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.
I guess my photographs – my endless need to walk and notice and occasionally to pull out my phone (it's always a phone that I use) – emerge from that same place. But only in part, because I know they also come from my sheer delight at everything people are up to around me, and the frequently stunning visual configurations they unconsciously create.
I write novels to think about people and my place among them in an extended way; some of my photographs seek to capture a momentary pattern formed by people, shadows, objects and spaces that, in the next instant, will disappear.
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.
One final thought: close-ups are rare among my street pictures. I'm simply not bold enough to attempt them with strangers, with or without request. My work is a lot more furtive and fleeting and I'm almost apologetic when someone notices. In all ways, I'm a thorough-going amateur.
Indian-born writer Rajorshi Chakraborti is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. His 2018 book, The Man Who Would Not See, was longlisted in the fiction section of the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Chakraborti's latest book, a thriller called Shakti, is out now (Penguin, $36) and reviewed in Canvas books.