Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Himalayan Cornucopia

Chrestomather | August 28, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


The Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, is a cornucopia of fresh, organic produce:















chilies (an essential ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine), dried P1040003













and fresh;P1040004










Sichuan pepperP1040061











sheaves of asparagus



















bok choy, spring onions; fiddlehead ferns,













bamboo shoots,














plump banana flowers,P1040056











and ‘fireball’ chilies, red and green . P1040055











But the mushrooms are the real surprise:



a profusion of chanterelles, P1040051










and huge matsutakes, P1040052











that grow P1040019wild in the forests.















The market is so clean P1040050









P1040043that this sign seems unnecessary.











The fruit section is a riot of colour P1040027












P1040024and of laughter too.









A stall nearby offers another Bhutanese staple, cured meats

















and racks of black pudding.P1040041














Also on display are strings of dried yak cheese, a popular snack also known as ‘Bhutanese popcorn’. Nonno Tsesham tells us that one piece will get him through a three-hour film.











Fresh cheese and butter




are two other essential commodities.










And the local honey, collected from buckwheat meadows, is highly prized. P1040063











Having filled a shopping bag, we carried it to the restaurant of the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimpu,











and were soon feasting on sauteed matsutakes














P1040086chanterelles in chile-cheese sauce,









stir-fried fiddlehead ferns,














P1040094and fried cheese.












A delicious meal, magically conjured up and served by the restaurant’s friendly staff. P1040096













Letter from Kolkata: ‘The Great Derangement’ and a recent storm

Chrestomather | August 21, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

I am Deeptesh Sen, pursuing my M.Phil. in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. I have always been fascinated by your novels — every character and situation you create has stayed with me over the years. In our department, we have often discussed your books in class. For our course on postcolonial literatures in our MA class, we discussed The Shadow Lines and In an Antique Land. More recently, we discussed in detail The Sea of Poppies while studying narratives of migration and the South Asian diaspora. I have always wanted to talk to you about your books but never had the opportunity during the few times we have met briefly after your book launches in the city.

But your most recent book The Great Derangement appealed to me in the most unique possible way. It is indeed harrowing to think that we as a generation, despite the advancements in science and technology that we have achieved, have chosen to be in denial about climate change. But The Great Derangement is about many more things, not the least being the irruption of the non-human and the sense of uncanny that lurks within the spaces of the everyday.

Your description of the tornado that hit Delhi in 1978 and how you had stared at the eye of the storm left a strong, lasting impression in me. But what stood out for me was the relationship you established between our denial to accept climate change and our inability to imagine situations of extreme improbability that can invade the everyday at any moment. This is precisely where your reference to the Freudian umhiemlich becomes even more relevant. Not only do the spaces we inhabit have a potential to surprise us at the unlikeliest of moments, we can safely assume that these spaces that we claim to know well carry within them the germs of the unknown. I have always read and re-read Freud’s essay on the uncanny with profound interest but as someone working on Lacanian theory, I feel it’s Jacques Lacan who pushes the theory of the uncanny to an interesting end. Since the repressed and the return of the repressed are two sides of the same coin in Lacan, in keeping with his idea of the unconscious(or the Subject as he calls it) being always on the other side of language of the speaking being, it is not difficult to re-affirm the idea that the spaces of the everyday simply carry/conceal the uncanny on the other side. I must thank you for making me think in this fashion.

I was in Shantiniketan last week when I was reading The Great Derangement and thinking along these lines. Little did I know that something extraordinary would happen in my life very shortly that would re-affirm my belief in the ideas expressed in your book. This is also the reason why I decided that I would write to you and share with you the incident as it happened.

