kartal evden eve nakliyat maltepe evden eve nakliyat ev taşıma taşımacılık
istanbul evden eve nakliyat
evden eve naklyat silivri evden eve nakliyat maslak evden eve nakliyat istanbul evden eve nakliyat
Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire cover

Chrestomather | November 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




It is 1839 and tension has been rapidly mounting between China and British India following the crackdown on opium smuggling by Beijing. With no resolution in sight, the colonial government declares war. 

One of the vessels requisitioned for the attack, the Hind, travels eastwards from Bengal to China, sailing into the midst of the First Opium War. The turbulent voyage brings together a diverse group of travellers, each with their own agenda to pursue. Among them is Kesri Singh, a sepoy in the East India Company who leads a company of Indian sepoys; Zachary Reid, an impoverished young sailor searching for his lost love, and Shireen Modi, a determined widow en route to China to reclaim her opium-trader husband’s wealth and reputation. Flood of Fire follows a varied cast of characters from India to China, through the outbreak of the First Opium War and China’s devastating defeat, to Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. 

 To be published May 2015 in the UK  (John Murray) and India (Penguin India). Pre-order your copy here:

Two responses to ‘Parallel Journeys’

Chrestomather | November 26, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



I received many interesting responses to my post on Turkey’s experience of AKP rule and its portents for India under the BJP. Two that were particularly instructive came from writers with extensive experience of both India and Turkey. The first was  from Vedica Kant [@vedicakant]:


Dear Amitav,

I read the piece with a lot of interest and enjoyed it very much. The comparisons between the AKP and the current government in Delhi are ones that I have often thought about (and have in fact occasionally thought of writing about!). There is hardly anything there that I disagree with, and I particularly liked section three.

I thought I should mention though that the AKP and the BJP haven’t (or in the AKP’s case hadn’t) only managed to appeal to religious constituencies (conservative and modern); I think a key part of their success has been their ability of get votes from sections of society who, while uncomfortable with the religious tenor of these parties, have bought into the neo-liberal economic model and feel that these parties are the best political options when it comes to delivering economic growth. The AKP in its early years did indeed deliver on this promise and that was important in its ability to increase its hold on to power. I think the BJP too realises that it will have to cater to this segment of its vote base if it wants to hold on to power. In Turkey a key factor in the AKPs initial success was also the fact that a number of Turkish liberals were willing to support the party against the military, but while the waning power of the Turkish military is no doubt a good thing it has meant that the AKP’s power today is quite unchallenged.

One of the things I was struck by while reading the piece was how the 80s were particularly crucial decades for the both the AKP and the BJP leading to the kind of religious violence of the 1990s that you describe. In Turkey it was (ironically) the right-wing military regime post the coup that promoted an idea of ‘Turkish-Islamic’ synthesis that used religion to counter left-wing ideology and really gave impetus to Islamist parties. In India too the late 80s were crucial years in the rise of the BJP as the Congress took a turn to the right and dabbled in religious politics.

An aside: interestingly one of the things Modi mentioned during his speech in New York was that he wanted to see every Indian family have a home by 2022. That made me think immediately of Erdogan who embarked on such a project immediately after he first came to power. He instituted TOKI, Turkey’s Housing Development Authority, which worked semi-autonomously under the Prime Minister’s office and went about building a massive (very ugly) housing stock across Turkey. TOKI has been crucial in creating and sustaining a real estate fueled growth model in Turkey. It has diversified its portfolio entering partnerships with private companies making the malls and luxury housing complexes that dot Turkey today and that have been responsible for the destruction of the urban fabric of Turkey’s cities and has been a major cause of the Gezi protests.

(I love this graffiti on the topic.)







If that’s the fate for India, it is terrifying. I can only hope that the BJP does look at such failed models and policies and avoids replicating them, but I am not all that hopeful.

Best wishes,




The second was from Kapil Komireddi (@kapskom)


Dear Amitav


It’s an interesting piece and the parallels are striking. You’re spot on about the causes of the Syrian uprising, which most observers in the west explain away using templates of familiar revolutions. Assad was of course a favourite of many western leaders. He was opening up the economy. This made some people very rich and created symbols of excess in Damascus – while at the same time living standards in rural Syria worsened as a consequence of drought. However, Erdogan’s role in the Syrian conflict has been deeply corrosive. He was a close friend of Assad’s, perhaps even saw himself, with characteristic narcissism, as a father figure. There’s another parallel that’s interesting. A number of RSS figures want Kathmandu to restore Hinduism’s status in Nepal as a state religion. Similarly, Erdogan pushed Assad to decriminalise the Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood (membership is a capital offence in Syria). Assad declined and, according to people I talked to, was furious. And this was the beginning of the rift. In a bid to displace Assad, Erdogan opened up Turkey to malign forces – they may yet threaten Turkey. There’s of course another question: had Europe been more open to Ankara’s membership effort, might Turkey today be as receptive to Erdogan’s brand of politics?

I wrote about these issues in a piece published in June 2013: ‘… it’s [Erdogan’s] interference in Syria, short-sightedly accommodated by the West and Israel, that has most severely damaged the stability of the region. By all accounts Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, accorded tremendous respect to Erdogan; by some accounts, he even treated Erdogan like a surrogate father. Yet he was baffled by Erdogan’s demand – first made in 2009 – that Damascus decriminalize the Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. To suggest – as Western commentators repeatedly have – that Erdogan repudiated Assad because the latter opened fire on Syrian demonstrators is to be exceedingly charitable to Erdogan. As we have witnessed over the last week, when his own authority is challenged, Erdogan can easily assume the deportment of a dictator.

‘Assad is a secularist defeated by his despotic inheritance. Erdogan is an Islamist constrained, for now, by Turkey’s defective secular democracy. But the complexion of Turkey’s neighborhood is quickly changing. Once hailed as a model for “Muslim democracy”, the idea of a “secular Turkey” is already beginning to seem odd in a region that the Turkish leadership is labouring so hard to deliver to Islamists.

