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Remembering the past: an unfinished conversation

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




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

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

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

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

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






took to the road in Malaysia,







seeking out men,













and women, of Indian origin






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













who had played a part in the Second World War.


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

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

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

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

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

Which war? When? Where?




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

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



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






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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Amitav Ghosh

August 2014



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Eating Arakan-style

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


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




Mingun Pagoda, Sagaing region


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











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




Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right

Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right


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










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


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



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











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





Bay of Bengal, seen from Sittwe













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


Some of the projects,




DSC03086like the new port at Sittwe,











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


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






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









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












to be dipped in ngapi, a fermented fish sauce,





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











including one that I usually regard with distaste –







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









Dinner is usually preceded by snacks, including almost always,






some pickled tea leaves,










a few pakora-like fritters,







which are never better than in Burma,











some succulent gingko nuts,










perhaps some





dry-cured, shredded venison,










maybe a tart salad






of tomatoes and garlic,









and perhaps even some stir-fried pork with chilies.















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





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









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







grown on a rice-field like this one.










And if you’re lucky  you may even partake





of an Arakan banquet,











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






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











and long beans



with coconut and crispy shallots,













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












and mutton cooked with daal,



DSC03505(not unlike a Parsi dhansak)













and DSC03504coconut-crusted prawns,












and DSC03502crispy greens with shallots,













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










and, of course,






a soup, in this instance, of split peas,










and, as a final flourish,







an enormous crustacean.











The repast ends with




fruit: DSC03508pomelo and














DSC03510and mandarin oranges.











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







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

The Dark House of the Neighbourhood

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




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

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








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


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










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











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













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













The Secretariat has been abandoned for many years.














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






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







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














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















The ironwork was cast in Glasgow.


















The building has a tragic history.






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









(father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi)


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996














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




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















General Aung San and his cabinet




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






















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






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









The pictures of General Aung San




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









Now the entire complex is being renovated by a young couple




Le Yee Soe and Soe Thwin Tun.



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







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







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






Facing the Central Secretariat, across Bo Aung Kyaw Street






is a Durga Temple that also dates back to 1889.









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











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




























Petrofiction and Petroculture

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


Petrofiction bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



Bo?aziçi University Rumeli Hisari Istanbul


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


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


























Neel Mukherjee’s THE LIVES OF OTHERS: a review

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




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

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of transplanting rice:

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

Reflecting on his experiences Supratik writes:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)

Neel Mukherjee (photo Nick Tucker)


The Lives of Others

by Neel Mukherjee

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



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

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


Correspondence with an Indian-American Student

Chrestomather | April 16, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




4th April, 2014


Dear Mr. Amitav Ghosh,

My name is Saloni Gupta and I was at a discussion held at the Asian American Cultural Center [at Rutgers University, New Jersey].  Unfortunately, I missed the chance of speaking to you after the discussion.  I personally found the discussion to be quite fascinating.  Compared to most of my other peers who were born in India and moved to the United States, I was born in the United States and have been brought up over here.  I still remain connected with my roots as I visit India every 2-3 years in the summer.  Despite the fact that I have been born and brought up over here, I faced an identity crisis similar to the rest of the students who were born in India.
I come from Edison, which happens to be a very diverse city and there is a huge population of Asians over there.  Ever since childhood, I have always been fascinated by Indian culture.  I loved watching Indian films and listening to Indian music- my favorite singers are the legendary singers Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi.  Despite being so much in love with Indian culture and food, I remember it being so odd that none of my Indian friends shared the same passion that I did.  While I would love listening to Indian music on a daily basis, majority of my friends would listen to music that was popular in the United States and watched American films.  I used to and I still do find it so odd that none of them liked listening to Indian music or even bothered to talk about Bollywood films, as they thought it was too “Indian.”  From a young age, I saw that there was this need for Asians to “fit in” and assimilate with American culture.  And unfortunately, assimilation meant letting go of your own culture. I think this assumption of assimilation is very problematic and leads to numerous problems, one being the issue of self-identity and the need to categorize one into a particular ethnic, cultural group.
Similarly, I went through the same crisis.  Since majority of my friends didn’t connect with Indian culture whereas I did, I used to feel left out and felt that I was more “Indian” than my friends were.  However, when I went to India, I was categorized as “American”.  Even though I speak fluent Hindi, I was seen as the “girl from America” and even while visiting India so often, I never feel as if I belong there as I am different from most of the girls in India.
My cousins would often question me about American shows, films and music as they thought that I used to watch them and they would be surprised when I would tell them that I am more into Indian music and films.  This became and still is difficult for me as I would categorize myself in one way but I was categorized in another way in India.  I think the problem is that a person needs to stop being conscious of the need to define himself and project himself in a certain way.  A person should just be who they are.
I loved your piece, “Ghat of the Only World” and I am curious to know as to why you chose the title.  From my understanding, ghat are steps which lead to a body of water, and the term is particularly used when referencing the Ganges River.  From your piece, it seemed as if the ghat was used as a metaphor towards death.  I would love if you could explain a little but more about why you chose that title and which context you are referring to.  Which world are you referring to: the world afterlife or an ideological space where there are no nationalist boundaries?
It was definitely a pleasure hearing about your views on cosmopolitism and your concern about Asian Americans being sidelined in America.  I would like to thank you for taking your precious time to come and speak to us at Rutgers.  I will always cherish the discussion we had today and the insight you  provided us with.
Saloni Gupta
5th  April
Dear Saloni

