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The Unplanned Metropolis

By Benoy Ghosh
Bak-Sahitya, Calcutta, 1976, 45.00

VOLUME I NUMBER 4 October - December 1976

No city in India commands a greater mystique than Calcutta. No city except Varanasi has so doggedly clung to its ‘character’ as has the city of Calcutta. It fascinates as well as horrifies visitors from abroad; it inspires hatred as well as love. Till today it is man's most unplanned metropolis; it has more people, more cattle, more filth, more poets, more politics and more pollution than any other city in India. Calcutta dominates the Bengali mind, Bengali literature, Bengali culture; it is the pathological obsession of the Bengali middle class. For decades Calcutta has been the staple of Bengali fiction. Several Bengali scholars have sought to unravel the mystique of the city. But none more diligently than Benoy Ghosh. For three years, as a research fellow of Calcutta University, Benoy Ghosh sought to unravel the city's social history. He found that there was little social history in the official documents and papers, apart from trade and commerce, civic construction and economics. More rewarding were travelogues, memoirs, perso­nal letters of Englishmen and women as well as Indians, especially the memoirs of William Hickey (1749-1809) in all their four volumes and the letters of Eliza Fay (1780-1782). Benoy Ghosh has put together his translation of Hickey's memoirs and Eliza Fay’s letters together with a number of essays he has himself published from time to time on Calcutta's social culture. The result is one of the most gripping volumes ever printed on India's most controversial metropolis. Hickey’s memoirs are remarkably candid and true to life. The empire builders were not white gods, far from it; they were very ordinary mortals, lured not by the imperial dream but the mundane call of personal gain. They hated the heat and dirt of the three villages out of which Calcutta grew up, slowly, laboriously, painfully and without any civic planning. They lived like nabobs, each served by a brigade of servants. They came to make money and stopped at nothing to make it. But they also rubbed shoulders with the natives, smoking hukkas. chewing pan, attending native festivals and enjoying native entertainment. They lived in brazen opul­ence, eating enormous meals, drinking bucketfuls of liquor, dressing themselves gaudily; many of them died early. They lived generally without white women and bedded with native females. In the small white community, drunkenness, brawls and adultery were common currency. Most of the deals struck by ...

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