‘Those who are prepared to make peace with this new Middle East and are abetting its formation will soon discover that faith in this region is not merely one aspect of national identity; it cannot be subordinated like that. Its claim on the individual, on society, tends towards the absolute.

‘Ataturk grasped that. But protected by the army and cosseted in uncontested privilege, his successors never developed an imagination for inclusive politics. Ataturk toured the villages to educate the masses; his secularizing heirs sneered at the villagers. They are responsible for their own downfall.






Parallel Journeys? Turkey’s experience of AKP rule and its portents for India under the BJP

Chrestomather | November 24, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



Back in March 2013, when I received and accepted an invitation to visit Bogazici University,[1] I did not for a moment imagine that my arrival in Turkey would follow hot on the heels of a historic election in India. But so it did: I landed in Istanbul on June 1, 2014, five days after the swearing-in of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the Indian National Congress, which has long carried the banner of secular nationalism in India, the election was a humiliation – an unprecedented defeat, at the hands of an organization that is closely associated with Hindu-nationalist groups, some of which, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have even been banned in the past.

The outcome of the election, while not a surprise, was still a moment of reckoning for those such as myself, whose revulsion at the dynasticism and corruption of the Congress was outweighed by concerns about the BJP’s right-wing economic program and its espousal of majoritarian politics. The prime ministerial candidate’s record during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat was itself the greatest of these concerns, especially in relation to his conduct during the anti-Muslim violence that had convulsed his state in 2002.

Before 2014, no Hindu-nationalist party had ever won an outright majority of seats in India’s legislature. That the BJP had now come to power with a mandate far larger than predicted was clearly a sign of an upheaval in the country’s political firmament. How had this come about? What did it portend for the future?

It was only when I arrived in Istanbul that it struck me that Turkey had been through a similar moment eleven years before, in March 2003, when an election had brought in a new Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He too was heir to a long tradition of opposition to his country’s dominant secular-nationalist order; his party had also been closely linked with formerly-banned religious organizations. He had himself been accused of inciting religious hatred and had even served a brief term in prison.[2]

The margins of victory too were oddly similar: in 2003 Prime Minister Erdogan came to power with 32.26% of the popular vote and 363 of 550 seats in Parliament.[3] In 2014 the coalition of parties headed by Prime Minister Modi won 336 of 543 parliamentary seats; his own party’s share of the vote was 31%.

The parallels are striking. In both cases an entrenched secular-nationalist elite had been dislodged by a coalition that explicitly embraced the religion of a demographic majority. Secularism was itself a point of hot dispute in both elections, with the insurgent parties seeking to present the concept as a thinly-veiled means for monopolizing power and discriminating against the majority. But the ideological tussle over secularism and religion was a secondary matter: the winning candidates had both campaigned primarily on issues related to the economy and governance, promising to clean up corruption and create rapid economic growth.

The parallels extend even to biographical details. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was raised in straitened circumstances in a poor part of Istanbul; his parents were immigrants from the small town of Rize, on the Black Sea, and he had earned money in his childhood by selling ‘lemonade and pastry on the streets’.[4] Narendra Modi was born in the small town of Vadnagar, in Gujarat, and as a child he had helped his father sell tea at the local railway station. Later, he and his brother had run a tea-stall of their own. Both men have been associated with religious groups since their early youth and both profess a deep personal piety. Both also have claims to physical prowess: Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a semi-professional footballer, and Narendra Modi has been known to boast of his 56-inch chest. Both leaders are powerful orators;[5] both exert a charismatic sway over their followers and maintain an unchallenged grip on their party machinery.



This is by no means the first time that political developments in India and Turkey have mirrored each other. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s both countries were shaken by left-wing student radicalism and trade union unrest. The next decade, similarly, was a time of deepening conflict between the state and minority groups: Kurds and Alevis in the case of Turkey; and Sikhs, Kashmiris, Nagas, Mizos and a host of others in India.

Between the years 1975-77 India went through a period of brutal repression under a State of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi; in Turkey the coup of 12th September, 1980, led to mass imprisonments, torture and killings.[6] In both countries the violence reached a climax in 1984: in Turkey an all-out war broke out between the army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); it was in this year too that the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of thousands of Sikhs.

The parallels continue into the 1990s. In December 1992, an agitation launched by the BJP and its allies culminated in the tearing down of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, by a mob of Hindu activists; this in turn led to months of rioting and thousands of deaths. In Turkey, in July 1993, a gathering of prominent Alevis, was attacked by an Islamist mob in the town of Sivas: dozens of men and women were killed. In both cases it was the inaction of the authorities that permitted the violence to escalate.[7]

The ‘liberalization’ of the Turkish and Indian economies also occurred in tandem, in the 1980s and ‘90s. It was in these decades too that the secular-nationalist establishment of both countries began to suffer major setbacks, with religious parties steadily gaining ground.



That political developments in India and Turkey have occasionally mirrored each other is in some ways surprising, since the historical trajectories of the two republics have little in common. Unlike India, Turkey was never colonized; to the contrary it was itself a major imperial power until the First World War. In the second half of the 20th century, Turkey’s politics differed from India’s in that they were dominated by the army. As a close ally of the United States, Turkey’s international alignments were also different from India’s through those decades. Perhaps more significantly, in material terms Turkey is (and has long been) far better off than India: its people are more prosperous and better educated, and its infrastructure is more ‘advanced’ in almost every respect. Indeed Turkey is effectively a First World country while India ranks in the lower levels of almost every index of ‘development’. Moreover India, with more than a billion people, is vastly larger than Turkey with its population of 77 million.

