harlem. “What I was speaking about visually was, immediately, that the cornices in the old tenement building in Harlem … had been carved very finely in 1890 or 1910. And were like the solidification of a great deal of intelligence and care and love also. So that I began noticing in every corner where I looked evidences of a living hand, even in the bricks, in the arrangement of each brick. Some hand placed them there—that some hand had placed the whole universe in front of me.”
What’s striking is how Ginsberg’s identification of the sort of writer he is—one for whom “this existence was it!”—is accompanied, at once, by his uncovering of what’s already present (“the cornices in the old tenement building” opposite; “even … the bricks”).
Equally arresting is his account of the context, of torpor and accidentality—the room’s ennui, the body’s lassitude on the sheets, the distractedness of the eye resting on the poem as the hand “jacks off” (“There’s a kind of interesting thing about, you know, distracting your attention while you jack off”). In other words, neither focus nor the will is integral to seeing. You can’t make things visible by looking out of the window. The moment doesn’t announce itself: it creeps upon and surprises you.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. His most recent novel is Friend of My Youth.