Dear Mr. Ghosh,
Dear Mr. Ghosh,
On January 31st, Dr. Aaron Lobo, a marine conservationist, and I published a co-authored article in the Guardian, entitled Bay of Bengal: depleted fish stocks and huge dead zone signal tipping point. The article has had many shares and comments as will be evident from the comments section at the end.
I also received an email from Dr. Naveen Namboothri, a marine biologist and founding trustee of Dakshin Foundation, an organisation that aims at informing and advocating equitable natural resource management
It is posted below with the writer’s permission.
Victor Rangel Ribeiro published his first novel in 1998, at the age of seventy-two. It took its name from a fictional village, Tivolem, and is among the finest novels ever to be written about Goa. Peopled with a richly varied cast of characters it conjures up an idiosyncratic world of reclusive musicians, charming thieves and querulous village gossips.
In his new book, a collection of fiction entitled The Miscreant, Selected Stories 1949-2016 (soon to be published by Serving House Books), Victor returns to his fictional Tivolem giving us fresh glimpses into the inner life of this unique corner of the world. What makes Tivolem distinctive is that the village is deeply rooted in its own soil while also being extremely consmopolitan: many of its inhabitants have lived in other countries and continents, often in far corners of the Portuguese Empire. Victor himself partakes fully of this cosmopolitanism having spent much of his life in New York. This aspect of his life is also well-represented in The Miscreant, which has several insightful and observant stories set in Mumbai and New York.
Once again Victor proves himself to be an accomplished prose stylist and storyteller.
The Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, is a cornucopia of fresh, organic produce:
sheaves of asparagus
bok choy, spring onions; fiddlehead ferns,
But the mushrooms are the real surprise:
A stall nearby offers another Bhutanese staple, cured meats
Also on display are strings of dried yak cheese, a popular snack also known as ‘Bhutanese popcorn’. Nonno Tsesham tells us that one piece will get him through a three-hour film.
Fresh cheese and butter
are two other essential commodities.
Having filled a shopping bag, we carried it to the restaurant of the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimpu,
and were soon feasting on sauteed matsutakes
stir-fried fiddlehead ferns,
I am Deeptesh Sen, pursuing my M.Phil. in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. I have always been fascinated by your novels — every character and situation you create has stayed with me over the years. In our department, we have often discussed your books in class. For our course on postcolonial literatures in our MA class, we discussed The Shadow Lines and In an Antique Land. More recently, we discussed in detail The Sea of Poppies while studying narratives of migration and the South Asian diaspora. I have always wanted to talk to you about your books but never had the opportunity during the few times we have met briefly after your book launches in the city.
But your most recent book The Great Derangement appealed to me in the most unique possible way. It is indeed harrowing to think that we as a generation, despite the advancements in science and technology that we have achieved, have chosen to be in denial about climate change. But The Great Derangement is about many more things, not the least being the irruption of the non-human and the sense of uncanny that lurks within the spaces of the everyday.
Your description of the tornado that hit Delhi in 1978 and how you had stared at the eye of the storm left a strong, lasting impression in me. But what stood out for me was the relationship you established between our denial to accept climate change and our inability to imagine situations of extreme improbability that can invade the everyday at any moment. This is precisely where your reference to the Freudian umhiemlich becomes even more relevant. Not only do the spaces we inhabit have a potential to surprise us at the unlikeliest of moments, we can safely assume that these spaces that we claim to know well carry within them the germs of the unknown. I have always read and re-read Freud’s essay on the uncanny with profound interest but as someone working on Lacanian theory, I feel it’s Jacques Lacan who pushes the theory of the uncanny to an interesting end. Since the repressed and the return of the repressed are two sides of the same coin in Lacan, in keeping with his idea of the unconscious(or the Subject as he calls it) being always on the other side of language of the speaking being, it is not difficult to re-affirm the idea that the spaces of the everyday simply carry/conceal the uncanny on the other side. I must thank you for making me think in this fashion.
I was in Shantiniketan last week when I was reading The Great Derangement and thinking along these lines. Little did I know that something extraordinary would happen in my life very shortly that would re-affirm my belief in the ideas expressed in your book. This is also the reason why I decided that I would write to you and share with you the incident as it happened.