Yet the two countries do have at least one very important commonality: both are multi-ethnic and multi-religious, with very marked differences between regions. It is for this reason perhaps that the transition to nationhood was accompanied by similar traumas in both India and Turkey: indeed it could be said that it is in their dreams and nightmares, their anxieties and aspirations, that their commonalities find their most eloquent expression.[8]

Both republics were born amidst civil conflict, war and massive exchanges of population. In no small part was it due to these experiences that secularism came to attain an unusual salience in the two countries: it was considered indispensable for the maintenance of peace and equity within diverse populations. But secularism was thought to be indispensable also to the aspirations for material advancement that lay at the heart of the Kemalist and Nehruvian projects.[9] For the elites of both countries there was little difference between ‘secularism’ and ‘secularization’: the ultimate aspiration was for a general progression towards what Nehru liked to call the ‘scientific temper’. This was thought to be essential to the attainment of modern ways of living, as exemplified by the West. But since religion plays an important role in the lives of the vast majority of Indians and Turks, secularism was always an embattled aspiration, in both countries. Yet, through the latter decades of the 20th century, even as the banners of secular-nationalism were beginning to look increasingly tattered, their bearers somehow managed to retain their hold on power in both Turkey and India.

This does not mean, of course, that religious parties never had any taste of power before the ascent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. Just as Erdogan’s advent was presaged by two former Prime Ministers, Turgut Özal and Necmettin Erbakan, so too was Narendra Modi preceded as PM by another leader of the BJP: Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Why then did the elections that brought Erdogan and Modi to power seem so pivotal? In part it was because these elections had each been preceded by a tectonic shift in the political landscape; a development that was most notably evident, in both cases, in the collapse of the traditional left. In Turkey this collapse came about well before the election of 2003. This is how Jenny White, an anthropologist, puts it: ‘In previous decades, the Turkish left had carried the banner of ideological resistance to economic injustice. But the left had fallen victim to a double knockout punch: the post coup military crackdown and the global decline of socialism. Both left- and right-of-center parties abandoned the terrain of economic justice for more global issues. Islamist institutions and party platforms took over the role of the left as champions of economic justice…’[10]

A similar dynamic was at work in India ten years later, most notably in my home state, West Bengal, where a Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had been dominant for more than three decades. But in the latter years of its rule the Left Front had come to be seen as corrupt and subservient to moneyed interests. Its rupture with the class that had brought it to power – small and marginal farmers – was set in motion by an effort to bring heavy industries into the state. This resulted in a series of land disputes between small farmers and corporations: by intervening on behalf of the latter, the Left Front sealed its own fate. In the election of 2014 the left parties suffered a defeat so catastrophic as to all but eliminate them as a major factor in national politics. This is undoubtedly a radical break for a country where the left has often held the balance of power.

But there was a break also in the nature of the support that Erdogan and Modi were able to mobilize: they both succeeded in extending their bases beyond traditional religious groupings. Erdogan, for example, was able to draw on the resources of the vast network of educational, social and media-related organizations created by Fethullah Gülen, a religious figure who is in many respects quite different from traditional Islamist leaders.[11] So too was Modi able to enlist not just the old Hindu-nationalist organizations like the RSS, but also a number of gurus, godmen and pundits who have recently risen to prominence. Among them are some who have created new constituencies of Hindu activists in universities, tech companies and the like. This enabled the BJP to counter some of the charges that had proved most effective against religious conservatives in the past: that they are obscurantist and old fashioned; that they are a hindrance in the march to modernity; and so on. Instead, the BJP (like the AKP before it),[12] was able to turn the tables on the secularists: it succeeded in presenting itself as more modern than its opponent, being less statist, less corrupt and less tainted by the past. That the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate was a self-made man, not a dynastic scion, was frequently cited to suggest that he would bring a new dynamism to the country’s politics.



The similarities in these two political careers are such as to suggest that something more than coincidence is at work here, something systemic. Erdogan and Modi are men of their time and have both come to power by riding a wave of neo-liberal globalization: their rise is proof that an economic ideology, when wrapped in a packaging of religious symbols and gestures, can have a tremendous electoral allure.

The process by which the neo-liberal program was sacralized in Turkey has been described thus by the scholar Cihan Tugal: ‘Starting with its establishment in 2001, the AKP’s ideologues presented it as the expression of an economic shift, but they did so using a quite spiritual language. Nazif Gurdogan, a conservative ideologue and a member of a predominantly elite religious order, interpreted this party (in Sufi language) as the representative of the ‘forces of light’ against the ‘forces of darkness’. He further defined the latter as proponents of centralized, hierarchical, and rigid organizations based on trust, transparency, and distribution of authority. In political economic language he saw the party as the agent of flexible capitalism against organized capitalism represented by the nationalized sectors of the bourgeoisie. Religious civil society… combined its forces to sacralize the AKP’s economic program. Without this spiritualization, neoliberalism could not be sustained.’[13]

Or, as another student of Turkish politics has put it: ‘… greater access to global resources, wealth accumulation, and communication technologies has redirected ‘political Islam’ toward an increasingly rationalized, post-political manifestation of something that might be termed ‘market Islam’.’[14]

That this shift took longer in India than in Turkey is perhaps partly attributable to Hinduism itself: it is no easy matter, after all, to superimpose an ideology of ‘growth’ and consumerism upon a religion in which asceticism and renunciation are foundational values. But over the last two decades an emergent alliance of right-wing economists, revisionist thinkers and electorally savvy politicians and strategists has pulled off the seemingly impossible. Through a re-branding exercise of the sort that contemporary corporations are so adept at, they have successfully invented and sold a new product – ‘Market Hinduism’.

As with many other re-branded products the goods are actually rather shop-soiled. They consist of pretty much the same set of ideas that motivated 19th century opium traders, many of whom were devout evangelical Protestants, to claim that by smuggling drugs into China they were merely upholding the divinely-ordained laws of Free Trade, and thereby doing God’s work.

The irony – a terrible one for people of a genuinely spiritual bent – is that this ideology has the power to impoverish the religions that it touches, emptying them of all that is distinctive in their traditions.[15] Instead it infects those religions with ideas that are not only ‘secularized’ but are also directly opposed to many of the values that have historically been cherished by every religion.



