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Amitav Ghosh

My Foreword to ‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’

Chrestomather | September 22, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



Below is my Foreword to Vedica Kant’s fine new book: ‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’: India and the First World War published September 15, 2014, by Roli Books, New Delhi.






Of the many poignant images in this book none captures better the plight of the colonial soldier than the photograph (on p. 171)





in which a sepoy in a prisoner-of-war camp is seen to be washing his foot while a German soldier looks on bemusedly from the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Whether in captivity or not, the sepoy had always to contend with the gaze of those he served: on the other side of the battle-lines too he would have known himself to be under constant watch, hemmed in by fences that related not only to his physical being but most significantly to the question of his loyalty, this last being a matter of such profound uncertainty that no one perhaps was more unsure of it than he himself. It is this ambivalence above all, that defines the predicament of the sepoy, not just in the First World War, but in many other conflicts before and after.

The sepoy’s way of soldiering dated back to a time when mercenary armies were the norm rather than the exception – that is to say, the mid-18th century, which was when the East India Company raised its first ‘Native Infantry’ regiments in the newly-founded Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal. The First World War sepoy is thus the embodiment of a paradox: a soldier schooled in modern weaponry and tactics but recruited, remunerated and officered by methods that belonged to another era. The sepoy was in other words a warrior of a completely different ilk from the citizen-soldiers who were the main protagonists of the 1st World War: this is one reason why his role in that conflict is so often overlooked, at home and in the West.

Since the creation of the East India Company’s standing armies, the sepoy had fought in innumerable British campaigns in Asia and Africa through – the Mysore Wars, the Maratha Wars, the Opium Wars, and so on. Yet through those centuries of service one thing that remained constant was the sepoy’s ambivalent relationship to his job. His loyalty could never be taken for granted; mutiny, which always simmered beneath the surface, regularly came to the boil, most spectacularly in 1857. Nor did his ambivalence end with the start of First World War: sepoys mutinied at Singapore in 1915 even as their compatriots were fighting side-by-side with English regiments at the Somme; a generation later the story would repeat itself on a much larger scale, in the same theatre, during World War II (this split in the sepoy’s loyalties is perfectly captured in Vedica Kant’s account (below; Chapter III, pp. 119 – 21) of two Afridi Pathan brothers, one of whom Mir Dast, won the Victoria Cross at Ypres, while the other, Mir Mast, deserted to the German side at Neuve Chapelle, along with 15 other sepoys. [i])

This is why the Indian[ii] soldier’s experience of the First World War resists appropriation by those who would like to merge it seamlessly into the triumphal narrative of the winning side. The sepoy’s ambivalence, as much as the anomalous circumstances of the army to which he belonged, made sure that his story could not be fitted into the usual frames of ‘victor’ and ‘vanquished’. This is another reason why the sepoy’s role in the war is so often overlooked.

In a sense the sepoy was himself complicit in this neglect – for not the least aspect of his ambivalence was his witholding of his own story. Through the history of his existence, silence was one of the sepoy’s most enduring traits; it goes so far back and is so consistent that it is hard not to see it as an act of resistance in itself. Consider that in the century and a half that preceded the First World War hundreds of thousands of Indians, many of them literate, served as sepoys. Yet over that entire period there exists only one first person narrative of a sepoy’s experiences, and this too is possibly an apocryphal text: Sitaram Subedar.[iii]

Nor did the First World War, which was to result in an enormous outpouring of prose and poetry in English, French and German, have a similar effect on the Indian subcontinent. While Europe produced tens of thousands of books about the war, in India only a tiny number of first person accounts were to find their way into print: to date they can still be counted on the fingers of one hand – and not one of them was written by a sepoy.

In fact two of these accounts were written by men who were not even eligible to serve as sepoys by reason of their ethnicity; they were Bengalis and thus excluded from military recruitment because of the British Indian army’s racial policies.[iv] One of these men, Kalyan Mukherjee, was a doctor in the army’s medical corps, the other, Sisir Sarbadhikari, was a medical auxiliary.[v] Although neither of them bore arms, their writings are to my mind, among the most remarkable accounts of the violence of the First World War. This is of course a tall claim to make of a conflict that was so fecund in literary production: since neither of the two books has been translated, I am afraid the only substantiation I can provide, for those who do not read Bengali, is the evidence of the excerpts that I have translated for my own blog (several passages of which are included in this book).[vi]

As for the sepoys themselves, true to their tradition, they left behind very little: inasmuch as their voice can be heard at all it is through their censored letters,[vii] and through the various materials that were collected by scholars in German prisoner-of-war camps[viii]. These sources have only recently seen the light of day and this book is one of the first to incorporate them into a panoramic overview of the Indian subcontinent’s involvement in the First World War. It is a welcome and long-necessary endeavour but it should be noted that on certain subjects there remains a yawning gap in information: for example the role of lascars, who probably contributed more, proportionally, to the seaborne war effort than sepoys did on land.

Despite the gaps in the record, Vedica Kant has succeeded, to a quite remarkable degree, in conveying a sense of the texture of the sepoy’s experience and of the conflicted, ambivalent cadences of his voice. It is a voice that cries out to be heard, precisely because it’s story does not conform to the mirrored Western narratives of victory and defeat: what it offers is the possibility of an alternative reading of that history – as a story both of defeat-in-victory and victory-in-defeat. To my mind this is closer to the truth of what happened on the battlefields of Europe and Asia during the Great War than many more familiar interpretations of those tragic events.



Amitav Ghosh

August 2014



[i] The Second World War was to produce many similar stories, most notably that of Captain (later Lt-Gen) Premendra Singh Bhagat, winner of the Victoria Cross, and his brother Nripendra Singh Bhagat, who joined the INA in Malaya.

