Rajorshi Chakraborti on putting city life into words

Novelist Rajorshi Chakraborti finds inspiration on the streets of Calcutta

I find it hard to sit still in Calcutta. I’m lucky enough to usually be able to visit during the winter months, when daytime temperatures are around the mid-20s and all I want to do is dive into the street-life outside.

I love the street-life of all big cities (let me amend that: I love big cities) and Calcutta’s is especially inexhaustible. Yes, you ALWAYS need to keep a close watch on the traffic (and capitalise that “always”); yes, the honking of horns is unrelenting; yes, most of the pavements overflow with activity and hardly anyone seems to care about making a clear path for pedestrians – least of all “flaneurs”, who, like me, stroll around observing what’s going on. If all that doesn’t deter you or, better still, if some of it strikes you as more life than you want to see, come to Calcutta for a walking holiday.

As a fiction writer, I’ve always been as energised by seeking to capture life on streets as I am by the inner mysteries of people. In fact, across my books, over and over, the pattern I find is that key moments occur on streets or other outdoor places: action sequences, surprising encounters, discoveries, chases and strong emotions that my characters experience in public that bring to the surface whatever turmoil is within.

In fact, this is usually how my conception of a scene proceeds: I need to see it play out as a small film in my head before sitting down to find the right words. Which also means that I (mostly) write by moving from out to in: setting and action help me uncover my people.

But equally, sometimes I’m trying to evoke something deeper, almost story-like, such as the impact and presence of a person who has made a spot on a street their own in some way. At such moments, my hope is to express, and hopefully honour, how powerfully their identity comes through in their occupation of that space. In the work that they do there, the food or objects they carefully make, and the sheer amount of time and living they have poured into it.

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