A couple of days ago, I was returning from Jadavpur University late in the evening. I was in a state bus travelling down the Southern Avenue from Golpark when the sudden cyclone hit the city. All the vehicles were stranded and in front of our bus, a huge tree collapsed in the storm. The bus quickly tried to take the other lane to go back towards Golpark but such was the fury of the storm that another tree along with a light-post were brought hurtling down. As the traffic was completely stranded in both the lanes by now, I decided to walk till Kalighat. But that is when I saw one of the strangest sights in my life and was continuously reminded of your book. The Southern Avenue, one of the last remaining beautiful boulevards in the city, had by then transformed into an unknown, dangerous place. The trees lining the lanes which make it so beautiful had turned the avenue into a virtual death-trap — the huge trunks were collapsing like a pack of cards on both sides of the road. They were also bringing down with them walls or light-posts and the fallen overhead wires left people in the danger of being electrocuted. To all the people walking down the Southern Avenue in the storm, or the line of makeshift roadside stalls, the familiar space they knew and loved had suddenly transformed into something monstrous and unimaginable. Even in the Jadavpur University campus, quite a few trees fell in the storm including a huge tree that collapsed opposite gate three causing the death of a couple of people. My friends who had stayed back on campus later described the storm and the destruction it caused as incredible. The spaces we loved had chosen to unleash their uncanny side at the most unimaginable of moments. Interestingly, as I came back home and logged on to Facebook, my newsfeed was filled with people discussing how unprecedented the storm was during the monsoon. Everyone was reflecting on the strange weather patterns that the city had been experiencing recently and talking about The Great Derangement.

I would like to ask you what you think about this cyclone. There was forecast of rain in the city because of a depression that had formed over the Bay of Bengal but the storm, in all its fury, seemed more like a nor’wester when it hit the city. About 120 trees fell in the storm causing unprecedented loss to life and property. But man-made interference seems to be responsible for the destruction once again — according to a report in The Telegraph today, it was the laying of concrete and injudicious pruning that loosened the top-soil and weakened the roots of some of these trees. Any storm can now cause grievous damage to people in the city.

I can very much relate to your idea of how the bourgeois world view banishes any form of improbability from the everyday. I thought it was very insightful to link it with why realist fiction has largely struggled to accommodate the issue of climate change. I was slightly surprised you did not mention your novel The Calcutta Chromosome at that juncture because it is one novel, I think, which pushes the narrative possibilities of the genre to its limits. The 20th century indeed witnessed what Weber calls ‘rationalization’ as you mentioned and there is a valorisation of the everyday in modernist literature. There was, as you pointed out, an intense focus on the personal, instead of the collective, in modernist literature with the rise of psychoanalysis in early 1900 partly being responsible for this. When Virginia Woolf wrote about trying to capture the incessant shower of atoms on the human mind, she was in a way laying out the essence of the direction that modernist literature would take.

Interestingly, I first experienced this bourgeois sense of complacency and hubris when I first took admission in Jadavpur University about seven years ago. I came from a modest background and was a part of a class and generation that worked its way into affluence due to the economic liberalization in the 90s. For me, to find myself among friends who have belonged to an elite, educated class for generations and possessed a great degree of social and economic capital was profoundly unsettling. As I slowly began to adopt to a more liberal, bourgeois culture, I learned that there was very little space for fear or doubt within their world view. The tiniest of things that I had seen my parents be anxious about were done with a great degree of confidence and nonchalance by the bourgeoisie. It was almost as if, in their world view, nothing could go wrong. I developed a great deal of admiration for this aspect of bourgeois culture until years of reading and experience made me re-visit my ideas. The valorisation of a certain laid-back attitude (an euphemism for indolence?) came from, I learnt much later, the socio-economic realities of the leisure class. And things did go wrong — a friend of ours lost his life in an unprecedented way in a personal tragedy. People I admired stooped to perform the basest of acts which I deemed to be unbecoming of the culture I had so admired. All these unprecedented moments brought back the possibility of the improbable in our lives until I understood that the banishing of the unpredictable was nothing but a great bourgeois hubris stemming from years of entitlement and anthropocentrism.

I am sorry if this has been too long. But your book made me think and it was the cyclone a couple of days ago that made me decide to share these things in detail with you. I will be very glad if you could find time to respond to this.  Also, I was looking forward to the book launch at Jadavpur University. Both Samantak-da and Professor Sugata Hazra are people I know and admire and I was looking forward to the session at Vivekanada Hall. But a bout of viral fever made me stay at home at the last minute and I was terribly disappointed to miss the launch. I hope there will be a more opportune moment for me to meet with you in person and discuss in detail about your books the next time you are here in the city.