A couple of days ago, I was returning from Jadavpur University late in the evening. I was in a state bus travelling down the Southern Avenue from Golpark when the sudden cyclone hit the city. All the vehicles were stranded and in front of our bus, a huge tree collapsed in the storm. The bus quickly tried to take the other lane to go back towards Golpark but such was the fury of the storm that another tree along with a light-post were brought hurtling down. As the traffic was completely stranded in both the lanes by now, I decided to walk till Kalighat. But that is when I saw one of the strangest sights in my life and was continuously reminded of your book. The Southern Avenue, one of the last remaining beautiful boulevards in the city, had by then transformed into an unknown, dangerous place. The trees lining the lanes which make it so beautiful had turned the avenue into a virtual death-trap — the huge trunks were collapsing like a pack of cards on both sides of the road. They were also bringing down with them walls or light-posts and the fallen overhead wires left people in the danger of being electrocuted. To all the people walking down the Southern Avenue in the storm, or the line of makeshift roadside stalls, the familiar space they knew and loved had suddenly transformed into something monstrous and unimaginable. Even in the Jadavpur University campus, quite a few trees fell in the storm including a huge tree that collapsed opposite gate three causing the death of a couple of people. My friends who had stayed back on campus later described the storm and the destruction it caused as incredible. The spaces we loved had chosen to unleash their uncanny side at the most unimaginable of moments. Interestingly, as I came back home and logged on to Facebook, my newsfeed was filled with people discussing how unprecedented the storm was during the monsoon. Everyone was reflecting on the strange weather patterns that the city had been experiencing recently and talking about The Great Derangement.
I would like to ask you what you think about this cyclone. There was forecast of rain in the city because of a depression that had formed over the Bay of Bengal but the storm, in all its fury, seemed more like a nor’wester when it hit the city. About 120 trees fell in the storm causing unprecedented loss to life and property. But man-made interference seems to be responsible for the destruction once again — according to a report in The Telegraph today, it was the laying of concrete and injudicious pruning that loosened the top-soil and weakened the roots of some of these trees. Any storm can now cause grievous damage to people in the city.
I can very much relate to your idea of how the bourgeois world view banishes any form of improbability from the everyday. I thought it was very insightful to link it with why realist fiction has largely struggled to accommodate the issue of climate change. I was slightly surprised you did not mention your novel The Calcutta Chromosome at that juncture because it is one novel, I think, which pushes the narrative possibilities of the genre to its limits. The 20th century indeed witnessed what Weber calls ‘rationalization’ as you mentioned and there is a valorisation of the everyday in modernist literature. There was, as you pointed out, an intense focus on the personal, instead of the collective, in modernist literature with the rise of psychoanalysis in early 1900 partly being responsible for this. When Virginia Woolf wrote about trying to capture the incessant shower of atoms on the human mind, she was in a way laying out the essence of the direction that modernist literature would take.
Interestingly, I first experienced this bourgeois sense of complacency and hubris when I first took admission in Jadavpur University about seven years ago. I came from a modest background and was a part of a class and generation that worked its way into affluence due to the economic liberalization in the 90s. For me, to find myself among friends who have belonged to an elite, educated class for generations and possessed a great degree of social and economic capital was profoundly unsettling. As I slowly began to adopt to a more liberal, bourgeois culture, I learned that there was very little space for fear or doubt within their world view. The tiniest of things that I had seen my parents be anxious about were done with a great degree of confidence and nonchalance by the bourgeoisie. It was almost as if, in their world view, nothing could go wrong. I developed a great deal of admiration for this aspect of bourgeois culture until years of reading and experience made me re-visit my ideas. The valorisation of a certain laid-back attitude (an euphemism for indolence?) came from, I learnt much later, the socio-economic realities of the leisure class. And things did go wrong — a friend of ours lost his life in an unprecedented way in a personal tragedy. People I admired stooped to perform the basest of acts which I deemed to be unbecoming of the culture I had so admired. All these unprecedented moments brought back the possibility of the improbable in our lives until I understood that the banishing of the unpredictable was nothing but a great bourgeois hubris stemming from years of entitlement and anthropocentrism.
I am sorry if this has been too long. But your book made me think and it was the cyclone a couple of days ago that made me decide to share these things in detail with you. I will be very glad if you could find time to respond to this. Also, I was looking forward to the book launch at Jadavpur University. Both Samantak-da and Professor Sugata Hazra are people I know and admire and I was looking forward to the session at Vivekanada Hall. But a bout of viral fever made me stay at home at the last minute and I was terribly disappointed to miss the launch. I hope there will be a more opportune moment for me to meet with you in person and discuss in detail about your books the next time you are here in the city.
