Kolkata has always been the bibliophile of Indian cities. The book-loving metropolis has not only embraced literature as an essential part of its identity, but has also been embraced by numerous authors from all over the world as Muse and backdrop. Here are 5 novels written by authors from around the globe that are both set in and inspired by the City of Joy.
1) Walking Calcutta by Keith Humphrey
Every city contains within itself another city, a subterranean one of hidden alleyways and by-lanes tucked away in whispers and shadows. Keith Humphrey’s non-fiction work introduces you to the Gaiman-like subterranean Kolkata, taking you to places you may never even have heard of before. The book is packed with information about the city and even maps of the more obscure locations. Give it a read to expose the underbelly of the Cit of Palaces.
2) Bribery, Corruption Also by H. R. F. Keating
R. F. Keating is the creator of Inspector Ghote, an investigative officer with the fictional Bombay CID, who featured in 26 novels to pursue cases with dogged zeal. His adventures include a sojourn to the Bengali metropolis. In this book, Ghote’s wife, Protima, inherits a mansion in the city, prompting her to revisit her childhood hometown. However, things are graver than they seem, and after being confronted with hostile squatters, unctuous attorneys and businessmen too shrewd for their own good, Ghote begins to suspect the existence of a darker plot surrounding the crumbling building. This one is for those rainy Kolkata evenings of piping hot chai and muri-teley bhaja: just settle down comfortably and watch the mystery unravel in the metropolis.
3) The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey
This critically acclaimed book is the first of the Daughters of Bengal series by the American writer. It follows the story of Pom, a young peasant girl who survives a catastrophic cyclone and travels across Bengal to survive, finally arriving in Calcutta. Her journey takes her from an orphanage to a prostitutes’ den and finally to working as a librarian in an Englishman’s house in Calcutta. Set in colonial Bengal, the young girl’s odyssey narrates not only her personal story but also the epic tale of Indian independence and the crusaders who took part in it. The eloquence and variability of the story’s emotions make it a wonderful read, and the book reacquaints the most jaded reader with a new history of our city.
4) The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This one’s for all the fantasy fans out there. Carlos Ruiz Zafon delivers an action-packed fantasy mystery set in the Calcutta of the 1930s. Infant twins Ben and Sheere are saved from monumental danger by a young lieutenant who loses his own life in the process. Sixteen years later, the same enemy comes back to haunt them, and this time there is no one to stand between survival and certain death but their own nascent abilities. The novel recreates the city in shades of noir crime, filled with shadows and hungry preternatural villains. With its engaging plot and fast-paced movement, the novel is an enjoyable light-hearted read for a Sunday afternoon.
5) Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade
A novel that, at least in Kolkata, needs no introduction. The Romanian novelist Mircea Eliade created a poignant account of the love between himself and Maitreyi Devi, the reputed poet and novelist who also happened to be a protegee of Rabindranath Tagore. Set in the city in the 1930s, the story peeks into the inner Calcutta of living rooms and terraced nights: the Calcutta that once existed in minds, rather than geographically. The story deals with love and loss, arrogance and prejudice, trust and betrayal, romanticization and reality. The book can elicit a variety of responses, from impatience and anger to tears, but one cannot remain indifferent to it.
6) City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre
And last but certainly not least, it is the book that gave Kolkata its enduring, if somewhat ironic nickname. The plot follows three characters making their way through the city. Their narratives meet in Anand Nagar, the slum whose name translates to “City of Joy”. The book exposes Kolkata’s soul, showing how joy and terror, beauty and ugliness and corruption and humanity exist side by side in the metropolis, laying bare its many hues. Ultimately, it celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. It is a must-read for all those who live in the city.
Literature is woven into the very heart of Kolkata. From the dusty silent depths of College Street’s many book houses, to the vast open fields of Maidan and Milan Mela Prangan, books, and the love of books, are an essential part of the identity of our city. With the 40th edition of the International Kolkata Book Fair just around the corner, I hope this list starts you off on the journey to rediscovering Kolkata through our beloved ink-covered scraps of paper that mean so much to so many of us.