The best books on Kolkata (Calcutta India)

Who am I?

I'm a writer and journalist with an eye on South and Southeast Asia. I first visited Kolkata, or Calcutta as the city was known back then, in 1995 and fell in love with its spirit, culture, architecture, politics, and decrepitude. I have been back regularly reporting on the city’s cultural life for media like CNN and Nikkei Asia. In 2019, I was selected as artist-in-residence for the Indo-European Art Residency by the Goethe Institute and spent 10 weeks writing a crime fiction set in the Bengali capital. Kolkata is, hands down, my favorite city in the world – despite its poverty, systemic injustice, and political cruelty, there is an energy in the place that is hard to beat.


I wrote...

Kolkata Noir

By Tom Vater,

Book cover of Kolkata Noir

What is my book about?

Becker is a British traveler in trouble. Madhurima is a rising star police officer. In three explosive tales, set over a period of forty years, Becker and Madhu join forces to investigate the Kolkata’s crooked high society, take on deluded would-be messiahs in search of Mother Teresa’s stolen millions, encounter Hindu fanatics, circus freaks, and cannibals, fall in and out of love and pay homage to one of the world’s most beautiful and toughest cities.

Amidst passion, murder, and mayhem in India’s most beautiful and fascinating metropolis, is there room for two lovers driven by justice and compassion?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

Tom Vater Why did I love this book?

The Calcutta Chromosome is part thriller, part science investigation, part cult conspiracy, and part homage to the West Bengal Capital. Set across several time periods, the novel explores how Malaria was first linked to the mosquito and how this discovery by the Britisher Ronald Ross may have been manipulated by a shadowy movement invested in immortality. Not Gosh’s best, but his evocation of Calcutta is fantastic.

By Amitav Ghosh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Calcutta Chromosome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this extraordinary novel, Amitav Ghosh navigates through time and genres to present a unique tale. Beginning at an unspecified time in the future and ranging back to the late nineteenth century, the reader follows the adventures of the enigmatic L. Murugan. An authority on the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Ronald Ross, who solved the malaria puzzle in Calcutta in 1898, Murugan is in search of the elusive 'Calcutta Chromosome'.

With its astonishing range of characters, advanced computer science, religious cults and wonderful portraits of Victorian and contemporary India, The Calcutta Chromosome expands the scope of the novel as we…


Book cover of Complete Adventures of Feluda Vol. 1

Tom Vater Why did I love this book?

I suppose few people planning to visit London would use the stories of Sherlock Holmes as a travel guide. Today’s London bears little resemblance to the city the famous detective worked in. Feluda, the creation of India’s best-known arthouse filmmaker Satyajit Ray, is the Kolkata equivalent to Holmes. Ask any Bengali, she/he is likely to know the many short stories featuring PI Pradosh C. Mitter aka Feluda. Like the Holmes catalogue, the Feluda stories, written between 1965 and 1995, are now a little quaint, but then, so is Kolkata. The chasm between the literary view and the lived reality of a certain, slowly fading old-world Calcutta is not nearly as extreme as in the case of London versus Holmes. Readers will recognize many aspects, visual and cultural in these gentle whodunits, that remain relevant or visible in Kolkata today.

By Satyajit Ray,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Complete Adventures of Feluda Vol. 1 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This omnibus edition features the ever-popular adventures of Satyajit Ray's enduring creation, the professional sleuth Pradosh C. Mitter (Feluda). In his escapades, Feluda is accompanied by his cousin Topshe and the bumbling crime writer Lalmohan Ganguly (Jatayu). From Jaisalmer to Simla, from the Ellora Caves to Varanasi, the trio traverse fascinating locales to unravel one devious crime after another.


Book cover of The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta

Tom Vater Why did I love this book?

A cracking, thorough portrait of contemporary Kolkata as the Bengali capital is now known, by an Indian author who grew up in New Jersey (very much the flipside to Calcutta) and who returns to the city of his ancestors to work for a newspaper. The book is well-written, crammed with interesting anecdotes and historic trivia. Past and present are held against the light and the results are often funny. It’s as good as a book by a privileged outsider who speaks the language is likely to be. Perhaps in another decade, a non-fiction chronicle will be written by a resident non-Brahmin writer. I have a feeling the city is waiting for it. In the meantime, Choudhury’s book serves as an excellent introduction to first-time visitors.

By Kushanava Choudhury,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Epic City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Witty, polished, honest and insightful, The Epic City is likely to become for Calcutta what Suketu Mehta's classic Maximum City is for Mumbai' William Dalrymple, Observer When Kushanava Choudhury arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve, he had already migrated halfway around the world four times. After graduating from Princeton, he moved back to Calcutta, the city which his immigrant parents had abandoned. Taking a job at a newspaper, he found the streets of his childhood unchanged. Shouting hawkers still overran the footpaths, fish sellers squatted on bazaar floors; and politics still meant barricades and bus burnings. The…


Book cover of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History

Tom Vater Why did I love this book?

Another nonfiction similar in scope and outlook to Kushanava Choudhury’s The Epic City, this title dispenses with the personal narrative and offers a highly structured rundown of the main attractions/points of history/social and cultural issues, etc of the Bengali capital. Not quite a guidebook, Calcutta offers short texts on particular aspects of life in the city, then and now. Well written, the book suffers from the same issue as all other recent books on Kolkata – the British get away with way too much and the post-independence period is seen through the eyes of Calcutta’s privileged elite. That said, this title does well at dissecting cultural currents, and the section on artistic Kolkata is especially rewarding. A great, practical introduction for the first-time visitor.

By Krishna Dutta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Calcutta as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Dutta, Krishna


Book cover of The Middleman

Tom Vater Why did I love this book?

The Middleman was first published in 1973. The book recounts the story of Somnath, a young poet who is unemployed despite being middle-class and well-qualified. Frustrated by a fruitless search for a job and expected to become something by his family, Somnath becomes a middleman, a corrupt businessman, and a pimp. His dreams as well as his morality are crushed by the harsh rules of survival in Kolkata. Grim, relentless, and uncompromising, The Middleman discusses India’s too-much-of-everything and in some ways remains as pertinent to life in Indian metros today as it was then.

By Mani Shankar Mukherji,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Middleman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Unable to find a job despite his qualifications, Somnath decides to go into the order - supply business as a middleman. His ambition drives him to prostitute an innocent girl for a contract that will secure the future of Somnath Enterprises. As Somnath grows from an idealistic young man into a corrupt businessman, the novel becomes a terrifying portrait of the price the city extracts from its youth. Sankar's The Middleman is the moving story of a man torn between who he is and what he wants to be. Stark and disquieting, the novel deftly exposes the decaying values and…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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