Thanks very much for this thoughtful letter. It’s good to know that you love Kishore Kumar and Mohd Rafi – so do I!

I really enjoyed my meeting with your class. The title ‘Ghat of the Only World’ is taken from one of Shahid’s poems.

I don’t know if you’ve ever looked my blog. I often post letters from people who write to me. If you like I would be glad to post your letter (I can leave your name out if you prefer). Let me know.

Best wishes

Amitav Ghosh
6th April
Dear Mr. Amitav Ghosh,

It was my pleasure reading your work and meeting with you on Friday.  
Thank you very much.  It would be an honor for me if you decide to post my letter on your blog.  You can keep my name.  

Saloni Gupta


Correspondence with Padma Viswanathan, author of THE EVER AFTER OF ASHWIN RAO

Chrestomather | April 13, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Padma Viswanathan‘s novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has just been published by Random House Canada.




The jacket copy describes the book as: ‘… a stunning new work set among families of those who lost loved ones in the 1985 Air India bombing, registering the unexpected reverberations of this tragedy in the lives of its survivors. A book of post-9/11 Canada, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao demonstrates that violent politics are all-too-often homegrown in North America but ignored at our peril.








Padma is also the author of  The Toss of a Lemon.


Padma sent me this letter on April 12, 2o14.


Dear Amitav,

I’m not sure whether you’ll recall having met me many years ago at Merrily Weisbord‘s place in Quebec. She wanted to introduce us because I had reviewed THE GLASS PALACE for the Montreal Gazette, and was such a fan of that book and your earlier ones.
I’m writing to you now to let you know that my second novel, THE EVER AFTER OF ASHWIN RAO, has just been published by Random House Canada and will be out from Westland India late this year. 
In the book, a cranky Indian psychologist comes to Canada to do what he calls “a study of comparative grief” on people who lost loved ones in the Air India bombing of 1985. (Incredibly, no such study has ever been done.) Ashwin, however, finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in one such family, and, in telling us their stories, is made to reveal his own.
The reason I wanted to let you know is that I make reference, at some length, to an essay, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi,” which you wrote for The New Yorker many years ago. I couldn’t talk about the bombing of AI182 without talking about the long chain of violence that led up to it, including the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. As you say in the essay, remarkably few people have written about the riots. Your piece was a very welcome first-person account of the time, though also I very much appreciated your analysis of the reasons it took you so long before you could write about what you witnessed. My narrative draws to an extent on your descriptions, but my narrator also cites your essay in discussing how to think about what happened.
You might also be interested to know that another Canadian writer, Jaspreet Singh, whose home in Delhi was attacked in 1984, has just published a novel, HELIUM which takes up the pogroms. I have been waiting for the book for some time, and just read this glowing review.
Hoping this finds you well!