[ii] Needless to add, I use the words ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ here to refer to British India, which included most of the subcontinent.

[iii] Cf From Sepoy to Subedar, trans. James Thomas Norgate, London 1873 (also pubd. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1911). The original Awadhi text has never been traced: it is said to have been dictated by Sitaram Subedar to an English officer. The Hindi writer Madhukar Upadhyaya has rendered the English text back into Awadhi in his marvelously evocative book Kissa Pande Sitaram Subedar (Saaransh Prakashan, Delhi, 1999): I strongly recommend it to anyone who can read Hindi (I am grateful to Dr. Ashutosh Kumar of Delhi University for bringing this book to my attention).

[iv] Vedica Kant explains the ‘martial race’ policy on p. 27, Chapter 1.

[v] The writings referred to here are Sisir Sarbadhikari’s Abhi Le Baghdad (privately printed, Calcutta 1958; listed in the Indian National Library, Kolkata as: Sarvadhikari, Sishir Prasad: Abhi Le Baghdad; Prothom Mahajudhher Khanikta, Kolkata, 1958), and the letters of Captain Kalyan Mukherji, which figure prominently in the account of his life written by his grandmother, Mokshada Debi, Kalyan Pradeep (listed in the Indian National Library, Kolkata, as: Kalyan Pradip, being the Memoir of Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukhopadhyay, IMS, Kolkata, privately printed, 1928). It was Santanu Das’s piece Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history (which is his introduction to the volume Race, Empire and First World War Writing, Das, Santanu (ed.), CUP, 2011) that led me to both books – I shall forever be grateful to him for this.

[vi] My posts can be found here, here  & here.

[vii] Painstakingly edited and published in a magisterial edition by David Omissi, under the title Indian Voices of the Great War (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999). My blog post on the book can be found here.

[viii] The volume When the War Began We Heard of Several Kings: South Asian Prisoners in World War I Germany (ed. Franziska Roy, Heike Liebau and Ravi Ahuja; Social Science Press, 2011) presents a wide variety of these materials; it includes several voice recordings in the accompanying CD ROM. My blog post on the book can be found here.



Eating Arakan-style

Chrestomather | September 17, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Unnoticed by the world at large India has, over the last few years, made massive financial commitments to its eastern neighbour, Myanmar:




Mingun Pagoda, Sagaing region


$9 million for the upgradation of hospitals in Sittwe (Akyab) and Sagaing;











$6 million for industrial training centres in Pokokku and Yangon; $25 million for ‘Border Area Development Projects';




Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right

Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right


$3 million for the restoration of the Ananda temple in Bagan; $1 million for ‘reconciliation and reconstruction assistance’ in Rakhine (Arakan) State – and a great deal else.










The total commitment, including lines of credit, amounts to over US$ 1,500 million.[i]


A large part of this sum is devoted to infrastructure projects,



DSC03108including a port at Sittwe and several roads in border areas, to connect the Arakan coast and north-western and central Myanmar to India’s northeastern states.











The projects have the potential of revolutionizing the economies of eastern India and western Burma should they ever be brought to their envisaged conclusion.





Bay of Bengal, seen from Sittwe













They would provide direct access to the Bay of Bengal to India’s landlocked North Eastern states and to several states in Burma.


Some of the projects,




DSC03086like the new port at Sittwe,











are already quite far advanced while others are yet to get off the ground. Since many of these projects are in Rakhine State, Indian officials sometimes travel to this area to check on their progress. Recently an opportunity arose for me to trail along on one such visit so I lost no time in donning my long-doffed reporter’s hat.


Thus it happened that I came to be introduced to the food of the Arakan, with which I had no previous acquaintance. And a most remarkable cuisine it is too, combining many different influences with a refreshing lightness of touch.






The day might start with a breakfast like this one: (clockwise from top left) a few fritters, a plate of balachaung – a relish of crispy shallots and dried shrimp (Naomi Duguid’s fine book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor has a good recipe); a salad of sliced onions and chickpeas; slivers of pork and a fried egg.









Lunch might begin with a dish of raw edible flowers, sliced nuts and lime leaves, DSC03389












to be dipped in ngapi, a fermented fish sauce,





that is served in small bowls (bottom left) with a spread of fish, chicken and vegetables,











including one that I usually regard with distaste –







bottle gourd (known as lau in Bengali and lauki in Hindi). But this preparation, with a topping of scrambled eggs, is truly delicious.









Dinner is usually preceded by snacks, including almost always,






some pickled tea leaves,










a few pakora-like fritters,







which are never better than in Burma,











some succulent gingko nuts,










perhaps some





dry-cured, shredded venison,










maybe a tart salad






of tomatoes and garlic,









and perhaps even some stir-fried pork with chilies.















But woe betide if you sample more than a mouthful, for dinner itself is yet to come:





consisting perhaps of stir-fried cabbage, balachaung, mushrooms cooked with noodles, shrimp, fish and – an indispensable acompaniment to every Burmese meal – soup (in this instance of bottle-gourd).









The rice served with these dishes is of a delectable Arakan variety,







grown on a rice-field like this one.










And if you’re lucky  you may even partake





of an Arakan banquet,











in which is served a dish of that incomparable South-East Asian specialty,






water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), also known as kangkong,











and long beans



with coconut and crispy shallots,













and (I think) stir-fried tripe with tomatoDSC03501es,












and mutton cooked with daal,



DSC03505(not unlike a Parsi dhansak)













and DSC03504coconut-crusted prawns,












and DSC03502crispy greens with shallots,













and DSC03503the best preparation of jellyfish that I’ve ever encountered,










and, of course,






a soup, in this instance, of split peas,










and, as a final flourish,







an enormous crustacean.











