The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation

Reposted from three years ago because – the stats tell me – at least one copy has been downloaded every day this month. Either its a dedicated bot that won’t give up, or someone put it on a reading list again. I never get royalties for this these days as the addresses had not been updated, and anyway Zed was soled to Bloomsbury who are my current publisher, so I assume it will sort out (and I hope it won’t be a debt :) meanwhile, good to see the digital version, which is a huge file of middling quality for reasons explained below, is getting seen. More power to you. Thanks.

rumour-cover125 years ago my first book was typeset and laid out in the days before electronics – well, an electric typesetting machine was plugged into a wall, but no digital file was produced. Nevertheless, I had crossed out the digital rights clause in my contract with Zed so I own this. At last some kind anonymous soul has bootlegged it and set digital copy free on the nets, though its a large scanned file and the bibliography was left off (I’ve made a rough scan of the biblio but that too is a large file). Nevertheless, notwithstanding, and such like phrasings, the book is still one of which I am proud, if nothing else for trialling a way of citing tourist backpacker-informants, for its stuff on photography and maps and for the reviews it got (and indeed keeps getting discussed, for example on films – see diekmann2012) and especially for its critique of charity and what charity is for. In the context of do-gooder well-meaning hypocrisy, the effort of charity workers serves wider interests as well as their own, and only marginally any individuals they help – who would be better helped in better funded state-run facilities if the funds extracted through business-as-usual colonialism were, you know, made as reparations for the several hundred years of colonial plunder. Ah well, the critique stands up, the charity industry sadly thrives, second only perhaps to weapons in terms of so-called development, writing books does not yet always change the world as much as you’d like (and no, I did not ever think a book would single-handedly stop Mother Theresa, but…).

I would welcome new readers.

Download The Rumour of Calcutta here:  [John_Hutnyk]_The_rumour_of_Calcutta__tourism,_ch

Biblio here. Rumour biblio

And this retrieved by Toby:

Weekend cruise to Serampore, Chandernagore

I really want to go on this today

: << this is an article from The Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata>> :

The 11-hour ride, which will have its inaugural run on February 14, will cost Rs 350 and will have one-and-a-half hour stops

The “European Settlement Boat Ride” cruise vessel

The “European Settlement Boat Ride” cruise vesselTelegraph picture

Kinsuk Basu   |   Calcutta   |   Published 13.02.21, 01:32 AM

A cruise on the Hooghly will take visitors to Serampore and Chandernagore every Saturday and Sunday.

The 11-hour ride, which will have its inaugural run on February 14, will cost Rs 350 and will have one-and-a-half hour stops at the former Danish (Serampore) and French (Chandernagore) settlements.

The vessel will leave Millennium Park jetty at 10am and return at 9pm. It has a well-stocked library, an open deck and an on-board tuck-shop for quick bites. Tickets can be bought from the Millennium Park jetty.

The “European Settlement Boat Ride”, as the cruise has been named, will halt at Serampore around 1pm after nearly an hour’s journey from Calcutta and offer visitors an opportunity to lunch at The Denmark Tavern. 

Located on the riverfront, the tavern was opened in 1786. It provided lodging and meals for “gentlemen passing up and down the river”, as mentioned in an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette.

One can see Serampore College, established in 1818 by English Baptist missionaries, and visit Serampore Johnnagar Baptist Church, founded in the early 19th century. The other sites to visit are St Olav’s Church, Baptist Mission Cemetery and the Danish Cemetery.

The cruise will leave Serampore around 2.30 pm and reach Chandernagore after an hour. During the hour-and-a-half halt at this erstwhile French colony, tourists will get to see the Strand.

The Strand is a 700-metre-long tree-shaded promenade along the Hooghly with old French mansions and other colonial buildings along the way. One can also visit the Dupleix Palace, which houses the Chandernagore Museum and Institute.

The cruise is being organised by the West Bengal Transport Corporation (WBTC), in collaboration with the Danish Cultural Institute and the Oxford Bookstores.

“The Europeans first came on a ferry. So this cruise will be an ideal way of seeing the European settlement in Bengal,” said Thomas Sehested, the director of the Danish Cultural Institute India.

“The cruise will give people a glimpse into the European history in India which is often undermined,” said Rajanvir Singh Kapur, the managing director of WBTC.

“It’s good to have such initiatives that make people understand history and appreciate global cultures,” said Priti Paul of the Oxford Bookstores.

Sundarbans, Climate, Tigers, Law.

Liquidity of the Sundarbans:

If the Tigers and Cyclones Don’t Get You, the Law Will

This forms the first part of a new research concentration for me, and owes much to colleagues at Jadavpur Uni now battling the BJP monstrosity. This sort of work relies upon the University remaining an open, critical, creative and thinking place. And such works as discussed here – more than three, a whole series of works are considered, reaching back to when I first met the history and philosophy folks at Jadavpur – are indicative of what remains that is good in the university, despite all that is happening.

50 e-prints for those quick off the mark, here:


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The Fantasist of Calcutta has a plaque

Atrocities and alibi’s for dirty colonial deeds of the ‘robber baron’ Clive and his mates. Here is a plaque for John Zephania Holwell, who wrote his dramatically claustrophobic survivor tale several months afterwards as a kind of post-factum justification for the subsequent slaughter at Palashi. He goes on to be Governor and erects a monument to his own heroism, which survives 40 years and is forgotten until Mark Twain asks about it – thanks Mark. Pah, the monument is rebuilt – and still stands today, though moved to the grounds of the nearby church, partly because Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and crew slapped it with a  slipper, and chisels.

Hollwell plaque

Thanks to Claire who found this at King’s Guy’s Hospital. A plaque to the apologist of Palashi. I suppose it is too minor an atrocity – one among many – for the Rhodes must fall group to be deployed, but some annotation is surely necessary.

This chapter may explain why this is such an outrage. The man built a monument to his lies.



The Rumour of Calcutta – digital book

rumour-cover122 years ago my first book was typeset and laid out in the days before electronics – well, an electric typesetting machine was plugged into a wall, but no digital file was produced. Nevertheless, I had crossed out the digital rights clause in my contract with Zed so I own this. At last some kind anonymous soul has bootlegged it and set digital copy free on the nets, though its a large scanned file and the bibliography was left off (I’ve made a rough scan of the biblio but that too is a large file). Nevertheless, notwithstanding, and such like phrasings, the book is still one of which I am proud, if nothing else for trialling a way of citing tourist backpacker-informants, for its stuff on photography and maps and for the reviews it got (and indeed keeps getting discussed, for example on films – see diekmann2012) and especially for its critique of charity and what charity is for. In the context of do-gooder well-meaning hypocrisy, the effort of charity workers serves wider interests as well as their own, and only marginally any individuals they help – who would be better helped in better funded state-run facilities if the funds extracted through business-as-usual colonialism were, you know, made as reparations for the several hundred years of colonial plunder. Ah well, the critique stands up, the charity industry sadly thrives, second only perhaps to weapons in terms of so-called development, writing books does not yet always change the world as much as you’d like (and no, I did not ever think a book would single-handedly stop Mother Theresa, but…).

I would welcome new readers.

Download The Rumour of Calcutta here:  [John_Hutnyk]_The_rumour_of_Calcutta__tourism,_ch

Biblio here. Rumour biblio

And this retrieved by Toby:

Statues – 1970 Kolkata.

Mrinal Sen’s great film Interview begins with a few shots of the removal of colonial statues from the Maidan in Calcutta, shipped off to a closed space in Barrackpur Cantonment. You can enable the player here and watch the film (and so many others, its a treat):

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 21.49.30

Marx in Algiers again

Of haircuts and Rhino coats…


This is the worked up text of a talk I gave in Chandernagore in February 2016. The photo is one I’ve failed to trace from the dates and evidence in the letters (see below) of the visit to the barber – if anyone is good at that sort of tracking, please let me know, the photographer of the first one is E. Dutertre, and the second, if authentic, probably the same.

[Added 3 April 2018 – increasingly the suspicion that the makeover photo is photoshopped is being confirmed. Michael Krätke includes the two portraits in a recent article with the caption:

“Figure 1. Left: last photograph of Karl Marx, taken by E. Dutertre in Algiers, on 28 April 1882.Right: a photomontage based upon Marx’s own correspondence, where he said that the photo was taken just a short while before he went to the barber to have his hair cut and his beard shaved off, and shows how he may have looked after his visit to the barber.
Left: IISH Collection BG A9/383. Right: creator and origins unknown.”