Padma Viswanathan





Laurel Braitman’s ANIMAL MADNESS – a review

Chrestomather | April 8, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)





Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves

Laurel Braitman

Simon & Schuster

[to be published June 10, 2014]







Rare indeed is it to come upon a work of non-fiction as compelling as Laurel Braitman’s Animal Madness.

The book is in part a memoir of the writer’s evolving relationship with animals: at its heart is the story of Oliver, a pet dog. Oliver is a Bernese Mountain Dog: ‘Bred to guard livestock and pull carts of cheese and milk through the Swiss Alps, Berners are handsome, broad, and regal, with an air of accessible friendship.’

Berners are very desirable but also very expensive; unable to afford a puppy Laurel and her then husband decide to adopt an adult dog at the suggestion of a vet. ‘[Oliver] carried his white-tipped tail like a flag raised high and arching over his back. His white paws were lion-like, huge and spreading, and his coat glossy and feathered like a 1970s haircut.’

They adopt the dog on impulse: ‘We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon.’

But soon enough they realize that they should have asked a few questions.

The first real sign of trouble I discovered by accident… I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling – not feline nor human … it was a bark that shounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.’

It turns out that Oliver’s behaviour is very much like that of human being who is possessed by uncontrollable anxieties. ‘If we didn’t return home by five or six in the evening, we knew he would have destroyed pillows and towels or chewed on wooden moldings. He scratched so hard at our floorboards that it looked as if we lived with giant termites… If we were with him… Oliver was the picture of calm. Alone he was a tornado.’

But things get worse.

On a warm May afternoon in 2003, a little boy I’d never met was doing his homework in the sunroom off his family’s kitchen in Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. The back of our apartment building faced the boy’s house, and as he worked, he looked out to the row of urban yards along the alley, separated by chain link or small planks of sagging wooden fencing, dotted with trash cans. He happeneed to look up that Saturday just as Oliver … jumped through the kitchen window of our fourth-floor apartment.

‘No one had seen Oliver at the window, even though it had to have taken him a long time to push the air-conditioning unit out of the way and rip a hole through the wire mesh of the screen that was big enough for his 120-pound body to fit through. The pet sitter that we’d left him with had gone to the farmer’s market, leaving Oliver by himself for two hours. He must have begun to slash and chew through the screen as soon as he realized he was alone. Once he made the hole large enough, Oliver hauled himself through the opening, more than fifty feet above the ground.

‘‘Mom!’ the boy screamed, ‘a dog fell out of the sky’.’

Oliver survives the fall and lives on for another two years, during which time his owners desperately seek treatment for him, from many different experts. But to no avail; one day, after working himself into a panic Oliver chews and swallows so much wood that he gives himself an awful case of bloat – ‘a horrid and probably excruciatingly painful predicament’. The attack is so bad that he has to be put down.

Oliver’s death changes Laurel’s life: ‘We divorced the year after Oliver died, and a few years after that he stopped taking my calls. I can’t say that we broke up because of what happened with Oliver. That would be a lie, or at least it wouldn’t be the whole truth. I do believe however, that if Oliver had lived, we may not have broken up when we did. Dogs have a way of gluing people together, even ones who are already coming unglued.

‘Now it feels like I walk around with a few different drafty spaces in my chest. One is in the shape of a dog, and there’s at least one more in the shape of a man. And in the years since Oliver died, I’ve fallen in love again anyway – with a half dozen elephants, a few elephant seals, a troop of gorillas, one young whale, a couple of long-dead squirrels, and a handful of men and women who came into my life as if they’d been tugged there by invisible leashes… Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me anyway. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.’

Could it be said that Oliver’s afflictions were ‘emotional’ or ‘mental’? The intellectual core of the book consists of a quest for an answer to this question.



Back Cover



The difference between a ‘happy’ dog and an ‘angry’ one is perfectly apparent to most human beings. But to ascribe emotions to animals is to affront one of the foundational tenets of Enlightenment thought. This is how Laurel puts it: ‘In 1649, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were automatons, lacking feeling and self-awareness and operating unconsciously, like living machines. For Descartes and many other philosophers, capacities for self-consciousness and feeling were the sole province of humanity, the rational and moral tethers that tied humans to God and proved we were made in his image. This idea of animal machines proved to be sturdy and enduring, revisited time and again for hundreds of years to prop up arguments for humanity’s superior intelligence, reasoning, morality, and more. Well into the twentieth century, identifying human-like emotions or consciousness in other animals tended to be seen as childish or irrational.’

