A Voice for the Anthropocene

Chrestomather | October 15, 2015 in Current Reading | Comments (1)


Because of my recently-concluded lecture series at the University of Chicago the Anthropocene has been much on my mind of late. It was serendipitous then that I happened to read Swimmer Among the Stars, Kanishk Tharoor’s debut collection of stories, at just this time.

Not that these stories address the Anthropocene as such: what caught my interest is the manner in which Tharoor breaks with the fictional conventions of this era. It is as though he were conjuring up possibilities that are better suited for times to come. 

Here is the first paragraph of the third story in the collection, A United Nations in Space:

In between sessions, the ambassadors come to the viewing vestibule and search the shadowed half of the earth. They crowd the portholes. Where once they might have seen the bright fuzz of cities and towns, now the dark patches are profound. It’s not simply a case of the electricity being cut, the lights winking out, the streets and homes rolled away. No, Kiribati thinks, it’s as if humanity’s white webs have been coloured black… a black more velvet than the night, continental in its spidery sprawl.

The story continues:

For months amidst its other work, the council has been trying to find a site where it might reinstall itself on earth. Bhutan’s offer of his mountain capital was initially welcomed, largely because the Himalayas seemed the most secure place in a world scoured by the oceans. But then the noise of war spread up the valleys, big countries growled at each other over glaciers, and little Bhutan demurred, saying that this might not be the best time to discuss the logistics of diplomatic license plates. Australia put herself forward, evoking the immensity of the continent, but the island was too remote for many members; one may as well be in near-earth orbit as in the Antipodes. The ambassadors debated the prospects of other sites, none proving palatable for the majority.

The characters in the story are identified only by the names of their countries: Bhutan, Botswana, Kiribati, Mexico. Tharoor refuses to individualize or characterize, in the usual sense; he refuses even to allow his characters any subjectivity. These refusals recur through the collection, like a series of fractures marking breaks in time. The effect is haunting and mysteriously powerful.

Equally striking is the presence of the non-human. The first story in the collection, Elephant at Sea, begins thus:

In the late summer of 1979, the Second Secretary of the Indian Embassy to Morocco received a cable that uprooted his considerable years of training and left him floundering. The message read simply: ‘Elephant en route’. Was it some sort of code? Further investigation only deepened his confusion. The cable had come from the customs office in Cochin, a port in the south of India. No, the customs officials reported back to him, it wasn’t code. It was an elephant – an elephant that along with its mahout, its driver, was now very much headed by ship to Casablanca. The Second Secretary probed: why send an elephant? Here at the customs office, the reply came, we handle only the movement of goods; for the movement of reasons, please refer your inquiry to the ministry of external affairs.

Not only are animals present in these stories, they are able to speak for themselves. In one story a stallion addresses a letter to his owner, who happens to be Afanasii Nikitin, the colourful Russian traveler who visited India in the 15th century and wrote The Journey Beyond Three Seas.

For me, you were given some sum. Not once did you stroke my mane, even though you liked admiring me from behind and feeling my muscular haunches. I know. My eyes are on the sides of my head, you see. I have a better sense of before and after than you do. Before me, there was only a man and his horse. After me will come textiles, coins, pepper, more coins, gems, slaves, more pepper and even more coins; you will do well in Hormuz and Ethiopia, be penniless by the time you get to Trebizond, shiver in Crimea. As you die of pneumonia on your way home to Tver, remember that at the beginning we were lonely together. You tried to ride me once, but fell off.

In these stories the nation state – that great motor of contemporary fiction – exists principally as a historical irony. Tharoor depicts a world of connections that both pre-exist and post-date nations: this is a universe in which the boundaries of the modern era have melted away; where Mexico dances with Luxembourg in a space station and she refuses his advances by saying: ‘I’m sorry… I can’t, no part of me can … even my desires feel weightless.’

Among the many refusals of Tharoor’s technique not the least is his evasion of the idea of determinate ‘periods’. Some of the stories slide sinuously over time, both recalling and reimagining the techniques of non-modern forms of fiction.

For a few centuries, many people decided to believe that a medieval Welsh prince sailed to america, discovering the continent long before Columbus. They dated his voyage to 1170… Several men in the seventeenth century claimed separately to have been saved by knowledge of Welsh. Captured by surly Indian tribesmen, they squealed for mercy in their mother tongue… Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to keep his eyes peeled for Indians who spoke Welsh.

Tharoor’s prose is finely wrought, filled with surprises and lexical treats. Here are a few excerpts from the story Icebreakers:

It takes only moments for an icebreaker in the Antarctic to come to the profound realisation that it can no longer break ice…

The captain breathes deeply from his inhaler. I should have known better, he thinks. Misled by weather forecasts and satellite imagery, he let his boat venture deep into the sea ice. Often, polar winds keep channels free, passages that Arctic and Antarctic sailors call polynyas (Russian is the language of ice). The captain steered his expedition down a known polynya, only to find it close around him…

In the Antarctic the silence is so total that even light carries sound.

Kanishk Tharoor is thirty-one; he is thus of the first generation to have come of age in the full awareness of the arrival of the Anthropocene. These stories give us a foretaste of some of the ways in which the uncanniness of the Anthropocene will express itself in years to come.

Swimmer Among The Stars announces the arrival of a writer who is gifted not just with extraordinary talent but also with a subtle, original and probing mind. 

[Swimmer Among The Stars is to be published in India by Aleph in January 2016, and in the UK and US by Picador and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, in 2017].




Some Recent Reading Recommendations

Chrestomather | October 3, 2015 in Current Reading,Uncategorized | Comments (2)


Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment (Penguin, 2005): A novel of extraordinary power, written in a voice that is at once lucid and half-crazed with rage; the words explode off the page. This is a performance of astonishing virtuosity.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014): is a work of such monumental significance that it is impossible to do justice to it in a few lines. Suffice it to say that Klein demolishes every argument for ‘market based solutions’, exposes the carbon complicities of ‘Big Green’ organizations, demonstrates why geo-engineering will not work, and after all that even succeeds in finding a silver lining in the clouds. There is more optimism here than the situation warrants, but a dose of hopefulness is perhaps a necessary ingredient in a work that is intended as a call to the barricades.

Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co., 2014): This is the story of the sixth great mass extinction in our planet’s history, the one that is under way right now. A skilled reporter, Kolbert’s account is rigorously detailed and exceptionally vivid. The book is an uncompromising picture of something that can only be described as a spectacle of true-life horror.

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the future (Columbia University Press, 2014): The writers are historians of science who have specialized on climate change related issues. This book is something of a departure for them; they describe it as an exercise in science fiction, because they are looking back at the world of today from an imagined future (‘the penumbral age’). Based on solid research, it paints a chilling picture of a world that is racing towards self-annihilation.

As a child I loved the stories of the Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandopadhyay (1899-1970), whose most enduring creation perhaps is the detective Byomkesh Bakshi. Thanks to film and television Byomkesh Bakshi has had a remarkable after-life, extending to this year’s Bollywood thriller Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, by Dibakar Bannerjee. But Sharadindu wrote a great variety of stories – romances, detective stories, historical fiction, ghost stories and so on – and these too deserve wider attention. The tales I liked best were about a character called Sadashiv, a Maratha boy-soldier in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s army (although Sharadindu wrote in Bangla, he lived most of his life in Pune). Fortunately there are now some good English translations of Sharadindu’s work, for example the story collections Band of soldiers and The Menagerie and Other Byomkesh Mysteries (both published by Penguin Random House) and the novel By the Tungabhadra (Harper Collins).

Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books, 2011) is an excellent non-fiction work about a very important and little-discussed subject: the political consequences of climate change. The changing weather patterns of our time are exacerbating and even causing many conflicts; and there can be little doubt that the situation will only get worse. Parenti pays particular attention to South Asia, which is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions in this regard. This book is an exceptionally clear-headed look at what the future holds.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s: Before We Visit the Goddess  (forthcoming, Spring 2016 from Simon and Schuster): Tender, bittersweet, beautifully wrought tales about love and longing, exile and loneliness. I was reminded of the songs of separation sung by Bhojpuri women: Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni discovers new nuances in the ‘biraha’ that creeps into the lives of migrants.



Yangon’s ‘Kachin Land Traditional Restaurant’

Chrestomather | August 16, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




The Jing Hpaw Myay Restaurant (or Kachin Land Traditional Restaurant)








is  in Sanchaung Township, close to the Myay Ni Ghone neighbourhood of Yangon (Rangoon). The restaurant has two premises, a couple of doors apart.








The restaurants are tiny,







with only a half-dozen tables each, and they specialize in the food of the mountainous Kachin region of Burma (Myanmar)








which is in the far north of the country.





imageKachin State borders the Chinese province of Yunnan on one side and India’s Assam state on the other, both of which have extraordinarily rich cuisines. Kachin State therefore stands upon a










culinary crossroads, between Northeast India, Southwest China and South-East Asia. Yet, although it is open to many influences, its cuisine is very much its own, formed by the distinctive products and resources of a unique environment.








Fortunately, the Jing Hpaw Myay Restaurant (II) has an English menu, which lists items like Chicken Mustard Pickle Curry, Beef Tournedos with Pure Oil, Kachin Style Pork Curry, Dried Kachin Mountain Mushroom, and so on – depending of course, on the seasonal availability of the ingredients.










Fortunately Mrs Bauk Nu,






who co-owns the restaurant with her sister Esther, is very helpful.












We start with a subtle and delicious concoction of mashed potatoes,








pounded with spices and garnished with  fried shallots.









Next is a dish of pork, stir fried with fermented bamboo shoots,







a marvelous contrast of textures and flavours.









Then comes a bamboo shoot salad






with fish and peanuts,










along with a salad of pounded beef:






both are amazing.











They are accompanied by







an extraordinarily fine soup of bitter leaves,








and a taro soup with pickled mustard leaves –






everyone at the table agrees that taro has never tasted this good.









Mrs Bauk Nu







and the waiter are not done yet; other delicacies are still to come –











a salad of fermented soya beans,
















stir-fried bamboo shoots with pork ribs,



















and finally, a truly sublime beef noodle soup, served with ‘Kachin kimchi’, a relish of fermented greens.

















Not to be forgotten is the  ‘hot and strong’ quince brandy that is served with the meal.


















All in all, this Kachin banquet was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten in Burma, which is saying a great deal!










Gandhi urged to make common cause with China on opium

Chrestomather | July 13, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


My old friend, Ramachandra Guha, was kind enough to send me a copy of a letter that he found in Correspondence File No. 19 of the Gandhi Papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. It is from a correspondent in Los Angeles, urging the Mahatma to make common cause with China on a number of issues, including that of opium.



letter to Gandhi


I am grateful to Ram for giving me his permission to reproduce the letter here.







Sleepwalking towards Disaster

Chrestomather | May 17, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Over the last couple of decades, largely because of changes in technologies of communication, the political sphere has become larger and more intrusive than ever before. The digital media have made it almost impossible to escape the sound of haranguing voices; not a day seems to pass but we are asked to post or re-tweet or sign some petition or the other. Digital activism has in fact become a big business, in which companies reap profits from stoking our indignation. Small wonder then that they should wish to keep us stewing constantly, at a low simmer, like ever so many pots of daal.

Yet, astonishingly, the intensification of political activity has not led to a wider engagement with what is self-evidently the single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change. This is understandably a matter of despair for the activists and scientists who have been battling to warn the world about what lies ahead. Their mounting anguish and frustration at the world’s continuing indifference is itself an instructive commentary on our institutions and the myths they are built upon. Many scientists and activists have gone from combativeness to rage and then to a quiet resignation in the face of what they now believe to be an inescapable catastrophe – or rather a series of catastrophes which will consume tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.

How can this be? There is no threat to any society, anywhere, that is remotely comparable to that of climate change. How can people summon so much indignation on so many matters and yet remain indifferent to a process that threatens their very existence?

Nowhere is the disjunction more confounding than in India, which is likely to be one of the worst-affected countries in the world.[2] Over the last couple of decades, as television has penetrated into once-remote areas, India’s population has become highly politicized. Millions of people regularly take to the streets on account of matters ranging from religious outrage to corruption. Yet climate change does not seem to have sparked mass outrage in the country. This despite the fact that India has many eminent climate scientists, some fine environmental reporters and several excellent environmental organizations. Nor is ‘denial’ an issue in India as it is in the Anglosphere: the majority of the population is aware that the climate is changing – yet that awareness does not seem to translate into a major political concern.

