John Hutnyk 1996 Zed books, London.

An original study in the politics of representation, this book explores the discursive construction of a ‘city of intensities’.

The author analyses representations of Calcutta in a wide variety of discourses: in the gossip and travellor-lore of backpackers and volunteer charity workers; in writing – from classic literature to travel guides; in cinema, photography and maps. The book argues that Western Rumours of Calcutta contribute to the elaboration of an imaginary city which circulates in ways fundamental to the maintenance of an international order.

Throughout, the focusis on the technologies of representation which frame tourist experiences of Calcutta, particularly Calcutta as an image site of decay. For example, volunteer charity workers’ explanations of their experience fit into a framework which attributes blame locally. In this perspective tourist volunteers cannot acknowledge complicity in its own production of the city as a phantasmagoric space of poverty. Travellers visiting Calcutta are shown to be located in a place through which ideological and hegemonic effects are played out in complex yet coordinated ways which are to be analysed within the context of international privilege and domination. Here specific practices and technologies, of tourism, representation and experience, are intricately combined to reinforce and replicate the conditions of contemporary cultural and economic inequality.

A provocative and original reading of both Heidegger and Marx, the book also draws up on writers as diverse as Spivak, Trinh, Jameson, Clifford, Virilio, Bataille, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari.

Available from Zed books
7 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF
Tel 020 7837 4014



  1. The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representations
    Author: John Hutnyk
    Publisher: London: Zed Books, 1996
    Price: US$22.50 or �14.95
    In Light of Calcutta

    Vijay Prashad

    The word “Calcutta” evokes strong sentiments. Among most who have little experience with the city, there is revulsion. Some Europeans and Americans who visit the city come and leave with expectations unrevised. Coming to see poverty and squalor, they see it. Some hate it; others discover a lost simplicity. The former take refuge in 5-Star hotels and room service; the latter go to Mother Teresa’s various homes or Jack Preger’s clinic. A few remain in the confines of Sudder Street (enclave of the “budget traveller”) and enjoy fleeting moments of intoxication amid what they perceive as the “basics”. Günter Grass, who once deigned to call himself a resident, sits beneath his mosquito net and dreams of Calcutta as he informs us to “develop a new dialectic from Calcutta’s contradictions”. As if Calcutta’s contradictions are unique; as if there are not already dialectical explanations available to assist those truly at work on the reconstruction of the place and its inhabitants.

    John Hutnyk’s book does not tell us of the visions of the city among its long-term inhabitants. His book introduces the people who travel to South Asia on a budget, mostly from North America, Europe and Australia. “Budget travellers” come not to bask in the glory of the Raj, but to explore the underbelly of Asia and to do some volunteer work as a means to assuage their guilt or redeem themselves. Despite their best motives, Hutnyk explains, these travellers do not question how they see the city. They have heard the “rumour of Calcutta, the imagery by which the city is known”. For them the city is already “enframed”. That is, these travellers already ‘know’ the city; this prior ‘knowledge’ frames their experiences and creates the general mood of their journey.

    For instance, most “budget travellers” (like their 5-Star kin), see “Calcutta” as an emblem of poverty and misery. Certainly, there is much poverty in Calcutta and considerable visible despondency. Nevertheless, the “rumour of Calcutta” as poor is recent, having entered the Euro-American imagination in the 1960s when a set of events came together to catapult this “rumour” to dominance: the Hippies came to India to seek spiritual solace in simplicity and poverty; the food crisis turned many South Asian states to dependence upon “food aid”; Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God elevated Mother Teresa to sainthood, as the solitary figure sent to save the city from its poverty; finally, the legacy of Partition and of bourgeois state development within unreconstructed agrarian relations showed its limitations in the steady migration of dispossessed peasants from East Bengal (Bangladesh, in 1971) to the west. The idea of Calcutta-as-poverty emerges fully-fledged in Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary, Calcutta and in Dominique Lapierre’s bestseller and Roland Joffe’s blockbuster, City of Joy. “Calcutta”, now, functions in Euro-American thought as the very exemplar of Poverty.

    The “good tourists” (who abjure the “veranda view” of the 5-Stars and packaged tours) offer themselves to NGOs to ameliorate poverty. Many are smart enough to know their own work does little. As Julia notes, her work appears sometimes like “putting band-aid on lepers in the hope of stopping capitalism”. Hutnyk is very clear about these efforts (such as those of the Missionaries of Charity), arguing that the NGOs act “as a stopgap anti-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary placebo”. Rather than confront the means of production of poverty, the “budget travellers” and the NGOs simply make horrendous conditions marginally better. Further, NGOs rarely educate the oppressed to understand the reasons for their exploitation and even less rarely are they encouraged to rebel. The predominant “imagery of decay” evokes the good works of the charity industry and makes invisible those communist organizations working to improve Calcutta by transforming the structures of its present (p. 115).

