On August 24, 1690, after a lavish offering at an old temple of Kali, Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta, pitched his tents on the banks of the Hooghly, exactly on the site of charred ruins of an old factory, destroyed over trading rights by the then Muslim rulers of Bengal. His log book on that day says: “In consideration that all the former buildings here are destroyed, it is resolved that such places be built as necessity requires and as cheap as possible… these to be done with mud walls and thatched (roof) till we get ground whereon to build a factory.” Thus, the first Capital of British India was born.

While the East India Company started their city building at Madras (currently Chennai) on August 22, 1639, the founder of Calcutta, Job Charnock who started his career in the Company and became the governor of Bengal in 1686, was answerable to a council of the Company directors based in Madras. His efforts to get a foothold for the Company in Bengal turned into gold later. Robert Clive, who firmed up the fortunes of the Company in Madras, became instrumental in establishing the British supremacy by defeating the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey.

The name Calcutta invokes myriad emotions in people. While an eminent author like Rudyard Kipling termed it as “poverty and pride – side by side”, others like V.S. Naipaul, Gunter Grass, Louis Malle reviled its hellish image even after a century. In our times too, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on his part termed it a “dying city”.

Though a first time visitor to Calcutta may be shocked upon seeing the squalor and maddening crowds, albeit cheek-by-jowl with the imposing buildings resplendent with their old world charm, as Rabindranath Tagore aptly puts it, “something undreamt of was lurking everywhere, and every day the uppermost question was: where, oh where I would come across it?”, the soul of this great city can be felt only by those who have lived and basked in its glory. While many tourists earlier explored the eternal beauty of this complex, confusing and contradictory city [- a city of palaces -], Krishna Dutta’s “Calcutta — A Cultural and Literary history”, with a foreword by Anita Desai, gives us a kaleidoscopic view of the city with its multiple paradoxes, and a personal insight into its unique history in a moving manner.

Colonial life

Krishna Dutta’s narration in nine chapters takes us through a journey of colonial life, educational and social reforms, literary peaks, political upheavals against the British, cultural empowerment and political history since independence to the fall of the Left in 2011.

Among the many highlights of this book is the vivid description of Black Hole of Calcutta (a prelude to the Battle of Plassey) in which the then Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-Daula captured Fort William and confined 146 Britishers in a single window room measuring 14 feet by 18 feet on the night of June 20, 1756 from which only 23 came out alive.

Similarly this book retraces the entrepreneurship of Babu Dwarknath Tagore, grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore, closely in competition with the British in many of his ventures and the establishment of the Hindu College in 1817 along with a group of wealthy Bengalis. This college later transformed into the prestigious Presidency College in 1855, thus a forerunner to Macaulay system of education.

This book also brings out a detailed history of Durga Puja with all its splendour. Durga Puja, being the cultural identity of Bengalis across the globe, these details give an overview of its significance in the life of Bengalis to non-Bengalis as well as to the fast-paced present day Bengalis raised in far away countries.

Likewise, the book gives a vivid account of the great social reformers such as Raja Rammohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda and writers such as Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya highlighting the cultural evolution over the century. While the book gives a lucid account of Rabindranath Tagore’s role in heralding the poetic, musical and dramatic revolution, it also brings out the emergence of the new medium on the horizon i.e. cinema through Satyajit Ray et al. However, the description on Bengal famine (1943) and the great Calcutta killings (1946) with comments from the contemporaries will indeed put humanity to shame.

It must also be mentioned that though a detailed history of the Victoria Memorial was given, except in passing reference to it, the book fails to describe the role of the Indian Museum, a premier institution established in 1814 to preserve ancient artefacts, the role of British and Indian scholars in its establishment and the role of studies in archaeology and anthropology in the city during these two centuries. Similarly, the author is clearly prejudiced on the role of Mother Teresa in the city. She also laments in a chapter that there were no Muslims worth quoting as an entrepreneur or writer or social reformer in 19th century. It appears she is unaware of the extraordinary career of Munshi Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad (1869-53), one of the greatest literary workers of Bengal who will be forever remembered for collecting priceless medieval Bengali manuscripts (punthis) and helping the next generations to understand what Bengali language and literature are today.

Despite such omissions, this book has in its broad sweep encompassed the cultural, literary and political history to the present. In that respect, unlike others, the efforts of Krishna Dutta should be applauded for presenting the city in an entertaining and lucid manner, converting the reader to a Calcutta/Kolkata enthusiast.

Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History: Krishna Dutta; Supernova Publishers, First Floor, 12 ARD Complex, R. K. Puram, Sector 13, New Delhi-110066. Rs. 295.

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