What is true of India is true also of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal: climate change has not been a significant political issue in those countries either, even though the impacts are already being felt across the Indian subcontinent, not only in an increasing number of large-scale disasters but also, and perhaps more significantly, as a slow calamity that is quietly but inexorably destroying livelihoods and stoking social and political conflicts.

Across the subcontinent the media have allowed the meta-crisis to be largely obscured by the noise and dust of ‘breaking news’. When crops fail the focus is usually on political and human stories, not on changes in climate; that erratic rainfall may have been a factor in the Maoist insurgency in Nepal is rarely reported; when factory buildings collapse in Dhaka, killing hundreds of workers, it passes almost without notice that many of those workers are ecological refugees from districts where formerly productive land is being gradually invaded by saline water. Climate change may also be a factor in the insurgencies of central and eastern India[1] – but to what degree we do not know, for one of the failures of global knowledge systems is that they have yet to provide us with a means of gauging the effects of climate change on human conflicts.

It is a certainty however that climate change will cause an intensification of conflict in the subcontinent. What, for example, will happen when Pakistan’s lifeline, the Indus, is affected by the shrinking of Himalayan glaciers?

This question is no doubt already being discussed in think tanks in both New Delhi and Islamabad. But in the wider public sphere there is scarcely any mention of climate-related issues except in connection with global conferences where the focus is, as it should be, on issues of justice, historic responsibility and restitution.

But some dimensions of the crisis are quite specifically domestic. Sea-level rise, for instance, will continue and even accelerate in years to come, no matter what the actions of the global community. It is therefore not just a possibility but a certainty that cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Vishakhapatnam and Kochi will face serious threats. These possibilities require local preparedness and mitigatory action, and in that sense they belong squarely in the domain of national and regional politics. Moreover this is an issue that can only be confronted collectively: to frame it as a matter of individual consumption decisions is to capitulate to a kind of denialism.

In the run up to the elections of 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi did indeed make passing reference to climate change, which was encouraging. But since coming to power his government has exerted itself to support and expand the coal industry, not just in India but also in Australia, where an Indian-funded mining project has begun to pose a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef. At the same time the Modi government has also launched what can only be called a stealth war against environmentalists and green organizations, preventing their representatives from addressing audiences abroad and taking measures to cut their funding.

If right-wing positions were balanced by vigorous advocacy elsewhere in the Indian political spectrum, there would be some reason for optimism. However, the indifference to climate change is a feature also of the centre and left (and this is true globally). Nor is it only the old, moribund institutional left that is silent on the matter of global warming: the silence extends to the independent or alternative left, which is otherwise eloquent on many issues.

Strangely, none of this is anomalous: in India as elsewhere it would seem that the broadening of the political sphere has led to an ever-greater engagement with issues of personal liberty, equity, identity, free expression and so on, at the cost of matters related to collective well-being. In other words, in extending its reach into our lives the political sphere has itself been transformed, in ways that make it very difficult to address issues of long duration even when they involve the most elemental human need: survival.

That our political systems have failed utterly in this regard has been noted by many. But a broader failure of imagination is also at work in this crisis – and inasmuch as writers, journalists and artists have not reckoned adequately with our collective predicament we too are at fault.


Amitav Ghosh

May 8, 2015


[This was in the inaugural issue of The Wire (May 11, 2015).]


[1] Cf. Parenti, Christian: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Nation Books, 2012; e-book locations 264 & 2238.


Fractal buckwheat

Chrestomather | April 4, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


As I’ve written elsewhere, what daffodils were to V.S. Naipaul, frangipanis were to me: As a child, while reading ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ I’d been fascinated by the word ‘frangipani’ which seemed to me to be redolent of all that was mysterious, desirable and secret. Then one day I discovered that the gnarled old branches by my window belonged to none other than a ‘frangipani’ tree…

My list of frangipani moments grew a little longer three months ago, in Kolkata, when a friend handed me a packet of what she said was buckwheat flour, bought at a bazar around the corner. Till then I had thought of buckwheat as a rare and exotic substance, encountered primarily as the silken noodles the Japanese call soba: great was my astonishment when I discovered that it is actually none other than the food known as kottu in much of India!

Despite its name buckwheat is not a grain;


Field of buckwheat in Bumthang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)

Field of buckwheat in Bumthang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)


it is the seed of a finely-scented flowering plant (the flowers are said to produce excellent honey).









The virtues of buckwheat are legion: not only is it gluten-free and exceptionally nutritious, it has a very short growing season and flourishes in difficult conditions (in fact it does badly on fertile soils). It is also intrisically resistant to efforts at ‘improvement’ because it cross-pollinates naturally: in other words, buckwheat is Nature’s way of sticking a finger in Monsanto’s eye.




Roasted buckwheat or 'kasha' (Wikimedia Commons)

Roasted buckwheat or ‘kasha’ (Wikimedia Commons)












Buckwheat is a shape-shifter, with a wonderful ability to adapt itself to different tastes. Thus in Japan it assumes the guise of an actor upon the almost-empty stage of a Noh play;




Soba noodles (Wikimedia commons)

Soba noodles (Wikimedia commons)

the austere but refined aestheticism of that culinary culture turns it into strands of exquisite delicacy, to be savoured almost without any flavourings.







In the Indian subcontinent, by contrast, buckwheat takes on the avatar of a dancer in a Bollywood item number, strutting, leaping, dancing, jiggling, flirting.

A mathematician of my acquaintance, Harpreet Singh, has a theory that India is a ‘fractal culture’. Last year (in a letter that is posted on my blog) he wrote:

a form has a fractal geometry, or is a fractal, if the form repeats itself infinitely upon magnification… 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… 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.

Recently he developed this theme in another letter:

If you recall, about a year ago I shared my theories of the fractal nature of India’s art and how the Indian need/appreciation for complexity also appears in Indian music, and Indian cuisine. The complexity and uniqueness of Indian cuisine was highlighted by a research paper from IIT Jodhpur, that has been heavily referenced this week in social and commercial media.

