The best books on Kolkata (Calcutta India)

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Amitav Ghosh

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

Why 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.


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Complete Adventures of Feluda Vol. 1

By Satyajit Ray

Complete Adventures of Feluda Vol. 1

Why 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.


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The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta

By Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta

Why 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.


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Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History

By Krishna Dutta

Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History

Why 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.


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The Middleman

By Mani Shankar Mukherji

The Middleman

Why 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.


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