Krätke, Michael 2018 ‘Marx and World History’. International Review of Social History, doi:10.1017/S0020859017000657 page 13

There is also a fiction volume called Marx’s Beard I have not yet read, and marx in Algiers, mentioned elsewhere. So this story has a few loose ends still.

And the source for all this, the photo itself, Marx writes a ps in a letter to Fred on 28 April 1882 in Algiers saying he will pick up the photo in two days. From the MEGA 3(4):

28 April 1882 aus Algiers



[The rest of this article is being rewritten and will be linked to here in due course. Thanks to those who already downloaded a copy, and stay tuned for more after I deal with the substantial and helpful comments of reviewers].



City Requiem, outwitting paralysis to find ways to write anyway

Am pretty sure this page below is a kind of compliment, though it is an uneasy one. As I have said directly, never meant for there not to be many more inscriptions – how could I be the one to hold back the delude (apres moi?). Of course there should never be no reason to stop writing, just sometimes we could stop anthropologising (a moratorium on fieldwork!) and I always hope to write better, a forlorn task. Stereotypes-stereohypes, they keep getting back up again:

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 15.04.18

From the book by Ananya Roy 2003 “City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty” Uni of Minnesota Press, which, despite my being cast as the paralyser, also ends with some beautiful lines that capture what I to was trying to do: ‘ my narrative of the city … can only be one of multiple and irreconcilable iterations’ Ananya Roy. As I think was expressed already in Ashis Nandy’s comment on the back cover of ‘The Rumour’.

Sharmistha Gooptu’s ‘Bengali Cinema’ 2010

have just finished Sharmistha Gooptu’s wonderfully detailed book Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation, and while I understand her decision not to write about Ghatak and Sen et al, I do hope there is a follow up. For sure this will not be the first time such a lament has been aired, but I think there must be a sequel since leaving things pretty much at the end of Apur Sansar is a jolt. Even though there are a dozen pages that skim through the 70s and 80s, the text really stopped at the detailed description of Chatterjee as Apu and this suggests more to come – can only hope there is a sequel that engages with Apu’s subsequent political mobilisation…

Sharmistha Gooptu seems to be custodian of an archive of filmi memorabilia, you can see some of it here.

Shaheed Minar

shaheed minar

Already in 1990 you had to get permission from the Chief of Police at Lal Bazaar to climb this monument. A friend, Kate, and I went to see him and he greeted us with an expansive ‘So you want to see a panoramic view of my city’ – his arms opened wide in an all encompassing gesture that only accentuated his ample girth and the standard issue metro police belt that held all in place. We climbed the stairs – pretty high, it does seem more than 48 meters – and, as we were smokers then, we lingered quite some time up top discussing politics, war, freedom movements, rallying colours and of course panoramas, before we came down. Its very good news the place will be opened for visits soon once more. Site also of some of the largest rallies I’ve ever attended.

Here is the Calcutta City tours rave about it:

The 48 meter high Shaheed Minar, popularly called the “Monument” is a prominent landmark of Kolkata. Established in the year 1848, it was named Ochtorloney Monument to honour, Sir David Ochterlony who served in the Nepal War (1814 – 1816).  In 1969, this Ochterlony Monument received its new name ‘Shahid Minar’, which means “Martyr’s Tower” to honour the sacrifice of Indian freedom fighters. You have to climb 218 steps to reach the top of the monument from where you can savor a bird’s eye view of Kolkata.The architecture of Shaheed Minar shows a brilliant blend of Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish style of designing.

History of Shaheed Minar, Kolkata

It was founded in 1848, as Ochterlony Monument, to honour Major General Sir David Ochterlony’s (Commander of the British East India Company) triumph against the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1825. The architect J.P. Parker conceived the structure of this 48 meter high monument based on a blend of Egyptian and Syrian style with a dome having a striking resemblance with Turkish design. In 1969, the Ochterlony monument was rededicated to the freedom fighters of India – the martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the freedom movement of India and was renamed as “Shaheed Minar”, which in Bengali means “Martyr’s Tower.”

A winding flight of 218 steps takes visitors to the top of the tower from where one can have a panoramic view of the city. However, in 1997, a mishap occurred when a tourist jumped from the lower balcony of Shaheed Minar. From then, prior permission is needed from police to climb the monument. The last person to climb up the monument was the former Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi along with his family.

Lately, the state government of West Bengal has taken initiative to open up the monument for both local public and tourists. The work of refurbishment has started in late 2011 and will be accomplished in two phases. After the completion of the work, both tourists and local people can climb up to the top of the monument. There are also plans to set up stalls in front of the monument. Initiative is also taken to clean the pathways and beautify them with flowering plants.

The vast field lying towards the south of Shahid Minar is popularly called the Shahid Minar Maidan or the Brigade Ground. The place hosts political rallies for several decades. The first political meeting on Shaheed Minar Maidan was headed by Rabindranath Tagore, where he condemned the assassination of a young man in Hilji by the British in 1931.

Quid pro Quo – Subversive Festival, Zagreb (2nd vid)

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 14.39.22

My third talk in a series of three on capital was at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb. The second talk is here (Translating Capital in Context) and it makes sense to see the second talk first [the first one in Rijeka was not recorded, but was based on my text on Citizen Kane], not least because it will help explain why the conceit in this third talk has Marx relocated to India, which of course he was always deeply interested in, but he never went, only picking up bits of info, and some myths – eg the horror stories of Jagannath etc – from his wide-ranging and varied reading. I think it is justified to deploy Marx to Calcutta, at least in fantasy, though its true not even Engels took his father’s advice to go to Calcutta to start in business. The old boys were European bound, but this did not mean they did not seek out the revolution elsewhere.

What also should be mentioned (the parts here are – great job – edited and slightly reordered, and the opening by Bernard missed) is that in this talk I set out to look at three different moments. 1) the arrival of Clive in Calcutta after the ‘sham scandal’ of the Black Hole in 1756; 2) the first all-India war of Independence, the so-called ‘mutiny’ 100 years later and; 3) the quid pro quo return of originary capital to the site of the East India Company shipyard in London in present times, under the aegis of the Farrell’s development of Convoys’ Wharf, Deptford, for Hutchinson Whampoa.

I am slowly writing this out as a long, too long, chapter, so this version is pretty schematic, but you will get the drift of new work. Thanks for stopping by. Thanks also to the crew at Subversive, especially Karolina Hrga, and Bernard Koludrović who was chair.


“Marx writing on India is key to understanding Capital. My argument is that we can make sense of Marx today by examining his theoretical and journalistic work together, each informed by an emergent anthropology, by historical hermeneutics, by a critique of political economy and by attention to a global political contest that mattered more than philosophy. Marx reading history, already against the grain and without being able to make actual alliances, is nevertheless seeking allies in a revolutionary cause. Is it possible to observe Marx coming round to realise, after the shaping experience of the 1848-1852 European uprisings, the possibilities for the many different workers of the world to unite? I consider the sources Marx finds available, what he reads, and how his writing practice parses critical support as habitual politics, and how far subcontinental events, themes and allegories are a presence in the key moves of his masterwork Capital almost as if India were a refocused bromide for Europe, just as slavery is for wages. I will take up four cases – the ‘founding’ of Calcutta by Job Charnock (disputed); the story of Clive sacking Chandernagore and going on to defeat Suraj-ud-duala at Palashi/Plassey in 1757 in retaliation for the ‘Black Hole’ (did it exist?); Disraeli verbosely saying nothing about the so-called Indian ‘mutiny’ 1857 (‘the East as a career’); and the question of legalizing Opium in China and the advent of Matheson-Jardine Company after the East India Company comes to an end (‘quid pro quo’). All of this brings us back to the realities of global investment and regeneration in Europe today, as international capital returns to the port of London to redevelop the old East India Company shipyards in Deptford.”

15/5/2014, 21h, Cinema Europa, Zagreb, Croatia
John Hutnyk: Quid pro quo: the East as a career
7th Subversive festival: “Power and Freedom in the Time of Control”
Moderator: Bernard Koludrović

VC Gherao Kolkata

On the day that I received a copy of my chapter in the book, Television at Large in South Asia (see here) this news from Kolkata seemed highly apposite.