Are there any portents for India in Turkey’s experience of AKP rule? I believe there are.

The first lesson is that the Narendra Modi’s tenure is likely to pose many surprises for liberals, left-wingers and others opposed to the BJP. As Cihan Tugal writes: ‘The first three years of AKP rule were a liberal’s dream. The party passed many democratic reforms, recognized the existence of minorities hitherto rejected by official discourse, and liberalized the political system.’

Just as Erdogan was able to distance himself from his predecessors’ posture in relation to minority groups, it is perfectly possible that Modi too will take a different stance towards some of India’s troubled regions.[16]

Equally, there may be some surprises ahead for New Delhi’s security hawks. Just as the AKP’s former Foreign Affairs Minister (and current PM), Ahmet Davutoglu, was able to engineer some significant changes in Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours, Narendra Modi too may be able to alter the regional dynamic in southern and eastern Asia. There are signs already that under his leadership India’s relations with China and Bangladesh will take a different tack.

In matters of governance, it is generally accepted that Erdogan has been more efficient and effective than his immediate predecessors. It is quite likely that this will be the case with Modi as well.

But what of Narendra Modi’s core promises: growth and economic expansion? Here the eleven-year time lag between Erdogan’s election and Modi’s may be of critical importance. Through Erdogan’s first term as Prime Minister, Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product grew at an average rate of 7.2%.[17] But this probably came about because of  a global upswing that happened to occur at a time when ‘emerging’ economies abounded in low-hanging fruit. [18] In India too the economy was expanding at similar rates in that period, under a Congress-led government. But after the global economic downturn, there has been a marked slowing of growth in both India and Turkey. It would seem that unlike Prime Minister Erdogan, who had the good fortune to come to power with a favorable economic wind behind him, Narendra Modi’s ascent has coincided instead with a strengthening downdraft.

What will happen if expanding expectations of growth are hemmed in by a tightening horizon of possibility? If the Turkish experience is any indication, the likelihood is that the attempt to pursue old strategies of ‘growth’ will become increasingly frenzied. More malls will be built and more public lands will be sold off; real-estate bubbles will proliferate, accompanied by revelations of corruption; the privatization of natural resources will accelerate, perhaps even leading to the sale of rights to rivers.[19] At the same time, grass-roots opposition will be suppressed and every effort will be made to silence environmentalists. But only for a brief period will it be possible to get away with this. At a certain point people will push back, as they did in Turkey, during the Gezi Park protests of 2013.[20]

Indeed the one area in which there is certain to be headlong growth is that of protest – a whiplash effect, ironically, of the same neo-liberal wave that has brought the AKP and the BJP to power.[21] For it is now evident that the very currents that send tsunamis of capital and information hurtling around the world also have the effect of throwing up sand-bars of protest, many of which self-consciously mimic each other. But governments have also been quick to learn: from Hong Kong to Seattle, Istanbul to London, the powers-that-be have found ways to contain and ultimately disperse these movements. As a result their principal effect is often merely to bruise the egos of whichever leaders they happen to be directed against.

When protests break out in India, as they surely will, how will Narendra Modi respond? Will he take a leaf out of Erdogan’s book and become more authoritarian and repressive? Will he retreat into Sultan-ish isolation? Will political pressures ultimately lead to a break between him and some of the organizations that helped to bring him to power (as has been the case with Erdogan and the Gülenists)? Only time will tell.

No matter what Modi’s response, the contradictions between neo-liberal promises of growth and the constraints of the environment will not go away. Not only will they cause domestic disruptions, they will also impinge, with increasing insistence, on matters deemed to be ‘external’. Thus has the AKP’s ambitious foreign policy been disastrously waylaid by events beyond its borders, most notably by a conflict that has, to a significant degree, been shaped by climate-change: the civil war in Syria, which was triggered by the catastrophic drought that began in 2008.[22]

India, like Turkey, happens to be located in a region that is exceptionally turbulent, both politically and climatically. It is more than likely that the BJP’s foreign policy will also be susceptible to similar disruptions.

Indeed perhaps the most important lesson of the Turkey’s recent past is that the world is now entering a period of extreme volatility, when governments will be so overwhelmed by crises and firefighting requirements that they will be less and less able to implement coherent programs and policies.


Amitav Ghosh

November 24, 2014




[1] Unfortunately the encoding of this blog does not support certain symbols, so I have had to omit some of the diacritical marks of  the Turkish alphabet, for example the breve accent on the ‘g’ in ‘Bogazici’ and ‘Erdogan’.

[2] See Dexter Filkins: The Deep State, The New Yorker, March 12, 2012.

[3] M. Hakan Yavuz: Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, Oxford, 2003, p. 256.

[4] Cf. Jenny White: Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Princeton, 2013, p. 47; & Kerem Öktem: Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989, Zed Books, London, 2011, p. 131 (my thanks to Vedica Kant for bringing the latter to my notice).

[5] See Jenny B. White: Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, p. 154.

[6] My account of the events in Turkey is based mainly on Kerem Öktem, op. cit., pp. 43 – 55.

[7] Kerem Öktem, op. cit., p. 96.

[8] See Jenny White: Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Princeton, 2013, pp. 54 – 79, for a detailed discussion of the creation of a Turkish ‘national subject’.

[9] For the centrality of secularism in the Kemalist state see Erik-Jan Zürcher: The Importance of Being Secular: Islam in the Service of the National and Pre-National State, in Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity: Conflict and Change in the Twentieth Century, ed. Celia Kerslake, Kerem Oktem & Philip Robins, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010, pp. 55-68.

[10] Jenny B. White: Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, Univ of Washington Press, Seattle, 2002, p. 123.

[11] Cf. Elizabeth Özdalga: Transformation of Sufi-Based Communities in Modern Turkey, in Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity: Conflict and Change in the Twentieth Century, ed. Celia Kerslake, Kerem Oktem & Philip Robins, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010, pp. 69-91.