The repast ends with




fruit: DSC03508pomelo and














DSC03510and mandarin oranges.











I did a Google search for Rakhine restaurants and it appears that except for a few in Rangoon, there are none outside the state. So this might well be the ultimate in locavore cuisines: you have to go there to sample it.







[i] These figures were provided to me by the Indian Embassy, Yangon, Myanmar.

An Arakan Angkor 2

Chrestomather | September 14, 2014 in An Arakan Angkor | Comments (0)




The Arakan coast was for millenia an important node in the trading networks of the Indian Ocean.



The wealth generated by the trans-Oceanic trade nourished a number of kingdoms in this region over the centuries. Mrauk-U was the capital of a kingdom that flourished between 1430 C.E. and 1785 C.E.:  most of the surviving monuments were built in this period.







Today Mrauk-U is a quiet little town,



Mrauk-U’s main street

in what is now Rakhine State in the Republic of Myanmar.














But in its heyday Mrauk-U was a cosmopolitan city visited by ships from all over the world.





DSC03347It had a large Portuguese quarter with close links to Goa. The Portuguese adventurer










Filipe de Britto e Nicote, also known as Nga Zinga,





Filipe de Brito, c. 1600, (Wikimedia Commons)


spent many years in this region. But he came to a sad end, being executed by impalement in 1613  C.E.













The region exported a wide range of goods,







including locally-made









Chinese-style porcelain and pottery, some of it of fine quality.














The small but well-laid-out








museum of Mrauk-U has a good collection









of artefacts and


























monumental sculptures in stone,
















and Buddha images from different eras.






This is one from the 4th to 8th centuries C.E.;











this is from the Lamro period (8th to 15th centuries C.E.)


















while this is from the








Mrauk-U period (15th to 18th centuries).










Today, although the wealth and grandeur are gone, a vast complex of monuments remains at Mrauk-U, to bear witness to the region’s past glories. I was fortunate to be guided through this enormous site by




U Kyaw Hla Maung whose book The Rakhaing Kingdoms Hidden in South East Asia is soon to be published.

U Kyaw Hla Maung, who is partly of Manipuri descent, also goes by the name Rocky.

Rocky was studying medicine in Rangoon in December 1974 when the body of U Thant, the former UN Secretary-General, was brought back to Burma for burial. His interment became the occasion for widespread protests against the military regime, spearheaded by students. In the aftermath of the protests Rocky left Rangoon and moved to Mrauk-U with the intention of deepening his knowledge of his native region. Since then he has done extensive research on the history of Mrauk-U.






Rocky is an expert in the martial arts (of which there is a special Rakhine variant) and he is also a teacher – he runs informal classes in English and history.





Rocky with two of his students




From what he and his students told me of his classes I had the impression that they are a Rakhine version of the classes run by Ludu U Sein Win in Rangoon (which I have written about on this blog).

Rocky’s daughter is currently studying computer science in the US, at Yale University.









Here Rocky illustrates the differences














between certain Buddhist architectural forms.

















The first monument we visit is the Miphara-gri  (Queen’s Cave) temple,






in which a ten-foot high image of the Buddha












rises above smaller




fern-draped figures  DSC03202













some of which





gaze out of mossy niches.














Then we move on to the magnificent




DSC03213Koe-thoung temple,










built by King Tikkha





in 1553 CE.









The temple is reputed to contain 90,000 images of the Buddha.





Some are carved upon the walls,












and some sit
















in subtly-lit corridors,















and mossy














and crumbling terraces.

















The surroundings are as verdant as the temple itself.









It seems miraculous to me that even one such temple exists  – but in Mrauk-U there are many others, among them the Htuk Kant Thein temple,





built by King Min Phaloun in 1571 C.E..











The modest entrance




leads to












labyrinthine passageways








in which images of the Buddha









are placed in




DSC03314precisely aligned niches.














The vestibules converge upon a cavernous inner sanctum.






‘Tradition has it that there was an image cast in nine precious metals in the special chamber.’ (Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U, Myar Aung, trans. Ah Lonn Maung, p. 91)










Some of Mrauk-U’s temples draw many worshipers:




for example the Sanda Muni temple,












where we run into a group of schoolgirls

















who are following






in the footsteps of others before them.










This temple is run mainly by young novice monks



who live on the premises and bathe in adjoining wells,












and even




do the cooking.













And then there is the marvelous Shaitthaung Temple, built by King Thiri Thuriya Sandar Maha Dhamma Raza in 1535 C.E. (897 Rakhine Era).







‘It is also known as Ranaung Zeya (Temple of Victory) commemorating the re-annexation of twelve Bengal towns’ (Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U, p. 79).








Here, as in many of Mrauk-U’s temples





the inner sanctum is ringed









with images of gods
















from the Hindu pantheon.
















Here too there is a labyrinth of richly carved galleries,





where children play hide and seek,











watched over by





the Remover of Obstacles.












On the surrounding walls





fierce dwarapalas (gatekeepers)









rub shoulders with startled tigers.

















At intervals there are arches




through which children peer in;












they also provide glimpses of neighbouring temples

















and rain-drenched stupas.

















As I make my way out it occurs to me that each image in this cascading series of iterations





is an assertion and celebration of the centrality of iconography in human life; they are each a signpost to a spiritual universe that is a galaxy removed from the logocentric, iconophobic worlds of the Book; they each represent an unspoken argument in which the medium is itself the message.  It strikes me also that in a small way this blog, with its meshing of word and image, is also a refraction of that universe, a glimmer of a possibility of broadening the novel’s boundaries of language. This reinforces my belief that the Net has enabled a return to forms of expression and perception wholly different from those of the age of print, with its by-no-means incidental overlapping with the era of Protestant iconoclasm.