The letter below is from novelist Aruni Kashyap, author of The House With A Thousand Stories (Viking/Penguin, 2013). It is posted here with his permission.
MY MOTHER BRINGS THE RAINS
My mother brings the rains to scorching Delhi, even
before she lands. The skies wear cigarette ash,
goats bleat, winds create funnels with the sand,
and even green leaves break-up with branches.
In her city,
she was the famous beauty. Men
stumbled when she walked,
women asked her what she ate, what she
applied on her skin, marvelling
at her elephant-apple rinsed silky hair; but
she had no secrets to share, and
refused to tell them her sorrows.
Years later, unable to leave the bed for months,
on her way to a faraway hospital before
the days of cheap long distance calls,
my father bought her a notebook.
Write, he said. For yourself, for your son,
Otherwise how will he know?
How will he know about
your Muslim lover who was beaten up by your brothers
for loving you, about the poet who wrote a new poem
every night on a different classroom desk
until there were none
left to pour out his heart, the geek who made you the protagonists
of his fiction but didn’t write reply poems like me?
How will he know about your empty stomachs,
the mustard oil you applied on your face, the
bitter juice you drank every morning for that
golden skin, that men could kill for? Sit up
write that you slept on beds from where you
could count the stars, that rains meant placing
tumblers on strategic spots of the house, and staying awake
with a mope made of old bedsheets. Write about
Rebellions and oil blockades, about
farmers who rushed to the streets of Hamdoi
to kill landlords. Spend the ink
if not for yourself, for your first born,
who you worried wouldn’t have a sharp nose
like his maternal uncles,
for you married low,
for love, for ideals, for protest marches
Rarely has a novel seemed as timely as Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane.[i] As the title implies, this is the story of a radicalized young British-Muslim woman who goes to Syria to join the jihad. The narrative is presented as a first-hand account, recounted to the writer by the protagonist, Jamilla. The form is ingenious: it circumvents all the problems of plausibility that such a project might otherwise have entailed.
The setting of the novel is not so much Syria as England, the country in which its principal characters have come of age: the experience of Muslim immigrants in Europe is thus central to it. This is familiar territory for Tabish, who is of Indian-Muslim background and has long been a resident of Denmark where he teaches at the University of Aarhus (I should add that I have known Tabish for many years and have written the foreword for an anthology that he co-edited).
But to be an European of Muslim heritage is not necessarily to possess an understanding of the motivations and aims of those who have joined the conflict in Syria: contemporary jihadism is, after all, a cult-like phenomenon that is very distant from the lives of the great majority of European Muslims. If the novels brims with convincing detail – which it does – it is clearly because a great deal of research has gone into it.
Yet it isn’t research but an aspect of Tabish’s lived experience that is the source of his most important insights into the phenomenon of jihadism. As a teacher himself he grasps, as few have done, that the processes of studying and reading, and the successes and failures of various forms of pedagogy, are central to contemporary fundamentalism (the word Taliban is, after all, the plural of talib, ‘student’).
Jamilla’s journey to Syria begins in school, and a teacher of literature plays an especially significant role in it. The teacher in question is ‘an Indian woman called Mrs Chatterji’ who ‘loved English and English poetry with the sort of fanaticism that only the ex-colonized bring to both.’
Jamilla finds Mrs Chatterji, with her love of literature and her woolly-minded liberalism, utterly ludicrous. Their differences are brought to a head by a poem (Wendy Cope’s Reading Scheme): ‘a dexterous poem,’ Jamilla says of it, ‘using a reading scheme to talk humorously about a suburban mum having an affair with the milkman and being discovered by the husband, all of it narrated through the perspective of her two small children.’
Although Jamilla is perfectly capable of appreciating the poem’s technical virtues she is irked by its content. She responds to Mrs Chatterji’s praise of its cleverness and humour by breaking into the North England dialect which is, effectively, her native language: ‘Maybe ‘tis funny to you… I’ll say ‘tis an obscene poem, ‘tis ‘bout a sin me God forbids. ‘Bout ‘dultery. ‘Raight? That’s nowt to use for cheap laughter.’
Taken aback Mrs Chatterji asks Jamilla to write an essay on the poem. She obeys, and as she writes ‘an ocean of pure vehemence’ wells up in her, ‘anger that seemed to come from beyond me, which left me feeling angrier still.’
