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Chennai Floods 2015 

Chrestomather | April 12, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

Chennai (formerly Madras) was hit by epic floods in November 2015. Although the floods were covered extensively by the media at the time not much has been written about them since, at least in English. This is in stark contrast to the Mumbai deluge of 2005 which occasioned a great deal of writing, in the Economic and Political Weekly and elsewhere.

In a time of rapid climate change it is important, I think, to remember the human impacts of serious weather events.  Posted below is a first-hand account of the Chennai floods by Manasvini Hariharan. The photographs were contributed by her friends and relatives.

 

 

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photo: Visvak Sen

 

A personal account of the floods by someone who lived through the experience.

Chennai’s second monsoon season, the result of retreating rains from north-eastern India, sees sporadic rainfall in the months of October and November. These yearly rains are a regular occurrence and far exceed the amount of rain produced by the regular monsoon. Ask a school-going child what they think of cyclones and more often than not you will find a smile stretching across their faces as the answer is invariably ‘Rain Holiday!’

 

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photo: Visvak Sen

In Chennai, we generally welcome the days preceding a cyclone or depression. It is a respite from the year-round heat that the city experiences. So, when the rain commenced on 9th November, the general response was of relief. Schools and universities were declared closed and it seemed like a standard rain holiday. 

However, this time the rain did not cease after its usual one-day spell. Continued downpours over the next days affected low lying areas.

 

 

 

 

The roads were soon clogged and office-goers were advised to go home. The seriousness of the situation dawned on the citizens, when they heard of the horrible experiences of their friends and family. A friend recounted his scary drive home from work, through a traffic jam in the downpour, when the water slowly started entering the car.

 

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photo: Visvak Sen

News channels were quick to direct the conversation towards climate change. We read reports about the rain being a result of an El Nino year due to which there was a lesser churning of the Bay of Bengal waters. Since the warm and cool waters did not mix, the surface temperature of the Bay of Bengal was hotter than usual. This, combined with the presence of a monsoon trough close to Chennai, and the effect of easterly waves and winds caused the downpour from the 9th– 16th November.

During the first spell of rains, it was the low lying areas which suffered most. People had to be evacuated from their homes, universities and offices. Despite the grave nature of the state of affairs, people took the entire situation with a pinch of salt. Jokes and light hearted humour about the newest public transport alternative, Ola’s boat option, floated the internet. After a week of uneven rainfall, the waters finally receded. Relief measures were in full swing and slowly the city started to climb back up to stand on its feet.

However, a second spell of rains began on the 29th and it was this spell that devastated the entire city. The roads, still battered from the previous downpour, flooded almost instantaneously. A friend texted saying water had started to enter his house on the ground floor and he had to move upstairs. Another friend despaired over her new car which she could see immersed in the water. We received distress calls from the students in the hostels of the university where I studied, where the water had surpassed ground floor levels.

What set the second spell apart was that it affected every single citizen of the city in some way or the other. Usually, prayers, thoughts and Facebook status messages are sent to the people who face the brunt of the floods. There is no direct relation between the people of the city and those living in low-lying areas. This time, every Chennai-ite’s family and friends were affected by the floods in some way or another which spawned a collective empathy for the entire city.

 

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photo: Harini Murali

 

The situation worsened when it became impossible to leave one’s own neighbourhood. Every area assembled its own relief team to contribute on a micro level.  A friend and I went from house to house to collect food and clothing supplies to make relief kits which we succeeded in getting to other parts of the city on 2nd December. On the 3rd, it was impossible for us to meet up with each other within our own neighbourhoods because of flooded roads. 

Cell phone connectivity was failing. The airport was flooded. Train service was halted. My very brave mother somehow managed to reach the airport and bring back home an elderly couple who were stranded at the airport. She came back with tales of the chaos that existed beyond our relatively safe locality. People opened up their houses to others who couldn’t get to theirs. Social media was crucial in information exchange and relief efforts. All sorts of requests, calls for help, information and updates were on online platforms. Some tech-savvy citizens quickly created a crowd sourced map indicating flooded roads to avoid. Twitter hashtag #ChennaiRainHelp helped to compile all of the information and requests in one place. The enormity of the disaster dawned on us only when we were well into it.

