Earlier this year, I dined on deliciously spiced-up Chinese dishes in the Bengal Club in Calcutta. No longer a fading remnant of the Raj, although standing on the site of Lord Macaulay's house, it now offers a spruce venue for corporate entertaining. My host worked on The Statesman, a paper with an august history that makes The Independent look like a toddler. She told me that, during the Maoist agitation of the early 1970s, the graffiti artists of this city of gourmets would alter political scrawls. "The Chinese Chairman is our Chairman!" ran the original wall slogans. This was amended to "The Chinese food is our food!"
Great food (especially seafood and desserts); quick wits; lively debate; a rich artistic heritage; multicultural tolerance; haunting historical sites: anyone who knows Calcutta's many virtues has to seethe in silent frustration as the shade of Mother Teresa, and the undeniable crises and miseries of India's most congested metropolis, crowd out every other image of the place. Surely no city on earth suffers such a disjunction between its multifarious reality and its one-dimensional reputation, among a century of outside observers, as (in Bella Bathurst's words from The Weekenders) "unquestionably the worst case they've ever come across".
Of course, the many afflictions of this 13 million-strong urban monster weigh heavily on daily life: the omnipresent pavement dwellers and sellers, rural migrants or their children; the lung-wrecking pollution and gridlock; the surreal dilapidation of once elegant buildings; the edge-of-breakdown public services. Yet, in Calcutta (Kolkata since its often-ignored re-naming in 2001), they somehow coexist with a hugely diverse and sophisticated culture that withstands all the stress and sprawl. Meanwhile, the hi-tech new town of Salt Lake City shines in the east and the spotless Metro makes London Tube lines look - Third World.
This appealing book of 11 Calcutta-inspired essays and stories by British and Irish writers opens a window on many sides of a cultivated, good-humoured and fantastically resilient city. Yes, the contributors report on flying visits in snapshots rather than wide-angled panoramas, but even these glimpses should revise received ideas. And they result in a engaging read, both sharp and deep (like the citizens). All proceeds will help Unicef's child-protection work.
Colm Toibin's finely balanced piece blends the day-to-day experience of poverty and disease with the literary glories of the 19th-century Bengali renaissance. Simon Garfield interviews the staff of a new super-luxury hotel. Comedian Tony Hawks pulls a rickshaw to general hilarity and, rightly, says that even in the back streets, "I felt safe". Jenny Colgan chews over love and caste in a beauty salon. Sam Miller finds a cop in a disco who (in true Calcutta style) boasts that the city is the only place in India "where you can still have a decent conversation about Pablo Neruda or Akira Kurosawa". Or (as of this March) see a production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties.
I'm still reeling at the vision of Irvine Welsh - who spins a ghoulish tale of trauma and revenge - amid the very pukka bars and fairways of the Tollygunge Club. And I'm surprised that, although Michael Atherton writes a deftly moving short story about a Calcutta life lived through cricket, as so many are, the book neglects the strong footballing tradition upheld by the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal clubs. Did no one inform Mr Welsh?Reuse content