Mrs Chatterji’s well-intentioned liberalism proves no match for the certainty of Jamilla’s conclusions: ‘Reading Scheme’ was a depraved poem about adultery, and in this it reflected the depravity of the West, which had long gone against the will of God…’
Mrs Chatterji’s face grows pale as she reads the essay and ‘at the end the papers almost slipped out of her hands. I believe she had to steady herself by leaning with an arm on her desk. Then she said to me, ‘But Jamilla, I don’t think you get the poem; it is not about morality or God; it is, it is about…’ She could not say what it was about. She repeated weakly, ‘I don’t think you get it.’
Jamilla’s victory, and her confirmation in her beliefs, is doubly assured when her family is summoned to a meeting with her teachers. They send her brother to the school and far from admonishing Jamilla he gives the headmaster and Mrs Chatterji an even ‘more emphatic rendering’ of her position, calling for a ‘blanket ban on such poems in school.’ Mrs Chatterji’s defeat is complete.
Although this episode is written in a near-comical vein, it is a powerful commentary on some of the failures of contemporary liberalism, perhaps most significantly its inability to challenge certain values and ideas largely because of a well-intentioned unwillingness to offend. But this is, in turn, an extension of the kind of ‘multi-culturalism’ that has long been practised by some Western governments, whereby state patronage is directed towards conservative religious groups because they, and not their secular counterparts, are thought to be more authentically representative of migrant populations.
Jamilla’s victory over her hapless English teacher serves to strengthen her growing convictions and she becomes increasingly focused on narrow readings of religious texts. In this she finds powerful reinforcement on the Net which by its very nature tends to reduce complex bodies of thought to simple, easily comprehensible formulae. The kind of thinking that results is typified by a fighter whom Jamilla encounters in Syria: ‘His was almost a technological Islam, its pruned rituals as shorn of ambiguity as a hammer or a computer code… It was a do-it-yourself manual – and he had many of those too, on repairing motorcycles, preparing bombs, assembling guns, electricity, carpentry… They were all short, concise, to the point, concerned not with theory but with application, not with thought but with practice.’
Muslim radicals are by no means alone in practising these instrumental methods of reading: in other religions too, including Hinduism, texts are now increasingly being read as though they were workbooks, couched in language so transparent as to be unaltered by translation. To approach complex theological documents in this way is of course a travesty of textual exegesis as it was once practised. In the past, in all religious traditions, an extensive knowledge of languages and many years of rigorous study were required in order to expound on sacred texts. Most of us simply do not have the skills to read and understand these texts and the traditions of commentary within which they are embedded: in no religion, historically, were believers encouraged to pick up their scriptures and start reading them as if they were self-explanatory. This began at a specific moment: with the Protestant Reformation. Those who decry the lack of a similar reformation in the Islamic tradition need to understand that what the world is now dealing with is the fallout of exactly such a process.
As a teacher himself Tabish understands intuitively both the mysterious power of pedagogy and the nihilism that can result from its failures. This makes Jihadi Jane a uniquely insightful account of a phenomenon that, for most of us, almost defies comprehension. Although Tabish is careful not to condescend to his principal characters his critique of their ideology and motivations is all the more powerful because he fully understands how much at odds they are with the beliefs and practices of the great majority of the world’s Muslims.
This powerful, compelling, urgent novel succeeds in being compassionate towards its principal characters without flinching from the full horror of their choices.
[i] Penguin India, 2016; to be published elsewhere as Just Another Jihadi Jane.
I first met Lijia Zhang in 2010, at a literary event in Beijing.
She had then recently published a memoir (Socialism is Great!’ A Worker’s Memoir of The New China, 2008) about her extraordinary personal journey. Born into a working-class family in Nanjing she spent several years working in a factory. But her spare time was dedicated to learning English, which she did with such success that she was awarded a scholarship for a creative writing course in London.
That is where Lijia’s new book, Lotus (forthcoming 2017, Henry Holt & Co.) had its start. It is her first novel and she began it ‘while working for my MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.’ It is the story of a woman (the eponymous Lotus of the title) who leaves her birthplace, an impoverished mountain village in Sichuan, to travel to the boomtown of Shenzen, a thousand miles to the south.
As with so many rural migrants in Asia, Lotus’s desire for the city is sired by a neighbour’s television set. ‘Everyone had been so excited when her neighbor Luo Yijun’s family brought back a magic box called a dianshi – electric screen. The Luos’ yard was packed with enthusiastic viewers craning their necks for a better view of the moving pictures in the box. The unceasing stream of visitors bothered the family so much that they locked up the dianshi after a week and only took it out for public viewing during festivals. But Luo Yijun, her classmate, would invite Lotus to watch it from time to time. Once, they saw a show about Shenzen, the city just north of Hong Kong.
