Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Literate city?


Too bookish for crime? Photo: Piyal Adhikary.

I have written earlier about how 'literate' my city, Calcutta is (see here and here.

Well, now the great Amartya Sen no less, has given the ultimate certificate to Calcutta.

I reproduce the report from today's The Telegraph on Amartya Sen's lecture in London.

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Calcutta low crime linked to books: Sen

by Amit Roy

London, April 20: Calcutta has the lowest crime rate in the world because of the civilising effect of books, Amartya Sen said today in his keynote opening address at the London Book Fair.

Even by Sen’s exacting standards, it was by common agreement one of the Nobel Prize winner’s most brilliant speeches when he spoke on “India in the Modern World”.

With India chosen as the “market focus country” at the London Book Fair this year, the economist and moral philosopher examined the possible relationship between a love of books and low crime.

After his speech, Sen told The Telegraph: “I don’t know the answer but it is something worth looking into.”

This year the British Council has brought nearly 50 authors from India who, between them, represent 15 languages. Nearly 100 publishers from India have also made the journey to the Earl’s Court exhibition centre in London.

It was pointed out that India is now the third largest publishers of English books in the world. This works out to 15,000 titles a year.

The Indian book market, now worth £625 million, is growing at 10 per cent a year, with Hindi titles making up 26 per cent of the market.

Sen, however, did not deal with dry statistics. His speech made Calcutta sound the most exciting literary city in the world.

The question he posed was: “Does the culture of books influence the life of the city in any profound way?” He then offered an intriguing theory which even the people of Calcutta might not have considered.

“To consider one remarkable feature, Calcutta has, by a long margin, the lowest crime rate in the world, including the incidence of homicide and murder,” he said. “While the number of murders per hundred thousand people per year varies between 2 and 10 per year in many cities in Europe and America, and between 15 and 50 per year in many cities in Africa and Latin America, the homicide rate in impoverished Calcutta is only 0.3 per cent — a fraction of the rate in any other city in the world.”

He then drove him his point: “Indian cities generally have low murder rates, around 2.7 on the average (rather like London but much lower than American cities like New York or Chicago), but Calcutta in particular beats them all — even the famously peaceful towns of Singapore and Hong Kong — in terms of the lowness of homicide rates.”

He came round again to his fundamental question: “Does the peculiar love of books and culture, and here I would add Calcutta’s fondness for theatre, too (often produced at very low cost), have a role here? I don’t really know, and there is no rigorous work on this that has properly tested any of the possible hypotheses.”

He had cleverly planted the germ of a revolutionary thought: “It is abundantly clear that the standard explanation of crime in terms only of economic poverty does not tell us much about the incidence and causation of violent crime, including homicide. There is certainly some research to be done here.”

Sen appeared to speak not so much about modern India but why Calcutta was just about the most fantastic city in the world bar none. In terms of the number of people who attended, the Calcutta Book Fair was the biggest in the world — bigger than even Frankfurt, he stressed.

He said that “the city I came from, namely Calcutta, has a huge book culture”.

He remembered the pavements in College Street with their spread of books and nearby stores jammed with volumes of every description. “I should perhaps mention here, in these precarious roadside shops that the future film director, Satyajit Ray, read publications on films from across the globe, which introduced him to the traditions of world cinema. A considerable part of Satyajit Ray’s affection for the city that he loved despite finding it ‘monstrous, teeming, bewildering’ (perhaps because of that) related to the book culture that expanded his horizon so radically, even on the sidewalks of Calcutta.”

He also disclosed how his own life had been changed by Calcutta’s book culture. “It was in one of the College Street bookshops, called Dasgupta’s, that my friend Sukhamoy Chakravarty found at the end of 1951 a copy of a recent book by a brilliant economist Kenneth Arrow.”

On his friend’s recommendation, Sen read the book “which would radically influence my direction of work. I often wondered whether my life would have gone very differently had my friend, Sukhamoy, not been such a book hound.”

Perhaps Sen’s keynote address should have been called, “Calcutta: why you should book your ticket this afternoon.” Sadly, there are no longer any direct flights from London to Calcutta, a city increasingly isolated from the rest of the world by political and economic Luddites, most analysts would say.

During the question and answer session, Sen demolished the logic behind Mulayam Singh Yadav’s manifesto commitment to downgrade the English language. He argued this would only serve to increase the admitted inequalities between those who knew English and those who did not. The answer, as far as Sen was concerned, was to ensure more people had the opportunity to learn English.

