The meticulous research that has gone into the author’s effort to study the crime scene in colonial Calcutta during the 18th and 19th centuries, a period marked by social turbulence, makes this book eminently readable.
As Sumanta Banerjee takes us into the underworld of the city of that era, we get to know the origins of present-day criminal offences. Their roots, as he suggests, “can be traced to the continuation and reinforcement of the old imperial tendency to extend and impose a hegemonic economic order and political order that the powerless and the underprivileged have always resisted.”
From chapter to chapter, the reader is taken along “a guided tour of sorts across the empire of crime in Calcutta… a mini-empire nurtured within the entrails of the wider imperial order.” And the replacement of the colonial power by a new order spawned pockets of discontent where the disaffected were taking to new forms of protest and violence.
The book is divided into two parts — crime and punishment. The first looks into the social history of crime, while the second is devoted to a history of the police force, criminal prosecution, and prison.
Institutionalisation of crime
The reader is provided a fascinating account of the evolution of “the criminal elite,” starting with the period of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, who, according to the author, paved the way for the institutionalisation of crimes like extortions, bribery, and even murders, by the East India Company’s men in the city. One gets a glimpse of the crisscrossing of the criminal intrigues that were developing between the Company’s administrators in the White town and their Bengali agents in the Black town of the 18th century Calcutta.
This historical element of collusion is intrinsic to the city’s criminal culture, as is evident even in contemporary Kolkata where, the author says, the “borders between the inhabitants of the upper tier and the underworld” are fast blurring. And this is an area for further research by history scholars. .
The narrative offers valuable insight into how the traditional criminal edifice was impacted by the urbanisation process in Calcutta, which, as the author observes, was “taking place within the dominance-dependence relationship between metropolitan and colonised society,” with parts of it being chipped off by the values of commercial individualism.
The chapter titled “Underworld Heroines and Their Children” has the gripping 19th century story of a prostitute who, fighting for survival in an antagonistic city environment, ends up as a serial-killer and is sentenced to death by hanging.
What could have caught the attention of the social historian to her exploits? Perhaps, his curiosity in exploring “the hidden dimensions of manipulation and exchange that characterised the interaction between the masculine world of Bengali social hierarchy and the official system, of prosecution, and justice, on one hand, and the feminine arena of self-preservation and retrospective rationalisation, on the other.”
Then there is an account of the criminal ways of Ramjan around the same period; he specialises in robbing women and, “like any creative artist imbued with the passionate urge to complete his/her work,” engages in the final act of stealing the golden bracelet from the husband after stealing its twin from the wife the night before — a “tour de force in the history of burglary in 19th century Calcutta.”
If the core objective of the study is to examine, as the author states, the “criminal acts and penal measures in colonial Calcutta as innovative responses within a symbiotic relationship in a new socio-economic environment,” he has, without doubt, gone about the task with commendable efficiency.
THE WICKED CITY — Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta: Sumanta Banerjee; Orient Blackswan, 3-6-752, Himayatnagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 795.