    Concentration on poor children and on Mother Teresa obscures the struggles of poor families and of the communists to fight the nexus between the local elite and their international allies (some of whom, like Rupert Murdoch, created the myth of Mother Teresa). There was, for instance, little interest in the 20th anniversary of Communist rule in West Bengal this year and in the impressive results of the regime (notably in land reform, agrarian productivity and transformation of power relations in the countryside). The death of Mother Teresa, by contrast, was on the cover of most international periodicals. Of City of Joy, Hutnyk writes, “it is full of the kind of sentimentalism that serves to tell us that at least a few people in the world are still capable of ‘good works’ and charity, but also serves to render redundant any more analytical examination of exploitation, poverty and opportunism beyond simple good-versus-evil narratives”. Within capitalism’s technology of representation, charity makes opaque the value of the communist struggle.

    Calcutta is “an experimental place”, says Peter, offering a recipe for the city: “take mud, people, cows, buildings and heat and stir it up with the books of Marx and statues of Lenin”. Even this vision does not have within it the hope of Bishnu Dey who, in Jal Dao (Give Me Water), writes of the city’s desolation during Partition, yet offers us these powerful words: “We build the future on the tide of our own past/In our own present, on that bank and on this…”. Futures are to be constructed, despite the ravages of imperialism. Within this “enframing”, hopelessness and charity are not Calcutta’s modes of being, but rather, in light of Calcutta, we are made to feel anger and solidarity. These are better “rumours” to live and struggle by.

    (V. Prashad teaches international studies at Trinity College, USA and is a member of the Forum of Indian Leftists).

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    Development Aid to Nepal: Issues and Options in Energy, Health, Education, Democracy and Human Rights
    Author: Harald O. Skar and Sven Cederroth
    Publisher: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), Copenhagen, Denmark, 1997
    Price (paperback): DKK 125
    Nepali Development: A View from the North

    Tatsuro Fujikura

    No one has a clear view of all development enterprises in Nepal, much less control over the outcomes – not HMG, GOI, the World Bank nor any other major player. Overviews habitually decry a lack of ‘reliable data’, precluding determinate conclusions. Hence they are best read not as precise descriptions of sociopolitical realities, but – as literary critic Kenneth Burke recommended in another context – as creative works utilizing various rhetorical and logical strategies to name outstanding features of the situation, and “name them in a way that contains an attitude towards them.” Such works, of course, often have substantial effects on the generation of new realities.

    In 1996, anticipating substantial expansion of its aid to Nepal, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry commissioned a study, Development Aid to Nepal: A Summary of Experience, from the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS). The book under review is “largely the same” as that report. Thus it can profitably be read as an indicator of likely directions for an increasingly significant donor, and for insights into the process of molding a foreign policy towards Nepali development. Though author Skar has substantial research experience in Nepal, given the impact of donor country policies, it is disheartening to learn that the study is based on “two researcher-months” and “eight days of hectic data collection in Nepal”.

    The book examines the energy, human rights, education, and health sectors. Its most forceful argument concerns energy development where it should, “always be a top priority for Norwegian inputs�to support Nepalese competence building. This is the ultimate test against which all project proposals should be judged”. Energy sector projects, from 1958 onward, by private Norwegians and the United Mission to Nepal (UMN) are assessed as “fairly successful” – among the most positive evaluations in the entire book. UMN-sponsored companies, engaged in small to mid-sized projects, serve as a model for accomplishing hydropower development while also transferring know-how “so that [Nepalis] can become less dependent on foreign assistance for future projects”. Accordingly, the authors recommend Norwegian assistance for small, mid-sized, and micro hydropower projects, while dismissing large-scale ones as almost inevitably involving dominance of foreign expertise and capital, and technical, economic, and political uncertainties that might seriously undermine energy development in Nepal.

    The authors suggest more tentative engagements in other sectors. Discussing human rights, they write that “Nepal’s legal system is renowned for being highly corrupt and a hindrance rather than help in the life of ordinary Nepali citizens”. They recommend support for local human rights NGOs, joining in the efforts by DANIDA and USAID on electoral issues, and support for “the peaceful understanding of ethnic diversity” (e.g., the Ethnographic Museum). Regarding education, the authors state it would be “prudent” for Norway to invest in the Basic Primary Education Project, regarded by many donors as a �model’, and where, accordingly, many donors have flocked. However, they also suggest that vocational training within high schools “may become an interesting and important development arena”. Turning to health, the Ministry of Health (MOH) is described as “the most bureaucratic and inefficient ministry of all the 47 ministries in Nepal”. Hence, rather than investing in MOH, the authors suggest direct financing of short-term projects through consultancy firms or networks established by UMN or Redd Barna. Arguing that sufficient trained rural health personnel, rather than simply more health posts, is the critical need, they recommend a separate study of possibilities for Norwegian-funded health personnel training.

