Simon Winchester’s Calcutta by Simon & Rupert Winchester

Genre: Non-fiction, portrait of a place
Year of publication:2004
Subject: Calcutta (India) at various times and through various eyes

Simon Winchester is one of those authors whose books I love to read. He is a good writer and chooses interesting subjects to write about, whether he is writing about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of its most prolific submitters, or about his own walk through South Korea. Therefore I was pleased to discover that he had edited and partially written a book about Calcutta, a city that brings up various images on one’s mind: of impressive mansions and sprawling slums, wide boulevards and narrow, rambling alleys, of fancy cars and human-powered rikshaws driving down the same roads, of splendid riches and grinding poverty existing side by side.

I haven’t been to Bengal yet, and so haven’t had the opportunity to visit Calcutta and form my own opinion of the place, but the viewpoints presented in the articles, essays, poetry and excerpts in this book combine to bring the city to life in one’s mind and give an idea of what it is like, although I expect the actual experience will be quite different (and a lot smellier).

The authors whose writings appear in this book include the Winchesters and authors I am familiar with, like William Dalrymple, Rudyard Kipling, James (Jan) Morris, V.S. Naipaul , Paul Theroux and Mark Twain and also authors I have heard of but nor read anything by, like Rabindranath Tagore, Günter Grass, Geoffrey Moorhouse and Dominique Lapierre. Authors I wasn’t familiar with include N.C. Chaudhuri, Buddhadev Bose, Peter Holt and Alan Ross.

None of them are indifferent to Calcutta. Some love it, some dislike it, most have a sort of love-hate relationship with it. The portrait that emerges is that of a place so intense and so full of contrasts and contradictions that it is impossible to be indifferent to it. People who know Calcutta could doubtless point out writings that should have been included but weren’t, and might pick out errors or mis-statements, but for someone who hasn’t been there, it presents an interesting and colourful portrait of this mega-city.
4 stars.

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