Calcutta: it’s a city that everyone’s heard of but very few people really know. Over the years it’s received more than its fair share of bad press, but there’s another side to the city, a different story that’s far more intriguing.
The truth is that Calcutta is unique, and so is its history. Founded by the British in the 1690s, it was placed in what is probably the least British place on earth – slap bang in the middle of a malaria infested swamp in the jungles of Bengal. Despite this rather unpromising beginning however, and on the back of imperial trade, it quickly grew into the premier city in Asia.
It was from the start a truly international city – a city of contradictions shaped by two very distinct cultures, British and Indian, (three, if like me, you view Scottish and English as separate cultures), and these cultures were often antagonistic towards each other – the Calcutta of the period was the spiritual heart of the British Raj but also the birthplace of the movement to kick the British out.
However they were just as often complementary. Calcutta was the home of the Bengal Renaissance, a flowering of art, science and culture in the nineteenth century, whose seeds were sown by the arrival of new ideas and empirical reasoning which the British brought with them, and which the indigenous Bengalis eagerly adopted. As a result, Calcutta became home to some of the greatest names and discoveries of the early twentieth century. Calcutta was the city of Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-white to win the Nobel Prize for literature. It was in Calcutta’s Presidency Hospital that Sir Ronald Ross made his Nobel Prize winning discovery that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes. And it was Calcutta that was home to physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the ‘boson’ is named, and who along with Einstein developed the theory of the Bose-Einstein condensate. When it came to handing out Nobel Prizes though, one of them seems to have been overlooked.
Calcutta also has a special place in the history of crime detection as it was here that the art of fingerprinting was first systematised. The world’s first fingerprint bureau was established by the Calcutta Police in 1897, almost five years before Scotland Yard set up its Fingerprint Branch.
The Calcuttans of today (or Kolkatans as they’re now known) are remarkably proud of this legacy, and still consider themselves more liberal in outlook and more cultured than their compatriots in other Indian cities. While the former may possibly be true, the latter is probably wishful thinking.
But the city’s people are one of the things that make it special. As the author Tahir Shah wrote, ‘Calcutta’s the only city I know where you are actively encouraged to stop strangers at random for a quick chat.’That attitude is in many ways a result of the city’s history. It’s a port city, a melting pot that in the inter-war years was home to sizeable communities of Chinese, Armenians, Jews, Parsees, Punjabis, Marwaris (traders from Rajasthan) and Africans, as well as the English, Bengalis and the ubiquitous Scots.
In part, it was the city’s richness and diversity that made me choose it as the setting for ‘A Rising Man’. It was a city in flux, a place of tremendous wealth, of culture and of beauty, and at the same time, home to so much of the darker side of life. It was the quintessential city of empire, a fusion of Britain and India which became so much more; a city that grew rich on the empire’s trade and also where many of the cracks and fissures of empire first appeared.
Even today it’s a city of contrasts, where a taxi driver will happily quote Shakespeare at you as he gouges you three times the fare recorded on the meter, or where a rickshaw-wallah is as likely to hum a hundred year old tune by Tagore as he is the latest Bollywood hit. It’s a difficult place to love at first, but once you get under its skin, it becomes hard not to love it. To me, it represents so much that is noble in the human spirit and yet so much that is dark. And how can you not love a city that, for the last hundred years, has been told that it’s dying, but rather than giving in, just sticks two fingers in the air and carries on living?
Originally written for the Waterstones website