In a nutshell, the flavor of a food or a spice is determined by specific chemical components of the food that receptors in our tongue, mouth and nose respond to. The more two foods share these “flavor” chemical components the more we say they are positively paired or correlated. If two foods share very few of these flavor chemicals then we say they are negatively paired.

Most western cuisine involves a few ingredients with very strong positive pairing. A good analogy is fashion. Western fashion involves matching a few similar or compatible colors. Indian cuisine however (like Indian fashion) involves a riot of ingredients with little flavor correlation. It is actually a sign of Indian genius that the specific negative pairings that make up an Indian recipe are made to work as well as they do by the inclusion of spices (accessories)! The point isn’t just that Indians can make this complexity work but that they wouldn’t have it any other way. A simple pairing of just wine and cheese just doesn’t satisfy the Indian need for complexity, a characteristic that I am loosely calling fractal because of how it manifests itself in Indian art.


The research paper referenced above draws much of its data from a source that offers many excellent buckwheat recipes (more are to be found here and here).

While experimenting with buckwheat rotis, dosas, uppma etc. I chanced upon something unexpected: buckwheat flour makes a great crust for pies and quiches. When baked it becomes very crisp and stays so no matter how moist the filling. A buckwheat crust also requires very little effort because it doesn’t need to be rolled out: it can be pressed gently into place with one’s fingers. This site has a recipe for the dough.

Compelled by the fractal nature of my own tastes I’ve tried adding garam masala, chili powder and ras al hanout to the dough, and have found that they all work very well. Others still more fractal than I, might want to try adding all of these together and a dash of Sriracha sauce too. Why not? After all in some culinary traditions more is better.






The Psychological Effects of Partition: a letter from a reader

Chrestomather | February 2, 2015 in Letters | Comments (1)


26 Oct 2014

Kolkata’s Once and Future Chinatown

Chrestomather | January 27, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)




Breakfast at the Sunday morning market in Chinatown is an old tradition in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).



Visitors have to be up early because the market’s hours are short – from about 6.30 to 8.30 a.m..











The market is in a lane in the city’s crowded centre (beside Poddar Court, a recently bulit commercial complex).






DSC04334This was once the heart of a thriving, centuries-old Chinese community (some members of the cast of River of Smoke and Flood of Fire [forthcoming, May 28, 2015] are from this community).










Now only a hundred or so Chinese-Indian families remain in this neighbourhood.



DSC04123But still, every Sunday vendors gather to sell Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, dumplings, home-made noodles, shu-mai, Chinese sausages, steamed glutinous rice, meatballs and so on








In an adjoining lane,



DSC04189 (480x640)Chhatawala Gulee, named after the umbrella-makers who once had workshops there,











is the Sea Ip Church,




DSC04193 (640x480)

which was founded in 1905,








by migrants from four counties






DSC04191 (640x480) in China’s Guangdong Province.











Pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen


DSC04131hang in the entrance hall.











We are fortunate to have with us,


DSC04137a brilliant scholar of China, Dr. Tansen Sen, a Kolkata-born historian who is an expert on Indo-Chinese connections and cultural exchanges. He is the author of Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) and many other books and articles.










Tansen explains that the ‘churches’ of Kolkata’s Chinatown are traditional Buddhist-Daoist Chinese temples.


DSC04139 (480x640)

The ‘church’ designation derives from British colonial administrative practices.












The Sea Ip Church is consecrated primarily to




Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.













This notice explains how to get a



DSC04152‘Guan-Yin Blessed Card.’













There is also a side chapel






DSC04182 (480x640)dedicated to a community deity.













Tansen explains that he is





DSC04186 (480x640)Ba Gong, a deified official, one of many such.













Here he is garlanded with



DSC04183 (480x640)

rupee notes.













In the main shrine room,







DSC04148at the altar Of Guanyin,












a ceremony is under way,





DSC04165 (640x480)conducted by a few members of the community.










One of them tells us about





DSC04187 (480x640)the accompaniments of the ceremony (which she describes as a puja).













She says that







the incense-sticks











and other offerings,






DSC04188 (640x480)like these paper ingots, representing gold, are all locally made, by artisans who had once worked in factories owned by members of the Chinese-Indian community.










A stone’s throw from the Sea Ip Church, is a building that once housed a great Calcutta institution:






DSC04218 (640x480)the Nanking Restaurant. It was one of my father’s favourite restaurants and I have fond childhood memories of it.








The restaurant closed down years ago




DSC04196 (480x640)

and the approaches to the building are now choked with refuse.













It is a sorry sight, but things may soon get better.






DSC04205 (480x640)Rinkoo Bhowmick is one of the founders of the Cha Project,  an initiative which hopes to transform Chinatown.












If all goes well, this building, which is also known as the Toong On Church, will be restored to its former glory.





DSC04207 (480x640)In the main hall (which once housed the Nanking Restaurant), there is an image of the Buddha.











The salon upstairs is empty now,





DSC04211 (640x480)but was once filled with fine artefacts.










Lee Han Kuang, a prominent member of the community, is working to reclaim some of those artefacts and hopes one day to


DSC04212 (480x640)bring some of them back to the Toong On Church.













Once upon a time, crowds would gather around the building when film stars like Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari came to the restaurant. The stars  would often step out on the balcony to wave to their fans in the lane below.




This is what the lane looks like today. DSC04213 (480x640)















Across the main road, on Blackburn Lane,






DSC04224 (480x640)is the Hupeh Association. Tansen tells me that the favoured profession of migrants from Hupeh was dentistry. In my childhood the clinics of Chinese dentists were a common sight in Calcutta; their premises were easy to recognize because of the giant teeth that hung above their doors.











Many families of Chinese origin once




DSC04225 (640x480)

lived in this building and those around it.









A portrait of Sun Yat Sen hangs inside,





DSC04231 (480x640)














And in an adjoining room there is a shrine to Lu Ban,







DSC04236 (480x640)

God of Carpenters.














There is also a little altar to Atchew, who is regarded as the founder of the Chinese-Indian community.






DSC04238 (640x480)He settled in Bengal in 1785 and is said to have had an Indian wife. The town of Atchipur takes its name from him.









Down the road is the community’s funeral parlour,


DSC04240 (480x640)


tucked in beside











a long row of houses:





DSC04241 (640x480)

this was once the residential core of Chinatown.