How glorious it looked! Palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor.’
Every year, across Asia, millions of city-bound journeys are launched in exactly this way – and as happens only too often, Lotus’s move does not turn out as she had hoped. She finds out the hard way that “the city is a place where dragons and fish jumble together. Not a safe place for a young girl.” She ends up having to earn her living by selling her body.
The descriptions of Lotus’s life as a ji (‘chicken’ or prostitute) are remarkably persuasive – so much so that I wrote to Lijia to ask how she came by the details. I did an enormous amount of research, she wrote back. I tried to make friends with working girls. But they moved away, changed their numbers or simply vanished. Luckily I met Lanlan, a former prostitute who now runs a NGO dedicated to help female sex workers. She generously shared her experience with me and allowed me to work for her NGO, distributing condoms to the girls and hanging out with them. All the working girls are made-up characters, but many details are real.
One of the novel’s major characters is a photographer (Bing) who has made a specialty of photographing prostitutes. At one point he says to Lotus: ‘Migrant workers are China’s unsung heroes. Without their cheap labour…. there would not be China’s economic miracle.‘
This is indeed one of the principal themes of the novel, and it reflects Lijia’s own life experience: ‘Coming from a poor family myself I am interested in those ‘xiao ren wu’, ‘little people’, and their struggles. You may say I am a self-appointed spokesperson for China’s under-privileged. I want to explore the emotional costs of China’s rural-urban migration. By the way, a lot of sex workers in Shenzhen areas were former factory workers.’
In the novel Bing offers a slightly different explanation for his interest in ji: ‘Prostitution is a window through which to see the changes in this country.’
Bing is an idealist, a former campaigner for democracy. But he meets with several shocks when he visits Lotus’s village in Sichuan Province.
On the mud wall of her father’s house is a large portrait of Chairman Mao: It was dusty and fading, the mole under the Chairman’s chin looking more sinister than ever… In the bright morning sun it appeared so outdated that one could almost smell the mould. A memorial tablet for the ancestors and a porcelain statute of Guanyin made up a little shrine beneath the picture. What a strange combination of worship, Bing thought.
Bing’s scrutiny of the shrine does not go unnoticed by Lotus who says to her father: “Ba do you know which dynasty it is? Even Chairman Mao’s successor has died. When are you going to change the picture?”
‘Change the picture, why?’ her father countered. ‘Chairman Mao was the best emperor China ever had.’
Neither as a migrant nor as a prostitute does Lotus come across as a synthetically constructed composite. A fully rounded character, she is never depicted as a victim of circumstance. Ambitious and driven though she is, she also has some unexpected traits.
She is deeply religious for one: “You see, my grandma is a Buddhist, murmuring amitabha all day long,” Lotus explains to Bing. “I used to laugh at her for being superstitious. Now look at me, praying to the Guanyin Buddha every day.”
Lotus also has a great respect for learning (she saves her earnings diligently in the hope of putting her younger brother through college). Books hold an almost talismanic fascination for her: ‘Lotus looked through the neatly piled books. She picked up The Portrait of a Lady and looked at the lady on the cover with her feathered hat. She remembered how Bing (the photographer) had described it as a story of a girl confronting her destiny. Now she understood it was all about the girl deciding her own life’.
It is impossible not to see in this an echo of Lijia’s own journey, as a young woman obsessed with books, drawing on foreign literary models in order to seize her destiny. The irony however is that the dream that lies at the heart of Lotus’s quest – and Lijia’s – is agelessly and quintessentially Chinese: it consists ultimately in a deep faith in the transformative power of education.
In its subject matter and the circumstances of its gestation Lotus is very much a novel of its times. Globalization is its backdrop and it is situated on the boundary of two languages – English and Chinese – that are increasingly thrust together because of those processes. This is a very difficult boundary to straddle and Lijia succeeds at it precisely because she eschews one of the most pervasive and pernicious literary consequences of contemporary globalization – the constant invocation of brand names and pop-culture. She opts instead to draw upon the immense resources of China’s literary heritage, of both the folksy and classical varieties (many of the chapter titles are derived from well-known sayings and proverbs).
Consider the following passages:
The journalist had apparently done his homework. “I’m sure you’re tired of this question, but how did you become interest in ‘willow trees on the roadside and flowers on the wall’?” he used an old poetic term for prostitutes.
