Calcutta, the festering ""city of problems"" brilliantly evoked from the days of Lord Curzon and the glories of the Raj to...



Calcutta, the festering ""city of problems"" brilliantly evoked from the days of Lord Curzon and the glories of the Raj to the fall of the Congress Party in the 1967 elections in West Bengal and the birth of the Naxalites whose agrarian rage has already contributed a new word to the lexicon of Communism. Moorhouse, formerly chief feature writer for the Guardian, has a journalist's sharp eye for the grotesquely squalid details of daily life in the world's most congested city. Located in the ""Ruhr of modern India,"" with a climate which Mark Twain dubbed ""enough to make a brass doorknob mushy,"" Calcutta by the author's estimate has 400,000 jobless, 30,000 to 70,000 homeless who sleep and squat on the sidewalks, 40,000 lepers, and a vast population of beggars deliberately maimed so they can more successfully ply their trade. ""In a sense, Calcutta is a definition of obscenity"" says Moorhouse who manages to compress the story of British rule -- ""something between benevolent despotism and hurt reproach"" -- into a single ironic chapter. Studding his urbane narrative with the terrifying statistics of destitution, Moorhouse moves from the temples of Kali, the vengeful Hindu goddess, to the butcheries of the Hindus and Moslems which broke out in the wake of the British announcement of withdrawal. The stupefying dimensions of famine receive a close-up (in 1943 three million perished while the British deplored the ""tendency in some quarters to over-dramatise the situation""). The ongoing breakdown of housing, sanitation, and transport of the city which seems imminently destined for metropolitan collapse is documented in all its harsh particulars from the marauding bands of kangali (the street-children who run protection rackets) to the inundation of Pakistani refugees, to the pollution of the Hooghly river, the city's chief source of water. As a portrait of the tooth-and-claw chaos of the world's most putrefying urban jungle this is remarkably well-informed, free of histrionics, and parenthetically an excellent layman's introduction to the history of modern India.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 1971


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1971