 

 

 

photo: Danush Bhaskar

photo: Danush Bhaskar

 

A friend’s father was recovering from surgery at MIOT hospital, one of Chennai’s biggest hospitals. I received a frantic call from my friend asking about the situation at the hospital as she hadn’t heard from her parents in 24 hours. When she got her mother finally on the phone, it was to hear the story of how the staff had abandoned the hospital leaving patients and their families to fend for themselves. Her epileptic father had not had anything to eat in 12 hours and they were in desperate need of some information of what was happening around them.  Arrangements had to be made for critical patients to be airlifted out of the hospital to other nearby hospitals but the others were neglected.  Another friend who works at one of those nearby hospitals says he still does not remember how he survived through those 5 days. Hospitals are under-equipped and are not sufficiently prepared for disasters on this scale, he said. 

 

 

 

 

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photo: Danush Bhaskar

On 1st December, the power supply was cut. Food supplies started running low. The scene at our local markets in the morning was one that I have never seen before. The entire market was wiped clean within 5 minutes of the arrival of food stock. Prices shot up by more than 5 times original rates. The most frustrating part was the inability to help. Many localities were safe from inundation but were also locked off from the rest of the city.  Even landline connections died with time, leaving my sister, like many others, with no news of us for 4 days. Completely cut off from the rest of the world, we didn’t know how to filter legitimate information from the rumours that were doing the rounds.  We spent day after day for the power to be restored so we could have some news of what really was happening around us.

Through all of this commotion, a friend waded through waist deep water to get to work at the Hindu. The Hindu does not go on leave, he told his worried mother, especially during times like these. Although the office was safe from the floods and had continuous power and internet facilities, their printing press was not so lucky. For the first time in 136 years, the Hindu, on 2nd December, did not go to print.

We spent 5 days with no electricity, water or connectivity. For the first time, families were forced away from their gadgets and towards each other for company. Neighbours whom we never interacted with suddenly became friendly faces. Local vendors, who somehow managed to go in and out of the neighbourhood, were our sources of information. We heard that the road to Bangalore faced a traffic overload, with thousands of people looking to escape to the nearby city. After the 9th, the water began to recede and relief efforts began to gain ground.

Remarkably, the entire city rose to the situation and tried to make sense of what was happening around us. Boundaries and divisions in terms of caste, community and religion disappeared. We realized that every one of us was a victim of this disaster; we were in this nightmare together and it was easy to empathize with the rest of the city. Radio stations with RJ’s camping at their offices were relaying reliable news from official sources. Actors used their SUV’s to tackle the waters and get to stranded people. NGO’s, local groups, communities, individuals all helped in the preparation and distribution of relief kits.

 

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photo: Danush Bhaskar

We learnt later that Chennai on Wednesday recorded the heaviest-ever rainfall in over a century — of 29.4 cm and 34.5 cm —the previous high being 26.1 in 1901. According to Skymet data, during the month of November, Chennai recorded a whopping 1218.6 mm of rain – three times its monthly rainfall. The normal rainfall figures for November stand at 407.4 mm.

All the reservoirs that cater to Chennai and its suburbs were empty before Diwali. By the end of November, water in the Chembarambakkam reservoir — one of the city’s main water sources — stood at 22 ft at this time, against its capacity of 24 ft.  

On Dec 1st, enormous amounts of water were being released into the Adyar River as engineers feared a breach of Chembarambakkam’s boundary. It took three to four hours for the water to reach the city from the reservoir 25 km away, but by midnight on December 2, large areas of land around Adyar had gone completely under. Residents in these areas complain that they did not receive any prior warning about the release of this water.

The death toll at MIOT hospital stood at 18 because of lack of power and oxygen supplies. Newspapers reported that the final number of deaths just within Chennai’s metropolitan limits stood at 347.