    Readers can benefit from clear presentations throughout of bureaucratic structures related to development projects and their funding sources. However, the authors also make many simplistic, and sometimes illogical statements on sociocultural matters, such as caste and ethnicity. For example, the fact that during the period of their research, the Minister of Law and Justice was a Tamang – whom, the authors explain, have low status in the caste hierarchy – is presented as evidence that human rights are accorded very little importance in Nepal. More generally, quoting heavily from the donors’ side, the book creates a picture of rational, conscientious donors (from DANIDA to World Bank) struggling in the face of the irrational Nepali, beset by primordial sentiments and practices of aphno manchhe and chakari. This imaginative description of key players “that contains an attitude toward them”, leaves no room for sustained analysis of how foreign aid practices themselves may have been transforming the Nepali sociocultural structure at a very deep level. Such analysis, in turn, may be essential if, as the authors of this book profess to believe, the ultimate test for “good” foreign aid is whether it helps to render foreign aid unnecessary.

    (Tatsuro Fujikura is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, USA, currently doing research on development in Nepal)

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  2. — Against Mother Theresa — 05.25.05

    Printer-friendly verion

    Against Mother Theresa
    John Hutnyk’s Rumour of Calcutta, reviewed by
    McKenzie Wark

    Wednesday, 10 September 1997

    There are only three things I know for sure about the city of Calcutta. It
    was home to the writer Rabindranath Tagore, the film maker Satyajit Ray and
    to Mother Teresa, who has just joined them in heaven.

    What’s curious is just how we come to know things about foreign cities. The
    BBC greatly accelerated Mother Teresa’s celebrity in 1969 when Malcolm
    Muggeridge made a film about her, called Something Beautiful for God. Her
    fame spread even further when she won the Nobel Peace prize in 1979. Her
    image circulated on a global scale. And with it, an image of Calcutta.

    Some of her critics there complain that her order uses the poverty of
    Calcutta as an advertisiment to attract funds for a worldwide franchise,
    including a branch in Bourke, New South Wales.

    Over and over we see images of those nuns in blue-rimmed robes of pristine
    white, bending over poor dark sufferers. Images that set up a way of
    thinking in which poor foreigners appear as helpless without assistance from
    the rich west. Calcutta becomes the Disneyland of suffering.

    In John Hutnyk’s interesting new book The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism,
    Charity and the Poverty of Representation (Zed Books), he quotes a revealing
    remark by a volunteer, to the effect that people who suffer are put there to
    keep us compassionate — an understanding of “the poor” where the latter
    hardly appear as people at all.

    Calcutta as themepark of poverty is also the theme of the Roland Joffe film,
    City of Joy, starring Patrick Swayze. He plays an American doctor who finds
    himself when he starts helping the poor. The film is based on a “documentary
    fiction” book by Dominique Lapierre. Its odd how often popular myths, good
    and bad alike, from the Lucky Country to the City of Joy, start in books
    that try to tell the truth.

    The film version had a difficult birth. In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi’s central
    government gave permission for Joffe, director of The Mission and The
    Killing Fields, to film. But the Left Front government in the state of West
    Bengal revoked it. They argued that “there is no need to show only slum
    dwellers to show the indominable spirit of Calcuttan.” Joffe then recruited
    some leading Bengali intellectuals to his cause, and a lively debate about
    censorship and misrepresentation followed. Satyajit Ray remarked that
    “Personally I don’t think any director has the right to go to a foreign
    country and make a documentary film about it unless… he does it with
    genuine love.”

    The shoot was punctuated by locals rioting, invading the set, hijacking the
    catering van, union bans, police baton charges, stone throwing, and crowds
    cramming the scene who just want to get a glimpse of the film stars — Om
    Puri and Shabana Azmi.