An Arakan Angkor – 1

Chrestomather | September 9, 2014 in An Arakan Angkor | Comments (0)



Mrauk-U rises out of the misted hills and valleys of the Arakan



DSC03337coast like a mirage,











at the end of a long journey




over weather-worn roads,









after innumerable swollen streams















have been crossed on trestle bridges,














while schoolchidren, with thanaka-daubed faces, look on















as they make their way back to tiny hamlets














and quiet villages






that ought to be recognized as models of sophisticated sustainability,









with carbon footprints too small even to be measured,





except when the occasional ancient tractor-truck comes sputtering along.








Countless rivers and creeks






wind through the landscape







meandering through ranges of hills that are shaped





almost like pagodas









so that the spires of Mrauk-U




DSC03189become visual echoes of the site’s setting.











In the shadow of the monuments villagers go quietly about their business.









The effect is such that I was reminded of my first visit








to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat twenty-one years ago.
















The Dark House of the Neighbourhood

Chrestomather | August 30, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




In an article written in 1996 I wrote of Burma that for several decades the country had been

DSC03059 ‘the dark house of the neighbourhood, huddled behind an impenetrable, overgrown fence.’ Today Burma is a completely changed country, yet one of its most important buildings still embodies that metaphor: it is the Central Secretariat, which was until 1947 the seat of the British colonial government in Rangoon.








The Central Secretariat (which was long known in Burmese as ‘the Minister’s Building’)


DSC03000was designed by Henry Hoyne-Fox (1855-1905), the Executive Engineer of the Public Works Department of the colonial government.










Work on the building started in 1889 and most of the brickwork was completed by 1892











but construction continued until 1902. The builder was a contractor from northern India by the name of Baboo Naitram Rambux.













The complex sprawls over many acres of central Yangon, where land prices in some areas rival those of Tokyo.













The Secretariat has been abandoned for many years.














It is a vast, haunted labyrinth of echoing, empty corridors and warehouse-like rooms.






The floors are uneven because parts of the building  were destabilized by Japanese bombs during the Second World War. Earthquakes have also played havoc with the  structure.







Fans hang down from the ceiling, twisted into bizarre shapes. DSC03027














One of the main entrances leads to a double-spiral staircase, with banisters entwined in a curious helical form.















The ironwork was cast in Glasgow.


















The building has a tragic history.






On 19 July 1947, a few months before Burma was to gain independence, the leader of the young nation, General Aung San









(father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi)


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996














was assassinated here, along with six members of his cabinet.




The assassins are said to have climbed up this staircase.DSC03007















General Aung San and his cabinet




were seated here when the assassins marched in and sprayed the room with bullets. Today the room is a kind of shrine to the memory of those who died here that day.






















The building that served as Burma’s first parliament is also in the compound.






It was here that independent Burma’s flag was first hoisted.









The pictures of General Aung San




and the six assassinated cabinet members hang inside, under Burma’s first flag.









Now the entire complex is being renovated by a young couple




Le Yee Soe and Soe Thwin Tun.



They envisage a museum, art galleries, offices, restaurants, performance spaces and







an arcade where visitors will be able to buy traditional handicrafts.







If all goes as planned the site will be spectacular – unique in Asia.






Facing the Central Secretariat, across Bo Aung Kyaw Street






is a Durga Temple that also dates back to 1889.









DSC03068Inside is a plaque to Joy Chandra Dutta, who was related to my family. He was from my father’s ancestral village, Medini Mandol (in what is now Bangladesh).











IMG_0009My aunt Molina, my father’s eldest sister, married into the Dutta family which was then based in Moulmein, Burma. It was her husband, Jagat Chandra Dutta, who started me on the path that would lead to ‘The Glass Palace.’




























Petrofiction and Petroculture

Chrestomather | August 27, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


In April this year I visited the University of Oregon, Eugene, which is a global pioneer in cross-disciplinary eco-critical studies. While I was there I had an interesting meeting with Stephanie Le Menager, the author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century – a fascinating study of the role of oil in the contemporary American imagination.

I learnt from Stephanie, to my very great surprise, that a review I had written in 1992 – Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel – has become a seminal text in a field that is expanding rapidly in the US and Canada: Petroculture Studies (as this article explains, the term is adapted from the title of my piece).

‘Petrofiction’ is actually a review of the Jordanian-Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt which I describe as a ‘monumental five-part cycle of novels dealing with the history of oil.’ The review was published in The New Republic (2 March 1992: 29-33) and is also included in my essay collections Incendiary Circumstances (USA) and The Imam and the Indian (India).

I had no idea that Petrofiction had had this catalytic effect. I later wrote to Prof. Alessandro Vescovi (of the Università degli Studi di Milano) who very kindly curates the bibliography on my website, to ask whether some Petroculture studies might be included in the bibliography. A few weeks later he sent me an update prefaced by these words:


I had not included petrofiction studies in the periodical updates as I had not fully grasped how the whole field is indeed a spin-off of your review of Munif’s novels. Almost all of the papers in this short bibliography mention “Oil Encounter” as a starting point, though it is now more than 20 years since its publication; however it seems that the discipline has grown, and so has oil literature. There is even a scholar (Hitchcock) who maintains that the time has come for the discipline to move beyond the tracks laid down by “Oil Encounter” in 1992. Most of these essays have been produced in America, but due to my own linguistic limitations, I could not extend the search to Arabic sources, which might yield interesting results.

This is the material I have found in a few data bases including the British Library, The Library of Congress, Google Scholar, Google Books, Jstor, MLA Bibliography, Abell, Cambridge Univ. Bibliographic centre, with keywords such as Petrofiction, Oil Culture, Oil AND novel. Unfortunately I have not had the time to go through the texts as they would deserve.