 

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photo: Rahul Ramesh

 

Military helicopters dropped food to residents stranded on rooftops and the defence ministry doubled the number of soldiers deployed to help with the rescue mission. Lakhs of people had been rescued, evacuated and accommodated in the make-shift relief centres. After being closed for an entire month, schools and universities were declared open again on 14th December. The airport which had been shut for 5 days resumed operations. By 17th December, the rain stopped and the waters began to recede. 

 

 

 

 

Natural disasters have a way of bringing people together. They blur the lines of societal and political divisions for a brief period. In the aftermath of the floods, it was easy to see these lines slowly reforming again. Fingers were pointed in all directions. The people blamed the government, the government blamed encroachments, and everyone unitedly blamed climate change.

 

 

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photo: Rahul Ramesh

 

The flood impacted political, economic, educational and social aspects of the city. The government, eager to compensate for its inaction during the flood, responded by bulldozing several informal settlements. Multi-national companies released reports about the losses that their plants had suffered and considered moving their manufacturing bases to other cities. Schools and universities despaired over lost time and messed up calendars. Many areas faced erratic power supply for the weeks to come. The people of Chennai tried to cope with the stress of displacement and loss of their homes and valuables

The flood also sparked conversation about poor urban planning, lack of proper disaster mitigation programmes and the unpreparedness of the city to handle such situations. Personally, the flood led me to think about how we need a large-scale disaster to reflect about the fragility of the city in which we live. How can we justify poor urban planning by displacing millions of people who are the first to suffer and the last to receive compensation? How can we rationalize losses by simply shifting base to another location? How can we blame climate change on developed countries when we are active contributors to this phenomenon? The Chennai floods got a lot of people to think about their place in the city. I learnt that my world was hugely dependent on things I took for granted: electricity, internet and ironically, water. Despite us being in the midst of a flood, we had to use the water available to us sparingly. The floods also changed the way Chennai looks at rain. Never again will grey skies be a welcome anticipation of a ‘rain holiday’ because we know that somehow, somewhere, someone will face the same fate we all did as a result of the cyclone season.   

 

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Manasvini Hariharan

Manasvini Hariharan studied architecture at SRM University in India and urban planning at Université François Rabelais in France. She is enthusiastic about alternative planning practices and social space. She enjoys discovering new cities, kayaking, and drawing amongst other things. Currently, she is exploring her interests in urban research with urbz who encouraged her to tread into the field of writing.


Some Recent Reading Recommendations

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Yangon’s ‘Kachin Land Traditional Restaurant’

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The restaurants are tiny,

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which is in the far north of the country.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately Mrs Bauk Nu,

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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pounded with spices and garnished with  fried shallots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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a marvelous contrast of textures and flavours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then comes a bamboo shoot salad

 

 

 

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with fish and peanuts,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

along with a salad of pounded beef:

 

 

 

 

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both are amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They are accompanied by

 

 

 

 

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an extraordinarily fine soup of bitter leaves,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and a taro soup with pickled mustard leaves –

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Bauk Nu

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a salad of fermented soya beans,

 

 

 

 

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stir-fried bamboo shoots with pork ribs,

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gandhi urged to make common cause with China on opium

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

 

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

 

 

letter to Gandhi

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sleepwalking towards Disaster

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Amitav Ghosh

May 8, 2015

 

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

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

 


Fractal buckwheat

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

 

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

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

Despite its name buckwheat is not a grain;

 

Field of buckwheat in Bumthang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)

Field of buckwheat in Bumthang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Roasted buckwheat or 'kasha' (Wikimedia Commons)

Roasted buckwheat or ‘kasha’ (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Soba noodles (Wikimedia commons)

Soba noodles (Wikimedia commons)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

a form has a fractal geometry, or is a fractal, if the form repeats itself infinitely upon magnification… When I say that I think the Indian aesthetic is fractal in nature I am not referring to this repeatability upon magnification but simply to the presence of details upon details that exhibit themselves as you pull in closer. The Indian psyche would not have been happy with a straight edge temple, which is very different from the Greeks or the Egyptians for example. It was felt necessary to add details upon detail in the smallest of spaces. Compare this with the Parthenon in Greece where the straight edge observed from afar is a true straight edge of a pillar or the roof… I see traces of this Indian need/appreciation for complexity in their music, with notes between notes, and in Indian cuisine where the interplay of many different flavors is not just the strength but also the defining characteristic of the cuisine.