After Jadavpur, Calcutta University students gherao VC

Last Updated: Monday, September 23, 2013, 23:48

Kolkata: Close on the heels of gherao of the Jadavpur University vice chancellor by students for 51-hours, B-Tech students of a college of Calcutta University on Monday gheroed the varsity’s VC and pro-VC alleging that the authorities were not taking any steps for their placement. Calcutta University VC Suranjan Das and Pro-VC (academic) Dhrubajyoti Chatterjee continue to remain gheraoed at the Raja Bazar Science College campus of the university by B-Tech students till late in the night, university sources said. The B-Tech students first gheraoed the principal of the Raja Bazar Science College at 2.30 pm, the sources said.

Hearing the news of the gherao of the principal, Das sent the pro-vc (academic) to talk to the students but they gheraoed him as well. The VC, who reached the campus around 7 pm, was gheraoed too and gates were locked from outside. “Gherao is a democratic right. But this locking of door and gates from outside is not acceptable because if there is fire of any such incident then there may be serious loss,” the VC said over the phone from inside the college. The VC said “that there is a placement cell in the Raja Bazar Science College. However, there is no placement officer at present but a professor of the college is officiating additionally as the placement officer.” “If companies reject the candidates (send for placement) then why should the college authorities be blamed,” he added. The gherao of the VC, pro-VC (academic) and principal of the college was still continuing till 11 pm, the sources said. On September 20, engineering students of Jadavpur University lifted their 51-hour gherao of the vice- chancellor, pro vice-chancellor and registrar, demanding the revocation of the suspensions of two fourth-year students on ragging charges. PTI

First Published: Monday, September 23, 2013, 23:48

Black Hole Fantasy Again

I’m perversely pleased to see this old chestnut can never die. ‘Sham scandal’ Marx called it. Holwell was writing two years afterwards, and in the wake of Clive’s retaliatory massacre of Suraj-ud-daulah at Plassey. I will refrain from some sort of pun on the name Holwell, but notice that embedded journalists are not exactly a new fold in the fabric of imperialism. But for my take on Plassey, and the quotes from Marx, see here.

The Hindu of course does not go so far as to do more than hint at ‘disputed veracity’.

A survivor’s account of Calcutta’s Black Hole

Bangalorean has the article from ‘The Scots Magazine’

A rare copy of an 18th century publication that contains a first-person account of the imprisonment of British men, women and children in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta (now Kolkata) is now in the possession of a Bangalore-based document collector. The Scots Magazine contains an account of the episode by one of its few survivors, J.Z. Holwell.

The February 1758 edition of The Scots Magazine carried a 10-page article titled ‘Holwell’s account of the sufferings in the Black Hole’, which recalled the events at a dungeon in Fort William on the night of June 20, 1756, following the defeat of the East India Company by the forces of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. Holwell, in his account, claimed that 123 of the 146 prisoners put in a crammed dungeon died. But, later, historians have disputed the veracity of his account.

“There are only four known copies of the February 1758 edition in the world,” collector Sunil Baboo, told The Hindu. “It cost me a fortune,” he said, unwilling to reveal the amount.

What is in Mr. Baboo’s collection is the 10-page portion of the magazine that is in good condition. “While two are in the U.K., the other is in the U.S. These three are fully bound in leather-and-marble covers,” he said.

This document collector recently got the part of the magazine from a U.S.-based collector.

“It took a little while to get the copy from him as I had to convince the collector to part with this little piece of history,” he said.

The dungeon, according to Holwell, was a cube of about 18 ft (324 sq. ft) with only two windows in which 146 prisoners were crammed. He recounted the travails of the prisoners in the extremely hot conditions and no fresh air, which left them exhausted and extremely thirsty. He wrote of their attempts to bribe the guards to help them and their efforts to break open the door, all of which came to nought. Finally, a few survivors were brought out of the dungeon on the orders of Siraj-ud-Daulah.

However, while publishing the entire account of Holwell — a letter written to his friend William Davis on February 28, 1757 on board a vessel while returning from East Indies (India) — The Scots Magazine also cautioned its readers about the account being a “little passionate in some places” and in others “somewhat diffused”.

Keywords: The Scot’s MagazineCalcutta Black HoleSunil Baboo


The marx quotes link again, here.

Immigration themed Op Ed from India that should be noticed.

This Op Ed appeared in The Statesman newspaper in Kolkata, and skewers the madness of Tory immigration/xenophobia/economic jingoism on this boggy Isle. The writer is a staffer on that paper – jolly good to see that the rest of the world notices your crap Cameron. ‘Independent ethics advisor’ my arse – he is called Sir, which means he’s hardly independent, nor ethical. And anyway, as an advisor, his job is to tell Cameron what he can and can’t get away with. Not a brake, more an alibi.

The moral netherland

2 June 2012

UK’s increasing non-EU visa restrictions and requirements are symptomatic of a country that has not yet found the means or the will to articulate its ever-decreasing position in the world pecking order, writes lara choksey

Of all the things that the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of British Press has exposed, perhaps one of the most remarkable is that British Prime Minister David Cameron has an ethics advisor. Responding to the possibility of being called up in front of the Inquiry, Mr Cameron said that should any evidence against him suggest the breaking of ministerial codes, he will call in Sir Alex Allan ~ his independent ethics advisor ~ for consultation.

On one level it seems sensible to have someone in or around Downing Street who can determine the ethical dimensions of political quandaries. On another, it is disturbing that the leader of a country that has not ceased promoting itself as a moral leader in the world needs someone else to distinguish between right and wrong.

In terms of the international Press, there are two stories dominating discussions of the UK. The first is the Leveson Inquiry, which started off as a simple matter of investigating the hacking of celebrity phones by itinerant news agencies, and which has now begun to expose the sordid nature of Downing Street’s relationship with the Murdochs under the Cameron, Brown and Blair leaderships.

This in itself is nothing new; anyone who has watched an episode of Yes, Minister! would expect nothing more. But when placed parallel to the second story circulating across the globe ~ that of implemented and threatened restrictions on UK visas for those who do not meet specific economic requirements ~ the hypocrisy and shortsightedness at Westminster’s rotten core becomes ever clearer.

There are two issues at stake here. The first concerns Downing Street’s idea of Britain as a moral leader in global politics. The second concerns Downing Street’s idea of what constitutes Britain’s nationhood. The discursive frame through which Mr Cameron and his ministers frame Britain domestically and internationally reveals a central administration willfully ignoring the economic and cultural heterogeneity of the population under its control, as well as the hypocrisy of its justifying its actions to the rest of the world on the grounds of moral superiority.

Above any other nation ~ in terms of pure numbers ~ India is the country likely to be most affected by the UK’s increasing non-EU visa restrictions and requirements. According to the International Passenger Survey, Indian nationals made up the largest percentage (11.9 per cent) of immigrants granted entry to the UK in 2010-11. Of these Indian nationals, a large number entered the UK on student visas. Those entering in 2010 would have been granted a two-year post-study work visa.

Fast forward a year, and there has been more than a 30 per cent drop in the number of Indian nationals applying for student visas, with many choosing the United States, Australia and Canada as alternatives. This is partly because the post-study work visa was scrapped this April, and partly ~ according to some British university professors ~ due to the increasing hostility and suspicion shown by the UK border agency towards non-EU students, particularly those from South Asia. This observation is compounded by the fact that the total number of student visas granted by the UK to non-EU residents dropped by 62 per cent in the first quarter of 2012.

We could easily leap to charges of xenophobia, and speculate about a small island closing its borders as a four-year recession refuses to budge. The residual prejudices of post-9/11 homeland security become an increasingly convenient justification for reinforcing national borders. Yet, this logic ignores the pre-Olympic pro-investment road show that various British foreign diplomats have been charged with promoting in their respective countries over the last 12 months, encouraging non-EU businesses to invest in the UK.

In February, the UK immigration minister Mr Damien Green announced that from 2016, people not from the EU and not earning at least £35,000 will not be able to apply to be a permanent resident in the UK. The message is clear: the UK welcomes big business and high salaries, regardless of ideology or investment ethics. Diversity is embraced, as long as it comes with a thick cheque book. In return, multinational companies benefit from tax evasion and low borrowing costs on international financial markets. It is undeniably ~ at least for the moment ~ a mutually beneficial arrangement. Prosaic questions of ethics are put out of the window ~ Britain is in a recession, and dog will eat dog.