Many of the houses still have






DSC04239 (480x640)



Chinese lettering on the doorways.












Making our way past a






DSC04247 (480x640)(very serious) cricket match














and the doorway of a now-defunct





Chinese bookshop DSC04223













we walk past the bricked-up entrance





DSC04250 (480x640)

to what was once the Guang Shun club and restaurant,












and enter a lane





DSC04251 (480x640)














that leads to the oldest Chinese temple in Kolkata.






DSC04288 (480x640)














The address is 17A Tiretty Bazar.





DSC04254 (480x640)A narrow passageway, filled with debris,













bears witness to





DSC04256 (480x640)

a history of contentious litigation within the community.













The main shrine room is upstairs;





DSC04257 (480x640)

it is dedicated to Tianhou, Goddess of Sailors.













This temple is said to have been founded in the early 19th century,






DSC04258 (480x640)before the First Opium War (1840-42).














The temple’s custodian,




DSC04261 (480x640)Zeng Jian Chuan,














shows us around the premises.









DSC04275 (640x480)The terrace is lined with commemorative inscriptions.













In a nearby building a man




DSC04270 (640x480)hangs some leaves, freshly bought at the market, on a window-sill: they will soon be turned into Chinese-style pickled mustard greens.










Returning to the lane





DSC04283 (640x480)

we walk deeper into Tiretty Bazar,










to what was once a ceremonial gateway






DSC04290 (480x640)















Inside lies the tranquil courtyard of the






DSC04313 (640x480)

Nanshuan Native Place Association.












The principal deity in the shrine room is Guandi, the God of War.




DSC04294 (480x640)The inscription hanging above the altar says: ‘Prosper in Foreign Lands’ (the character yi, which was cited by the British as a major grievance during the First Opium War, is third from right).













Amidst the







DSC04297 (640x480)decorative weaponry,












is a mysterious statuette






DSC04296 (480x640)the provenance of which not even Tansen can explain.














Next to the shrine room, is the hall







DSC04304 (480x640)

where the members of the association would gather for meetings.













In a cabinet on a wall,







DSC04302 (640x480)there is a poignant display of photographs of members who have left for other shores.












At the far end of the complex






DSC04307 (480x640)


are a few schoolrooms.












The headmistress,






DSC04306 (480x640)Lily Ho, tells us that her efforts to teach her pupils Chinese have been unavailing: ‘They find the language too difficult.’















Another short walk down the lane







DSC04315 (480x640)















brings us to the last stop on our itinerary.







DSC04321 (640x480)The Yi Xing temple, which is another shrine-cum-‘native place association.’













A game of mah-jong is under way when we enter.





DSC04323 (480x640)















In one corner of the room






DSC04333 (640x480)

is an old chest













filled with papers





DSC04327 (640x480)













like this one,






DSC04328 (480x640)


a funerary inscription.













Tansen is horrified to learn that the papers may soon be







DSC04332 (480x640) (2)disposed of as trash. He offers to have them digitized.














which draws a big smile from one of our guides,







DSC04331 (480x640)


Dominic Shien Woun Lee, an activist who hopes to preserve and restore the  community’s heritage.







For a long time preservation and restoration were not a high priority for Kolkata’s Chinese-Indians. Following on the India-China war of 1962 the community faced many vicissitudes, including mass internment, expropriation of property, dwindling numbers, and so on. If this was a dark chapter in the history of independent India, it was even more so in that of Kolkata, where Chinese migrants have been a part of the urban fabric for many generations.

The city has paid a steep price for the treatment that was meted out to its Chinese-Indian residents: had the community been allowed to thrive it would have brought in, decades ago, investments of the kind that India’s current leaders are now earnestly soliciting from many countries, including China. Diasporic Chinese communities have generated great wealth for Bangkok, Saigon, Jakarta and many other cities across South East Asia; they are now doing so also in Vancouver, Sydney and elsewhere. Unfortunately, for Kolkata, this was yet another of a long string of missed opportunities and squandered advantages.

But fortunately for the city, it is still in possession of the legacy that was left to it by its once flourishing Chinese population. The remaining buildings of Chinatown are a unique endowment, the like of which exists in no other Indian city; if properly restored these buildings could become a huge draw for visitors and serve to revitalize a decaying neighbourhood. Only time will tell whether this legacy will be squandered or cherished.













Prasenjit Duara’s ‘Crisis of Global Modernity’

Chrestomather | January 21, 2015 in Reviews | Comments (0)





Prasenjit Duara’s The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge University Press, 2015)


Coverpic.12July (429x648)is a wide-ranging overview of Asian environmental history and philosophy. A singularly timely publication, it is a hugely important intervention in the global discussion of climate change.










Prasenjit Duara is singularly well equipped for this ambitious undertaking. Assamese by birth, he was educated at Delhi University and Harvard, and was for many years a professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago (he also taught briefly at Delhi University where, I am proud to say, I was one of the many undergraduates who hung upon his words). He is currently the Raffles Professor of the Humanities at the National University of Singapore and also the director of the university’s Asian Research Institute. Fluent in Japanese, Mandarin and several other languages, Duara is the author of many books and articles in East Asian history, among them the ground-breaking study Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern.



Crisis of Global Modernity is thus founded upon a lifetime of scholarship, in diverse fields: it is at once a magisterial tour de horizon of many centuries of Asian thought, and also a provocative meditation on the resources that Asian traditions can offer to a world in which the dominant models of economy and governance have proved catastrophically dysfunctional.

Through his scholarly career, nationalism and the nation-state have been among Duara’s central concerns. In Crisis of Global Modernity he identifies the institution of the nation state as one of the prime drivers of the present crisis.