    Denied permission to shoot in the streets, Joffe ignored the ban, shooting
    on the run. He built his own slum, a water proof million-dollar set, out in
    the safety of the suburbs. The special effects the team that brought you
    Star Wars pumped 250,000 gallons of water through it to simulate a monsoon.
    Rumours circulated of Joffe inspecting slums of rusty tin and hessian,
    saying “I love it!” and buying it on the spot. Calcuttans thought he was

    The film portrays a struggle between poor people and a brown-skinned
    “mafia”. Hutnyk notes the irony of poor Bengalis portrayed as docile without
    Patrick Swayze to teach them to stand up for themselves. Locals certainly
    didn’t need any white helping hand to take direct action against Joffe’s
    film. But as with the media images of Mother Teresa, in City of Joy,
    Calcutta exists for the benefit of the spiritual enlightenment of

    Hutnyk argues that western experience is framed, not just by the filmmaker,
    but by “the idea of film”. Westerners consume Calcutta through “machineries
    of perception carried as baggage in minds, texts, snapshots and backpacks.”
    Whatever its motives, this foreign interest in the place is not of much
    benefit to Calcutta’s people, “or for that matter, to anyone much at all.”

    Indian critic Ashis Nandy argues that the west is no longer a place but a
    state of mind. Hutnyk does something quite paradoxical, going all the way to
    Calcutta to write an “exploration of the perforated sheet of the worldwide
    West.” He wants to explore his own involvement, as an anthropologist, in
    this entire industry that describes and explains Calcutta as if it existed
    for the benefit of the west. His book is about the voyeurism of poverty and
    the poverty of voyeurism.

    Hutnyk gets beyond what Edward Said called ‘Orientalism’, or the argument
    that western ways of seeing the east are culture-bound. By that account, all
    one has to do is move over and make way for the “authentic” local way of
    seeing things, and all will be well. But the problem is not just the ethnic
    origin of the hand and eye behind the camera or word processor. The tools we
    use to perceive things are not just a means to an end. Tools frame
    particular types of ends. We see things framed by the methods used to make

    Here Hutnyk practices another kind of tourism, an intellectual one, “trinket
    collecting” in high theory. His sources are the writings of Georg Lukacs and
    Martin Heidegger, who were concerned with the effects of commerce and
    contraptions on our ways of seeing and thinking. What Hutnyk takes from them
    is a thorough kind of materialism. Every perception that we have is the
    product of an act of labour, an effort shaped by particular tools.

    If this is so, then we have a problem. It is not the problem of
    “relativism”, as is sometimes claimed. There are plenty of perfectly good
    ways of deciding what is a good photograph of a beggar, what is a good
    ethnographic field report, or what is a good business plan for a tourist
    development. The problem is rather that the tools of media recording, market
    reckoning or scholarly research don’t see what’s outside of their particular
    ways of making the world appear useful.

    Hutnyk collects fragments from different kinds of perception, produced by
    different methods, and puts them alongside each other. The result is that
    the mirror he holds up to Calcutta seems particularly cracked. This is
    disconcerting at times, but the benefit of it is that you don’t just get the
    illusion that you are seeing Calcutta — you see the mirror too.

    His anthropology hero is not Claude Levi-Strauss, who wrote some perfectly
    dreadful cliches about Calcutta, but Michel Leiris, a lesser known French
    writer who was as scrupulous about recording his own dissentry as he was
    with the myths and customs of Francophone Africa.

    For most budget travellers to Calcutta, its the Lonely Planet guidebooks
    that are the first “machine” through which most budget travellers “see” such
    places, rather than the reports of anthropologists or even popular
    non-fiction like Lapierre. Hutnyk explores the way guidebooks make the city
    a prop for the myths the traveller already entertains about the place.

    The problem for Hutnyk is that if all of our ways of seeing are framed by
    the technologies through which we perceive, then how can we ever arrive at a
    more adequate picture? The ‘real’ Calcutta, as he discovers, is a rumour
    that circulates among travellers — its always just that little bit further
    off the beaten track, but nobody ever quite seems to find it. Perhaps it is
    this desire to consume the ‘real’ version of the place, as if it was
    something that existed just to resist our efforts to know it, that puts it
    forever just out of our grasp.

    Hutnyk considers, but doesn’t quite accept, a radical solution to the
    problem of what to write. As Ashis Nandy says, the job is to “create better
    myths”. Perhaps one about a Calcutta that, despite a lack of resources,
    administers itself. Ray’s films, such as the famous Pather Panchali and
    Aparajito show the poverty of Bangali life, but his characters can act and
    think and feel for themselves. They don’t need westerners to think for them.

    But my favourite “alternative myth” in this book is the rumour that after
    Joffe left Calcutta, volunteer workers auctioned off a stool sample bottle
    with Patrick Swayze’s name on it, found amid the junk donated by the
    departing film crew.

    McKenzie Wark’s book The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the
    1990s (Allen & Unwin), will be launched at Gleebooks on October 8th.


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