Cityscapes: Memorable Books on Indian Cities (Part II)

In Cityscapes Part I, we listed our favourite books on Allahabad, Banaras and Bombay. Here, in the second part, we talk about books on Calcutta, Lucknow, Ludhiana and Madras.


Longing Belonging: An Outsider at Home in Calcutta, by Bishwanath Ghosh

‘Calcutta was no longer an old piece of furniture in the attic. It was an antique whose value I had realised.’ With these words, author Bishwanath Ghosh embarks on an exploration of a city that, as a probashi – non-resident Bengali – he has only recently fallen in love with. He probes the lives of its inhabitants – some famous and others faceless – and at the same time strolls along the Hooghly, wanders in and out of Park Street, College Street, Kalighat, Kumartuli, Sonagachhi, even ending up in a dance bar in Salt Lake. With his adventurous spirit and undeniable wit intact, Bishwanath Ghosh pieces together his own unique idea of a unique city,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘In his latest book, Longing, Belonging: An Outsider At Home In Calcutta, Ghosh demonstrates a remarkable eye for detail, and an enormous capacity for patience with people. He gets even the most stoic denizen of Calcutta to talk to him; the dialogues are authentic, and his descriptions of this sprawling metropolis are such that Ghosh takes you with him everywhere he goes, he makes you smell what he smells, he makes you taste what he tastes, and he makes you feel what you feel,’ says the Khaleej Times. Indeed, while there are a fair number of non-fiction books about Calcutta, we believe this is clearly one of the best, beautifully written, and a delightful read for anyone who’s been fascinated by Calcutta and wanted to experience the city.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury

‘When Kushanava Choudhury arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve, he had already migrated halfway around the world four times. After graduating from Princeton, he moved back to Calcutta, the city which his immigrant parents had abandoned. Taking a job at a newspaper, he found the streets of his childhood unchanged. Shouting hawkers still overran the footpaths, fish sellers squatted on bazaar floors; and politics still meant barricades and bus burnings. The Epic City is a soulful, compelling and often hilarious account of this metropolis of fifteen million people that is truly a world unto itself,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘Witty, polished, honest and insightful, The Epic City is likely to become for Calcutta what Suketu Mehta’s classic Maximum City is for Mumbai’ adds William Dalrymple. 

‘Kushanava Choudhury’s beautifully observed account of life in the West Bengal metropolis is full of humour and wonder,’ says The Guardian. ‘A wonderful, beautifully written and even more beautifully observed love letter to Calcutta’s greatness: to its high culture, its music and film, its festivals, its people, its cuisine, its urban rhythms and, above all, to its rooted Bengaliness. With witty, sharp and sometimes beautifully chiselled prose, Kushanava evokes the world of Tagore, Satyajit Ray and the Bengali poets, with their little magazines and literary gatherings, and of the second-hand bookshops of College Street. This is a first book any author would be proud to have written and The Epic City clearly marks the arrival of a new star,’ it adds. Yes, go get your copy now.


Fida- é-Lucknow: Tales of the City and Its People, by Parveen Talha

‘This collection is steeped in the flavours and textures of life in Lucknow. Woven through these stories is the history of its Ganga-Jamuni culture and the changes which came over the city and its people in the post-Independence period. The true hero in these stories is the Lucknow-walla whose affection and loyalty are not restricted to relationships between equals, and religion never comes in the way. Fida-é-Lucknow is a beautiful blend of history, relationships and vignettes of city life; it will interest all those who enjoy the variety and colour of this and many such cities,’ says the publisher’s note. (The author, Parveen Talha, belongs to an old Awadhi family; after retiring as Member of the Union Public Service Commission in 2009, she now lives in Lucknow and spends time writing about the city she loves.)

‘When Parveen writes, she literally holds you by both hands and walks you through pages of time that were intimately left open for her. She takes you on a journey into a way of life of a bygone Awadh and through the milieu she knows so well, weaves her way into the emotions and gets you hooked on to the plot,’ says noted filmmaker Muzaffar Ali. ‘This collection of short stories will unfold the beauty of an Awadh that the next generation yearns to be a part of. Parveen rediscovers those footprints that have been erased from the sands of time,’ he adds. If you want to experience the Lucknow of a bygone era, a Lucknow that now only exists in some people’s memories, this book could be your best bet.

Shaam-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow, edited by Veena Talwar Oldenburg

A brilliant collection of writings on the city of Lucknow, from authors like Shakeel Badayuni, Mirza Ghalib, Abu Talib, Rudyard Kipling, Maya Jasanoff, Munshi Premchand, Mark Twain, Salim Kidwai, Vinod Mehta, VS Naipaul, William Dalrymple and many, many others. Perhaps the best Lucknow stories anthology ever. 

