Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata

I happened to pick up this book purely by accident while browsing one of the online websites. And I am glad I did. Kolkata is one of those old, charming cities which its inhabitants seem to adore completely, despite the traffic & the pollution. To me, Kolkata conjures up images of the Hooghly bridge and Durga Puja, of the underground metro and the tram, of sandesh and puchkas.

Indrajit Hazra has captured all this and more beautifully in his ode to the lovely city. Hazra discusses the intricacies of the geographical spread of the city (North vs. South), the political scenario – past & present [including the Naxalbari movement], the movie industry, the bookstores & eateries on Park Street and the different communities co-existing peacefully in the city [prominently, the Marwaris who migrated from Rajasthan to Bengal in the 17th century to trade in cotton, opium, salt, cloth and indigo].

Hazra has lived away from Kolkata for the last 15 years. He says he is one of the best people to write a book on the city because “After all, you don't see the Mona Lisa from inside the frame; you have to stand in front of it.”

There are quite a few nuggets of information liberally spread out across the book. For instance, I learnt that the Calcutta Club on Lower Circular Road changed its rules to allow women members only in 2007.

The book is an easy read and, at 145 pages, a quick one. The author's writing style is free-flowing & informal. Since the book speaks about different topics, it is not necessary for one to read it from start to end. Read the book for a different take on the city – a take of an insider, who's now an outsider. And the cover of the book (by Turmeric Design) is stunning - really captures the essence of the city.

On my first, and so far only, visit to Kolkata in March-2010, I took time out to visit the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and Flury's – all of which find mention in the book. I also took a tram ride and visited the oldest banyan tree in the world. Though the book may not be intended as one but you can also use it as a travel guide, bookmarking sights & activities that you may wish to tick off when you visit the city.

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