What inspired you to write this book?
Calcutta isn't a city for your average traveller. It's hard to penetrate its apparent chaos, to catch a glimpse of what makes the city an interesting and creative arena for artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and scientists. It's also a place where the West has truly encountered the East, which fascinates me. I felt a little daunted by the challenge of portraying the complexity of it all, but as I began to look at how Calcutta had initially shaped my own mind and imagination, a personal perspective gradually emerged. The more I researched, the more I felt the need to examine the prevalent Western perception about the place and the Calcuttans' resentment about it. I felt I also had to answer the critical voices of Gunter Grass, Louis Malle and Claude Levi-Strauss and had to explode the myth of Mother Teresa.That's how it all came about.
It's easy to live somewhere for years and never dig into the history or soul of a place. What triggered your passion for Calcutta?
Bengal has an interesting artistic and literary heritage and yet the Bengalis embraced European literature with enthusiasm, especially Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare and Dickens. They also felt inspired by the Western concept of liberty, equality and fraternity and demanded it from the people who had, perhaps unwittingly, imported such ideologies in the first place. Such cross-cultural influences have left a unique imprint in the making of the people of Calcutta, including myself. It also produced talents such as Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore and Oscar-winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray. I wanted to look into it. Finally, I was also touched by the indomitable vitality, resilience and sense of humour in Calcutta, which have made it possible for people to endure against all odds, even famine, riot and partition.
The book's historical detail is fascinating, for example the description of the daily routine of a sahib. What resources did you use for your research?
The documentation on colonial life in India is a rich resource. The India Office Library is full or such stuff also used a lot of Bengali materials, and I have given a select bibliography in the book. The daily life of a sahib that you mention comes from two books in particular: James Mackintosh's Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa (1771-81) and The Life and Times of Mrs Sherwood, 1775-1851.
Why do you think that such a minor incident as the Black Hole of Calcutta has made such a lasting impression? …