Why does this matter to India? Apart from the fact that Britain is still considered to be a desirable place to visit, study and live (although this view is undoubtedly changing), this matters because Britain is behind the times. Specifically in the context of India’s increasing importance on the world stage ~ both economically and diplomatically ~ Britain’s restrictions on non-EU immigration seem ridiculous. Such restrictions are symptomatic of a country that has not yet found the means or the will to articulate its ever-decreasing position in the world pecking order.

For the sake of argument, let us just speculate that Britain once had a right to claim moral superiority over other nations (we need not go very far back in history to look at the violence of such a claim). But as the Cameron government decimates the welfare structures that might have once allowed Britain to claim a certain moral superiority with regard to providing the infrastructure (if not always the materialisation) of holistic care for its population, the claim becomes increasingly fragile.  A national heath service, financial support for people at the bottom of the food chain, and ~ perhaps most pertinently in the context of the visa discussion ~ open borders for economic migrants and political refugees: these are some of the structures that might convincingly constitute the discourse of moral superiority.

Yet, in the last twenty years, these structures have become dirty words in Downing Street, replaced by privatisation, austerity and border security, seemingly in direct spite of the increasing scale of global poverty and warfare: so many people have never been so poor, and genocide has never been simpler. India should take heed: there is a fast-appearing vacancy in the global moral high-ground market that needs prompt filling. In an interview published in The Daily Telegraph on 25 May, 2012, British home secretary Ms Theresa May responded to a question on curbing immigration by saying: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.” We might ask, what constitutes an illegal migrant? The term suggests an international law preventing movement between countries. However, while the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights decrees that a country should grant entry to its own citizens, there is no international law that prevents a person from entering a country in the first place.

Immigration laws are national laws, coded by national interests and national understandings of who should be allowed entry. Thus, we learn much about the way in which a country understands itself by the way in which it categorises those who arrive on its shores. In the UK, the terms of ‘illegal migration’ are clear: it has everything to do with economic status. Those who are not considered fit to make a significant economic contribution to the UK, quite simply, become illegal ~ outside legitimacy ~ and vulnerable to any form of physical or mental subjugation. The right to claim access to Britain is based on purely economic terms: this is the new model of national belonging.

Downing Street has thrown off the mantle of social responsibility, both domestically and internationally. Internationally speaking, its participation in Libya on the grounds of humanitarian intervention is laughable when we consider that there is a British Ambassador ~ Nicholas Ray ~ permanently stationed in Khartoum, Sudan. His purpose is to perform diplomacy with the al Bashir government, an administration currently carrying out ethnic cleansing operations on its borders. Domestically, the British government’s claim to provide for its population (as opposed to its citizens) is being made forfeit by the systematic destruction of structures built on the ideas of a common right to life, and the responsibility of government to provide for its population. The Cameron government’s policies are regressive to a Dickensian degree, and increasing internal unrest ~ characterised by last year’s riots ~ will only be kept at bay by Jubilee morale boosting for so long.  With the removal of welfare structures, Downing Street would model Britain as nothing more than a vast, transnational bank, complete with hordes of the hungry standing outside. From an international perspective, this is the only form of diversity Cameron’s government is currently interested in promoting.
The writer is on the staff of The Statesman


[10.6.2012 Lara adds: Clarification: I take it for granted that ‘morals’ are socially-inscribed codes, whereas ethics – broadly speaking – are a means of defending concepts of right and wrong actions. My use of the phrase ‘moral superiority’ is therefore performative – the description or impression of a national discourse, as opposed to ‘ethical behaviour’. A longer piece might make this distinction clearer, but I did not feel it was necessary to point out the ethical importance of, for example, the NHS etc.

To clarify my argument and take it forward: firstly, that Britain’s claim to moral superiority is being made forfeit not because it ever had a right to make this claim in the first place, but because the infrastructure supporting this claim (class/gender/race equality and equal opportunities and so on) is being dismantled: the discourse, or performance, can no longer support itself.

Or so it would seem from one perspective. However, taking this forward, I would suggest that if Britain maintains its performance of ‘moral superiority’ on an international stage, then the discourse (and infrastructure) of ‘moral superiority’ is now based on codes of economic viability. To be ‘moral’, in the context of Downing Street’s national aspirations, one must be financially solvent. Foreign investors are invited to buy a stake in moral superiority.]

‘sthaniya sambaad‘ (‘spring in the colony‘), Goldsmiths Tuesday Sept 6th, 2011

This feature film by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas is well worth seeing.

sthaniya sambaad‘ (‘spring in the colony‘),

(105 min. 2009, 35 mm, cinemascope, EST).

Q & A with one of the directors.

6.15pm Tuesday Sept 6th, 2011 – Goldsmiths Cinema RHB Small Hall

please take a look at and also the blog for responses to the film.

A moving, and funny, story of life in a refugee colony south of  the city of Kolkata.


It follows the workshop on Vernacular Globalizations, in the same venue, starting 3pm, with Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, Moinak Biswas and others.

All welcome, no charge.

sthaniya sambaad 19.3.2010 5pm

I am very pleased to announce a special screening of the feature film by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas

sthaniya sambaad‘ (‘spring in the colony‘),

(105 min. 2009, 35 mm, cinemascope, EST).

Q & A with one of the directors.

5pm friday 19th March – Goldsmiths Cinema RHB

please take a look at and also the blog for responses to the film.

A moving, and funny, story of life in a refugee colony south of  the city of Kolkata.

All welcome.

National Instruments

On the initiative of Moinak Biswas, Film Studies Jadavpur Uni, Kolkata, and with great input from Rosalind Morris, but initially inspired by the Preservation in Globalization workshop convened by Gayatri Spivak and Jorge Otero-Pailos, an interesting redevelopment seems possible. A disused factory site adjacent the Jadavpur campus was toured by our group in early December. A documentation of the site has begun by photographers invited by the Jadavpur Media Lab has generated some great pictures, see here. The site was left pretty much intact when the factory closed in 2003 – well worth  a look.

Now (see below) there is a plan to gut the site and turn it over to the engineering faculty. The site is huge – there is room for something alongside. Hence, the following draft international petition:

For continued innovation at the National Instruments site, Jadavpur.

The redevelopment of the National Instruments site offers a rare opportunity to look forward and back at the changing dynamic of industrial production. The extant materials, documents, personal effects, and machinery (lathes, punch card clocks, work desks) provide a physical record of workplace experience now passing. Jadavpur University, with its reputation, scholarship and global reach is well placed to facilitate an innovative approach that builds upon the proud history of NI and looks forward creatively to new developments.

A simple shroud should not be passed over this accumulated wealth of objects, and labour, from the past. The factory remains might be best preserved by the University in a working space that is devoted to tracking the transformations of industrial production and workplace experience in India. That a museum and art/technology laboratory has been proposed is supported by international scholars, a large number of whom have visited the site and/or noted the initial documentary work produced by Moinak Biswas and his team. We consider this an excellent, exciting and potentially rewarding possibility for joint work and international co-ordination. Scholars would seek international funds to locate research projects on labour history, urban development, new economy (service sector, technology, privatization) and co-research in joint ventures with Jadavpur scholars and students. A truly international project to unite workers of the world might be reanimated here.

The idea is that various people will sign this and it be put to the Jadavpur heads to consider the proposal, from Media Lab and Film Studies, to do something interesting with the site. Well, I think its interesting. I used to work in a similar factory as a grubby teenager. My dad spent a very large part of his life in one – Stanley, Nunawading, Melbourne, Australia. I have a touch of the heebie-jeebie’s looking at the machines, especially the drills where I had spent long low-paid days… (the picture I have used is from a post by Madhuban Mitra and Manus Bhattacharya – with thanks)


Giving some history of National Instruments, and of the original preservation project and future plans, Moinak writes:

The factory started off in 1830 under the name ‘mathematical instrument maker’, then became ‘mathematical instruments office’, both serving mainly the ‘survey of india’ instituted by the east india company. During ww1 it got seriously involved with the defense dept., became national instruments factory; was relocated to the premises you saw in 1957, renamed ‘national instruments limited’ (NIL) as a public sector unit under the union govt. the factory mainly made optical instruments for survey, measurement, photography, etc. and was popularly known for its national 35 camera. It fell into some crisis first in the 60’s, and then into a more serious one in the 80’s, got referred to the board of industrial and financial reconstruction (BIFR). Manufacture stopped in 2003. most workers accepted the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) and left in march, 2003. 64 employees remained on campus and witnessed the ruination. In 2009, jadavpur university took over the property with the aim of building an extension campus for the engineering faculty.

the media lab of the dept of film studies at jadavpur undertook extensive photo documentation of the premises in june, 2009. we commissioned 10 young photographers and filmmakers to shoot for 4 months on the premises, covering everything possible. we have a bank of 20 thousand still images and 60 hours of video footage. a blog from the stills ( and a couple of films have been made. more projects will follow. we have shot interviews with many ex-employees. it’s now a substantial labour and industrual landscape archive.

but there should also be preservation of a different kind. the university has started renovating parts of the buildings, and will soon remove most of the equipment and files, etc. we were thinking of proposing the creation of a space, using one big room like the canteen you saw, which will preserve their products, some of the tools, machine parts, workers’ id papers, bills, service documents, policy documents, the punch card machines, etc, and at the same time be an active space for independent art practice, including independent film screenings, installations, etc. the major problem is to persuade the university to spare that space. it would pay more serious attention to an international community of artsits and intellectuals. but we should keep in mind what can be sustained and how far, given the public funded university framework in india, and given the fact that anything doing with art has first to prove its vialbility to the engineering faculty dominated.


