It was Foucault who defined a “text” as a collection of signs that need interpretation. This definition broadened the meaning of the word to include things that are now generally recognized as texts, like movies, or paintings, but also the spaces which we inhabit.
It is universally accepted that Calcutta exists. Now, what is Calcutta and how it must be called, these are issues still under discussion. Some say it is a city; others, that it is a metropolis. Some say its name is Kolkata; others, that it is Calcutta.
I wonder, what is a city? If I were in one of my Spanish classes, I would define the term using examples and contra-examples, the city and the non-city. I would tell my students: “Kolkata is a city, but Bongaon is not; Varanasi is a city, but Chitrakut is not”, and so on. And they would understand me.
Because a city is not a city. A city is the representation of the city. Its inhabitants write the city and the city writes them. What does the city says about its inhabitants? Can they control what she says?
If the city is a text and we read it, then it is implied that there is a language, a code shared by those who participate in the communicative process, so that the text can be written and interpreted. The arrangement of a text on a blank page – even if it is written in an alphabet we cannot read, lets say Chinese, lets say Russian -, the disposition of the characters allows us to identify it as prose or verse; in the same way, the geographical spaces identify themselves as cities or non-cities.
It has been three years since I arrived to Kolkata, since I have been dealing with the text of Calcutta, and I wonder, what kind of text is it?
I am now not speaking about form (verse vs. non-verse), but about genre: poetry vs. prose. Kindly let me stick to the basics and forget, for the time being, the fusions we have seeing since modernism, prose poems and poetic prose: after what I am going to say, you decide on your own to which genre do they belong. Prose and poetry have well differentiated characters, as their approach to language is altogether different.
Prose is pragmatic. It is written in order to convey a meaning according to pragmatic rules so that the communication may be as successful as possible, to fulfil our purpose. That is why prose is the language of our daily conversations, of academic discourse, newspaper articles, etc. We ask the tea seller for tea in a brief question, to the point, avoiding ambiguity in our request, because we want to get our cup of tea as soon as possible and drink it. And the tea seller replies asking “milk or liquor?”, and we know that his reply must be relevant to the context of the situation – which is our request for tea. So we do not think he is offering us a cup of milk or some alcoholic beverage instead of tea, but that he is asking whether we want our tea with milk or without it, and it is not necessary for him to use a full-fledged sentence to make himself understood. The amount of words he uses is informative enough, pertinent and clear. Functional.
Poetry, on the contrary, refuses to use language in such utilitarian manner: words are used for the pure pleasure of language. Poetry flouts pragmatic rules, and therefore, the process to understand its meaning is much harder than in the case of prose, and sometimes, there is not much meaning in it, and it is not even necessary, since it is the delight we feel in appreciating the beauty of expression what makes it poetry.
So, I think, if cities are texts, some may be prose, some may be poetry, depending on the relationship of relevance between the utility and its design. In prosaic cities, the urban planning is laid out to suit to practical intended use for their inhabitants, in an unambiguous manner, unlike in poetic cities, which are built on the pure pleasure of the language of architecture.
The truth is that I am used to prose cities. Though I come from Spain, I cannot say that all the cities in the West are prosaic, for several reasons. First, the term “the West” is quite ambiguous: all is west to something else. Second, because I have not been in every “western” city that exists. And third, because some Eastern cities in which I have lived, like the Japanese ones, are quite prosaic also. Still, all the cities which I have experienced were prosaic. In them, there is a clear relationship between the appearance of the urban spaces, buildings, streets, and their use. A Christian church, a Buddhist or a Shinto temple are quiet places where to have a private and silent dialogue with God, and where to meditate. A library is a cosy building full of rows of shelves with books that anyone can pick up and sit down to read comfortably. A footpath is a space for pedestrians to walk and travel across the city.
Now, in Kolkata, what seems a Greek temple is a public hospital, a grey block that looks like a prison is the Library. What looks like a museum is a house, and what seems a plain apartment is an art gallery. Footpaths are shopping centers that actually prevent people from walking. What seems a sea is actually a river, and those fast, roaring, stripped yellow wild animals are not Royal Bengal tigers, but taxis.
Nevertheless, I may be wrong. Perhaps, we try to apply our own codes upon the new spaces, and that results in a misreading. Like when a text written in foreign language that is unknown to us, but that is written in an alphabet we can read, comes to our hands. We try to infer the meaning of some words, looking for similarities, parallelisms with other words in the other languages that we know. Sometimes we guess correctly; sometimes, we make mistakes. For example, in Bengali, “saia” means “petticoat”, and in my mothertongue, Galician, the same word means “skirt”. However, in Spanish, “dos” means 2, but in Bengali it means 10. Some of this mistakes can be a bit more dangerous: “boca” in Spanish means “mouth”, but in Bengali it is kind of an insult.
I have not yet found a Rosetta stone that would help me decipher the code of Calcutta; therefore, in dealing with the text of Kolkata, I am subject to the same risk of misinterpretation. However, the disposition of its signs acknowledges itself to be a city. This is a message we cannot change, no matter how much we want to rewrite it.
But, we can write on top of it. We can scratch the page and scribble our own signs superimposed over the old, eroded ones. That may be what I’m doing, since I cannot read the signs, even less understand them. I’m scraping them in order to build up my own representation of the city, and along with it, my own interpretation of the city, in my own words.
For me, Calcutta is not a city. It is a palimpsest.
Leyre Villate Garcia was born in Vigo, Spain, in 1986. In 2011 she moved to India to work as Visiting Lecturer at Calcutta University. She later studied an M.A. in Comparative Indian Languages and Literatures from the same university. She now translates Indian poetry, does independent research about Indian detective fiction and writes for several Bengali and Spanish online magazines. Recently, her work has been published in a Spanish and Latin American anthology of women’s writing, La desconocida que soy.
Cover image: Photo by Aritra Sanyal.