The Wicked City: Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta
Sumanta Banerjee
On Request
140 x 216 mm
Year of Publishing
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Jal, juochuri, mithye katha / Ei tin niye Kolikata” (Forgery, swindling and falsehood: these three make up Calcutta)—A popular couplet from early-eighteenth-century Calcutta.
This elegant, impeccably researched and wide-ranging work of social history is a riveting journey into the underworld of colonial Calcutta.

From dusty official files to half-forgotten popular literature of a dark past, The Wicked City unravels a fascinating panorama of crime in the colonial metropolis over two centuries. It begins in the eighteenth century with the plots of bribery and murderous vendetta hatched in Governor Warren Hastings’ office in the “White Town”—the tiny European part of the city. The story then moves into the dingy backstreets of the “Black Town”—the vast, sprawling Bengali habitation—and offers a glimpse into the world of indigenous dacoits. As the eighteenth century flickers out, a new century sees the dawn of new types of crimes like counterfeiting, even as the technology used in old forms of crime like burglary, becomes increasingly more sophisticated.

In this onward march of crime in the course of Calcutta’s rise from fledgling town to giant metropolis, a procession of colourful characters emerged and thrived in all their diabolic grandeur. With all their imagination and creative devices, they elevated crime to the status of art.

After immersing itself in the world of “criminals”, the book shifts its gaze towards the apparatus built by the colonial rulers to deal with them. In doing so, what clearly emerges is the symbiotic relationship between urban crimes—spawned by the colonial ethic of acquisitiveness and aggressive pursuit of self-interest—and the new laws and modes of punishment, fashioned by the colonial rulers to control those crimes.

Sumanta Banerjee Born and educated in Calcutta,  he has been a journalist by profession for more than forty years. Currently based in Dehradun, he writes political commentaries on current events in India, and is engaged in research on popular culture and social history of nineteenth-century Bengal. His published works include In the Wake of Naxalbari (1980); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989); Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal (1998); and Logic in a Popular Form: Essays on Popular Religion in Bengal (2002).


Part I: Hatching the Plot: Exploring the Social History of Crime

1. The Trailblazers
2. Calcutta’s White Underworld
3. Journeys through the Lower Depths
4. Killers: Violent and Silent
5. House-breakers, Thieves and Pilferers
6. Swindlers and Forgers
7. Embezzlers and Gamblers
8. Smugglers, Drug-pushers and Poisoners
9. Underworld Heroines and their Children
10. The Contest over Public Space

Part II: Smashing the Plot: Punishing, Disciplining and Ordering

1. The Beginnings
2. Rise and Growth of the Police
3. Subalterns of the Calcutta Police
4.  Arrival of the Bengali Sleuth
5. The Web of Criminal Prosecution
6. Jail: The Meeting Ground of Criminology and Penology
Concluding Reflections
Select Bibliography

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