They started to joke, at their clients’ expense, as usul. Xia got up, and with surprising comic flair, began to mimic a hesitant client. The man had walked up and down the street half a dozen times before eventually surrendering to her come-ons. “I know his type: wanting to have fun but he doesn’t have the balls to just ask for it. So I said: ‘Hey, honey, I’m a crack shot, good at ‘shooting down the airplane’ by hand’,” Xia laughed, pumping her hand up and down… (148)
What luck, this offer. A pancake fallen from the sky, as her grandma would say!
What kind of society has China become? … “Big fish eat small fish, and small fish eat shrimps.”
It was only a long slingshot away from East Station Road.
The scene was as chaotic as a disturbed beehive.
To be with him felt like cracking a plate off melon seeds – pleasant enough, but nothing too exciting.
“’Enemies and lovers are destined to meet again,’” she said, her fake eyelashes fluttering.
‘Once bitten by a snake, one shies at the sight of a coiled rope for the next ten years.’
As unnecessary as painting legs on a snake, Lotus thought.
‘A butcher can become a Buddha after dropping his knife.’
‘You ungrateful child. You simply don’t know how high heaven is.’
‘He used Lotus and us and then chucked us. He ate the meat and dumped the bone!’
At a time when the fields of reference available to fiction are increasingly in danger of being colonized by consumer culture and advertising slogans, how refreshing it is to come upon these universally comprehensible allusions!
What would be the journey of such a text were it to be translated into Chinese? Unfortunately we shall probably never know: according to Lijia a Chinese translation is unlikely ‘because I imagine the world I depicted would be too negative in the view of the authorities. Worse still I talked about 1989/Tiananmen, a taboo topic.’
Lotus is a wonderfully readable and perceptive novel about an aspect of contemporary China that remains largely invisible to the outsider. Although it pulls no punches it is saturated with the spirit of stoic optimism that sustains millions of rural migrants around the world.
Earlier this month I received the following inquiry from a PhD candidate at Japan’s Keio University.
Dear Professor Amitav Ghosh,
I am a researcher of Indian merchants to Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth century and I would like to take advice from you on some specific aspects of my research as you are the specialist in this area.
I would be grateful if you would kindly respond to my email and help me with the following questions;
|12||India and Japan Co.|
Thank you very much for taking your time and I would very much appreciate your help.
With respect to your writings,
Graduate School of Media and Governance, Keio University
Since I have no information on this subject I forwarded the letter to Murali Ranganathan, who is an expert on colonial Bombay and has done extensive research on the city’s major trading families. His response is below.
I have done very little work beyond the nineteenth century and cannot claim even a passing familiarity with this subject.
As can be seen from the list, the Parsi involvement was fairly limited; the Japan trade seems to be dominated by Sindhis, Marwadis, and Gujarati Muslim communities. None of them generally felt the need to document their activities as the Parsis did in the nineteenth century, though I must add that I have not looked.
As for the Parsis, Japan features quite often in their Gujarati travelogues. For example, our First World War hero, Nariman Karkaria goes to Japan enroute to Europe. The Bombay industrialist, Framji Dinshaw Petit (1847-95) writes about his travels to Europe, America, China and Japan in his 1887 travelogue. The Parsi lady, Bhikai Cama (dead 1890 and not to be confused with the Indian patriot) who was settled in London contributed regularly to the Mumbai Gujarati newspaper Rast Goftar about her travels in China, Japan and America.
That the Parsis were commercially active in Japan can be concluded from references to a speech by Cowasjee Merwanjee Shroff at the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and dinners hosted by him. See Japan Daily Mail for details. (Source Parsi Prakash Vol 3, page 340.)
Some of the old banking archives might have some information on their remittance patterns. For example, the State Bank of India archives contains a lot of material.
If there is any other way I can help, please let me know.
Murali of Mulund
If readers of this blog have something to add to this I would be glad to post their responses here.
Chennai (formerly Madras) was hit by epic floods in November 2015. Although the floods were covered extensively by the media at the time not much has been written about them since, at least in English. This is in stark contrast to the Mumbai deluge of 2005 which occasioned a great deal of writing, in the Economic and Political Weekly and elsewhere.
In a time of rapid climate change it is important, I think, to remember the human impacts of serious weather events. Posted below is a first-hand account of the Chennai floods by Manasvini Hariharan. The photographs were contributed by her friends and relatives.
A personal account of the floods by someone who lived through the experience.
