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Flood of Fire cover

Chrestomather | November 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

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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 havildar 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:
 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flood-Fire-Amitav-Ghosh/dp/0719569001/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1416571809&sr=1-1


Two responses to ‘Parallel Journeys’

Chrestomather | November 26, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)

 

 

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.)

 

 

 

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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,

Vedica

 

 

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 (10)

 

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.

 

2.

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.

 

3.

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.

 

4.

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.

 

5.

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

 

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[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.

 


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

 

 

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took to the road in Malaysia,

 

 

 

 

 

 

seeking out men,

 

 

 

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and women, of Indian origin

 

 

 

 

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[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?

 

 

 


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.

 

 

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

 

 

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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:

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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,

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

including one that I usually regard with distaste –

 

 

 

 

 

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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,

 

 

 

 

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some pickled tea leaves,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a few pakora-like fritters,

 

 

 

 

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which are never better than in Burma,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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some succulent gingko nuts,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

perhaps some

 

 

 

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dry-cured, shredded venison,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

maybe a tart salad

 

 

 

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of tomatoes and garlic,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and perhaps even some stir-fried pork with chilies.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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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,

 

 

 

 

 

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grown on a rice-field like this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And if you’re lucky  you may even partake

 

 

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of an Arakan banquet,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and long beans

 

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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,

 

 

 

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a soup, in this instance, of split peas,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, as a final flourish,

 

 

 

 

 

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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.


The Dark House of the Neighbourhood

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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The Secretariat has been abandoned for many years.

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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The ironwork was cast in Glasgow.

 

 

 

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The building has a tragic history.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi)

 

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

General Aung San and his cabinet

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pictures of General Aung San

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the entire complex is being renovated by a young couple

 

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Le Yee Soe and Soe Thwin Tun.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Facing the Central Secretariat, across Bo Aung Kyaw Street

 

 

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is a Durga Temple that also dates back to 1889.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Petrofiction and Petroculture

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Petrofiction bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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


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

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

 

 

Bo?aziçi University Rumeli Hisari Istanbul

 

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

 

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

 

&

 

http://www.yurtgundemi.com/amitav-ghosh-ve-ayfer-tunc-tan-acik-sohb-haberi-6770151.htm

 

http://www.bize-gore.com/tag/yazar-ve-edebiyat-kuramcisi-amitav-ghosh-istanbulda

 

http://www.ensuperhaber.com/kultur-sanat/amitav-ghosh-ve-ayfer-tunctan-acik-sohbet-h94145.html

 

http://www.arcaajans.com/haber/sanat/amitav-ghosh-bogazici-nin-150-yil-etkinliklerine-katiliyor/258868/

 

http://www.alemihaber.com/kultur-sanat/1738995/amitav-ghosh-bogazicinin-150-yil-etkinliklerine-katiliyor

 

http://article.wn.com/view/2014/05/31/Amitav_Ghoshun_istanbul_kamp/

 

http://www.haberler.com/amitav-ghosh-ve-ayfer-tunc-tan-acik-sohbet-6108254-haberi/

 

http://www.sondakika.com/haber/haber-amitav-ghosh-ve-ayfer-tunc-tan-acik-sohbet-6108254/

 

http://www.egitimajansi.com/haber/amitav-ghosh-istanbulda-haberi-29520h.html

 

 

 

 

 


Neel Mukherjee’s THE LIVES OF OTHERS: a review

Chrestomather | May 3, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of transplanting rice:

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

Reflecting on his experiences Supratik writes:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)

Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)

 

The Lives of Others

by Neel Mukherjee

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

 

 



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

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