Recently he developed this theme in another letter:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 


Kolkata’s Once and Future Chinatown

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

 

 

 

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

 

DSC04124

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In an adjoining lane,

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

is the Sea Ip Church,

 

 

 

DSC04193 (640x480)

which was founded in 1905,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by migrants from four counties

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen

 

DSC04131hang in the entrance hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are fortunate to have with us,

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

DSC04139 (480x640)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sea Ip Church is consecrated primarily to

 

 

DSC04147

Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This notice explains how to get a

 

 

DSC04152‘Guan-Yin Blessed Card.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is also a side chapel

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04182 (480x640)dedicated to a community deity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tansen explains that he is

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here he is garlanded with

 

 

DSC04183 (480x640)

rupee notes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the main shrine room,

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04148at the altar Of Guanyin,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a ceremony is under way,

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of them tells us about

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She says that

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04171

the incense-sticks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and other offerings,

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The restaurant closed down years ago

 

 

 

DSC04196 (480x640)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The salon upstairs is empty now,

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across the main road, on Blackburn Lane,

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many families of Chinese origin once

 

 

 

DSC04225 (640x480)

lived in this building and those around it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A portrait of Sun Yat Sen hangs inside,

 

 

 

 

DSC04231 (480x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04236 (480x640)

God of Carpenters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down the road is the community’s funeral parlour,

 

DSC04240 (480x640)

 

tucked in beside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a long row of houses:

 

 

 

 

DSC04241 (640x480)

this was once the residential core of Chinatown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of the houses still have

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04239 (480x640)

 

 

Chinese lettering on the doorways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making our way past a

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04247 (480x640)(very serious) cricket match

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the doorway of a now-defunct

 

 

 

 

Chinese bookshop DSC04223

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

we walk past the bricked-up entrance

 

 

 

 

DSC04250 (480x640)

to what was once the Guang Shun club and restaurant,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and enter a lane

 

 

 

 

DSC04251 (480x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

that leads to the oldest Chinese temple in Kolkata.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04288 (480x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The address is 17A Tiretty Bazar.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bears witness to

 

 

 

 

DSC04256 (480x640)

a history of contentious litigation within the community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main shrine room is upstairs;

 

 

 

 

DSC04257 (480x640)

it is dedicated to Tianhou, Goddess of Sailors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The temple’s custodian,

 

 

 

DSC04261 (480x640)Zeng Jian Chuan,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

shows us around the premises.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a nearby building a man

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to the lane

 

 

 

 

DSC04283 (640x480)

we walk deeper into Tiretty Bazar,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

to what was once a ceremonial gateway

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04290 (480x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside lies the tranquil courtyard of the

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04313 (640x480)

Nanshuan Native Place Association.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amidst the

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04297 (640x480)decorative weaponry,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

is a mysterious statuette

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next to the shrine room, is the hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04304 (480x640)

where the members of the association would gather for meetings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a cabinet on a wall,

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the far end of the complex

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04307 (480x640)

 

are a few schoolrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The headmistress,

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another short walk down the lane

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04315 (480x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

brings us to the last stop on our itinerary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

DSC04323 (480x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In one corner of the room

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04333 (640x480)

is an old chest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

filled with papers

 

 

 

 

DSC04327 (640x480)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

like this one,

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04328 (480x640)

 

a funerary inscription.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tansen is horrified to learn that the papers may soon be

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which draws a big smile from one of our guides,

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04331 (480x640)

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Flood of Fire cover

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

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Flood_of_Fire_animated_cover

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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.)

 

 

 

toki-ev-uretimi

 

 

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.

 



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