[12] As M. Hakan Yavuz puts it, the AKP represents a ‘new, hybrid, national, Islamic, modern identity.’

[13] Cihan Tu?al: Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, Stanford University Press, 2009, p. 55.

[14] Joshua D. Hendrick: Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, NYU Press, 2013, p. 236.

[15] Cihan Tu?al observes of Islamists that: ‘They no longer emphasize what differentiates Islam from other religions and secularism.’ [Op. cit. p. 8] He cites an interesting example of an activist who buys into ‘Market Islam’ but only to grow disillusioned with its ‘this-worldliness’.

[16] As I was writing this I came upon a headline article that suggests that Modi is already trying to create a rapprochement with Kashmiri leaders: “Ex-Kashmiri separatist leader Sajjad Lone praises PM Modi: ‘He talked as if I was PM, not him’” http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/former-separatist-leader-sajjad-lone-floored-after-meeting-pm-modi/

[17] Ziya Önis and Fikret Senses (eds.): Turkey and the Global Economy: Neo-Liberal Restructuring and Integration in the post-crisis era, Routledge, 2010; p. 5.

[18] Thus, Ziya Önis and Fikret Senses write: ‘In retrospect, Turkey’s growth prospects were clearly helped by an unusual combination of favorable circumstances. The fact that the world economy was experiencing one of its major boom periods of the postwar era provided a major boost to growth in all emerging markets from which Turkey has also benefited’ (Ibid., p. 6)

[19] See for example, this article : Turkey’s Government Plans Sweeping Water Privatisation in Run-up to World Water Forum in Istanbul .

[20] Cf. Alev Scott: Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey, Faber & Faber, 2014, p. 277.

[21] Cf, the following post on the Washington Blog Permanent Instability’.

22] Cf.  this report by the American Meteorological Society. See also: Johnstone, Sarah & Jeffery Mazo: Global Warming and the Arab Spring, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 53 (2011): 11-17.


‘We had to cross many hills and mountains': a censored letter about the Burma exodus of 1942

Chrestomather | November 7, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (2)



Below is a rare example of a letter written by an Indian survivor of the exodus out of Burma, following the Japanese invasion of 1941-42 (a photocopy of it came into my hands thanks to my wife, Deborah Baker, who found it in the Special Branch Police Archive, Police Museum, Kolkata).




I have transcribed the letter exactly as it was written, keeping the original spellings etc.; a few indecipherable words are  indicated by a question mark.














[Readers of The Glass Palace the_glass_palacewill recognize the air raids described in the fourth paragraph of the letter; they overlap with the events of Chapter 39 in the novel.]












This letter, which was written in Bombay, on July 4, 1942, was intercepted by censors from the Special Branch and may never have reached the addressee. This copy was made for the Special Branch in Calcutta.

The copyist’s note is at the top of the page (it’s quite possible that it was the copyist who was responsible for the peculiarities of the syntax, spelling etc.).

If anybody who reads this should happen to know of the writer and his family I would be glad to hear from them.





Copy of the letter written to Dulu by her Bardada (eldest brother) (Bombay) found in an envelope addressed to one Mrs Nirmala Bala Roy c/o A… [?] Ch. Roy of 348 Pratapaditya Rd.





Bombay 4.7.42


My dear Dulu


            I am very glad to receive your letter of the 28th ultimo and hope that your eagerness to learn something about the recent situation of India and Burma will bring you true knowledge. Always try to write good English. Leave aside your shyness which will bring you debacles in the way of your acquiring outside knowledge.

            I am hereafter, explaining to you, your queries para by para in shortest way, but I hope I will be able to tell you the facts, which I have seen with my own eyes, when I come to Calcutta.


  1. Japanese plane – Their planes seem to be much lighter. Sound is also very low. The planes are of silvery white colour. Although I had the opportunity of seeing the damaged Japanese planes, but in this respect I am a layman and quite unable to form any judgement about its quality and capacity. Their planes used to visit our place in the broad day light, but sometimes they used to come in the night time, when there was moonlight.


  1. First Air Raid in Rangoon.

On the 13th of December, we heard the sound of a siren and immediately we got out of the building and saw one Japanese plane, but nothing happened that day. Again on 23rd the signal for danger was given and immediately we got out of the building and went nearly 4 furlong away near a lake, from where we could see what was happening in the air. When we were going away


[Page] – 2 –




George Rodger: Rangoon, World War II. 'Indians and Burmans look in awed silence at the body of a Japanese airman shot down by the Flying Tigers. 1942'

George Rodger: Rangoon, World War II. ‘Indians and Burmans look in awed silence at the body of a Japanese airman shot down by the Flying Tigers. 1942′


in a car, we could see nearly 35 planes flying over our heads. Immediately we reached a certain place the bombing started. From the place where we were, we could see the smoke as well as we could hear the sound of bombs + Anti Aircraft guns.












Over our heads we could see the fighting of the planes. We could see planes shot down by our British air pilots. Nearly after two hours of this happening, we went to our office but could not see anybody there. Being very much afraid when we were about to return home, I was very eager to see the place which was bombed. Not very far away from the Railway Station where we could not get the trains, we could see the heaps of dead bodies lying scattered here and there. Thirty buildings sustained damage very severely, but a few building were levelled to the earth.





Downtown Rangoon in the aftermath of WW II

Fire started in the locality and the A.R.P.[i] volunteers were very busy removing the injured in the hospital or to the nearest shelter. Particularly one road where there were heavy casualties, was full of blood.










Some stairs leading to the first floor of the nearest buildings were stained with blood and human flesh. It was such a horrible scenery, that none could keep courage to see his own relatives whether dead or alive. In the heaps of dead bodies, I tried to locate and find out whether there was any Bengali or not, but as my brother-in-law, who was with me, was afraid beyond imagination, I had to come home on foot as there was no conveyance available at that time. Again on 25th Dec 1941, bombing started but the damage and casualties were not so heavy as that


[Page 3]



of the previous day It so happened after a few days that there were air-raids six or eight times within 24 hours. Some nights we had to pass without sleeping and some days we had to pass without food. Nearly after a fortnight we were accustomed to bear all these difficulties. We were able to distinguish by sound the Japanese planes. In the month of February when it was quite impossible for us to stay there, we came to Mandalay, where also the place was first bombed on the 19th February.