In the post-Cold War era, the growing collusion between transnational capital and the nation-state means that the latter is not as capable of protecting the interests of the community and the natural world in their territories. Not only are many national institutions diverted from promoting public services and protecting the commons, profit-driven economic globalization has wreaked environmental degradation across the world that can hardly be addressed only by national policies. The growing economic interdependence of the world requires the political and cultural authority to be able to manage and regulate it. Global sustainability requires a cosmopolitanism that is able to transcend the nation. (241)

He then proceeds to identify several domains of cosmopolitanism that could serve to overcome national divisions and inter-state rivalries in Asia. Among them are maritime and mercantile connections:

The Asian maritime networks of the pre-colonial era … involved a wide variety of merchant communities at different points who did not speak the same languages or trade in the same currencies… In many ways, contemporary Asian regional interdependence resembles the maritime Asian trade networks, because of the separation of political, economic and military levels and power…. Although the actual products flowing through the Asian maritime networks were miniscule compared to today’s figures, the cultural flows they enabled–packaged in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Islam—were nothing short of world-transforming… Nonetheless, the older Asian models of cultural circulation without state domination of identity presents us with a historical resource to explore new possibilities. (277)

Duara finds reason for optimism also in regional economic groupings, ASEAN in particular.

[T]he quickening pace of ASEAN integration has spawned a vast and vibrant space of civil society including those sponsored by ASEAN administration and those committed to an ‘alternative’ or ‘people-centered ASEAN.’ At any rate, the development of the region not only furnishes a wider framework to observe and manage the problem of the commons, it also provides opportunities for alliances and networking across a diverse region with a variety of informational and organizational resources. (273)

In the growth of trans-Asian cultural connections Duara identifies yet another promising trend.

There is some indication of greater cultural interest of Asians in Asia. We see this in the increase in the number of tourists circulating the region to over pre-crisis levels. Not only has the market demand for Asian art sky-rocketed, but there are plenty of exhibitions and showings of Asian art in which artists and curators experiment with new ideas of Asia as well as art. These shows often deliberately distance themselves from the culturally unified notion of Asia or reified versions of national civilizations prevalent among their predecessors like Okakura and Nand Lal Bose. They often seek to showcase the contemporary, urban multi-cultural experience of Asia emphasizing heterogeneity and cultural encounters. At a popular level, the circulation of East Asian cinema, manga, anime, TV shows, food, design and allied areas in East and Southeast Asia have been the most conspicuous cultural development in Asia since the 1990s. (256)






Prasenjit Duara

Prasenjit Duara

Among the most interesting chapters of Crisis of Global Modernity is one that provides an overview of contemporary environmental movements across Asia. Some of these, such as India’s Chipko and Narmada Dam movements, have been extensively chronicled.










It is the material on environmental movements in China that comes as a real surprise: here again Duara paints a picture quite different from those we usually see.

[W]hile the daily news is filled with small and large environmental disasters, China has also witnessed some remarkable developments in the environmental sphere. Among all developing countries, the Chinese government’s efforts in environmental education are probably the greatest. In 2007, President Hu Jintao coined the idea of Ecological Civilization through which he sought to replace economic construction as the core of development with sustainable development that must incorporate a balanced relationship between humans and nature. The central government in China has been steadily developing the institutional and financial infrastructure of environmental protection. In 2005, China raised its expenditure for environmental protection in the national budget to 1.4% of GDP and in 2008, the State Environmental Protection Agency was given full ministerial status and established local environmental protection branches all over the country. (35-36)

Over the last twenty years, environmental NGOs or ENGOs as well as informal groups and movements have mushroomed across the country. Indeed, Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun have dubbed this activism as the “green public sphere” in China. According to the government affiliated… All China Environmental Federation, in 2008, there were 2768 ENGOs (employing 224,000), which rose to almost 8,000 in 2013. . There are many thousands of others which are not formally registered as ENGOs. Their role has been enhanced by recognition at higher levels of government for the environmental services they can render such as enhancing environmental consciousness among the public and mobilizing for projects like reforestation. More importantly, they are able to serve as watchdogs to expose the violation or non-implementation of environmental laws. Of course, as civic organizations in the PRC, they occupy a vulnerable status and most organizations are careful not to oppose state policies, but serve rather in a vital ‘supplementary’ role as pressure groups, guardians and enablers for the victimized. (36)

Nonetheless, ENGOs have been perhaps unexpectedly successful in influencing state policies over the last decade—until very recently. A landmark event for Chinese environmental history was the halting—or shelving– of the massive Nu River Dam projects in 2004 … The event was important for various reasons, including the collective action taken not only by the Chinese groups, but with international NGOS and groups and governments in Southeast Asian countries that would have been affected by the enormous environmental impact on their societies. The Chinese groups also ignited the media campaign– including both the old and new media—that launched the vigorous ‘green public sphere’ and ‘greenspeak’ which is remarkably continuous with the global green discourse of climate change, sustainable consumption, bio-diversity, desertification, etc. (37)

The profile of activists and activities of the ENGOs suggests an orientation that transcends consumerist and materialist approaches to life, at least among the youth for the time being. Bao Maohong notes that eighty percent of the staff of the registered ENGOs is under thirty and although over half of them have college degrees, they are motivated by their mission rather than their rather paltry, if any, salaries. Greenspeak tends to promote a new moral-spiritual/religious vision and practices and promotes volunteerism and civil participation in opposition to materialist and consumerist practices. The All China Environmental Federation notes that 70% of the public surveyed by it recognized and supported the activities of the ENGOs. (37)

[T]here are some interesting experiments in environmental education among grass-roots environmental NGOs,


Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

especially in Yunnan, a province rich in bio-diversity and called the “cradle of NGOs.”














Robert Erfid’s study of NGOs working in the Naxi region of  Lijiang and particularly Lashihai shows how some of these small,


Lijiang, Yunnan

Lijiang, Yunnan

 shoe-string budget NGOs committed to environmental education have sought, not merely to tailor environmental learning to local circumstances, but also to engage children in a practical, hands-on education with the environment. (38)










Although Crisis of Global Modernity teems with detail, Duara’s fundamental concern is not with the nitty-gritty of historical and social analysis. The book’s essential engagement (and this perhaps is its greatest surprise) is with what Duara calls ‘transcendence’. By this he means

a way of human knowing based upon an inscrutable yearning or calling with several attributes that coexist in varying degrees. It is a critique of existing conditions that draws on a non-worldly moral authority. (6)

The domain that Duara is gesturing at is that of religious and spiritual tradition: these, he seems to suggest, are Mankind’s last best hope for tackling the climate crisis.