Deeptesh Sen

Letter from novelist Aruni Kashyap re ‘The Shadow Lines’

Chrestomather | August 19, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Aruni Kashyap

The letter below is from novelist Aruni Kashyap, author of The House With A Thousand Stories  (Viking/Penguin, 2013). It is posted here with his permission.








Dear Amitav,

I have told this to numerous people and have also written briefly about it but strangely, never told you that The Shadow Lines is one of the most important novels for me. I read it at a time when I was disillusioned with literature. I was planning to return to Assam to study in History in Cotton College, Guwahati, where my mother teaches Assamese literature. It was 2004, my first year at St. Stephen’s. I felt I was such a misfit. Most of the people had come from elite families, and it seemed there was no space for someone like me. Thanks to my parents, I went to a good school in Guwahati, but I had very humble upbringing. We didn’t know it was humble. We thought we were quite better off with so many books around! Just to put things in perspective : when my father received his PhD in 1998 (on human sacrifice in Assam’s religious practices!), a meeting was organised in our village where hundreds of people came to listen and “see” the first PhD from that region and more so because he used to work as a bus conductor during his MA days to fund his studies. My mother had a harder life : they were urban poor. She could study this far only because there was something called “britti porikkha” in Assam that waived tuition fees for students who did well in schools and colleges. For years, she went to school hungry. They had a few plantain trees at the back of their houses. On better days, she would go with her uncles to pluck some of them from the trees, and soften those by punching to eat before going to college. She didn’t have the money to buy textbooks so she would borrow the textbooks from her wealthier classmates, buy plain sheets and copy those textbooks down. Those handwritten “books”, stitched nicely with cotton threads, remained in our house for a long time – to serve as a privilege checkers for her children. I was so embarrassed of those stories in my first semester at St. Stephen’s. I was worried people would find out and make fun of me and to top it all, I had to read Dickens’ Hard Times which was just awful. I couldn’t bring myself to “fit into” the the atmosphere at St. Stephen’s. I also felt stupid. Everyone seemed more intelligent than me and I was scared to open my mouth in class. I decided to return to Assam to my parents’ horror and told the professor I still admire and still in touch with. Feeling free, I thought I should read a novel just to enjoy and not to analyse it. I picked up The Shadow Lines. The lectures on the novel hadn’t started yet and the intimate, inviting, funny voice of the novel, Tridib’s gastric, Ila, Mayadebi – all of them enthralled me. I don’t know what happened but that novel churned something in me and I stayed back to complete my course and I know, I wouldn’t have been a writer today if I hadn’t read The Shadow Lines. It is one of the most important books in my life. Thank you for writing it. That day in October 2004, when I was reading The Shadow Lines in that room in Rudra North, I had no clue I would connect with you. Your letter is so important for me.
Last year, I brought my mother to Delhi for treatment in Medanta. She has an unfriendly kidney, that hasn’t turned hostile yet thanks to regular check ups and I hope it wouldn’t. I was so shocked to see her. I thought about the woman who punched on plantains to soften them before eating to quell hunger and still did well in academics, who remained awake on rainy nights with pots and tumblers collecting water in the house because they couldn’t afford a new sheet of asbestos, and went next morning to sleep on highways in front of oil tankers during the Oil Blockade Andolon. I was so saddened. I wrote a poem thinking about those stories that I am no more embarrassed about. I am pasting it below. I hope you will like reading it.
I hope I see you again very soon!


My mother brings the rains to scorching Delhi, even
before she lands. The skies wear cigarette ash,
goats bleat, winds create funnels with the sand,
and even green leaves break-up with branches.

In her city,
she was the famous beauty. Men
stumbled when she walked,
women asked her what she ate, what she
applied on her skin, marvelling
at her elephant-apple rinsed silky hair; but
she had no secrets to share, and
refused to tell them her sorrows.
Years later, unable to leave the bed for months,
on her way to a faraway hospital before
the days of cheap long distance calls,
my father bought her a notebook.

