Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationBook/Film/Article review


The modern megacity is characterised by head-aching enigmas and unbridgeable contradictions. Calcutta is no exception to this rule; indeed may be the epitome of it. Rural migrants beg and go hungry on its streets right outside the lavish homes of stockbrokers and IT entrepreneurs. Raj-era ‘monstrosities’ such as the Victoria Memorial sit incongruously between bastis, gentlemen’s clubs and shopping malls. The seemingly relentless forces of privatisation and globalisation have made a hesitant and uncertain entry into an economy that was for decades centrally controlled by democratically-elected communist governments. Throughout its history, Calcutta has been the undisputed axis of Indian culture and cosmopolitanism but its contemporary middle-classes know little about the city’s centrality to the Bengali Renaissance (1775-1941) and are oddly resistant to foreign imports, whether Italian cuisine or European modern art. There are paradoxes too concerning Calcutta’s geographical development in recent years: this sprawling metropolis of fourteen million people is still somehow able to feel both rural and urban, and is full of areas ‘neither of the land nor of the city’, what the writer and urban explorer Iain Sinclair calls ‘borderlands.’

For all these reasons and more, it isn’t easy to define Calcutta – or the sights, sounds, ideas or values that word signifies – in objective terms everyone can agree on. Amit Chaudhuri isn’t interested in doing this either, preferring to approach Calcutta as ‘an imaginary city; it’s in this realm that it’s most visible and detailed and compelling’. Like Sinclair, Chaudhuri takes an avowedly psychogeographical angle, filtering an impressive miscellany of Calcutta (we learn about everything from its French windows to its Marxist revolutionary heroes) through his own personal – if ambivalent – relationship with the city over the years (he partly grew up there, left it for England, returned to visit for holidays and then settled back there in 1999).

Book details - Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Amit Chaudhuri, Union Books, 2013, ISBN: 9781908526182 (pbk), 320 pp.
Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationThe London Magazine
Publication statusPublished - 28 Mar 2014


  • Indianness
  • Indian Culture
  • Calcutta
  • megalopolis
  • Urban and territorial planning
  • urban culture
  • urban development


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