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Calcutta: Chaotic & cultural

Calcutta is a chaotic, cacophonous, cussed, culturally rich city that tends to evoke very strong emotions.

books Updated: Mar 15, 2003 11:24 IST

A cultural and literary history

Krishna Dutta
Roli Books
Pages: 255
Price: Rs 295

Calcutta (that is the form that the title of the book adheres to) is a chaotic, cacophonous, cussed, culturally rich city that tends to evoke very strong emotions. It assaults one’s sensibilities, it shocks, it provokes, it irritates, it excites, it exhilarates. The exact nature of the reaction depends on who the observer really is.

Calcutta is different things to different people. The city holds its ground no matter who approaches it with a magnifying glass. If it’s an uninitiated outsider, it can add up to a rather unnerving experience. If it’s a local denizen who knows no other city, Calcutta is the only place on earth where he can survive, if not necessarily thrive. And if it’s a former Calcuttan who has chosen to become a citizen of the world, it provides a goldmine of cultural, social, political material for analysis.

The author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History, Krishna Dutta, belongs to the last category. It gives her a position of strength: she can mix a degree of subjectivity with just the right dash of objectivity to come up with an overview that is remarkably balanced.

As Anita Desai suggests in the Foreword, Calcutta is a “complex, confusing, contradictory” city that hides numerous secrets in its bosom. Dutta’s familiarity with its history of cultural achievements, political strife and social adjustments enables her to delve deep into the city’s heart and dig out of it a range of facets that have admittedly been addressed before but rarely has the exercise exuded quite the degree of felicity and sympathy that Dutta’s book does.

It would be too much to expect one tome to exhaust everything there is to say about the bewildering smorgasbord of stimuli that this city can provide. This book doesn’t. But thanks to the panoramic sweep of her vision, Dutta does manage to give the impression that she hasn’t left too much out of her account.

Duttatackles virtually everything from the evolution of the city’s name to its social and political history through the centuries, from views of Calcutta through horrified, often ill-informed western eyes (social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, German writer Gunter Grass and French filmmaker Louis Malle come in for special mention) to its rich literature, music, cinema and art. Overall, it makes for great reading.

First Published: Mar 05, 2003 00:00 IST