Write, he said. For yourself, for your son,
Otherwise how will he know?
How will he know about
your Muslim lover who was beaten up by your brothers
for loving you, about the poet who wrote a new poem
every night on a different classroom desk
until there were none
left to pour out his heart, the geek who made you the protagonists
of his fiction but didn’t write reply poems like me?
How will he know about your empty stomachs,
the mustard oil you applied on your face, the
bitter juice you drank every morning for that
golden skin, that men could kill for? Sit up

write that you slept on beds from where you
could count the stars, that rains meant placing
tumblers on strategic spots of the house, and staying awake
with a mope made of old bedsheets. Write about
Rebellions and oil blockades, about
farmers who rushed to the streets of Hamdoi
to kill landlords. Spend the ink

if not for yourself, for your first born,
who you worried wouldn’t have a sharp nose
like his maternal uncles,
for you married low,
for love, for ideals, for protest marches
and poetry.

Rathalla Review, Spring 2016

A window into the new China: Lijia Zhang’s ‘Lotus’

Chrestomather | July 3, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



China 2010 075

I first met Lijia Zhang in 2010, at a literary event in Beijing.








She had then recently published a memoir (Socialism is Great!’ A Worker’s Memoir of The New China, 2008) about her extraordinary personal journey. Born into a working-class family in Nanjing she spent several years working in a factory. But her spare time was dedicated to learning English, which she did with such success that she was awarded a scholarship for a creative writing course in London.

That is where Lijia’s new book, Lotus (forthcoming 2017, Henry Holt & Co.) had its start. It is her first novel and she began it ‘while working for my MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.’ It is the story of a woman (the eponymous Lotus of the title) who leaves her birthplace, an impoverished mountain village in Sichuan, to travel to the boomtown of Shenzen, a thousand miles to the south.








As with so many rural migrants in Asia, Lotus’s desire for the city is sired by a neighbour’s television set. ‘Everyone had been so excited when her neighbor Luo Yijun’s family brought back a magic box called a dianshi ­ – electric screen. The Luos’ yard  was packed with enthusiastic viewers craning their necks for a better view of the moving pictures in the box. The unceasing stream of visitors bothered the family so much that they locked up the dianshi after a week and only took it out for public viewing during festivals. But Luo Yijun, her classmate, would invite Lotus to watch it from time to time. Once, they saw a show about Shenzen, the city just north of Hong Kong.




How glorious it looked! Palm trees, buildings clad in shining mirrors soaring into the sky, colorful neon signs dazzling to the eye, and large ships docking on blue water in a busy harbor.







Every year, across Asia, millions of city-bound journeys are launched in exactly this way – and as happens only too often, Lotus’s move does not turn out as she had hoped. She finds out the hard way that “the city is a place where dragons and fish jumble together. Not a safe place for a young girl.” She ends up having to earn her living by selling her body.

The descriptions of Lotus’s life as a ji (‘chicken’ or prostitute) are remarkably persuasive – so much so that I wrote to Lijia to ask how she came by the details. I did an enormous amount of research, she wrote back. I tried to make friends with working girls. But they moved away, changed their numbers or simply vanished. Luckily I met Lanlan, a former prostitute who now runs a NGO dedicated to help female sex workers. She generously shared her experience with me and allowed me to work for her NGO, distributing condoms to the girls and hanging out with them. All the working girls are made-up characters, but many details are real.

One of the novel’s major characters is a photographer (Bing) who has made a specialty of photographing prostitutes. At one point he says to Lotus: ‘Migrant workers are China’s unsung heroes. Without their cheap labour…. there would not be China’s economic miracle.

This is indeed one of the principal  themes of the novel, and it reflects Lijia’s own life experience: ‘Coming from a poor family myself I am interested in those ‘xiao ren wu’, ‘little people’, and their struggles. You may say I am a self-appointed spokesperson for China’s under-privileged. I want to explore the emotional costs of China’s rural-urban migration. By the way, a lot of sex workers in Shenzhen areas were former factory workers.

In the novel Bing offers a slightly different explanation for his interest in ji: ‘Prostitution is a window through which to see the changes in this country.’

Bing is an idealist, a former campaigner for democracy. But he meets with several shocks when he visits Lotus’s village in Sichuan Province.

On the mud wall of her father’s house is a large portrait of Chairman Mao: It was dusty and fading, the mole under the Chairman’s chin looking more sinister than ever… In the bright morning sun it appeared so outdated that one could almost smell the mould. A memorial tablet for the ancestors and a porcelain statute of Guanyin made up a little shrine beneath the picture. What a strange combination of worship, Bing thought.

