Lost Calcutta

Maya Jasanoff at the NYRB:

Calcutta, 1996

To understand this Calcutta—a city in decline—it’s helpful to start from a different beginning. In her innovative new book, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta, Debjani Bhattacharyya, a professor of history at Drexel University, describes how Bengalis had their own story about Calcutta’s origins. “Legend has it that the city was born when the ocean started churning, and a tortoise,” pressed between the mountains and the force of Ananta, the infinite, “gasped out a deep breath.” Its breath made the Bengal Delta, a vast 40,000-square-mile area where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers seep into the Bay of Bengal. This legend, like the legend of Job Charnock, also carries an element of truth: Calcutta rests on shifting ground. It should be no surprise that its fortunes have shifted too.

Bengalis have many words for the kinds of terrain that emerge and disappear between the river’s shifting channels, including char, for the new sedimentary deposits turned up by every monsoon; chechra bhanga, for the silt that emerges when the floodwaters recede; and chapa bhanga, for large chunks of land that the water breaks off and carries away.

more here.