Book Reviews

Travel books by resident pros: Amit Chaudhuri's 'Calcutta' and Gary Kamiya's San Franciso treat, 'Cool Gray City of Love

An Anglo-Indian novelist returns to Calcutta, while a journalist takes 49 walking tours of San Francisco


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The past few years have seen an important shift in travel writing (that is, in travel narrative or so-called "literary travel"-- not guidebooks). The change comes partly because by now almost everybody has been everywhere. Even Antarctica is a popular tourist destination.

People are no longer so easily satisfied by the mere travel impressions of some outsider much like themselves. Instead they gravitate toward writers who actually have lived not simply in but inside a location for an extended period, as one lives inside one's clothes. A prominent example would be "Istanbul: Memories and the City," Orhan Pamuk's study of his native place, published in 2005, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.


"CALCUTTA: TWO YEARS IN THE CITY"
By Amit Chaudhuri.
Knopf ($25.95).

"Calcutta: Two Years in the City," a book by Amit Chaudhuri, the Anglo-Indian novelist and critic, is a fresh instance. Mr. Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta (significantly, he doesn't accept the present spelling, Kolkata) in 1962 and lived there as a boy, until his upper-middle-class parents moved to Bombay (Mumbai).

Many Indians were doing the same in those days to advance their fortunes in business, as many others were drawn to New Delhi by its political power. Later, Mr. Chaudhuri settled in Britain, but he returned in his late 30s to remember how his old home used to be and to see what it had become.

Once, long ago, the capital of all India, Calcutta is now only the capital of West Bengal. It is a city in which each of its countless paras or neighborhoods is almost a proudly distinct tribe unto itself (in that respect, somewhat like Pittsburgh, one might say).

Given all that, plus the network of castes and classes, the old colonial mentality and the new cosmopolitanism, "Calcutta: Two Years in the City" is a complex patchwork of topics, scenes and even genres. It's a crazy-quilt of a book that shows the author's ear for reproducing speech and his knack for sketching not only personalities but also smells and, especially, tastes.

Mr. Chaudhuri is a foodie, to say the least. He uses this predilection to illustrate how the city of Mother Teresa has been remade by the forces of globalization. Among the mildest of a great many examples is his discourse on the role of pizza.

Recalling the 1970s and 1980s, he writes that it "would have been impossible to guess then that in two decades the pizza -- no toppings, just a lot of tomato puree smeared on a cardboard-flat circle of bread, covered by a supplement of cheese -- would become an indispensable component in the diet of gregarious Gujarati and North Indian families (people without pretensions, but with an appetite), and even turn up not far away from uttapam and rava dosa on South Indian menus."

Except for being another example of insiders' travel, Gary Kamiya's new book "Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco" is as different from Mr. Chaudhuri's as -- well, as different as the two places they write about.


"COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE: 49 VIEWS OF SAN FRANCISCO"
By Gary Kamiya.
Bloomsbury ($27).

Whereas Mr. Chaudhuri deals in literary prose, Mr. Kamiya turns out high-class journalism. But then before he helped to found Salon.com, he worked as a regular journalist, just as at another period of his life he drove a taxi.

These last two experiences go together as he divides San Francisco into 49 little walking tours, talking all the time about the city's past and its personality -- not unlike a loquacious high-octane cab driver who, in an abundance of local pride, mixes facts with exaggerations.

When gabbing about, for example, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, he writes: "More photographs were taken of the San Francisco disaster than any event in history up to that time." What about the Civil War?

He sometimes puts down the present, with its "ugly Hilton Hotel" near a pedestrian overpass that he singles out, in what sounds like Mark Twain diction, as "a monstrosity and a profanation." For it's the past that interests him the most, especially the city's own creation myth, otherwise called the California Gold Rush story.

In the course of the year 1848 San Francisco's population jumped from 800 to 2,000. By the end of the following year it was probably at 25,000. "No city in the world has ever come into existence the way San Francisco did," he writes. "It was created ex nihilo, the urban equivalent of the big bang." For the next few years it was "a place unlike any other on earth, a combination campground, casino, construction zone, battlefield, strip club, depot, garbage dump, stock exchange, and amusement park."

In addition to the gold rush and the earthquake, the author also takes pride in the Beat movement of the 1950s and the hippie era of the 1960s. Not everyone survived the latter. Or as he puts it: "Not everyone was able to walk down from the magic mountain and keep going. Some people burned out; others became California cartoons, simultaneously blissed-out and prone to inane conspiracy theories. But many did [come through OK], and America is better off because of them. The spirit of the sixties, which is really just another way of saying the free spirit, lives on in the enriched lives of a million normal people."

So he naturally includes a little elegy for a joint on Powell Street off Union Square called the Gold Dust Lounge. When it was razed for a development project a few years ago, a spokesperson for the lot's new owner said: "Just because they claim Janis Joplin once vomited there doesn't make it historic." Mr. Kamiya calls that "a statement that, if true, would invalidate the entire premise of this book."

George Fetherling (georgefetherling@outlook.com) is a novelist, poet and travel writer.

 


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