Chennai’s second monsoon season, the result of retreating rains from north-eastern India, sees sporadic rainfall in the months of October and November. These yearly rains are a regular occurrence and far exceed the amount of rain produced by the regular monsoon. Ask a school-going child what they think of cyclones and more often than not you will find a smile stretching across their faces as the answer is invariably ‘Rain Holiday!’
In Chennai, we generally welcome the days preceding a cyclone or depression. It is a respite from the year-round heat that the city experiences. So, when the rain commenced on 9th November, the general response was of relief. Schools and universities were declared closed and it seemed like a standard rain holiday.
However, this time the rain did not cease after its usual one-day spell. Continued downpours over the next days affected low lying areas.
The roads were soon clogged and office-goers were advised to go home. The seriousness of the situation dawned on the citizens, when they heard of the horrible experiences of their friends and family. A friend recounted his scary drive home from work, through a traffic jam in the downpour, when the water slowly started entering the car.
News channels were quick to direct the conversation towards climate change. We read reports about the rain being a result of an El Nino year due to which there was a lesser churning of the Bay of Bengal waters. Since the warm and cool waters did not mix, the surface temperature of the Bay of Bengal was hotter than usual. This, combined with the presence of a monsoon trough close to Chennai, and the effect of easterly waves and winds caused the downpour from the 9th– 16th November.
During the first spell of rains, it was the low lying areas which suffered most. People had to be evacuated from their homes, universities and offices. Despite the grave nature of the state of affairs, people took the entire situation with a pinch of salt. Jokes and light hearted humour about the newest public transport alternative, Ola’s boat option, floated the internet. After a week of uneven rainfall, the waters finally receded. Relief measures were in full swing and slowly the city started to climb back up to stand on its feet.
However, a second spell of rains began on the 29th and it was this spell that devastated the entire city. The roads, still battered from the previous downpour, flooded almost instantaneously. A friend texted saying water had started to enter his house on the ground floor and he had to move upstairs. Another friend despaired over her new car which she could see immersed in the water. We received distress calls from the students in the hostels of the university where I studied, where the water had surpassed ground floor levels.
What set the second spell apart was that it affected every single citizen of the city in some way or the other. Usually, prayers, thoughts and Facebook status messages are sent to the people who face the brunt of the floods. There is no direct relation between the people of the city and those living in low-lying areas. This time, every Chennai-ite’s family and friends were affected by the floods in some way or another which spawned a collective empathy for the entire city.
The situation worsened when it became impossible to leave one’s own neighbourhood. Every area assembled its own relief team to contribute on a micro level. A friend and I went from house to house to collect food and clothing supplies to make relief kits which we succeeded in getting to other parts of the city on 2nd December. On the 3rd, it was impossible for us to meet up with each other within our own neighbourhoods because of flooded roads.
Cell phone connectivity was failing. The airport was flooded. Train service was halted. My very brave mother somehow managed to reach the airport and bring back home an elderly couple who were stranded at the airport. She came back with tales of the chaos that existed beyond our relatively safe locality. People opened up their houses to others who couldn’t get to theirs. Social media was crucial in information exchange and relief efforts. All sorts of requests, calls for help, information and updates were on online platforms. Some tech-savvy citizens quickly created a crowd sourced map indicating flooded roads to avoid. Twitter hashtag #ChennaiRainHelp helped to compile all of the information and requests in one place. The enormity of the disaster dawned on us only when we were well into it.
A friend’s father was recovering from surgery at MIOT hospital, one of Chennai’s biggest hospitals. I received a frantic call from my friend asking about the situation at the hospital as she hadn’t heard from her parents in 24 hours. When she got her mother finally on the phone, it was to hear the story of how the staff had abandoned the hospital leaving patients and their families to fend for themselves. Her epileptic father had not had anything to eat in 12 hours and they were in desperate need of some information of what was happening around them. Arrangements had to be made for critical patients to be airlifted out of the hospital to other nearby hospitals but the others were neglected. Another friend who works at one of those nearby hospitals says he still does not remember how he survived through those 5 days. Hospitals are under-equipped and are not sufficiently prepared for disasters on this scale, he said.
On 1st December, the power supply was cut. Food supplies started running low. The scene at our local markets in the morning was one that I have never seen before. The entire market was wiped clean within 5 minutes of the arrival of food stock. Prices shot up by more than 5 times original rates. The most frustrating part was the inability to help. Many localities were safe from inundation but were also locked off from the rest of the city. Even landline connections died with time, leaving my sister, like many others, with no news of us for 4 days. Completely cut off from the rest of the world, we didn’t know how to filter legitimate information from the rumours that were doing the rounds. We spent day after day for the power to be restored so we could have some news of what really was happening around us.
