Kolkata may seem a long way from the Scottish independence referendum, but on a recent journey to the subcontinent the author and creative writing professor Kirsty Gunn found inspiration to consider the links between identity and nationality. Here she pulls at the layers of Scottishness and Britishness to ask who the Scots really are.
I am in Kolkata with the writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, reading his book about the city while seeing it for the first time. It’s a fascinating thing to be doing, coming here, straight off the back of the independence discussion that is revving up back in Scotland.
I heard James Naughtie’s piece on the Today show before I left – interviewing people on the streets of Auchterarder and Perth, asking them which way they were inclined come September. There’s an election looming here too, but what fascinates me, emerging out of a Scottish spring into a Calcutta summer, is the writers’ and artists’ takes on those issues of identity and national determinism that are starting to preoccupy the media.
The writer, as Amit reminds me both in person and in his terrific book Calcutta – Two Years in the City, looks for answers to the questions “Who am I?”, “Of what parts am I constituted?” not so much in terms of political vocabulary as in other words, other sentences that are to do with aesthetics, culture, intellectual life and imagined notions of home. The place around us, what Amit calls “the this”, and how it plays upon our thinking, dreaming lives.
Questions in transit
This is the place we writers care about, not some politician’s utopia, or global economic model of an ideal society. Travelling as I do all the time, between London and Scotland, forever on the train either going up or going down, coming up or coming down (the verb travels as much as I do), I make a point of asking whoever I’m sitting next to what they think of the forthcoming referendum.
I do this not out of curiosity but as part of a sort of creative project. It is a way of helping me understand different ways of thinking about Scotland and what it means to be Scottish; and what it means to be me – a writer who has lived all her life between places, born in New Zealand but brought up to call Scotland home; who has a job in Dundee and a house in Sutherland but with daughters at school in Hammersmith in London; who has all kinds of different, shifting definitions of “the this”.
Being in transit is a perfect context in which to ask fellow passengers the question, as vast tracts of England or Scotland rush along the tracks below our feet. Whether north or south, the response so far has always been the same: “I think we belong together, don’t we?”
There’s a gap then, sometimes an awkward pause (no one feels easy about embarking on such subject on a train with a stranger - who is she anyway? I can see some of my interviewees thinking, what business is it of her’s what I think?)
But then the story comes out – the unravelling of some intricate family tale – a mother in Kircaldy with a daughter in Peckham; or a father who was born in Glasgow but has lived in Manchester all his life, his three children now all grown up and in Scotland keeping an eye on his elderly parents but he will never move.
“I mean it’s complicated, isn’t it?” one woman told me. She sounded like she was from the east end of London but had been born in Inverness and had been living in Dundee for 20 years or so.
“Because my daughter and grandchildren, they’re in London, aren’t they? Where they were born. So what will that mean if all this independence goes ahead? Suddenly my daughter is living in a separate country?”
All this information is rich pickings for the writer, of course. People and their lives, what they love about the place they live in, their town, their village, their country, what they long to embrace or run from, yearn for or fear … All of our rich complexity as individuals is celebrated in those individual stories of individual lives.
“A separate country?” as the woman from Inverness – or is it London, or Dundee – said?
As Calcutta is separate from Kolkata? Separate, really? Place carries divisions within it, of course: boundaries, territories, fiefdoms. Yet split between different ways of doing things, different ways of describing things, all places are riven but nevertheless also conjoined by differences.
Here’s old Calcutta with its crumbling mansions and narrow chaotic streets; there’s new Kolkata with its plans for massive investment, development and glitzy globalisation. Both live in the mind as ideas, as experience, as reality … But one is the “this”, the other a notion, a plan, a “that”.
Hunting for hideaways
In the meantime I haven’t seen a single Prada or Starbucks since I’ve been here, though I’ll have to ask. Maybe there’s a plate glass window advertising some global brand or other on some corner somewhere – secreted behind the hectic press of street vendors and hawkers and grand old colonial buildings that are half broken down and half built up.
Maybe it’s there, like the Scotland the nationalists say is there, behind the towns and villages and cities we all live in or have left from or are going back to, or not, just waiting for the moment to show itself, reinvented and fully articulated as somehow other from that worn through, familiar country we already know. The new Scotland. An independent Scotland.
Maybe it’s there. But as I go through the streets of this city I see how the past is with us in all its layers, all its stories.
“I wouldn’t want to be pushed into being one or the other,” the woman on the train says.
And her words echo around me in these faraway streets in another continent, another world that is also, strangely, the same world … As I see, as though walking out of the past to meet me, a very old man leading two tiny monkeys on a silken string.
He makes his way slowly, delicately through the darkened streets with his small companions at his side, and disappears around the corner, into the Kolkata night.
“I wouldn’t want to be pushed into anything,” the woman on the train reminds me. “I wouldn’t want that at all.”