Petrofiction bibliography

Aghoghovwia, Philip Onoriode. 2013. Coastlines and Littoral Zones in South African Ecocritical Writing Volume 6 of Alternation / Special edition: CSSALL.

Alissa, Reem. 2013. “The Oil Town of Ahmadi since 1946: From Colonial Town to Nostalgic City.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33 (1):41-58.

Alleva, Richard. 2008. “Thicker Than Oil: There Will Be Blood.” Commonweal 135 (134:3):19-20.

Atkinson, Ted. 2013. “‘Blood Petroleum: True Blood, the BP Oil Spill, and Fictions of Energy/Culture.” Journal of American Studies 47 (1):213-229.

Barrett, Ross, and Daniel Worden. 2012. “Oil Culture: Guest Editors’ Introduction.” Journal of American Studies 46 (02):269-272.

Barrett, Ross, and Daniel Worden, eds. 2014. Oil Culture: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Beckman, Ericka. 2012. “An Oil Well Named Macondo: Latin American Literature in the Time of Global Capital.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127 (1):145-151.

Breeze, Ruth. 2012. “Legitimation in Corporate Discourse: Oil Corporations after Deepwater Horizon.” Discourse & Society: An International Journal for the Study of Discourse and Communication in Their Social, Political and Cultural Contexts 23 (1):3-18.

Buell, Frederick. 2012. “A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance.” Journal of American Studies 46 (2):273-293.

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron. 2006. “Of Freedom and Oil: Nation, Globalization, and Civil Liberties in the Writing of Ken Saro-Wiwa.” REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 22:293-308.

Damluji, Mona. 2013. “The Oil City in Focus: The Cinematic Spaces of Abadan in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s Persian Story.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33 (1):75-88.

Fuccaro, Nelida. 2013. “Shaping the Urban Life of Oil in Bahrain: Consumerism, Leisure, and Public Communication in Manama and in the Oil Camps, 1932-1960s.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33 (1):59-74.

Hitchcock, Peter. 2010. “Oil in an American Imaginary.” New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69 (1):81-97.

LeMenager, Stephanie. 2012. “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!” American Literary History 24 (1):59-86.

LeMenager, Stephanie. 2014. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyons, Laura E. 2011. “‘I’d Like My Life Back’: Corporate Personhood and the BP Oil Disaster.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 34 (1):96-107.

Macdonald, Graeme. 2012. “Oil and World Literature.” American Book Review 33 (3):7-31.

McLarney, Ellen. 2009. ““Empire of the Machine”: Oil in the Arabic Novel.” boundary 2 36 (2):177-198.

McMurry, Andrew. 2012. “Framing Emerson’s ‘Farming’: Climate Change, Peak Oil, and the Rhetoric of Food Security in the Twenty-First Century.” Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19 (3):548-566.

Okuyade, Ogaga. 2011. “Rethinking Militancy and Environmental Justice: The Politics of Oil and Violence in Nigerian Popular Music.” Africa Today 58 (1):78-101.

Ryan, Terre. 2010. “Creation Stories: Myth, Oil, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Journal of Ecocriticism 2 (1):81-86.

Schlote, Christiane. 2013. “Writing Dubai: Indian labour migrants and taxi topographies.” South Asian Diaspora (ahead-of-print):1-14.

Szeman, Imre. 2012. “Introduction to Focus: Petrofictions.” American Book Review 33 (3):3.

Szeman, Imre. 2013. “How to Know about Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 47 (3):145-168.

Walonen, Michael K. 2012. ““The Black and Cruel Demon” and Its Transformations of Space: Toward a Comparative Study of the World Literature of Oil and Place.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 14 (1):56-78.

Weine, Stevan. 2007. “Blood Not Oil: Narrating Social Trauma in Springsteen’s Song-Stories.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory 9 (1):37-46.

Worden, Daniel. 2012. “Fossil-Fuel Futurity: Oil in Giant.” Journal of American Studies 46 (02):441-460.

Xinos, Ilana. 2006. “Petro-Capitalism, Petrofiction, and Islamic Discourse: The Formation of an Imagined Community in Cities of Salt.” Arab Studies Quarterly 28 (1):1-12.

Zabus, Chantal. 2001. “Ken Saro-Wiwa: Oil Boom, Oil Doom.” Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society 23-24:1-12.



I am very grateful to Prof Vescovi for the work he has put into this.

Letter from a reader

Chrestomather | August 26, 2014 in Letters | Comments (0)

Dr Ghosh,
It is with great pleasure I write this little note to you. I purchased one of your books, “The hungry tide” in an airport book shop during my recent visit to India. It was an amazing read. Honestly, I could not put the book down until the end. My eyes held tears for a while after finishing the reading. The narrative and the imagery is beyond words. The depth of human emotions and the way everything is connected in this universe is so very well captured in the story. As the reader traverses from one layer to another of the beautifully woven story, revelations of elemental knowledge occur. Examples: How silence is so profound and can reveal that which even thousand well chosen words put together cannot. More than all the languages of the world, the language of sympathy, love, devotion needs no words, mere actions suffice. 
I am just so amazed by the experience of reading your book, I couldn’t stop myself writing to you. Thanks for writing the book and the great amount of time and effort you would have spent learning about the dolphin researches and researchers, tide country and history. 
Vim blogs at:

Links to my Bogaziçi Chronicles event with novelist Ayfer Tunç, Istanbul, June 6, 2014

Chrestomather | June 4, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Bo?aziçi University Rumeli Hisari Istanbul


Links to my Bogaziçi Chronicles event with novelist Ayfer Tunç at Bogaziçi University, Istanbul, June 6, 2014:


Aydinlik; Cumhuriyet; Taraf; Haysev; Radikal; Vatan; Haber Turk; kitapzen;








Neel Mukherjee’s THE LIVES OF OTHERS: a review

Chrestomather | May 3, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)




Neel Mukherjee’s 2008 novel, Past Continuous [i] is a many-stranded story, set partly in Calcutta (now Kolkata [ii]) and partly in Oxford and London (I should add that the book shared the Crossword Prize with my Sea of Poppies that year; since then Neel and I have become good friends).

