City of Impregnation

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In her foreword to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta, the novelist Anita Desai mentions how visitors from that city, on unpacking in the dry air of her Delhi home, invariably release a distinctive odour. ‘Damp, mouldy, deltaic, even swampy’, it clings not just to clothes but, less eradicably, to the luggage itself. I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water. Any organic elements must long since have expired, and desiccation has lent a sub-whiff of archaeological respectability, but still it pongs. And like India itself, I can’t bear to part with it.

Dutta’s book, the thirteenth in a brave new series of literary and cultural guides entitled ‘Cities of the Imagination’, features a city of impregnation. Calcutta gets inside the traveller as well as his bags. It reaches those parts that other cities ignore. Without bothering to appeal to the eye or the appetite, it goes for the gut, the craw, the soul. You can’t not flinch. Being mildly disposed towards Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’ is as ridiculous as being somewhat discomfited by Kipling’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’. Acceptance or rejection are the only options. You desire it or you damn it.

For many this is true of India as a whole; Calcutta is just the acid test. Sensitive enquirers demand to know how one can abide so much poverty, discrimination and squalor. Even writing about the country in terms other than those of quivering revulsion invites accusations of a callous condonation. Forty years into a serious affair with India, I ought to have an answer for these critics; but I don’t. In fact I share their horror and still wrestle with the moral contradictions. But reading Krishna Dutta’s gentle and judicious portrait of her native city, I was reminded of how inadequately the condition of India measures up to the experience of it, and of how easily all such scruples melt into

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About the contributor

John Keay’s latest book is Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East. He also writes on the Far East. In between, India remains a fruitful obsession.

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