            Expecting the grave situation, we determined to come to India by overland route and proceeded immediately.





George Rodger; ‘World War II; Indian refugees flee Burma before advancing Japanese army.’

We had to cross many hills and mountain. First we hired a country boat in which we were for 16 days continuously. This journey we took [started in] a place named Monywa. After 16 days journey we reached Kalewa. From Kalewa we came to Kyigon by country boat.










From Kyigon we hired a lorry for Rs 1000/- and came to Tamu which is about 96 miles away from Kyigon. From Tamu we got a bullock cart in which we could keep our office papers, but we had to walk all along and reached Mintha 36 miles away from Tamu. From Mintha  we could engage 16 coolies who helped us in our safe arrival to Imphal, the capital of Manipur. This was the most hazardous journey when we started from Mintha, as we had to cross many hills which are over six thousand feet above sea level. Every fifth or tenth minute, we had to take rest, otherwise it would have been quite impossible to reach India. There was such a scarcity of water in these hill tracks


[Page 3]


we had to pass couple of days without water … we have seen plenty of people in dying condition. From our company also we lost two. When we were above the hills, we were very eager to see the low land, as the continuous journey over the hills, which was most risky + made us more weaker. But through the grace of God, we could pass through the ordeal of journey + could reach Imphal and I could be my old self which I reached home.

            I think I have not been able to give you the vivid description of what happened but if I be able to see you, I will explain to you personally everything point by point.When you are so interested to knowall these things I will not keep you uninformed.

            Nothing more today. My love to you, Bulu, Ranu, Sisir + Gaetry and my respect to Babu and Ma.

            I am quite well, hoping you all to be the same. Your Boudi[ii] with all the children are quite alright.








[i] Air Raid Precautions

§ Posted on this website is an aerial photo of the bombing of Rangoon on Dec 23, 1941, taken from a Japanese plane. The picture is described as having been accompanied by a news flash from Japanese Imperial Army Headquarters, on Dec. 24, 1941, 5:10 PM: ‘Severe Bombing of Rangoon: Yesterday, on December 23rd, the combined Imperial Army Air Force heavily bombed the Rangoon Airport; Spitfire fighters (along with possible Buffalos) engaged the bombers in violent aerial battle. Ten fighters were shot down with others (an accurate count could not be determined); also, four fighter planes on the ground plus two bombers were hit and burned. Four of our planes did not return.

[ii] ‘Sister-in-law’, probably a reference to the writer’s wife






Remembering the past: an unfinished conversation

Chrestomather | October 31, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)




Last week my Twitter feed led me to a thought-provoking piece by Raghu Karnad on Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Karnad writes: ‘The subject of The Narrow Road is cruelty and survival along the ‘Burma Death Railway’, one of the worst Japanese atrocities in the Second World War.’ Pointing out that the great majority of the men who worked on the railway were Asians – including a large number of Indians – Karnad notes that these men are almost always excluded from the historical account. He concludes: ‘Had The Narrow Road been a memoir, I’d have no questions about what Flanagan chose to include, or not to. Since it is fiction, though, one can wish that he had extended himself toward those many others that were chained to those same rails. Instead, it is a troubling tale of how literature can visit an atrocity again and again, and continue to omit most of its victims.’

I disagree with Karnad on several counts. To begin with I don’t see why the burden of providing a rounded narrative should fall more heavily on a novelist than on the writer of a memoir. If anything, it should be the other way around since a memoir, being a work of non-fiction, necessarily makes certain truth-claims, which is not the case with a novel. Nor do I believe that novelists have a duty to represent every aspect of a historical situation: if that were at all possible then the task would surely fall more to the historian than the novelist. And whether literature has a special responsibility towards victims is another question that is not easily resolved.

But the broader issue that Karnad raises certainly sounded a chord with me: I have long struggled to understand why Indians, and other Asians, are so often omitted from historical accounts of events in which they played a major part. The power to narrate, and who possesses it, is of course at the heart of the matter; equally important perhaps is the ambivalence of those who participated in these events, most notably sepoys.

But there is another aspect to it too, as I discovered while working on my 2000 novel, The Glass Palace. In researching the book’s historical background I






took to the road in Malaysia,







seeking out men,













and women, of Indian origin






[Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan of the Rani of Jhansi regiment]













who had played a part in the Second World War.


Many of the men who worked on the Death Railway were Indian (mainly Tamil) workers from the rubber plantations of what was then the British colony of Malaya. I visited several such plantations, hoping to find survivors: even though the war was then more than fifty years in the past, it did not seem impossible that a few men who had worked on the railway would still be alive. But my efforts were unavailing: I met none.

On one occasion I was saddened to learn that a Death Railway survivor had died quite recently on the plantation I happened to be visiting: after the war he had returned to the only home he had ever known and had raised a family there. At the suggestion of one of the managers I went to see the survivor’s son, hoping to learn something about his father’s experiences. This man was, as I remember, in his forties, and spoke a little Hindi as well as English. He confirmed that his father had worked on the Death Railway but was unable to tell me much else. At length, trying to jog his memory, I said: Didn’t your father talk about his wartime experiences? He must surely have spoken of the horrors of the Death Railway?

He fell silent and thought about the question for a bit. His answer, when it came, was to the following effect:

You must understand – the Burma railway was of course a horror beyond imagining for the English and the other white men who worked on it. But at that time, under colonial rule, conditions on rubber plantations were also terrible. For men like my father the difference between what they had to endure there and here was not so very great.