Much of this book has dealt with the descriptions and expressions of … a reaching beyond the self that is not committed to a single all-powerful God, truth or eschaton. Dialogue involves incrementalism and negotiation between local needs and universal requirements and is intertwined with ideals from the living historical repertoire that can engage the changing requirements of the present. Its value today will lie in the capacity to create a sustainable ideal which much of the world can endorse. The second requirement is the capacity of culture to create personal and collective commitment, a problem of hope and sacrality. [282]

… Modern universalisms have tended to lack confidence in investing the transcendent or utopian truths they propose with symbols and rituals of sacred authority. Their hesitation doubtless has good reasons that we may see from the rampaging power of extreme nationalisms, such as Nazism, or blinding faith in utopian science triumphant over reason. But no movement of major social change has succeeded without a compelling symbology and affective power. [282]

Working with the Abrahamic religions, Ricoeur identifies faith, hope and the sacred as a primordial complex identified with ‘manifest communities’ founded on numinous and preverbal experiences of the sacred in nature before they become book-centered, interpretive, intratribal and iconoclastic ‘proclamation communities’. At the same time, he does not believe that interpretive reason or kerygmatic logic can negate the primordial sacred. Rational exposition and logical interpretation derive from and are dependent upon the symbolism of the sacred, say, the figure of Christ; but, just as much, they are necessary for the sacred. From this he argues that the task of contemporary interpreters and philosophers of religion is to rationally explicate such figures of hope in a contemporary world of injustice and suffering. (283)

In the course of writing this book, I began to wonder if the thorny task of mediating the sacred with reason could be eased if we can recognize that the gap between ideal, project, and effort and its realization may be occupied not principally by faith or belief, but by hope. Consider some of the cases I discussed in the book where reverence and reason were inseparably entwined with hope. (284)

Whether by the Confucian sage or the laywomen of the Morality Society, Tian and Dao were viewed as the source and highest judge of the ethical mission for humans. Yet, neither Heaven nor the Way is anthropomorphic like an all-powerful God with a clear and singular message, and failure to follow its path – by this time in Chinese history – does not result in punishment either immediately or in the afterlife. The sacrality of Heaven was intertwined with reason and hope; indeed, the ambiguities of Heaven’s message ironically subjected it to rational deliberation and empirical persuasion… (284)

Similarly, the environmental, rural reconstructionist and moral (anticorruption) movements inspired by Gandhianism draw on a complex matrix of goals and methods. Their moral authority derives significantly from Gandhi – his message, goals, methods, life and the movement he spawned – as a figure of hope … (284)

The perspective of Crisis of Global Modernity is thus post-secular and post-national: Duara recognizes that the climate crisis has indeed changed everything and that it is futile to attempt to engage with it through the 19th and 20th century frameworks of economy and governance that created it in the first place.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 12

Chrestomather | January 4, 2015 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)




Troops of 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma, during the Chindwin River crossing. - See more at: http://ww2today.com/featured/burma-britains-longest-campaign-of-world-war-ii#sthash.ReyKvIuQ.dpuf

Troops of 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma, during the Chindwin River crossing.




By this time the DC had become a good friend and we enjoyed working together; I gauged the needs and he did his best to meet them. Two or three days after the bombing, as I was going round the City Camp one morning on my usual rounds, I was suddenly confronted by a tall, lean man with greying hair, dressed in pyjama and kurta and before I could call out his name found myself lifted off the ground in a tight hug. With tears streaming down his bearded face he kept repeating ‘Nadir baba’ and refused to let go of me.

I knew immediately that there was something wrong; his body felt burning hot and he was covered in sweat. I touched his brow and hands and asked him what was wrong. I went cold when he told me of his problems; these were the obvious symptoms of the dreaded cholera and no time was to be lost. I had him admitted into the Field Hospital without delay. They took him in hand immediately, but the duty M.O. told me quite frankly that in his opinion matters had gone too far for him to be hopeful but – he would do his best. I sat by the faithful retainer’s side for almost an hour listening to his story from the time he left Rangoon. All had gone well till he reached Kalewa but he felt that he must have picked up the bug before reaching Tamu. Since the Camp had been wound up, he carried on towards Palel on foot, but was fortunate in being able to get a lift in an Army convoy up to Imphal, and there he was.



Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon

Abdul Rehman had been with us for almost 15 years, first as our house driver and later as Bus-Driver in Zeenat Islam Girls High School started by Mother of which she was the Hon. Headmistress.






It had developed from an initial 40 students (mostly Zerbadis[Indo-Burmese Muslims]) to almost 1,000 students by end 1941. Confirmed reports indicate that the School is still a going concern and flourishing under the dedicated guidance of its Old Girls trained under Mother’s strict supervision. However, poor Abdul Rehman was going down fast and the doctor told me that since there was little chance of recovery, it would not be possible for them to continue to accommodate him in the Hospital with a large number of emergency cases waiting for proper beds. I saw the point and with the DC’s permission shifted him to an out-house in his compound where the poor man met his end in peace. It was early morning, and I was able to see him through those last moments – born in a remote village in U.P., we buried him under a shady tree on the hill-side. I had buried many along the road from Mandalay but this hurt the most. He had not seen his family for almost 5 years and was so looking forward to joining them again with a tidy sum saved up. I took charge of his meagre possessions, requesting the DC arrange their delivery to the family due course. I know he honoured my request. The money I kept with me till I got to Calcutta and then arranged its actual handing over to his wife through the local DC’s office. I received an acknowledgement from the wife in due course and that brought this sad episode to a close.

We were well into June 1942 and the heavy rain (almost 200 inches) was beginning to create problems. Fortunately most of the Camps were empty as also the hospital and we arranged for the last few hundred refugees to be transported to Kohima-Dimapur by the 3rd week of June. At a last informal meeting with the DC and the Army representative (a Major), it was agreed that there was nothing left for me to do in Imphal and that I should leave in a convoy leaving for Dimapur the next morning. Having walked all the way from Mandalay and with no further responsibility on my shoulders from there on, my ego and perhaps the prospect of a leisurely trek through that beautiful country,



60 miles to Kohima and 40 miles from there to Dimapur, made me suggest to my friends somewhat diffidently that I would like to do the journey on foot, if they did not mind.









They did protesting loudly that it would be madness, quite unnecessary and the torrential rains in the area could make it somewhat unsafe. I tried to see the point without much success but in the end agreed to take a lift. Evidently the Gods were on my side.