Not every scientist subscribed to this view. Darwin for one took a very different position. In 1872 he published On the Epression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; here, as elsewhere, he argued ‘that humans were just another kind of animal. He believed that the similar emotional experiences of people and other creatures, such as sad chimps, dejected dogs, or happy horses, further demonstrated the existence of our shared animal ancestors.’

But in this matter at least Darwin was in a minority among scientists. For a long time the attribution of a mind or consciousness to animals and plants was anathema in the sciences as well as the humanities (in the latter it could even be said that the matter is pre-judged by the very word, which in itself defines a boundary between the human and all else).

Today there are few in either the sciences or the humanities who would perhaps openly confess to subscribing to the Cartesian notion of animal as automaton. Yet, in practice, as Laurel points out, a mechanistic view of the non-human world is often institutionalized in a different doctrine – one that anathemizes anthropomorphism (i.e. ‘the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things).

‘Like a heavy leash that drags along behind nearly all twentieth-century efforts to understand the emotional lives of other animals, anthropomorphism has tended to be resented and feared. Radical behaviourists like B.F.Skinner, comparative psychologists, ecologists, and many ethologists warned against sentimentalizing other animals and rejected Darwin’s ideas on animal emotions, working to suppress what they considered subpar science. For a long time anthropomorphism was a dirty word in the behavioural sciences, despite the fact that experimental animals were busy acting as models for human psychobiological phenomena inside laboratories worldwide.’

Fortunately things have changed: ‘In many ways the past forty to fifty years of research on animal emotion and behavior represents a long, slow, scientific U-turn back to Darwin and his arguments on the shared nature of emotional experience.’  There is now a great wealth of research into animal ‘consciousness’ and Laurel (who has a PhD in the history of science from MIT) provides us with some fascinating glimpses of this rapidly-expanding body of work. In the process it becomes clear that not only do animals suffer from many of the mental and emotional disorders that afflict human beings – anxiety, depression and so on – but they also respond in similar ways to medication. Indeed, most of the psychotropic drugs that are now prescribed for human beings were first tested on animals. ‘You could argue,’ Laurel writes, ‘that this is not the story of animals taking human drugs but of humans taking animal drugs. Almost all of the contemporary psychopharmaceuticals – from antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine to minor tranquilizers like Valium to the antidepressants – were developed in the mid-twentieth century, and animals were test subjects from the very beginning.’ This is of course, nothing short of a ‘tacit acknowledgement of emotional (and neurochemical) parallels between humans and other animals.’

Laurel also presents plenty of material to suggest that like human beings, animals can hate, forgive, grieve, despair – and even commit suicide. But is it possible to say that these words, when used of animals, refer to an exact counterpart of what they refer to in human beings? Of course not. For that matter it isn’t possible to say that psychic states are exactly the same in different human cultures – or even in different people.

This is how Laurel sums up her own position: ‘all human thinking about animals is, in some sense, anthropomorphic since we’re the ones doing the thinking. The challenge is to anthropomorphize well… this means avoiding anthropocentrism: the belief that humans are unique in our abilities and that our intelligence is the only one that counts.’

Animal Madness is compulsively readable and thoroughly engaging: Laurel has the rare gift of being able to combine ideas, research and personal experience into a compelling narrative. Yet behind the engaging tone and the lightness of touch there is a deep seriousness, as indeed there should be. For the ideas that animate Animal Madness are of the greatest urgency and importance, especially in this era of climate change: to acknowledge that all living things exist within a continuum of consciousness is a vital first step towards the dissolution of that human-centred world view that has, ironically, led humanity as well as millions of other species to the brink of disaster.


Author Photo Braitman LR

Laurel Braitman

There was a time, many years ago, when I used to conduct occasional seminars at Harvard. In the process I met many talented young writers – several have since gone on to write successful and highly-regarded books. Laurel Braitman was among the most gifted of that group: I never doubted that she would write an exceptional book some day. And so she has – may it be the first of many!














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