Bing’s scrutiny of the shrine does not go unnoticed by Lotus who says to her father: “Ba do you know which dynasty it is? Even Chairman Mao’s successor has died. When are you going to change the picture?”

‘Change the picture, why?’ her father countered. ‘Chairman Mao was the best emperor China ever had.’



China 2010 156

Min River, Sichuan Province




Neither as a migrant nor as a prostitute does Lotus come across as a synthetically constructed composite. A fully rounded character, she is never depicted as a victim of circumstance. Ambitious and driven though she is, she also has some unexpected traits.

China 2010 149 (480x640)

The Colossal Buddha of Leshan, 8th century, Sichuan Province


She is deeply religious for one: “You see, my grandma is a Buddhist, murmuring amitabha all day long,” Lotus explains to Bing. “I used to laugh at her for being superstitious. Now look at me, praying to the Guanyin Buddha every day.”











Lotus also has a great respect for learning (she saves her earnings diligently in the hope of putting her younger brother through college). Books hold an almost talismanic fascination for her: ‘Lotus looked through the neatly piled books. She picked up The Portrait of a Lady and looked at the lady on the cover with her feathered hat. She remembered how Bing (the photographer) had described it as a story of a girl confronting her destiny. Now she understood it was all about the girl deciding her own life’.

It is impossible not to see in this an echo of Lijia’s own journey, as a young woman obsessed with books, drawing on foreign literary models in order to seize her destiny. The irony however is that the dream that lies at the heart of Lotus’s quest – and Lijia’s – is agelessly and quintessentially Chinese: it consists ultimately in a deep faith in the transformative power of education.

In its subject matter and the circumstances of its gestation Lotus is very much a novel of its times. Globalization is its backdrop and it is situated on the boundary of two languages – English and Chinese – that are increasingly thrust together because of those processes. This is a very difficult boundary to straddle and Lijia succeeds at it precisely because she eschews one of the most pervasive and pernicious literary consequences of contemporary globalization – the constant invocation of brand names and pop-culture. She opts instead to draw upon the immense resources of China’s literary heritage, of both the folksy and classical varieties (many of the chapter titles are derived from well-known sayings and proverbs).

Consider the following passages:

The journalist had apparently done his homework. “I’m sure you’re tired of this question, but how did you become interest in ‘willow trees on the roadside and flowers on the wall’?” he used an old poetic term for prostitutes.

They started to joke, at their clients’ expense, as usul. Xia got up, and with surprising comic flair, began to mimic a hesitant client. The man had walked up and down the street half a dozen times before eventually surrendering to her come-ons. “I know his type: wanting to have fun but he doesn’t have the balls to just ask for it. So I said: ‘Hey, honey, I’m a crack shot, good at ‘shooting down the airplane’ by hand’,” Xia laughed, pumping her hand up and down… (148)

What luck, this offer. A pancake fallen from the sky, as her grandma would say!

What kind of society has China become? … “Big fish eat small fish, and small fish eat shrimps.” 

It was only a long slingshot away from East Station Road. 

The scene was as chaotic as a disturbed beehive. 

To be with him felt like cracking a plate off melon seeds – pleasant enough, but nothing too exciting.

“’Enemies and lovers are destined to meet again,’” she said, her fake eyelashes fluttering.

‘Once bitten by a snake, one shies at the sight of a coiled rope for the next ten years.’

As unnecessary as painting legs on a snake, Lotus thought.

‘A butcher can become a Buddha after dropping his knife.’

‘You ungrateful child. You simply don’t know how high heaven is.’

‘He used Lotus and us and then chucked us. He ate the meat and dumped the bone!’


At a time when the fields of reference available to fiction are increasingly in danger of being colonized by consumer culture and advertising slogans, how refreshing it is to come upon these universally comprehensible allusions!

What would be the journey of such a text were it to be translated into Chinese? Unfortunately we shall probably never know: according to Lijia a Chinese translation is unlikely ‘because I imagine the world I depicted would be too negative in the view of the authorities. Worse still I talked about 1989/Tiananmen, a taboo topic.’