The Calcutta sections of Past Continuous are powerful and disturbing: they depict Bengali family life as being riven with violence, repression, abuse, manipulation and perversion. 


lives of others full djIn his new novel The Lives of Others Neel returns to the fictional terrain of middle-class Bengali family life. The novel is in some ways a saga: the narrative unfolds around a Calcutta joint family; its principal setting is their house, which is in Bhowanipore, a neighbourhood of leafy streets and handsome pre-war mansions, many of them now crumbling.




The family’s patriarch, Prafullanath Ghosh, is a successful entrepreneur with several paper mills; the family is relatively affluent, with two cars and many servants. But this is not an English-educated family of the kind that so often features in Anglophone novels about Calcutta. As daal is to lentil soup, so are the Ghoshes of Bhowanipore to the Westernized denizens of Kolkata’s sahiby neighbourhoods. They are a solidly middle-class family, and their inner life is lived wholly in Bengali: not the least of Neel’s achievements in this book is his vivid and precise rendering of the textures, idioms and rhythms of the language in which his characters speak and write.

The novel touches briefly on some notable moments in the city’s history – the Bengal famine of 1943; the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of 1946; Partition, and the rise to power of the Left Front. But most of the action takes place in the years 1968-72, the period in which Calcutta was convulsed by the Maoist uprising known as the Naxalite movement. The novel’s most important character is a Naxalite: Supratik Ghosh, a grandson of the patriarch.

I was in my teens in the early 1970s, and in those  years I viewed Calcutta largely through the prism of an extended family that lived in a rambling house not far from Bhowanipore (there, fortunately, the parallels end). Neel is too young to have any first-hand memories of that time, but his account of the period certainly jibes closely with my memories, especially in the details – the magazines that used to lie around the house, the films that everyone went to see, the popular shops and eating-places. But the accuracy goes beyond the details: Neel’s portrayal of Supratik and his Naxalite comrades is, I think, correct also in its basic premise, which is that the urban student radicalism of that time was in large part a response to the stifling repressiveness of Bengali family life.

The scholar Rabindra Ray, who was himself once a fellow-traveler, has written very perceptively about the phenomenon of middle-class student Naxalism (it is important to note that this kind of radicalism was very different from the Naxalism of dispossessed farmers and forest people). As Ray sees it, the radicalism of the urban college-going Naxalite was often a response to the ‘disjunction between enlightenment in public life and orthodoxy in private.’

This indeed is how Supratik’s radicalization begins, while he is a student at Presidency College (alma mater to Amartya Sen and many other luminaries). Supratik finds it impossible to reconcile the ideas he is exposed to in college with the suffocating hypocrisies and casual cruelties that he observes at  home. Along with a group of comrades he slips away to Medinipur district, where West Bengal converges with Jharkhand and Odisha, in the hope of fomenting a revolutionary uprising of the peasantry.

The Ghosh family does not hear from Supratik while he is in Medinipur. But during his years there he composes a series of letters to a widowed aunt with whom he is in love. The letters are never sent but it is through them – in other words through Supratik’s first-person voice, translated from Bengali into English – that we learn of his revolutionary activities.

To attempt to recreate a voice like Supratik’s, through his translated letters, is a high-wire act: it would be all too easy to slip and fall, to lapse into sentimentalism. It is a tribute to Neel’s skill as a writer (and also as a translator) that he is able to pull it off – and he does so mainly by creating a rich, thick layering of detail. Here is Supratik’s description of harvesting:

‘I bracketed the sickle around the base of a sheaf of stalks and cut using the ‘towards me’ motion that they’d taught me. The sickle was very sharp and there was no effort involved in the actual cutting. The cut stalks fell over my head. This was the thing I was failing to master, the way the left hand gathered the cut plants into a bundle, the bundle increasing in girth and the hand adjusting to accommodate that as you moved forward, cutting more stalks, until you had enough and you turned around and threw the harvested sheaves behind you and moved on. Even that flinging backward of the sheaves – even that required the mastery of a trick, a particular motion of the hand and wrist so that the stalks all fell with their bases aligned to the bases of the others already harvested, the tips to the tips. Mine fell in a fanned mess. How was I ever going to reach the end of the field? And then I noticed: my palms and fingers were a mad criss-cross of little cuts from the sharp, dry edges of the rice leaves and stalks. Shame rose in me like bile. Hands that revealed instantly that I hadn’t done a day’s honest work in my life. The only thing I could do was ignore the sting, grit my teeth and keep cutting and advancing with all the strength and endurance I had. I wanted to make the cuts worse, deeper, my hands really bloody. It was the only way I would learn how to harvest properly and the only way  my hands could stop being the shamefully middle-class hands they were now. ‘Change yourself, change the world.