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Reading the report this morning, I was seething with annoyance. I wrote to some friends: "I have never heard such piffle in my life! I'm, sure you too would agree, on the basis of whatever you know about Calcutta, how abominable his comment is. Sadly, all the not-so-wonderful "Calcuttans" are going to be full as rosogollas with pride reading this. Would be great if you fired off a riposte! I would love to carry that on my blog.

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Sumanta Banerjee wrote:

Amartya Sen seems to have been swept off his feet by his nostalgic memories of childhood and youth in Calcutta, before it became "Kolkata". Being an `argumentative Bengali', and fond of theorizing, he has come up with this rather fanciful notion that the city's low rate of crime (is that substantiated by facts?) is due to its love for books!

To start with ... there are crimes and crimes, various nuances and shades. If burglaries, rape and murder are cognizable crimes, what about nursing-home doctors fleecing their patients and botching up operations (a regular phenomenon in Kolkata), or private tution-hungry college teachers exploiting their students, or a chief minister ordering the police to fire upon unarmed protestors and encouraging his party goons to burn villages? Aren't these crimes ?

And more importantly, aren't the perpetrators of these crimes great book-lovers - the doctors poring over medical texts, the teachers parading their erudition with volumes tucked under their arms, the chief-minister quoting poetry while inaugurating book fairs ?

In fact, by concentrating only on cognizable offences as defined in the Indian Penal Code (like murder, theft, burglary, etc) which are usually attributed to the illiterate, uneducated plebs (those bereft of the knowledge of books), we deliberately wink at the crimes of the educated book-lovers, and thereby betray a class bias.

May I go a bit further? During my research in crime in 19th century Calcutta, I found an interesting connection between the increasing availability of books (on modern chemistry, for instance) to the educated Bengali middle classes with the emergence of new types of criminals (although few in number) from among these classes - quack doctors learning to concoct medicines that could slow-poison some unsuspecting victims, or forgers learning from the texts how to manufacture inks that would delete portions from a will and replace them with a different version without arousing any suspicion. From this finding however I wouldn't jump to the reverse conclusion - that books lead to crimes!

I would have expected Amartya Sen to refrain from a similar simplistic conclusion that a city's crime rate rises or dips in proportion to its love of books. What about other metropolitan cities like London, Paris, New York? Are they less book-loving? Yet, as far as I know, crime rates there are quite high.

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Dulali Nag wrote:

Wonder what prompted him to utter such inanities... I believed he was not one to bow to the demands of political correctness. And what about some statistics on the number of book-lovers in New York, London, Chicago, and Mexico City vis a vis the number in Calcutta? And I cringe in my imagination faced with those "Calcuttans" who would be "full as rosogollas with pride reading this". These are the people who actually line the divide between the upper crust and the lower class in Sumanta Banerjee's essay on crime in Calcutta. These are hypocrites of the first order, 100% complacent, and exercise their agency only when it comes to deriding others.

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Ravi Vyas wrote:

Sumanto, a dear friend, kindly forwarded Amartya Sen's lecture at the London Book Fair that you had sent him, about low crime rates in Calcutta becoz of the Bengali's love of books. I fully endorse your view that this is a lot of bullshit but I want to add to it.

I was a publisher for almost 25 years and can claim to know the state of the book market in Calcutta - at least much more than AKS does. Publishers not only publish but also take on the much more onerous task of promoting and selling the books. As chief editor at Longman and later in Macmillan, I know the ground realities. I have walked the streets - College Street and all the rest - like a male prostitute, marketing and selling my wares. So have my colleagues who supported me.

There is a myth about the Bengali intellectual that needs to be exploded. True, long ago there were some pioneers but that is long since over. Besides, the best of them migrated (this includes AKS) to Delhi and elsewhere, where they have done good work. It is NRBs (non-resident Bengalis), not those in Calcutta, who should be commended.

The Calcutta book market is moribund. Nothing moves; it is stagnant. College Street only has the remains of the day. The long and short of this is: AKS has become obnoxious. He pontificates on just about everything - nurition, the virtues of the free press, India-China and all the rest - things he knows little about.

4 comments:

Mrinal Bose said...