I recall that conversation every time I read about the Death Railway: to think about the implications of those words is to confront degrees of complexity that extend far beyond ‘The War’.

Which war? When? Where?




Schooning with Dragons 2

Chrestomather | October 27, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


Komodo is the kind of island







that inspires fantasy.



From a distance, the ridge that runs along it






has the appearance of the armoured spine of some gigantic Saurian creature.







As it happens the island did play a part in the genesis of the story of King Kong.







Merion C. Cooper, the man who is credited with inventing the idea of a ‘gigantic prehistoric ape’ is said to have been fascinated by the adventures of his friend Douglas Burden, whose travels resulted in the book Dragon Lizards of Komodo. And the mysteries of these islands are not all imaginary: it was in this region that the remains of the prehistoric  ‘hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) were found.





We on the Katharina were exceptionally lucky.










The night before our visit to Komodo





we witnessed a spectacular lunar eclipse.



















Our visit to Komodo began at the Rangers’ station of Loh Liang.






The rangers warned us that the dragons are elusive creatures and that we might not see any on our walk.







But in no time at all we came upon a large male.















A magnificent creature,















it seemed to be stalking a herd of deer.
















Dragons can sprint over short distances,
















but their usual gait is slow and stately.






photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie




This was not this hunter’s lucky day;







stalking isn’t easy when you’re the cynosure of many eyes.




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie











The trail gave us glimpses of a savannah-like landscape,







thirsty for rain at the end of the dry season.









But the conditions were just right for certain orchids.





















The waters of Komodo National Park are famous for their reefs.





photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie















I have done a fair amount of snorkeling in my time






DSC04758 but I have never seen coral reefs as fine as these; nor have I ever come across such abundant and varied marine life.










We were fortunate in having two experienced divers with us,






Jennifer Hayes, our guide,









and Joris Kolijn,






DSC04959 Sea Trek‘s manager. They are both intimately familiar with these waters and thanks to them we saw some amazing sights.













One unforgettable morning we swam with giant manta rays,





Wikimedia commons




with wingspans of three metres or more.








The mantas circled playfully around us,






Wikimedia commons


coming back again and again, as if to check us out, even making eye contact.











One day Joris and Jennifer took us to a channel






where marine life abounds because of a rich supply of nutrition, brought in by a powerful current.








The current swpet us along like birds in a gale, carrying us past reef-sharks, barracudas and




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie



schools of fish, with the brilliant colours and fantastical shapes



of a hallucination.
















Photo Summa Durie

Photo Summa Durie




these fish end up in fishermen’s nets.














at a market in Lombok,







I came upon







some of these species of fish laid out on display.








Even there,







long dead,








their colours







and shapes seemed unreal.









One afternoon, I found myself swimming some twenty feet above a green turtle.






Wikimedia Commons


It was a clear day and a bright funnel of sunlight was focused upon the turtle’s emerald-tinted shell.










It was gliding effortlessly along, like an eagle on an updraft. The slow, undulating motion of its limbs, as much as the penumbra of radiance that surrounded it, gave it the appearance of an angel.





Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly a school of fusilers appeared, encircling the turtle in a halo of flashing colours.











It was as though I had been granted a vision of something not of this world: it was perhaps the most beautiful sight I have ever seen; no human creation could come close to rivalling it; no picture could do it justice.







And when we weren’t swimming with rays or walking with dragons, there was wonderful food to sample.





UWRF-SeaTrek Bali - Komodos Oct 14 - Summa Durie (70 of 111)




Janet de Neefe, who runs two of the finest restaurants in Bali – Casa Luna and Indus









was on board, to explain Indonesian cooking techniques:






how spices and herbs are combined and ground;










how a Sumatran fish curry is made;















and how to serve prawn fritters.

















Janet is the author of  Bali: Food of My Island Home - one of the best, most user-friendly cookbooks ever written. I love it and use it all the time.






DSC04463It has inspired me to grow my own turmeric, ginger, galangal, chilies and lemon grass.









In Indonesian cookery







these spices are always used fresh, never dried, as is usually the case in India. This makes for an enormous difference in taste










and vastly enhances the medicinal and health-sustaining properties of these spices.












And to top it all, there were many wonderful conversations. Most of the Katharina‘s passengers were writers and every evening we talked of writing and reading.




But  the most wonderful thing about the Katharina









was her crew.






DSC04950Efficient yet fun-loving













they were the most cheerful group of seamen






I have ever come across.







Whether singing,





or playing the guitar














or rattling the rigging DSC04739










they threw themselves wholeheartedly into everything they did.





To them goes the credit for turning their vessel into a ship of dreams.











Schooning with Dragons 1

Chrestomather | October 25, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


The Bugis (or Buginese) are one of the great seafaring peoples of the Indian Ocean. Like those other great mariners, the Greeks, they are also great story-tellers: their epic, Sureq Galigo or La Galigo, is longer than the Mahabharata. The Buginese were converted to Islam in the 17th century and except for a few sub-groups of Christians and Hindus they are predominantly Muslim today. One interesting aspect of Bugis culture is that it recognizes five gender categories including a ‘meta-gender’.






Bugis seafarers have long been associated with a distinctive kind of sailing vessel: a fore-and-aft rigged craft known as a Phinisi or Pinisi schooner (the words are said to be derived from the Dutch ‘pinas’ or pinnace). These vessels are still constructed by traditional methods in Sulawesi.








Phinisi schooners are an old interest of mine (a Bugis vessel makes a brief appearance in River of Smoke); I have also long wanted to visit the Komodo Islands. The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is surely one of the most fascinating creatures in existence – the planet’s largest  living species of lizard, it was not ‘discovered’ till the 1910s. So when an opportunity arose to sail around Indonesia’s Komodo National Park in a Phinisi schooner I could hardly believe my luck: needless to say, I jumped at the chance.



The journey began with a flight to the port of Labuan Bajo, at the western end of Flores, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region.