‘In separate pieces, William Dalrymple and Barry Bearak trace the decline of Lucknow – the city, its architecture, people, politics, governance – and the sad end of the havelis and their once grandiose occupants. The elegiac Marsia tradition of the Shias strives to be heard over angry chants of Hulla Bol of political rallies in Mrinal Pande’s account of her visit to the city. And, in his hyperbolic saga of seven generations of the fictional Anglo-Indian Trotter family, Allan Sealy meanders through two hundred years of Lucknow’s chequered history. However, despite the apparent disintegration, Lucknow’s ineffable spirit can still be found – in the tantalizing flavours of Lakhnavi cuisine; the delicate artistry of chikankari; the legendary courtesans and the defiant voice of the rekhti; the melodious notes of the ghazaI and the thumri. Engaging and thoughtful, Shaam-e-Awadh celebrates the unique character of this city of carnivals and calamities,’ says the publisher’s note. For anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the nawabi heritage of Lucknow, this book is your passport to hours of reading bliss.


Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began, by Bishwanath Ghosh

‘This is just one of the author’s many keen observations of Chennai. With mordant wit, this biography of a city spares neither half of its split-personality: from moody, magical Madras to bursting-at-the-seams, tech-savvy Chennai,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘When writing about a city you are still living in, you don’t have the luxury of looking back at it from a distance, with a boxful of notes and memories to draw from. You live your subject each day and one of the biggest challenges is to sift through your daily life to collect material that may be used to paint a portrait. This book is born purely out of my desire to understand a city I’ve called home for over a decade now,’ says Ghosh.

Tamarind City is a free-flowing trip between stories about the metropolis in the form of personal encounters between Ghosh and different people – or , in some cases, spaces – occupying the city. Combining the wide-eyed curiosity of the visitor with the dreary familiarity of the denizen, the writer traverses a landscape that effortlessly punches history with visual description, personal impression with a desire to unearth the objective facts. In the process, he produces a Chennai that is, arguably, far more fascinating than the city might actually appear to those who live and love in it. If only for the captivating cast of characters that Ghosh parades, comprising members of both the Who’s Who and the Who’s What of the city, his book is a source of both enjoyment and education,’ says The Hindu.


Butter Chicken In Ludhiana, by Pankaj Mishra

A word of caution: Despite the ‘Ludhiana’ in its name, this book isn’t just about Ludhiana and it certainly isn’t only about butter chicken. Instead, this is Pankaj Mishra’s utterly delightful book about his ‘travels in small town India’ and the vagaries of the great Indian middle class. ‘In Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, Pankaj Mishra captures an India which has shrugged off its sleepy, socialist air, and has become instead kitschy, clamorous and ostentatious. From a convent-educated beauty pageant aspirant to small shopkeepers planning their vacation in London, Pankaj Mishra paints a vivid picture of a people rushing headlong to their tryst with modernity. An absolute classic, this is a witty and insightful account of India’s aspirational middle class,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘What is charming about Pankaj Mishra is that not only are his style and vocabulary refreshingly different from the languid drawl of his generation, he has a feeling for small towns that captures both their squalor and their inner life. Mishra simultaneously evokes an acute revulsion at their brash new culture and manages to capture those hidden qualities that make them the great outback of our urban landscape. The book is a melancholy memoir and a personal diary: the reader may not agree with his perceptions but that is surely the author’s privilege, not his fault,’ says India Today. If you’re looking to pack your bags and travel across the country but aren’t particularly keen on braving crowded buses and trains, and don’t want to suffer cheap, ratty hotels, just let Mishra do the hard work for you – simply get a copy of this book.

Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off, by Bishwanath Ghosh

‘This narrative reveals the lives of people in towns beyond railway station yards, in an effort to discover what lay beyond the platform as one travelled across the cities,’ says the publisher’s note. The book is what it says on the label: The author’s travels to places like Mughal Sarai, Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal and a few others you might not have heard of. Ghosh, some of whose other books have also been mentioned on this page, writes with his usual elan, finding interesting stories where you might expect to find none, keeping the reader hooked. ‘The print order for Chai, Chai when it was published in the autumn of 2009, was 2,000 copies. The book went for a reprint within three weeks of its publication [and] has since then gone for several reprints,’ the authors says.

‘The romance of the railways is too deep-rooted in the Indian consciousness to go stale even in the time of budget airlines. The sight of a train, the scenes from the train window, the unexpected halt at a small station in the middle of nowhere, the arrival at the destination – they still bring out the child in us,’ says Ghosh. ‘The curiosity is inherent: To read about trains, about the places they take you to and about the places they take you through. The vast fields, the villages, the small towns often represented by a railway junction is where the real India lives. Chai, Chai celebrates these junctions,’ he adds.  Fascinated by small town India and its multitude of stories? Get on the train, baby!

Here’s Part 1 of this story

Allahabad Apple astrology audiobooks aviation Banaras Banking best-of lists Bombay book marketing Calcutta corporate culture design food Formula 1 interviews Iranian Japan journalism journalists libraries literary agents Lucknow Madras memoirs memories motoring Mumbai music my life with books non-fiction Persian photojournalism Prayagraj publishers publishing retail science-fiction technology travel trends typography Urdu Varanasi wishlists

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