A Week in Books: Calcutta's English-language tradition shows no sign of fading

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The Independent Culture

Kenneth Tynan might be spinning - or grinning - in his grave. On Elgin Road stands a glitzy mall packed with designer outlets. At the top, an elegant gourmet restaurant serves regional delicacies and a wider "fusion" menu. It's called, in surprising homage to the old roué's saucy revue, Oh! Calcutta. Surprising, because we're not in London here. We're in Calcutta.

As Calcutta - or Kolkata, since the city's minimalist official re-naming in 2001 - has bred major writers and a vibrant literary culture for the past two centuries, perhaps I should have expected allusions even in its eateries. India's most cultivated (and, yes, still most crazily congested) metropolis hosted the regional contest for "Eurasia" in the Commonwealth Writers Prize at the end of February. Mark Haddon made as much of a splash beside the Hooghly as the Thames, winning the Best First Book category for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; while Caryl Phillips's A Distant Shore took the Best Book award. In the chandeliered halls of the venerable Bengal Club (spruced up by corporate sponsorship), I joined a discussion that included one of Calcutta's subtlest modern voices, the novelist Amit Chaudhuri.

Spawned from the complex cross-fertilisations of the colonial epoch, the city's great English-language tradition shows no sign of fading. Outlook magazine has just announced the results of a competition for fresh non-fiction writers organised with Picador India. Almost inevitably, the palm went to an exquisite Calcutta memoir, Cooking Women, by Anuradha Roy. Read it on www.outlookindia.com, and remember her name. Of course, the Bengali diaspora flourishes mightily across the seas too: at the Oxford bookstore on Park Street, Monica Ali's Brick Lane has been pipped to the top of the charts by The Namesake, from the new Bengali-American star, Jhumpa Lahiri.

All this, however, amounts to the icing on the cake (or maybe the syrup on the rosogollah, in this city full of famous sweetshops). Beyond the English-language canon lies the vast rich hinterland of Bengali literature, equally shaped by 19th-century fusions and confusions, and even more vigorous today. At the centre of this lush landscape stands the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore: poet, novelist, musician, painter, educator and patriot, the first Asian Nobel laureate in 1913, and so inescapable a Bengali icon that Vikram Seth satirises his cult in A Suitable Boy. I made the tourist-cliché pilgrimage to the Tagore family mansion and museum at Jorasanko, its red 18th-century walls and trim green lawns a pocket of peace off the frantic bustle of the Chitpore Road.

Inside, to a gentle soundtrack of the rabindrasageet (Tagore's own body of 2,000-plus songs), you sense that the writer's lifelong quest for good art within a good society took its cue from his extraordinary clan of enlightened innovators. Here you'll even find the grant of arms given in the 1840s to Rabindranath's business-tycoon grandfather Dwarkanath, "zamindar and merchant of Bengal". Rabindranath's own ties to the colonial Establishment snapped in 1919 when - after agonies of conscience - he renounced his knighthood in the wake of the Amritsar massacre.

His links with non-Establishment Britain have proved far more enduring. Inspired by the spirit of his home, in 1901 Tagore founded his community of makers, learners and teachers at Shantiniketan, north of Calcutta, where it remains as a university and creative powerhouse. (Last week, the Bengali author Mahasweta Devi led a protest there against plans to build an amusement park amid its greenery - akin to planting a funfair along the Backs in Cambridge.) It was Shantiniketan that, in turn, prompted Tagore's disciple Leonard Elmhirst to create the Dartington college and trust in Devon: the model for community-conscious arts education in Britain ever since. Calcutta/Kolkata seethes with haunting memories of the British impact on India. In the quiet chambers of Jorasanko, you grasp that the cultural current could often flow the other way.

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