On the way there we sighted smouldering volcanoes, rising out of the sea.







Labuan Bajo’s airport is picturesque













and of impressive size,













for a quiet little town.















It’s harbour is spectacular,








especially at sunset.








After nightfall little warungs














appear along the waterfront,















offering a colourful assortment of fish,
















which go straight to the grill,















brushed with a little oil and a few spices.

















They are ready for the table

















in a few minutes.




















Our vessel, the Katharina,






was at anchor in the harbour: a sleek 40 metre Phinisi,







she is operated by a company called Sea Trek Sailing Adventures, which also owns another, slightly larger, Phinisi, the Ombak Putih.









From Labuan Bajo we sailed to an island called Rinca, one of the largest of the 29 islands of Komodo National Park.







Surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs, Rinca has some 1,300 Komodo dragons.






An elaborate gateway














leads to the ranger station of Loh Buaya.















There are a half-dozen or more dragons around the rangers’ quarters;






they are apparently drawn there by the smell of cooking








(the guards never feed them and visitors are forbidden to do so,







although this does not, unfortunately, always stop them from trying).






We were led into the island by a group of rangers –




they all carried forked sticks, like this one, to fend off the dragons.










With the dry season drawing to a close the landscape was reduced to its stark essentials.








Only a few of the rangers are of Bugis heritage but many are good story-tellers: it is easy to imagine that story-telling helps while away many a long hour, when the visitors are gone and there is not much to do.





They explain that the dragons eat nothing but (dead) meat: mainly buffalo and deer.









Apart from hooves and horns,








they will consume







every bit of their prey




DSC04564 – with the exception of the innards, which are usually filled with vegetable matter.










A Komodo dragon’s bite is lethal:





it was previously thought that their saliva contained a toxic community of bacteria but it has now been confirmed that the animals possess venom glands.








Once bitten, a deer or buffalo will die a slow, lingering death, sometimes over a period of weeks. Komodo dragons do not hesitate to attack spitting cobras, which are abundant on these islands (as in this video).

Attacks on human beings are rare but not unknown.








A ranger tells a rather gruesome tale of a tourist who strayed from his group and was never seen again









– all that was found of him was some undigested clothing and hair.






Komodo dragons are not good parents, says another ranger, with a laugh.














They are cannibalistic and love to feed on their children. The females have an advantage in this regard since they know exactly where their eggs are hidden.








In an interesting twist to the phrase ‘expectant mother’, this young female is keeping vigil beside her nest so she can make a meal of her hatchlings when they emerge .







Fortunately for the species, some of the young usually manage to make a getaway. The lucky few must spend the first three years of their lives on trees, where they subsist on lizards, birds’ eggs, insects – and of course other juveniles.




DSC04567Life isn’t easy for baby dragons.










Our rangers were a cheerful lot





but their stories gave rise to a disturbing question: in years to come, when climate change and sea-level rise have forced a generation of human beings to retreat to higher ground, will they come to think of their forebears as dragons whose unbounded appetites resulted in the devouring of their young?










From Yangon

Chrestomather | October 23, 2014 in Letters | Comments (1)



Dr Thant Myint-U is one of Burma’s leading contemporary historians.


DSC04035His book River of Lost Footsteps is essential reading for anyone interested in Burma. His 2011 book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia has also been widely acclaimed: he was recently named one of the world’s ‘One Hundred Leading Thinkers‘ by Foreign Policy magazine (he has an excellent twitter feed: @thantmyintu ).











Many years ago Thant, as he is known to his friends, gave me a copy of View from the UN,


51byxSyYYOLa memoir written by his grandfather, U Thant. As Secretary General of the UN from 1961 to 1971, U Thant was once a household name around the world. He played a part in many important events and his memoir is, to my mind, a major historical document: it also makes for compelling reading.










Much of Thant ‘s childhood was spent in his grandfather’s house in Westchester, New York. He studied at Harvard and the University of Cambridge, where he earned a doctorate in history. He taught history at Cambridge for a few years and has held fellowships at several leading universities around the world. He has also worked at the UN in various capacities. But he is now back in Burma, doing many things: he helps to run a trust commemorating his grandfather; he is the Chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust; he is a member of the President of Myanmar’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council; and as if that were not enough he is also participating in the ongoing talks between the government and Burma’s ethnic minorities.


I recently met up with Thant in Rangoon,




and we had a long talk about the current situation in Burma: suffice it to say that he is cautiously optimistic.










Shortly after our meeting he wrote me this:

I received the message below just now from U Kyaw Thein Lwin, a former navy officer in his late 80s, and thought you might be interested.  He’s an old friend of the family and he knew I had seen you this morning. U Kyaw Thein Lwin is a treasure house of information on 20th century Burmese history.  His father was the distinguished educationist U Ba Lwin who founded the Myoma National School in the 1920s and who was a key figure in the country’s fight for independence.




I wanted to tell Amitav Ghosh that his Book  [The Glass Palace] is not all fiction, and perhaps I’m am the only living person in Myanmar who is actually connected with some of the characters and plots in the Book. For example , the ship he hired to bring coolies from East India , named the DUFFERIN was converted as a training ship in Bombay in 1927 and I spent three long years on it, from 1941-43. I also remember a Mr. Dinanath , who was a Rotarian and a close friend of my father and we often visited their residence before Japanese invasion. The other family. Arjan Singhs , connected with the story, were also prominent teak exporters and Boat builders who lived in Moulmein and were friendly with my in-laws. Of course I could vividly follow his stories about pre-war Rangoon commercial life. Pegu Club etc. and and the part played by Subhas Chendra Bose, whom my Dad knew during the war and the exploits of the I.N.A. Lastly, DA Ahujas and TN Ahujas were the two leading photographers dealing with studio photography during pre-war years as mentioned in his story. Hope I will have the chance to meet him somewhere.
[these messages are reproduced here with the permission of Dr Thant Myint-U and U Kyaw Thein Lwin]

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.

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