Amartya Sen seems to be moralising on anything under the sun. Remember he stood by the Left Front government's land acquisition policy, and validated it when there was great turmoil in the state on the Singur issue? It backfired, and the Left faces a tough
election this time. So, don't give much value to what Sen says. I often wonder where there is really any line between Sen and non-sense.

Sabya said...

I think this isn't fair to Amartya Sen. This is what he wrote earlier "I have tried to speculate on the influence of different parameters in keeping the homicide rates and violent crimes low in India in general and in Kolkata in particular, such as mixed neighbourhoods, the hold of family life, the role of cultural lives, and in the case particularly of Kolkata, perhaps the mainstreaming of economic discontent in regular politics rather than leaving it to find violent outlets in irregular crime. But these are all highly speculative conjectures, and we badly need probing empirical investigation of this momentous but neglected issue." Taken from http://www.hindu.com/af/india60/stories/2007081550080200.htm

Nila-kantha-chandra said...

Hullo Sabya, thanks for your comment and the clarification. Stated in this fashion, it makes a lot more sense. But my post and the responses by others was a reaction to the report in The Telegraph by their correspondent. Maybe in the context of a public lecture, Sen omitted all the qualifiers in his earlier statement, and gave a simplistic message. It is very important to probe into the causes of violent crime. At this moment I am also thinking about Trinidad which I was told had murder figures which were among the highest in the world. But my post and my friends' response also had to do with our own unease and anger with and about Calcutta, coming from all that we see here, the deprivation and dehumanisation, the apathy and indolence, the absence of public policy, the blindness, apartheid and hypocrisy of the privileged classes and the so-called intelligentsia... If crime figures are low in Calcutta, that's not something to celebrate because we know what Calcutta is like and that is not at all something to celebrate. Hence also a range with the bankrupt people who would feel pride when they heard about Sen's simplistic comment. One can apply all kind of other yardsticks and have Calcutta coming out worst in the world. And those would be more realistic and meaningful.

Nila-kantha-chandra said...

The Telegraph of 25th April 2009 carries this response from Prof Sen himself:

Sir — I must thank Amit Roy for his kind report on my talk at the London Book Fair, but of course any reader will see that the account of the talk after the first sentence is at variance with that sentence (and with the misleading title given to the report) (“Calcutta low crime linked to books: Sen”, April 21). What I had said was not that “Calcutta has the lowest crime rate in the world because of the civilizing effects of books”, but that there is a connection between violent crime and culture that demands “certainly some research”. As Amit Roy goes on to report (after that unfortunate first sentence), I said: “Does the peculiar love of books and culture, and here I would add Calcutta’s fondness for theatre too (often produced at very low cost), have a role here? I don’t really know, and there is no rigorous work on this that has properly tested any of the possible hypotheses.”

Behind the need for more research on the connection between culture and violent crime are three remarkable facts: (1) Calcutta has, by a substantial margin, the lowest rate of homicide among all the major cities in the world; (2) Calcutta is also a city with extreme poverty (indeed the global fame of Calcutta seems to lie in this sad feature), and “it is abundantly clear that the standard explanation of crime in terms only of economic poverty does not tell us much”; and (3) Calcutta has some special cultural features, including a longer and more popular history of urban theatre than in any other Indian city and its book fair being the largest — in terms of attendance — in the world. To want an investigation of the connections, if any, is not the same thing as having a ready-made conclusion. Since the title and the first sentence of Amit Roy’s report will raise many eyebrows (mine included), may I commend strongly the accuracy of the rest of Amit Roy’s fine report — barring that one sentence (and the headline the newspaper has used to present the report)? Since some people seem unable to read a news story beyond the headline, I anticipate a storm of protests on my naivety based on headline-reading.

What results do I expect would emerge from serious empirical investigations? I don’t know, but my guess (and it can be no more than a guess until the empirical data are subjected to proper analysis) is that there are some constituent features of culture in the broadest sense that both influence violent crime (including the incidence of homicide), and the way people live (including the role of literature, the arts, the music, the addas, and other forms of amusement). I have discussed these issues more fully in an earlier essay, “Poverty, War and Peace” in The Little Magazine, vol. 7, nos. 3 and 4, 2008.

The lives we lead are influenced not only by economic prosperity and penury, but also by social and cultural relations. The important thing, right now, is to dispute the often-repeated belief that poor people tend also to be criminals, thereby adding severe insult to manifest injury.

Yours faithfully,
Amartya Sen,Cambridge, UK