Zibaldone No. 3

The writer Matthew Josephson once wrote a profile of William Knudsen for The New Yorker. Knudsen was chief of the U.S. Office of Production Management in 1941. Editor William Shawn told Josephson that he had achieved “a stunning piece of historical reporting,” then noted that he was appending to the manuscript “a few questions.” The questions numbered 178.

Last May, Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in The New Yorker about his mother and her twin sister. As a wife, his mother settled in Delhi, while his aunt settled in Calcutta, and in the 1970s the cities’ fortunes diverged. Mukherjee’s description:

Delhi, the capital, was India’s overnourished child, fattened by subsidies, grants, and the nation’s aspirations to build a mega-metropolis. Our neighborhood, once girded by forests of thornbushes and overrun with wild dogs and goats, was soon transformed into one of the city’s most affluent pockets of real estate. My family vacationed in Europe. We learned to eat with chopsticks, twisted our tongues around the word “croissant,” and swam in hotel pools. When the monsoons hit Calcutta, the mounds of garbage on the streets clogged the drains and turned the city into a vast, infested swamp. A stagnant pond, festering with mosquitoes, collected each year outside Bulu’s house. She called it her own “swimming pool.”

Fine prose, right there. It helps to know the context: the author’s mother, Tulu, was born robust and boisterous; her sister, Bulu, was malnourished in the womb and lucky to survive. That neonatal history echoes in the description of the cities they each found themselves in. There are the good, strong verbs—fattened, girded, overrun, twisted. The careful selection of apt details to convey the prosperity of the author’s family. The play in the ear of “infested swamp” and “pond, festering.”

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  • From David Remnick's introduction to The 50s: The Story of a Decade, excerpted on Lithub.