Review: Hotel Calcutta by Rajat Chaudhuri

Hotel Calcutta-bookcoverSushma Joshi reviews Hotel Calcutta for

I specifically wanted to read “Hotel Calcutta” because the book flap description seemed to imply this book was a little out of the ordinary. I was tired of great narratives, tour de forces, award winning books, and writers who epitomized their generation. A heritage hotel that is under threat of demolition, a monk at the bar,  a wall of stories, a producer of porn flicks, a woman who hears dead soldiers in the corridor? Okay, bring it on!

The book was a satisfying read, and yet it wasn’t, all at the same time. While I enjoyed the sheer quirkiness of it—plus the flow of words from the writer who was clearly well versed—I should say, greatly at ease—with the writing traditions of great writers of the hoary past. At the same time, a certain something was missing from the book. If I was his editor, I’d say the writer needed to do a second and a third edit. Yes, perhaps that’s what was missing—a certain soul-analyzing content edit.

To get back to the book: the Hotel Calcutta is under threat of demolition. A monk shows up at a bar and advises Peter Dutta, manager-cum-bartender, a way to fend off the demons. “Keep telling stories,” he says. “Build a wall of stories around Hotel Calcutta and no one will touch it.”

The twelve stories that followed reminded me of those Victorian books I read as a child, where a narrator tells the reader how they sat around and told stories. This book is actually a book of twelve short stories, disparate and possibly written with different intentions by the writer, which seemed to have been strung together cleverly through the artifice of this story-telling tradition. In that way, the stories feel a little disconnected from each other, held together perhaps only by the imperative to escape the doom of a “book of short stories.”

The stories do evoke the Victorian tradition in other ways as well-the gaslit, dusty, Victorian era lingers in these stories as much as the bustling, brash, cosmopolitan world of contemporary India. And not only in time, but also place: these stories go back and forth between Amsterdam and New York City with the same ease as the way they reside in old Calcutta. On the one hand, this sort of blasé comfort with cosmopolitanism should be the book’s strength—and yet it feels a little shaky, as if Amsterdam is just a backdrop, a setting, a location, rather than an integral and known space. The sheer energy of place in the book, however, is hard to miss, especially those of India—it is as if Calcutta came alive in these pages, from its nargis attar last century past to its colonial past to its pot-smoking, genetics science present.

Whether these juxtapositions always work is up for debate—it appears to me the beautiful story “Endless Love: A Tale of Everlasting Bridges,” for instance, starts off a little Chetan Bhagat-ishly, with the narrator trying to pick up women by dialing random numbers on his phone through some elaborate mathematical formula. He then meets a beautiful woman through this random-phone dialing approach. She suggests strange dates, including going to the same cinema but never meeting, and meeting at a coffeeshop but not talking to him. The story concludes with her inviting him to her house, where it turns out she’s from another era (literally) and that somehow her father has “Slipped out of the maw of Time”, despite having lived a century ago. The conclusion is rather intriguing and spell-bindingly written, but somehow the two halves don’t feel like they go together.

Amongst other intriguing stories is an epidemic of thievery that hits a city, a bee story that ends in a murder, and a librarian who has categorized the sound of rustling pages into a fine art. These poetic moments—the librarian’s acute sense of sound is especially well described—could have been taken to the next level by staying with the imagery. But the writer then slips back into the need to provide a satisfactory conclusion, spoiling the story with bland details. The librarian, for instance, could have located the sound of the crying baby which had haunted him, and the writer could have stopped with that beautiful moment. Instead, he then rambles off into creating an unlikely plot that includes a foiled robbery, and a servant that the librarian acquires. The need for a conclusion also spoils “Watersmoke”—after a scientist has created a rather delicious blend of marijuana spliced with the genetic code of a dolphin which causes it to release “pleasure causing substance into the immediate surroundings”, he then steals the pot just in time for his wife’s birthday. Perfect moment for some a wild trip for the couple. Instead, the story veers off disappointingly to some elaborate plot involving the Chinese, the Israelis and a murder in Kathmandu. The story of the epidemic of thievery is clever and well written, and rather funny too. Unfortunately, it ends with a theatrical and awkward encounter with Satan. I’m not sure what the answer to a satisfactory conclusion would be—perhaps we should give leeway to writers with fantastically imagined stories to just conclude with a moment, or an image. Thai writer S.P Somtow’s “Dragon’s Fin Soup” does this with good effect.

Sex also appears on the page frequently-although restraint in describing it would have been easier on the reader. On the other hand, like contemporary India, whose semi-pornographic gyrations fill mainstream Bollywood films and TV stations all day long, perhaps there’s a certain honesty that grasps the overt nature of sex in India through these descriptions. Also gratuitous is the name dropping of famous writers and artists—an overuse of cultural references makes it feel at times one is browsing a culture guide.

A rushed breathlessness to the prose is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, it hints to the effortless ease with which writing comes to this writer. On the other, it makes it too easy for him, making him get away by avoiding some of the hard work of literary construction. Take the story of the bees. A fantastic moment is missed when the writer just tells us, rather than shows us, the narrator’s first encounter with the bees. We know from his writing he’s capable of conjuring a fantastic scene of this first moment with the bees. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen.

Rajat Chaudhari is a writer whose first book should be commended for its willingness to bend the imaginative terrain. He is clearly a writer who has the imagination and the mastery, and flow, over language to write great stories. What is needed is more time spent on staying with the moment, and in polishing and editing the final manuscript. This may be a fault more with the publisher than the writer–with the devaluation of the editorial art, writers have less access now than ever to a good editor. But a writer to watch out for, and whose second and third books, written with more time and patience for editing than this one, should bring interesting insights.

Sushma Joshi is a Nepali writer and filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal. End of the World, her book of short stories, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2009.