And of transplanting rice:

I watched the transplanting process, hypnotised. Kanu told me that I should study it carefully. It was not something I could be taught hands-on because there was no margin for error here, as there was in ploughing the soil. It was mostly women who did the transplanting. The uprooted saplings, all about four to six inches high – Kanu said ‘one-hand tall’ – and bundled into bunches of a dozen or so, were dotted all over the plots that we had prepared. Then it began. The women, their short saris hitched up nearly to their calves, stood ankle-deep in the mud in the inundated plots, bent low from their waist, leaned down, picked up a bundle, separated it into individual saplings, then fixed each in the mud, making sure the roots remained underwater. The next one was planted about four inches away. The women worked with speed, precision and what I could only call a kind ofchoreography – the whole thing looked like a disciplined dance. And then it struck me that it was probably as physically trying; bending down so that your top half made, at the waist, a variable angle between forty-five and sixty degrees with your bottom half and maintaining that for hours without interruption was a visual illustration of the process that had given us the term ‘back-breaking labour’.

Reflecting on his experiences Supratik writes:

I can hear you asking if it was truly so hard. Yes, it was. Rats bit us – some of them could be as big as kittens – while we were asleep; the rice fields were full of them. In desperate times, I was told the Santhals caught and ate them. Snakes came into the huts during the monsoon. Upset stomachs and a mild dysentery were our doggedly faithful companions – we knew they would go away, but also that they would be back before we could fully appreciate their absence. Then there was the business of eating once a day, if you were lucky (rice, a watery dal, a little bit of fried greens of some kind); of days of eating puffed rice only, or water-rice with chillies and salt; or not eating, days of fast followed by a half-meal, that instantly set you running into the bushes. There was the lack of bathroom or any kind of sanitation. Above all, there was the slow pace of life, with nothing happening and nothing to do for enormous chunks of time, nowhere to go, nothing to read, no one to speak to.

‘I try not to write about these because I can hear you taunting – Aha re, my cream doll! Besides, I feel ashamed to admit to feeling the bite of those hardships; really, a middle-class cream-doll, that’s what I am. It hurts to acknowledge this.


Except for Supratik’s letters The Lives of Others is focused very closely, almost claustrophobically, on the Ghosh family’s house, in Bhowanipur, Calcutta. Neel is both pitiless and perceptive in his observations of the dynamics of the extended family. He understands very well its theatrical quality: ‘The opera of Bengali life, already pitched so high, had begun… In this world of overheated reactions and hysteria, words spoken carried with them the unearthable charge of honour and insult; they remained crackling and alive for generation after generation. Another boundary was crossed, this time without the possibility of return.’ (186)

Neel chronicles, in unsparing detail, the Ghosh family’s hypocrisies, cruelties, sadism, acquisitiveness and perversions (one member is a coprophiliac – and yes, the details of his fetish are described in meticulous detail). Slowly under the combined weight of their own dysfunction and the changing political dynamics of Bengal the family’s fortunes go into a downward slide. And at just that moment, Supratik, the Naxalite grandson, returns.

Let it be noted that Neel is no less harsh on the Naxalites than he is on his other characters: he chronicles in detail their grotesque relish for blood-letting, their self-serving delusions, their endangerment of the very people whose cause they profess to champion. I don’t want to give the plot away but suffice it to say that Supratik leaves a long trail of disaster behind him; his revolutionary zeal brings ruin and death upon many of those he is fighting for. In the end he dooms himself as well – and this part of the book is so graphic that it is difficult to read. But of course to write passages like these is far more difficult than to read them: I am sure it was an ordeal, but then one of Neel’s great strengths as a writer is that he is as unsparing of himself as he is of the reader.

The Lives of Others is an impassioned, dystopic, despairing book: its darkness is relieved by only two glimmers of light. One is the story of a boy called Sona, Supratik’s cousin, who turns out to be a mathematical genius, ‘the next Ramanujan’. His abilities are such that Stanford University whisks him away from India at the age of 15; he eventually goes on to win the Fields Medal for his work in number theory.

The boy-genius serves as a resolution of the great paradox of middle-class Bengali life: that despite the dysfunction, deprivation and repression, Calcutta does, against all the odds, somehow produce people of unusual talent and ability (such as Neel himself). But in Neel’s portrayal these people owe their achievements solely to their own gifts: Sona’s relatives have nothing to do with his mathematical abilities; he is a freak, a singularity, a flash in the pan.

This is to my mind, too easy a resolution. As Ashish Nandy has shown in his brilliant essay on Ramanujan, the great mathematician was not swayambhu or ‘self-created’ as certain gods are said to be; that is to say he was not a being whose abilities were unrelated to his begetting. Ramanujan’s mother was a traditional numerologist and astrologer, and an abiding intimacy with numbers was one of the many gifts he received from her. In The Lives of Others Sona’s mother is allowed no such role in her son’s thought-world; a widow of one of the patriarch’s sons she is a virtual captive in the house, a perfect victim whose contribution to her son’s advancement consists only of the redemptive power of her sorrow and suffering.

Neel cites the example of Ramanujan repeatedly, in order perhaps to shore up the conceit that a ‘genius’ can appear in the most unpromising circumstances. But the reiteration left me unpersuaded. It doesn’t surprise me that Matt Damon, David Leavitt and Robert Kanigel are unable to perceive connections between modern mathematics and un-modern forms of thought; but that a writer as perceptive as Neel should also fail to do so is, to me, very surprising indeed.

In a more general sense, can it really be said that the pressures of Indian (read ‘Asian’) family life have no bearing on individual abilities and successes? To the contrary it is often these very pressures that enable – even force – many gifted individuals to escape their circumstances. Calcutta (like every Indian city) is filled with parents whose ambitions for their children drive them to the brink of bankruptcy and insanity. Yet the true pathos of their plight reveals itself only when they succeed: their brilliant, high-achieving children go away, leaving yawning chasms behind them. Is it fair for these shooting stars to vanish into the firmament without acknowledging that their families’ neuroses and dysfunction are almost always rooted, even amongst the relatively affluent, in a profound economic anxiety (‘study hard or you’ll be pulling rickshaws all your life’, is the mantra I remember from my own childhood)? The truth moreover is that it is these very anxieties and neuroses that often catapult those shooting stars into flight. Those successes are emphatically not flashes in the pan: a better metaphor is that of water-liles blooming upon a muddy pond.

