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Writing a City

P.K. Datta

By Krishna Dutta
Roli Books, Delhi, 2003, pp. 255, Rs. 295.00


The title of this book reminded me of a conversation I had over kathis in Nizam, New Market, one evening with a non-Bengali friend who loves Calcutta, knows about it as much as anyone else and would not exchange living in it for another. The city had just been renamed and my friend felt betrayed. He sorrowfully observed that the new, conspicuously Bengali name Kolkata was a message to him and people like him (incidentally non-Bengalis had then just been declared the majority in the city) that they did not quite belong to the city. It was the memory of this encounter that instinctively warmed me to this book since it steadfastly retained the more cosmopolitan name of the city. Although I was subsequently a little disappointed by Dutta’s implication of Calcutta being primarily a Hindu city (she frames it by an extensive survey of Kalighat and the Kali), I nevertheless respected the gesture.   Calcutta is a book meant for both the tourist and the ‘general interest’ reader. On the whole the book quite nicely mixes the genres of history and the tourist guidebook. Admittedly, it does stagger sometimes under the load of historical bric a brac, especially in the later chapters (such as the one dealing with education) which become a catalogue of achievements by Bengalis written from a high minded sense of duty and fidelity. But at its best however, the book speaks like so many antiquarians of Calcutta for whom the many facts of the city are a token of their care for it. For instance, it is extraordinary to know that the naturalistic contours of the Durga image was the result of influence by Greek sculpture, pieces of which were displayed in the White Town. Or another scrap of interesting and useful information: there is a private library off College Street that houses 25,000 periodicals and is run by an enthusiastic collector who charges a nominal fee.   There is an accompanying sense of detailed locational research rewarding especially for the tourist and the curious. Such as pointing out the present site of the Black Hole of Calcutta (near the General Post Office) or a charming survey of the Park Street cemetery which describes some notable graves and gives the life stories of its occupants. Those most likely to be benefited from this book would include the non-resident Bengali in Turnpike Lane who likes to hold forth ...

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