This is great stuff – history and potential. But there are also things to debate. University take over of the fading industrial economy has a long track record (see here, here and  here). Is it really possible to tamper with such trajectories? Besides drafting the above call at Moinak’s request, I also offered my two pice worth of cynicism earlier in the discussion [note: I was a bit ill at the time]:

Moinak, your sentence on the the creation of a space that will both preserve the NI worker’s “products, some of the tools, machine parts, workers’ id papers, … punch card machines, etc, and at the same time be an active space for independent art practice” is a great start. But I wonder if the museum/archive route is too passive, and might not claim much in terms of physical space in the building (when it all should be kept in those terms – see Mao Mollona’s excellent film on industrial steel machinery in Sheffield, where a fully functioning workshop has been maintained 1890’s era machines in working, and profitable, order). I also wonder if, importantly, the preservation argument does enough in conceptual terms within the overall regeneration/transformation of the economy and the University – a discussion I imagine that must be going on, and needs new thinking.

I am acutely aware that here “anything doing with art has first to prove its viability to the engineering faculty dominated”, and wonder if the focus of what we present might be geared towards this. That said, I am stumped for where to look for initial funds, or clearly marked ‘preservation funds’. It is not my forte. However, ongoing funding could also be geared into the conception.

An Art/Laboratory would probably have pedagogical, research and creative components.

At issue is who inhabits the space, what it provides, and outcomes now and for the future.

Thus, neither a mortuary service for fading industry, nor a hollow art scene doing a ghost dance for dead capital (tried and tested, but too often turned into mere foyer or coffee shop – eg Tate Modern), the project has far greater inter- and intra- disciplinary purchase, and potential as for very wide participation. The former workers, the Jadavpur students, local residents, the city in general, and both national and international research teams across many areas can be drawn into the nexus of this site conceived as instrumental to the transition between older and newer economic modes. Research, teaching and creativity all have a role in transition.

A range of projects, both national and international – but many funded internationally – could locate in dedicated space within the project:

Possible internationally funded Research Projects for Instrument Lab

– changing infrastructure of economies, history and globalization, technology and colonialism, warfare and commerce, education and training history (see journal of the Confernce of Socialist Economists)

– class composition and worker’s inquiry, labour history, transition economies and the transformation of work, co-research with workers of older and newer economic production (this is a project I would like to pursue between Goldsmiths, Queen Mary Business School and Jadavpur – funded by Economic and Social Research Council UK perhaps, the Co-Research would involve workers paid as researchers in both discontinued production such as National Instruments, as well as in new industries in Kolkata such as creative economy, service sector, media and telecoms. They would be researching, documenting and theorizing their own conditions of work – aim initially at a three year project @ £500k for 4 paid researchers on site, plus money for collaborative work).

– precision capitalism, mathematical arts of production, skill, craft and body/machine knowledge: instrument hand and brain, cyborg labs then and now (Fuller/Harwood/MUTE or RAQS?).

– obsolescence and regenerative second life, industrial remains and urban renewal, science and fiction, creative revival as life force in cities (see P.Hall and M.Castells: Technopoles of the World).

– photographic imaging and war/industry convergence (as digital is to analog; globalization is [not] to industry)

– teaching exchange, especially in cultural studies of work, education, training, urban preservation and curating (possible Network Grants at £70k each)

These projects in various ways – there would be many others possible – would be conceived to locate researchers at Jadavpur, employed locally and internationally, and would work with local constituents and stakeholders (workers, researchers, students, local residents, support staff). Each would entail a pedagogical exchange function, as well as a display (installations, museum, art) aspect. The point is to keep this alive to change, the transformation of work, of class composition, or urban environs, and of the university itself (as universities move to project based work, and older models of disciplinary containment are supplemented).

Ahhh, now I have written all this down I think maybe its not strong enough yet to stave off the impending disposal of most of the workplace artefacts, beautiful machines (valuable machines) and other remains, but those remains are the resource and raw material of something potentially great in the future. Our labour can reanimate them – the sweat of our friends to whom we owe a debt (not just of mourning).

Sorry for the Derridisms – the flu drugs again kick in…

December 2009 in Kolkata

113_1387I am lucky enough to have been invited to go to Kolkata in December for a symposium on the “Cultural Politics of Preservation”, organised by Gayatri Spivak. Was asked today what I would present on. Gulp. I have no idea yet. How about this:

To work among the masses – co-research, institutionalization or vanguard intervention?

I am interested in the ways intellectual work, debates around method, and the ethical position of both the academic researcher and the vanguard political intersect with questions of preservation and globality.

Inspired by, and critical of, several examples in relation to this, I have three themes: a) I want to talk about the Co-Research or Class Recomposition Studies approach that emerges from Autonomist Marxism in Italy in the 1970s and which has been discussed a great deal by European activists in recent years (eg Kolinko group); b) my second ‘case study’ is the traditional project of ‘Anthropology’ as an institutionalized way of both ‘going to have a look for yourself’ and of inscribing ‘peoples’ inside a global knowledge apparatus (libraries, textbooks and the like); and c) my third example is the problem of the vanguard party and what, and how, it knows about the ‘masses’ (from Mao’s report on Hunan to the critique of Leninism today).

In this way, a perspective on the critique of cultural preservation might be developed drawing on my previous work on cultural exotica, rumour, writing and activism.

[I am not sure if this will work out, but I think its where I am just now]

There was also a request for some relevant representative work (let’s debate that term, ‘representation’). I sent this lot:

(pic -taken on the train to Kolkata)

Patrick Swayze Dance with Death

There will be no “Dirty Dancing 3” it seems. Sad, but at least we can luxuriate in the recollections of knowing that “DD2” (2004 – where Patch was a dance instructor) will have been the last outing for the Rambo of the ballroom, and the flame will never be dimmed. I am dismayed that he has cancer, but also not surprised since his delicate health has always been an issue. There was a time, soon after his work in Kolkata on the film “City of Joy”, that we were very concerned. Roland Joffe, director, had had to build a secure fresh water pool for the monsoon scene of that film since to have his star swim in regular Kolkata water would have been too big a risk. After the shoot we got some souvenirs too (a jar full, see below) – we were fans not only of “DD”, but also his excellent, Keanu-mocking role in “Point Break”. But it was the “City of Joy” stuff that was a worry, Swayze said at the Melbourne premier that while he could normally command a seven million dollar fee for a film, he so wanted to do this one “for the people of Calcutta” that he accepted just one million dollars. Here are some excerpts from my “Rumour” chapter on the film [with pictures added for my amusement] detailing the story of the fake slum, the fake promo shots, fake protests and fake stool – a farce all round in a city that deserves more than a dirty two-step coin trick:

Cinematic Calcutta

This chapter considers cinematic Calcuttas … The Joffe film, “City of Joy” is the primary focus because this film was made in co-operation with volunteers from the Preger clinic living in Modern Lodge. It presents highly-worked, advanced media technology, scripted and choreographed version of the rumour of Calcutta, so that the experience of travellers and visitors as portrayed in the film version … Released in 1992, “City of Joy”, directed by Joffe and starring Swayze alongside Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, offers an opportunity to evaluate the role of the movie camera in the presentation of India, and Calcutta (to the world beyond its shores). The distribution circuits of the film are all the more relevant here since City of Joy takes as its subject a ‘volunteer’ visitor who works in a street clinic very similar to that in which the travellers I met worked. Indeed, ‘the same’.