Through all of this commotion, a friend waded through waist deep water to get to work at the Hindu. The Hindu does not go on leave, he told his worried mother, especially during times like these. Although the office was safe from the floods and had continuous power and internet facilities, their printing press was not so lucky. For the first time in 136 years, the Hindu, on 2nd December, did not go to print.
We spent 5 days with no electricity, water or connectivity. For the first time, families were forced away from their gadgets and towards each other for company. Neighbours whom we never interacted with suddenly became friendly faces. Local vendors, who somehow managed to go in and out of the neighbourhood, were our sources of information. We heard that the road to Bangalore faced a traffic overload, with thousands of people looking to escape to the nearby city. After the 9th, the water began to recede and relief efforts began to gain ground.
Remarkably, the entire city rose to the situation and tried to make sense of what was happening around us. Boundaries and divisions in terms of caste, community and religion disappeared. We realized that every one of us was a victim of this disaster; we were in this nightmare together and it was easy to empathize with the rest of the city. Radio stations with RJ’s camping at their offices were relaying reliable news from official sources. Actors used their SUV’s to tackle the waters and get to stranded people. NGO’s, local groups, communities, individuals all helped in the preparation and distribution of relief kits.
We learnt later that Chennai on Wednesday recorded the heaviest-ever rainfall in over a century — of 29.4 cm and 34.5 cm —the previous high being 26.1 in 1901. According to Skymet data, during the month of November, Chennai recorded a whopping 1218.6 mm of rain – three times its monthly rainfall. The normal rainfall figures for November stand at 407.4 mm.
All the reservoirs that cater to Chennai and its suburbs were empty before Diwali. By the end of November, water in the Chembarambakkam reservoir — one of the city’s main water sources — stood at 22 ft at this time, against its capacity of 24 ft.
On Dec 1st, enormous amounts of water were being released into the Adyar River as engineers feared a breach of Chembarambakkam’s boundary. It took three to four hours for the water to reach the city from the reservoir 25 km away, but by midnight on December 2, large areas of land around Adyar had gone completely under. Residents in these areas complain that they did not receive any prior warning about the release of this water.
The death toll at MIOT hospital stood at 18 because of lack of power and oxygen supplies. Newspapers reported that the final number of deaths just within Chennai’s metropolitan limits stood at 347.
Military helicopters dropped food to residents stranded on rooftops and the defence ministry doubled the number of soldiers deployed to help with the rescue mission. Lakhs of people had been rescued, evacuated and accommodated in the make-shift relief centres. After being closed for an entire month, schools and universities were declared open again on 14th December. The airport which had been shut for 5 days resumed operations. By 17th December, the rain stopped and the waters began to recede.
Natural disasters have a way of bringing people together. They blur the lines of societal and political divisions for a brief period. In the aftermath of the floods, it was easy to see these lines slowly reforming again. Fingers were pointed in all directions. The people blamed the government, the government blamed encroachments, and everyone unitedly blamed climate change.
The flood impacted political, economic, educational and social aspects of the city. The government, eager to compensate for its inaction during the flood, responded by bulldozing several informal settlements. Multi-national companies released reports about the losses that their plants had suffered and considered moving their manufacturing bases to other cities. Schools and universities despaired over lost time and messed up calendars. Many areas faced erratic power supply for the weeks to come. The people of Chennai tried to cope with the stress of displacement and loss of their homes and valuables
The flood also sparked conversation about poor urban planning, lack of proper disaster mitigation programmes and the unpreparedness of the city to handle such situations. Personally, the flood led me to think about how we need a large-scale disaster to reflect about the fragility of the city in which we live. How can we justify poor urban planning by displacing millions of people who are the first to suffer and the last to receive compensation? How can we rationalize losses by simply shifting base to another location? How can we blame climate change on developed countries when we are active contributors to this phenomenon? The Chennai floods got a lot of people to think about their place in the city. I learnt that my world was hugely dependent on things I took for granted: electricity, internet and ironically, water. Despite us being in the midst of a flood, we had to use the water available to us sparingly. The floods also changed the way Chennai looks at rain. Never again will grey skies be a welcome anticipation of a ‘rain holiday’ because we know that somehow, somewhere, someone will face the same fate we all did as a result of the cyclone season.