As luck would have it, I was seated next to the Driver in the last truck, which developed trouble a few miles out of Imphal. The others broke convoy discipline and carried on which gave me no qualms whatsoever for I knew my chance had come. Eventually the truck came to a halt at a small hamlet, the bonnet was lifted and a few minutes later I was informed that there was not a hope of our proceeding further that day owing to a major breakdown. I lost no time in getting free of the Army, said my thanks and farewells as solemnly as I could manage and was on my way without a care. The pipe was pulling well, I had filled up with a couple cups of green tea and life was sheer bliss. Unfortunately I gave no thought whatsoever to the possible consequences of my escapade in so far as the people sitting in Calcutta and Bombay were concerned, waiting anxiously for some news of my whereabouts after leaving Imphal. A DR from Dimapur to Imphal with a message for me was sent back with the information that I had left Imphal in a convoy some 3 days back and should have reached Dimapur the same day or the next latest.



The DC at Dimapur seemed to have scoured the area for my whereabouts and also requested his counterpart in Kohima to do the same.






Since I had hopped off the convoy, they had no means of confirming how, where and why I had disappeared and so, in order to place everything on record, informed the Agent, Mr. Hutchings, that having scoured the countryside without luck, he greatly regretted having to suggest that I be listed ‘presumed missing if not dead’. Poor Mr. Hutchings. I believe he had been telling all and sundry (whenever the topic came up) that he just could not believe that anything would happen to me. In his view I possessed an uncanny instinct for self-preservation and that I would, without a doubt, turn up like the proverbial bad penny when least expected. Needless to say the telegram from Dimapur gave his optimism a bit of a jolt but worst still, what would he say to my Mother anxiously waiting for news from him. In the end he decided to play it straight and repeated the Dimapur telegram verbatim adding a few words to say that he expected everything to come out right in the end and not to worry. I shall come back to this a bit later.

Four days on the road to Kohima, spending nights in small hamlets and repaying their hospitality with the princely sum of one rupee which was invariably accepted with considerable enthusiasm. This included the evening meal and morning Tea! Three days to Dimapur and I was almost home and dry. Unfortunately, my sudden appearance in the DC’s office caused some consternation. The DC, a youngish man could not quite make up his mind whether to receive me like a long lost brother or to display the right temperature of coldness for having forced him to send off that unfortunate telegram.

I quickly sensed his embarrassment and lost no time in reassuring him that he was not to blame. If anything, this unfortunate situation had arisen entirely due to my own irresponsible action. He was not to worry! I would ensure that the Agent got the full story from me which would put the whole thing in the right perspective. This made him feel somewhat better and I was invited to go over to his bungalow and freshen up with a bath. He joined me for Tea later and since my train to Calcutta was not to leave till eight in the evening I thought I would run down to the Hospital where almost 75% of the patients were refugees. He decided to come too, and we strolled over after Tea. Going through the Men’s Wards, I noticed quite a few familiar faces, from Tamu and even earlier. Most of them were skin and bone but the doctor said they were all out of danger and would pick up fast. The mere fact of being a few days away from their homes was a tonic of sorts. We exchanged greetings and shook hands and these were the last tangible memories of our long association on the road from Mandalay to Dimapur.

Then we came to the Women’s Ward and as the Matron met us I told her about the two delivery cases on the road to Tamu. An English girl she listened to the story in a matter of fact sort of way obviously uncertain whether to accept it or let it be. I was a bit amused at her attitude and moved on towards the beds where a majority of the women had babies with them. As we moved up there was a slight commotion on the far side and looking round, I found one of the women waving her hand obviously trying to draw my attention. All I needed was a second look and was over-joyed to find my very first delivery case sitting up in bed with her youngster in her lap and telling everyone around her that I had been responsible for saving her child! Though delighted at this blatantly inflated recognition I thought the matter had to be put right and gave them all a highly coloured re-cap of the affair which brought peals of laughter from the other beds. By this time, my second patient, the mother of the baby girl, neighbour to my first, had also woken up and drawn my attention to the bouncing baby in her lap. I sat down and we had a long chat and it was good to see that the young British DC who spoke good Hindustani had also joined in the spirit of the occasion. However, the time came to say goodbye and as I was about to move on, the mother of the boy shyly asked me to write down my full name and address. She could read English and asked me what the ‘N.S.’ stood for. I wrote my name down in full and she asked me to underline my ‘christian’ name to be able to tell her husband.







In order to wind up this episode, I must record the fact that it was in September 1945 when I was doing a Course at the Staff College, Quetta, that I got a letter from the lady’s husband (a driver in the RIASC) recalling my part in the delivery of his son on the Kalewa-Tamu road and informing me that the family was well and happy by God’s Grace. The letter concluded with the information that they had named their son ‘Nadir’ in remembrance of the somewhat unusual circumstances of his birth. The letter was in Urdu and has been lost – its being written was an act of grace which has remained etched in my memory all these years.




Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944

Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944


Then it was time to leave and that was when I faced my moment of truth.











In saying goodbye to those women, I was in fact saying good bye to an adventure which had begun with the bombing of Rangoon, taken me to Mandalay and from then on, turned me into a refugee like any other of the twenty odd lakhs who had taken the road to India with its promise of safety, security and a new life. That circumstances had cast certain responsibilities on my shoulders in relation to the others was incidental to my basic status of refugee. There was, of course, one factor which made a difference. I have been a loner all my life and all my travelling whether on foot, bicycle, rail or steamer, on business or pleasure carried in my mind a certain element of adventure and excitement and this is exactly how I viewed my duties as Assistant to the Agent and my trek northwards. Walking was a pleasure and the ruck-sack on my back gave me a wonderful sense of being entirely on my own. My responsibilities added to it a sense of being needed which at 29 years of age is something to cherish. Leaving the Hospital I realised that I had finally come to the last link of my association with this massive operation; perhaps among the world’s biggest of its kind (involving a vast stream of humanity trudging over a distance of approx. 800 miles of rugged country living on rice and salt most of the time and leaving behind countless dead who would be mourned only when the journey ended. I was entering a world which I had almost forgotten. I knew I was in for some shocks and would have to come to terms with emerging realities in the hours and days ahead from total involvement to being just a refugee.





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