Lotus is a wonderfully readable and perceptive novel about an aspect of contemporary China that remains largely invisible to the outsider. Although it pulls no punches it is saturated with the spirit of stoic optimism that sustains millions of rural migrants around the world.



Indian Merchants and Trading Houses in 19th and 20th century Japan: A Correspondence

Chrestomather | May 20, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


Earlier this month I received the following inquiry from a PhD candidate at Japan’s Keio University.


Dear Professor Amitav Ghosh,


I am a researcher of Indian merchants to Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth century and I would like to take advice from you on some specific aspects of my research as you are the specialist in this area. 

I would be grateful if you would kindly respond to my email and help me with the following questions;


  1. The following 24 Trading Houses were in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Do you have any information or knowledge material on any of the below mentioned houses?


1 J.Pestongee
2 J.Eduljee
3 H.A.Esmail&Co.
4 Essabhoy
5 H.H.Joseph
6 H.M.Ebrahim
7 M.M.Rahimkhan
8 W.Assomull
9 A.H.Josuph
10 A.Shaikally
11 K.S.Munshi
12 India and Japan Co.
13 Empress
14 Kaliandas
15 C.M.Bhesania
16 K.A.J.Chotirmall
17 L.D.Abraham
18 J.B.Bhesania
19 Topunsin Motumall
20 Tarachand Rijoomal
21 Pomull Brothers
22 Dunamall Cheralam
23 A.M.Curmally
24 M.N.Gobhai



  1. Do you have information regarding Sindhi and Parsi merchants in early twentieth century to Japan, especially information/material regarding the use of local/commercial/banking/remittance network by Indian traders?

Thank you very much for taking your time and I would very much appreciate your help.


With respect to your writings,


Sincerely yours,

Ui Teramoto


Ph.D Candidate,

Graduate School of Media and Governance, Keio University


Since I have no information on this subject I forwarded the letter to Murali Ranganathan, who is an expert on colonial Bombay and has done extensive research on the city’s major trading families. His response is below.


Dear Amitav
I have done very little work beyond the nineteenth century and cannot claim even a passing familiarity with this subject. 

As can be seen from the list, the Parsi involvement was fairly limited; the Japan trade seems to be dominated by Sindhis, Marwadis, and Gujarati Muslim communities. None of them generally felt the need to document their activities as the Parsis did in the nineteenth century, though I must add that I have not looked. 
As for the Parsis, Japan features quite often in their Gujarati travelogues. For example, our First World War hero, Nariman Karkaria goes to Japan enroute to Europe. The Bombay industrialist, Framji Dinshaw Petit (1847-95) writes about his travels to Europe, America, China and Japan in his 1887 travelogue. The Parsi lady, Bhikai Cama (dead 1890 and not to be confused with the Indian patriot) who was settled in London contributed regularly to the Mumbai Gujarati newspaper Rast Goftar about her travels in China, Japan and America. 
That the Parsis were commercially active in Japan can be concluded from references to a speech by Cowasjee Merwanjee Shroff at the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and dinners hosted by him. See Japan Daily Mail for details. (Source Parsi Prakash Vol 3, page 340.)
Some of the old banking archives might have some information on their remittance patterns. For example, the State Bank of India archives contains a lot of material. 
If there is any other way I can help, please let me know. 
Best wishes

Murali of Mulund




If readers of this blog have something to add to this I would be glad to post their responses here.






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.




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!’



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.



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.



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. 






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.



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.



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.




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.   



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)








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








The restaurants are tiny,







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








which is in the far north of the country.





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










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








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










Fortunately Mrs Bauk Nu,






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












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








pounded with spices and garnished with  fried shallots.









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







a marvelous contrast of textures and flavours.









Then comes a bamboo shoot salad






with fish and peanuts,










along with a salad of pounded beef:






both are amazing.











They are accompanied by







an extraordinarily fine soup of bitter leaves,








and a taro soup with pickled mustard leaves –






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









Mrs Bauk Nu







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











a salad of fermented soya beans,
















stir-fried bamboo shoots with pork ribs,



















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

















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


















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










Gandhi urged to make common cause with China on opium

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


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



letter to Gandhi


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







Sleepwalking towards Disaster

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amitav Ghosh

May 8, 2015


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


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


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