The plot of “City of Joy” is simple. The film begins with the death of an anonymous patient on an operating table in a modern American hospital. The surgeon in charge of the operation suffers anguish and despair over his failure. Cut to India.
Hasari (Om Puri) and family travel to Calcutta by bullock and cart, bus then train – the acceleration of this travel trajectory is not accidental. With warnings from a Grandmother to “stay away from the cinema”, they arrive to the crowded Howrah station amidst a Communist rally (which is the only scene which indicates any formal political presence in the city at all). They spend a first night camped by the Hooghly river and are then deceived into renting someone’s apartment by the charlatan Mr Ganguly. After Ganguly disappears, and Hasari and family begin to settle in, they are suddenly chased from the apartment, which was not for rent, and was not Mr Ganguly’s in the first place. Having lost all their savings, they mark out a space of pavement.

Dr Max (Patrick Swayze) arrives at Sudder Street’s Fairlawn Hotel (no bar fridge, offers of a “lady”) and takes a shower, musing over his absent passport, which he has left at an ashram, and his earnest quest to find enlightenment/escape from his failed life in America as a surgeon. In the first of what are many uncommon occurrences for this ‘typical’ American tourist, the porter from the Fairlawn brings Poomina, (Suneeta Sengupta) an allegedly 20 year old “lady”, with whom Max has “some problem” (a euphemism for sex?), but resolves this by going out drinking. As must happen with all Americans stranded in a ‘foreign’ city, Max ends up in a sleazy nightclub, the drinking bout leads to a bar fight, as goondas bash him – a very unusual event to befall a tourist in even the most seedy of Calcutta’s bars, more likely in New York – and he is robbed of all belongings. Hasari, from his pavement space nearby, intervenes and brings the near unconscious Max, with Poomina’s assistance, to Joan’s ‘City of Joy’ street clinic. Joan (Pauline Collins) patches up his wounds, shows him around the clinic, its small dispensary and school, and pays his way back to his comfortable hotel.

Max “doesn’t like sick people” and resists Joan’s obvious plans to recruit him as doctor for the clinic. Hasari learns to pull a rickshaw, bringing Max back to the hotel in a mad zig-zag through proverbially crowded streets. The unlikely entrance of such a rickshaw into the grounds of the hotel is not the least of the inaccuracies (or rather, artistic licence) of the film – the street protocols and hierarchy of business and propriety which operate even in Calcutta’s relatively small tourist trade are glossed over in this realist portrayal.

Rickshaw work is controlled by the family of Ghatak, whose son Ashoka (Art Malik) – the one whose gang beat up on Max – demands that Hasari ‘neigh’ like a horse if he wants to pull a rickshaw. The more pragmatic father examines Hasari’s chest (for signs of tuberculosis) and demands “loyalty”, and Hasari becomes a rickshaw wallah. While in Pilkana, the real City of Joy, hand-pulled rickshaw’s have been long replaced by bicyclist-driven ones, artistic licence again erases the contemporary conditions of Calcutta and no recognition is made of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation campaign to end the use of hand-pulled rickshaws. Although the hand-pulled rickshaw is still prevalent in the inner city area, this fictive shifting of them to the City of Joy is another calculated inaccuracy: such omissions of urban planning efforts in Calcutta are significant devices in presenting the city as the exemplar of massively abstracted ‘grinding poverty’. Upon establishing himself as a rickshaw wallah, Hasari and family move into a room in the City of Joy. Hasari plans to save for his daughter’s dowry (no criticism of this practice acknowledged, despite signs of a school, and thus by implication the usual campaigns to prevent the illegal practice of dowry and the many tragedies to which it leads through extortionate demands).

The notion that Ashoka and the Ghatak family organization are somehow, consciously or unconsciously placed in the metaphoric location of the Left Front Government and its officials in Joffe’s version of Calcutta may occur to some. As the slippage from specific characterizations to generalized ‘how things are in Calcutta’, and with the conspicuous absence of the communist parties in most of the film, it seems clear that Ghatak, as embodiment of all evil and corruption, will be associated with formal authority in the city. The message is that the only authority in Calcutta is corrupt. This crypto-anti-communist lesson from Joffe will be acknowledged and internalized to varying degrees of conscious recognition – and moreso if audiences are aware of any of the wranglings Joffe had with the Government of West Bengal, Bengali intellectuals and the Calcutta press over the propriety of making this film. While it is not possible to show that the characterizations of the Ghatak family must be seen as a Joffe slag against the CPI(M) through ‘metonymic’ substitution, this does raise questions of the motivations of those involved in this sort of film-making, and that perhaps the film is about Joffe’s, and Swayze’s, frustrations more than much else. The explorations of Swayze’s tortured self, the search for enlightenment and meaning, the works of ‘charity’, in a psychoanalysis by substitution, can be read as Joffe’s own experience. Despite criticism from almost every quarter in Calcutta – from the Government who banned his film to other film-makers, including Satyajit Ray who said he couldn’t film on the streets of the city – Joffe belligerently and relentlessly pursued his project. There were great difficulties encountered in scenes filmed in the streets, although most of the film was shot in a specially built million dollar set in suburban Calcutta. Swayze recounted the excitement of filming with a certain tension in a promotional interview: “we were forced to just set up the camera and shoot before anyone noticed what we were up to”. (Less generous critics on the roof of the Modern Lodge called this the clandestine realismo approach to film-making).
Max, meanwhile, is trying to buy a hamburger in a streetside “no beef” cafe. He spots Ashoka, gives chase, but is detained by the police. Rescued a second time by Joan, he comments upon her work in the street clinic: “are you just nuts, or are you doing penance here?” Joan replies with the first of many pro-charity soliloquys that would not seem all that out of place at a Modern Lodge roof-top meeting: “I came on a whim in the first place, but then I stayed. In the beginning it was really frustrating trying to convince them not to be so bloody passive, and then I realised I was fighting a thousand years of passive acceptance”. The theme of passivity is the recurrent explanation of people’s predicament throughout the film.

Max: “Maybe you should stop doing this”. Joan: “Maybe I should … but I’m not very good at loving just one person, it seems to work out better if I spread it around a little bit”. After this exchange Max reaffirms his faith in the Dallas Cowboys, American cinema and Mickey Mouse. Joan’s “simple-minded, but tidy” three part explanation of the ways of the world – there are runaways, observers, and the committed – does not seem to impress as Hasari invites him to share a meagre dinner. After a planting ceremony of seeds in a pot on behalf of his daughter’s dowry, the farmer who must always watch something grow, asserts the ‘simple’ joys of life. But very soon after, this tranquil scene is disrupted by an emergency which only Max can deal with, and although there is no morphine, diazepam … local anaesthetic, he is able to assist in the delivery of a breach birth – an awesome scene in which the doctor asserts the full authority of the medical tradition contra indigenous superstition and fear. Amidst all this, Hasari’s wife Kamla (Shabana Azmi) assists the doctor on the strength of her experience as a mother of three, and earns a position as his nurse when – after the loss of his airticket home, and a little soul searching: “I don’t even feel good about what we did down there today, bringing another little mouth to feed into this cesspool” – he ‘volunteers’ to help in the clinic on a continuing basis. Max: “You call this a clinic!” Joan: “We’ve got no brain scanner either Max, but we’re doing the best we can” (these lines, and a scene involving the sale of donated milk, were offered to Joffe, I suspect, from the chief humourist at the Preger Middleton Row clinic).