In Past Continuous Neel explored these ambiguities with great empathy; not so in The Lives of Others which makes no acknowledgement either of the contexts that breed domestic dysfunction in India, or of the redeeming features of Bengali family life: the fun, the laughter, the conviviality.

The novel’s second glimmer of light relates to Supratik, the Naxalite. At the very end of the book we find out that while living in Medinipur he had invented a means of derailing trains: this technique has been passed on to present-day Maoists in central and eastern India who are now using it to devastating effect. ‘Someone had come from Chhatitisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar. Or was it West Bengal and Orissa?

This then is the legacy that Neel ascribes to Supratik: a method of derailing trains and killing unwary passengers: ‘his gift to his future comrades survived and for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest.’

In other words, what Neel chooses to celebrate about Supratik’s life is not the transmission of a spirit of resistance – something that is more than ever necessary at a time when the environment and the poor are being subjected to devastating violence in the name of ‘growth’ – but rather a particular means of resisting: in this instance a technique of mass murder. This is troubling, for it was precisely the means adopted by the student-Naxals of the 1970s that doomed their movement. Violence and bloodletting became so essential to their methods as to suggest that the movement was not, in its essence, a social program at all but rather a cult of ritualistic killing, like thuggee. This is why the movement aroused widespread revulsion, even among those who sympathized with its professed social aims. Its trajectory was a perfect illustration of that deadly elision that often occurs when violence is embraced as a means to an end: ultimately the one displaces the other and the means becomes the end.

Indeed Rabindra Ray has argued, very persuasively, that the true core of 1970s Naxalite student-radicalism was constituted not by utopianism but rather by nihilism. To endorse that nihilism – which is what the coda to Supratik’s life suggests – is, to me, both incomprehensible and indefensible. It is the last thing one would wish upon those who find themselves compelled to resist the land-grabs and repression that are being inflicted upon them today.

But none of this detracts from Neel’s achievement in this passionate, angry book: a novel is successful precisely when it forces its readers to engage with its themes, ideas and its characters, and in this The Lives of Others succeeds in ample measure.

The Lives of Others is searing, savage and deeply moving: an unforgettably vivid picture of a time of turmoil.


Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)

Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)


The Lives of Others

by Neel Mukherjee

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (UK), Vintage (India).
ISBN-10: 0701186291.
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701186296.
Pub. date: 22 May, 2014.



[i] Published under the title A Life Apart in the UK.

[ii] I have used ‘Calcutta’ in this review because most of the events referred to take place before the renaming of the city.


Letter from a Mathematician, Concerning Fractal Forms in Indian Art

Chrestomather | April 29, 2014 in Letters | Comments (0)


April 23

Hello Amitav:

It was a pleasure meeting you and listening to your talk.  I particularly enjoyed our brief conversation about Fractals at the end of the talk, and I am following up on your invitation to write to you.
As I mentioned I am a mathematician with a Ph.D in the very abstract area of differential topology that I earned from the University of Virginia.  I was a professor for a few years before abandoning academia for information technology where I have misspent many years.  Recently I have been obsessing over architecture, design and photography (I am pasting a link to my photoblog below).
slideshow-img2 In my self study of architecture and design I have often thought about the Indian aesthetic and how it differs so much from the Western aesthetic.  I was particularly struck by a photograph of the Meenakshi temple I saw almost a decade ago.  I noticed that from far the temple appears to have straight edges but when you pull in closer you notice the edges are made up of statues, and the first thing that popped in my mind was fractals.

Technically we say that a form has a fractal geometry, or is a fractal,  if the form repeats itself infinitely upon magnification.  Certainly nothing in the real world satisfies this classical definition but one often presents the coastline as a real life example of fractals in that a  coastline from 10,000 ft often looks like a coastline from 1000 ft.  When I say that I think the Indian aesthetic is fractal in nature I am not referring to this repeatability upon magnification but simply to the presence of details upon details that exhibit themselves as you pull in closer.  The indian psyche would not have been happy with a straight edge temple, which is very different from the Greeks or the Egyptians for example.  It was felt necessary to add details upon detail in the smallest of spaces.  Compare this with the Parthenon in Greece where the straight edge observed from afar is a true straight edge of a pillar or the roof.  Maybe it is a bit of stretch, but I see traces of this Indian need/appreciation for complexity in their music, with notes between notes, and in Indian cuisine where the interplay of many different flavors is not just the strength but also the defining characteristic of the cuisine.  To me the Western mind going all the way back to the Greeks is more interested in reducing complexity to get to the essence of a truth.  Indians on the other hand want to embrace complexity because rightly speaking the universe is a very complex dynamical system.  Its like the Indians want to grasp the universe in its totality, whereas the westerners want to do it a piece at a time.  Indians could never have built the Parthenon, or a simple pyramid, no more than the Greeks or Egyptians could ever build the Meenakshi temple.  Their tastes and world views are just so different.  It is also (thus) not surprising that India did so well in number theory where the universe is full of details upon detail (infinitely many fractions between any two fractions and so on), but did so poorly in geometry which about abstracting form to it’s simple essence.  The Greeks on the other hand fared poorly in comparison in number theory but excelled at geometry.
Of course this is just my theory based on some observations, and strictly speaking Indian art is not a fractal, but that is the geometry that comes to mind when one sees their art.
I hope we stay in touch.  My photoblog link is on this page.
Harpreet Singh

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