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Simon Winchester's Calcutta    by Simon Winchester & Rupert Winchester order for
Simon Winchester's Calcutta
by Simon Winchester
Order:  USA  Can
Lonely Planet, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

After spending a few days in Calcutta about twenty years ago, the city's contrasts lingered in my memory, along with a fascination with Rabindranath Tagore's poetry, which began during that visit. So I picked up Simon Winchester's Calcutta with great interest.

I found the book a bit of a hodgepodge. I enjoyed Simon Winchester's 'The Scent Beneath the Smell', where he describes 'recollections that speak more of complexity and enigma' of 1970s Calcutta, where pink gin was ubiquitous. He speaks of a shocking place that occasionally nevertheless 'manages to delight and enthral' with things 'unanticipated, unimagined and unimaginable'. This is followed by Rupert Winchester's description of being smitten by 'Quintessential Calcutta' reeking 'of tangible need, of despair, of all-too-real, honest-to-god, life-or-death reality.' Father and son then provide an intriguing historical summary of the city, which includes episodes I had heard of before like the 'Black Hole', and those new to me such as the 'Indigo Revolt', as well as insights into the absurdly overdone lifestyles of the wealthy.

Following these are 22 extracts of impressions of Calcutta by such well-known writers as Rudyard Kipling ('A Tale of Two Cities' in verse), Geoffrey Moorhouse, V. S. Naipaul, N. C. Chaudhuri, James Morris, Mark Twain, Paul Theroux, Gunter Grass, and the renowned Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore himself. I rather enjoyed William Dalrymple's descriptions of the lifestyles of 'White Mughals', whose 'swaggering excess' included a carriage drawn by zebras! Elizabeth Fay's 'Original Letters from India' provides a two page perspective on the city from a new arrival. And Tagore's verse speaks of the impact of unexpectedly hearing 'Flute-Music' - 'I feel that nothing distinguishes Haripada the clerk / From the Emperor Akbar. / Torn umbrella and royal parasol merge, / Rise on the sad music of a flute / Towards one heaven.'

If you're planning a visit to Calcutta, read Simon Winchester's Calcutta first, or take it along, for a historical, literary perspective on the city from many different points of view.

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