In the meantime Poomina has been ordered to attend school under Max’s directive. Max and Joan visit Ghatak (Shyamanand Jalan), who offers Max a lesson in goonda philosophy: “I have learnt not to trust those who say they do things for the benefit of others”, which Max violently rejects. This is an interesting refusal which encodes much of Joffe’s message; unlike the passive and yoked people of the City of Joy, Max will not bow down before the power of the oppressor Ghatak. He calls upon the people of the City of Joy to rise up against the Ghatak family: “You should get pissed at the people who are really using you”. This is as admirable a message as it is naive. Even the most cursory history lesson about Bengal would have taught Joffe that any suggestion that Calcuttans need American coaching in order to organize a political mobilisation is wholly absurd. Passivity here works as Western arrogance and denial displaced by self-importance. Near the beginning of the film Grandmother had warned Hasari’s sons Shambu and Manooj to “stay away from the cinema”, but Max, a film-buff’s fanatic, had taken them to see an action-hero epic. Max is the agent of (cinematic) change, although a mature assessment of the effects of cinema upon him in his youth, where his adulterous father packed him off to the movies while pursuing his affairs, might lead to other evaluations of the impact of paternal directives. While Joffe does not take up the metaphor of movies and paternalism which could be read into this scene, the self-referentiality of Joffe’s cinema jokes may have unforeseen dysfunctions which should not be lost on critical audiences who are likely to note that the real “users” in this film are the Americans, Swayze and Joffe, and the imperialist system which makes possible this sort of cinematic characterization of Calcutta by wealthy celluloid “bosses”. Fatherly protection and paternalistic charity are the guiding themes. The rest of the film follows the script of classics like The Wild Bunch and The Seven Samurai, as Max leads the people of the City of Joy to organise and, subsequently, Hasari inspires the rickshaw wallahs to rebel against the oppression of the Ghatak ‘family’. There are several almost predictable setbacks: Hasari contracts tuberculosis, a common complaint among rickshaw wallahs; he loses his rickshaw to Ashoka and he is forced to sell his blood (a sensational aspect of poverty included in the story and around which the author of the book “City of Joy”, Dominique Lapierre, was severely criticised); an attack is organised by Ashoka and his goondas upon the leprosy clinic; and there is a near-death action-camera experience for Max during the monsoon flood (the 250,000 gallons of water for the flood was specially pumped into the watertight set Joffe had built to enable monsoon filming without regular ‘polluted’ monsoon water – the entire project overseen by Star Wars trilogy special effects wizard Nick Allder).

There is one terrible scene where Ashoka traps Poomina and uses a razor to cut her cheeks to “accentuate that beautiful smile”, although Max’s surgical skill is sufficient to restore her beauty. Moving from active woman to silent ‘child’, Poomina’s character develops in a way that underscores certain gendered and ethnocentric assumptions about Indian women. From an assertive, but fallen woman who initiates all interaction between herself and Max, and brings him to the City of Joy clinic, her increasing passivity contrasts to her initial resourcefulness as she is ordered off to school, is attacked with the razor by Ashok, is carried to safety by Max who sews her slit mouth shut – making her unable to speak in the entire second half of the film. After functioning as the catalyst for Max’s arrival in the City of Joy, as well as providing a hint of exotic and erotic intrigue, Poomina is silenced almost as completely as Hasari’s daughter, who, without a word, and possibly in Poomina’s place, is married at the end of the film with the dowry that Hasari has almost killed himself to earn.

After this, the film’s denouement is a scene reminiscent of the manger sequence in Jerusalem in late December two thousand years ago. Amidst a grey Calcutta, just one shining light beacons for all Christian souls – the clinic of the City of Joy – as the camera pulls back to a full panorama and the credits roll.


There is much in “City of Joy” that people could find offensive. The simplicity of the emotive codes in which poverty and the conditions of Calcutta are explained away as problems of passivity, and localized exploitation, avoids any analysis of the global economic factors which depress such sectors in Calcutta. Max, even though the audience recognizes that he is from the wealthy ‘West’, is still presented as the man with the answers, despite the self-help rhetoric of the clinic. It is never acknowledged that Max’s own patronizing attitudes and ‘answers’ are founded upon the full might of neocolonial exploitation of Calcutta by international capitalism. Nor does the representation of women in the film, as smiling, passive, beautiful and increasingly silent beings, provide any degree of analytic sophistication. Such formulaic representations of bodies cannot achieve more. The absence of those who in other (local) narratives of the city are seen to be doing things in Calcutta, be it the Corporation, or the militant communists and CPI(M), simply affirms the film’s misrepresentations of Calcuttans as passive (apolitically joyous), and Americans as those-who-have-answers. This is not Calcutta, and although I’m not sure what is, or how its diversity could be represented (but see the films of Mrinal Sen), it is possible to argue that despite being ‘about’ Westerners in Calcutta, Joffe’s film does not at any stage address an explanation of the problems of Calcutta in terms of international relations, nor does it consider the dimensions of local conditions – positive and negative – in the context of Calcutta’s political history, or provide more than a gloss over the factors of class and caste which should take at least some place in any narrative. That he prefers instead to lay all blame on a local petty bully boy, in an emotional and sentimental heart-throb wild west adventure in which Patrick Swayze saves the day – hi ho Silver – is nothing short of amazing.

Can the camera, in the hands of a Western visitor, see otherwise? If “images of Calcutta are restless and constantly shifting in meaning” as Joffe says (Filmnotes 1992) is it possible to disrupt the code that he has played out here? There are other films of Calcutta, but I do not think the ‘difference’ that these films display is a difference that enters or effects the codifications that determine Joffe’s images. The reasons for this are prejudices and ethnocentrisms that are not specific to the camera, but are neither disrupted nor displaced by it either. Imperialist business-as-usual seems to be the order of the day – the camera is a fold in perception, and yet nothing much has changed. Similarly, Joffe can present himself as a more sensitive film-maker, alert to many of the pitfalls and assumptions of cultural difference, able to recognise at least a degree of the indeterminancies of meaning in which he is involved – “Calcutta taught me to take nothing at face value” (Joffe, Filmnotes 1992), and yet still make a very conventional film which reiterates Kipling-like arrogances.

There are too many of these bad news stories in a city which gets a bad press. Its inscription as the exemplary site of photogenic poverty and overcrowding is continually reinforced, the analysis and action which might address Calcutta’s problems is not forthcoming, and despite all this Joffe persisted in forcing his production onto our screens. In Calcutta the filming was bizarre; riots outside, and invasions of, the set, hijacking of the cast’s food truck, union bans, huge crowds come to see the Indian film stars, stone throwing, police lathi charges (bamboo baton), delays of all kinds, the shooting of the film attracted much – perhaps too much – attention. There were, it seems, also some problems with Patrick Swayze’s bowels: in April 1991, Modern Lodge volunteer workers were able to auction off a stool sample bottle with the star’s name upon it found among junk donated by the departing film crew. If we were interested in authenticity we might expect to find Dr. Max in “City of Joy” spending most of his time in the bathroom attending to his diarrhoea. This, of course, would be unseemly in a popular film, however much it would resonate with the experience of visitors and their ongoing shit-talk. The viscous limit of “City of Joy” is reached by blood, childbirth and a fairly sanitized focus upon the stumps of leprosy. With a fabricated slum, with imitation monsoons from pumped bore water, hand-pulled rickshaws where there are bicycles, joy in destitution, and what the film crew described as ‘chaos all around’, it is still a wonder that the film appeared at all (a tribute to Joffe’s cash reserves). During the period of filming there were numerous reviews, pro and con, and promotional articles in the Calcutta press reporting the sensations of riots and intrigues on the set. A whole gossip and rumour system in itself. Subsequently the whole affair has entered more literary writings as a background event in other stories about Calcutta. For example a character in Sunetra Gupta’s novel “The Glassblower’s Breath” announces his successful tender for the contract to build Joffe’s set: “So he would be building a slum, a slum to slum all slums in this city of slum, for no slum had proved slum enough for the City of Joy … Do you feel no shame?” (Gupta 1993:233).

Wholesome purchase and transportation of slum dwellers’ houses went into the construction of the ‘City of Joy’ set. One volunteer noted that the bustee dwellers must have thought Joffe was mad; ‘he comes in, sees the broken down roof of hessian and the tin sheets and says, “I love it, I’ll have it” and peels off three or four hundred rupees to give to the owner. Then his henchmen get to work, remove the old wrecked roof as carefully as possible and replace it with a strong solid new roof!’ (Kath). Yes, it is crazy. The old roof is fitted into Hollywood’s authentic Calcutta.

As a coda to this, the scene in “City of Joy” where Max gives a rupee to the begging children can stand as an emblem for all the themes of third world tourism and charity. Max plays this out as a sleight of hand in a way that recalls Derrida’s presentation of Baudelaire’s counterfeit coin tale. Unlike Lévi-Strauss who dismisses the begging child’s call for one anna as ‘pathetic’, Max engages with the children, and amuses them with coin tricks. Here we can read a routine of savage curiosity over colonial magic often played out to remind Western audiences of their technological advantages. Max is soon overwhelmed by the numbers of children his offer of coins attract and he is forced to flee – the very same scene appears in John Byrum’s 1984 film version of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, where Bill Murray arrives on the steps of the Ganges in Varanasi4. What does the coin trick signify here? Is it that the Western visitor has the power to give and yet also to fake the gift, and abandon the effort when the demand gets too much?

The coin, as symbol of money, is not, here, the universal marker of value that it is in the money form for Marx. The burden of money in Marx is to be both a commodity exchangeable for itself as well as for all other commodities. Max’s coin cannot be exchanged. The coin, however, is a marker of an exchange in another way – the coin given to a beggar is a marker of power. This is a transaction which shares its structure with the appropriation of photography or film, an abstract directional exchange. Max exchanges his coin for the return that comes to all who give … The coin Max gives has its value “stripped away” (Marx 1858/1973:147) and it comes to stand for a social relation, so that the trick of this scene is that the gift of a coin, as any similar scene of ‘poverty’ is reinvested through the media circuits and wider economy of received images of India. This scene travels. In another context Spivak provides an analysis of this counterfeit and quotes Marx as saying: “in the friction with all kinds of hands, pouches, pockets, purses … the coin rubs off” (Marx in Spivak 1985:81), recalling that Nietzsche too mentions coins which have lost their face through rubbing. This occurs in his famous comment that truths are only metaphors, of which we have forgotten their illusory nature – “coins no longer of account as coins” (in Spivak intro to Derrida 1967/1976:xxii). Another formulation; in Capital, Marx says, “During their currency coins wear away” (Marx 1867/1967:125). “Im Umlauf verschleissen namlich die goldmunzen, die eine mehr, die andere weniger” (Das Kapital p.139).

From: The Rumour of Calutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation. Zed 1996.

The pictures I have included here also tell a story – here they are in order:Patrick and Suneeta; advert for City of Joy with Howrah bridge in background (remember this pose); Howrah Bridge itself; original scene for the ad pic with Art Malik as goonda-henchman – with no Howrah Bridge; and finally, a two-step trick just to show my love for PS is boundless – our two families; made into one, since we are all having the time of our lives…

and I never felt like this before

Yes I swear it’s the truth

And I owe it all to you”


Reading The Telegraph from Kolkata, I guess we have to see this below as good news – coming from Melbourne to work in the capital of West Bengal, I always thought there was a major similarity between both cities. Not obviously, but it was something to do with the same architects working for the East India Company and the big old merchant banking firms of Victoria. These two affable guys (pic) I spent part of New Years Eve 2005 with might not be ‘youth’ or ‘students’ but they had very positive views about the livability of Cal. I agree, place just needs a little less exhaust, and reparation payments for hundreds of years of colonial theft… (Ah yes, city links are also a reminder of the Tram Jatra – another good reasonfor twinning these two places – see here and – for the Karachi linkage – here)

From The Telegraph
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Students pitch for more liveable city


The youth of Calcutta dream of making the city like Melbourne — recently judged the world’s most liveable city by an international agency — by 2020. Riding high on history and the information technology boom, the students of various city colleges also have the blueprint to achieve the goal.

The plans, to make Calcutta the “best living city” were presented at Youthcon 07, a convention organised by Concern for Calcutta at St Xavier’s College auditorium, which saw participation by several colleges and management institutes. The “best living city” is not just comfortable to live in but also full of life, according to the organisers.

The convention on September 1 and 2 was inaugurated by mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya and attended by the Union minister for youth affairs Mani Shankar Aiyar.

The minister lauded the students for their enthusiasm and faith but pointed out that any plan for the city should not leave out the economically backward. “You need to be more practical in your approach and include the less fortunate in your plans,” said Aiyar.

Concern for Calcutta, an autonomous, non-profit organisation formed in 1948, launched its youth cell last year to involve the younger generation in the mainstream of development.

“There are some who dream of making Calcutta the queen among cities but there are also those who don’t care,” said Bhattacharyya, who was the chief guest.

The mayor called for the participation of young people can help in maintaining the underground drainage system for reducing waterlogging in the city. “Youngsters can help spread awareness about how plastic bags clog up drains,” said Bhattacharyya.

Short coins

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about the coins Job Charnok used to buy the three villages that eventually became the city of Kolkata. These were pieces of silver earned from the slave trade, making an interesting if brutal link between the great British adventure of exploitation in India and across the Atlantic. Coins are of course the potent symbol of capitalism. And I guess of stereotypes about Calcutta too – that scene with the coin tricks in the Swayze film City of Joy. THere is much more to say (so dig out my chapter on Calcutta coinages in Bell and Haddour’s book “City Visions” 2000), but this little item caught my eye today as I was perusing the northern press (as one does):

“Mysterious shortage of coins grips Calcutta

This is from The Scotsman 16 June 2007

A MYSTERIOUS coin shortage gripping Calcutta has shop-keepers begging for change from beggars and buying coins at prices above their face value.

No one knows exactly why there is no change in the eastern Indian city, but the situation has spurred the Reserve Bank of India to emergency measures, distributing millions of coins to try to satisfy the demand.

Since the coin shortage became acute in early June, the bank has distributed five mill-ion rupees ($121,950) worth of coins, including a million on Thursday alone, said Nilanjan Saha, the bank’s treasurer in the city. But the emergency supplies have failed to stem the demand.

“There is no reason for it ,” said Saha. “But I have heard reports that some unscrupulous traders are melting coins because the face value of the coins is lower than the metal value.”

Sacred Media Cow

From Somnath over on on “Sacred Media Cow” [SACREDMEDIACOW is an independent postgraduate collective on Indian media research and production at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London]:

Oh Calcutta

Folks, been away from active blogging for a while. Apologies. The PhD writing and thinking alongwith other activities been taking its toll. Hopefully back now.

My thesis concerns itself with two urban news centres, Calcutta (I still cant bear to do away with the colonial imageries) and Mumbai. Been reading a bit about both the cities lately and a book by John Hutnyk called The Rumour of Calcutta is a quite fascinating account of the city and deconstructs the myths around this “city of extremes” created through the views and notions of representations, from foreign travellers on missions of mercy staying at a cheap tourist lodge to travel guides, books and films.

I have also been logging how the media in recent times has been portraying the city. By all accounts, Calcutta has finally come of age. It is the city on the mend. The government is being applauded, the Chief Minister felicitated. Right wing Conservative Shekhar Gupta in Indian Express speaks and applauds the Indian Left and its erudition, the Politburo and its concerns. Sagarika Ghose cant stop gushing in her interview with Buddha Babu. Protests by “nay sayers” are brushed aside as the crumbling city wakes up to a new dawn. These are not my metaphors. So what’s going on.

It is very much like the errant child who has come home. Give it it’s just rewards, bring it into the fold, hand out the sops and make sure it feels welcome. The media house, the corporate entities cant stop falling over each other to felicitate Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s “coming to sense” wisdom and merging Calcutta with the other metros; long live the Left, so long as it can be managed.

City Requiem

City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty

by Ananya Roy

Uni of Minnesota Press.

Roy she was paralysed by “Rumour”, but went on to write her book anyway. Some pics too, and discussion of New Communism. “Roy shows how urban developmentalism, in its populist guise, reproduces the relations of masculinist patronage, and, in its entrepreneurial guise, seeks to reclaim a bourgeois Calcutta, gentlemanly in its nostalgias”.

Why I love Spivak

Yet another reason anyway… Not only is “Critique of Postcolonial Reason” a great book (for teaching, for method, for insight), but Gayatri is generous and committed, and she liked my rumour book:

A case in point would be John Hutnyk’s brilliant book “The Rumour of Calcutta”…’

in Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty “Harlem” Social Text – 81 (Volume 22, Number 4), Winter 2004, pp. 113-139 Duke University Press
you need Athens access to get the whole thing..

The Akha heritage Foundation

“Today, I’d like to present excerpts from a
thought-provoking book by John Hutnyk, entitled ‘The
Rumour of Calcutta: tourism, charity and the poverty
of representation’. The book was already published in
1996, and some of you may remember that I mailed out a
summary at the time when tourism NGOs began to discuss
as to how to apply the ‘fair trade’ concept in
tourism. I’m now sharing this piece with you again
because I believe it is an excellent and highly
opportune contribution to the current debate on
tourism and poverty alleviation.

Yours truly,
Anita Pleumarom
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team)”

New internationalist Rumour Notice

The Rumour of Calcutta:
Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation

‘…. John Hutnyk, in his fascinating study of Western interpretations of Calcutta, attempts to excavate the city from under the layers of accreted prejudices. He shows convincingly how, even before the traveller arrives, the reputation of Calcutta has laid down a sediment of ideas that acts as a modifier on subsequent experiences….’