Archive for August, 2011

Letter from Yangon

Amitav Ghosh | August 31, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (5)

 

 

A friend writes from Yangon:

 

View of Inya Lake from Aung San Suu Kyi's residence on University Avenue, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Amitav,
How are you?… Today at American Centre here in Ygn has a book club event and the book is The Glass Palace. People of book club are very diverse, from teens to 72 yrs old. They all agree taht the book is marvelous. They talked how much they appreciate your writing style and effort of research for this book…. Then all book club members wonder when you could come and join the club. They told us if they know in advance of your visit, they would like to read one of your other books at book club and you can join the discussion… Here things get a bit better and I’d like to expand our freedom bit by bit by some new (unusual) literary activities.

….

 

 


Elephants in the Room

Amitav Ghosh | August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

 

In the great torrent of words inspired by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement what is not being discussed has proved to be almost as significant as what is being said. As a writer I have always been fascinated by the silences that suddenly congeal within the ceaseless argumentation of our collective life. In this instance some of these silences are so striking as to make one wonder why nobody ever mentions the herd of elephants in the room.

Here is one relatively minor instance: on innumerable occasions over the last couple of weeks commentators have excoriated the Congress Party for it ‘lack of leadership’. Yet not once have I heard anyone remarking on the fact that this is not just a figure of speech – it is literally true. Sonia Gandhi, the actual leader of the party and the fount of its power, is indeed absent, and is known to be incommunicado because she is recuperating from an operation. It is as if some kind of taboo had arisen around this subject.

But here is a much more significant example: several members of the Congress Party have spoken with great eloquence about the importance of respecting the sovereignty of Parliament and about the dangers of creating an extra-Parliamentary source of legislation. Thus for example Mr. Chidambaram: ‘Do not diminish the sovereign right of Parliament to make laws. The day this right is diminished even by one millimetre, that will be the saddest day for our democracy.’

Reading this, anyone would imagine that the functioning of Mr. Chidambaram’s own party conformed to some ideal model of a Westminster-style democracy. Yet, a basic premise of a parliamentary democracy is that the office of Prime Minister is held by the leader of the dominant party: in other words executive and political power are vested in the same person. Could we imagine for example, a situation in which David Cameron, having led his party to victory in an election, would pick a member of the House of Lords to be the Prime Minister?

The truth is that members of the Congress Party are singularly ill-placed to wax indignant about the dangers of bowing to an extra-Parliamentary power. They looked to Sonia Gandhi for leadership even when she was not in Parliament; nor is the legislature the real source of her authority. This is indeed the root of the problem for the Congress party today: it is itself structured in such a way as to divorce power from the legislature. The Prime Minister has never won an election; the country knows that his authority is limited and that he is not the government’s guiding force. This has created an opacity at the very core of the political system: the situation would generate mistrust even if the protagonists were blameless.

The differences between the Westminster model and our own political system are obvious. Why then are they so rarely mentioned, even while the model is constantly invoked? Is it because we have become so accustomed to being lauded as the ‘world’s largest democracy’ that we can no longer see what stares us in the face? Or is it because this rhetoric has made us unwilling – or unable – to distinguish between form and substance in politics?

When we look at the form of our political life it is indeed a parliamentary democracy – and considering the available alternatives this is undoubtedly a good thing. But there is another equally important aspect to Indian politics, a dynastic aspect, and it has nothing to do with Westminster: it springs from the same soil that has bred the political dynasties of  Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Phillipines.

In Pakistan the pre-eminent dynasty has played no small part in plunging the country into crisis. But a crisis sometimes brings certain truths to the fore. It is not an accident that the term ‘deep state’ was coined in Pakistan, to describe a situation in which the actual mechanisms of power are hidden behind a public performance of electoral politics.

But the ‘deep state’ is now no longer exclusive to Pakistan; its workings are discernible also in some of the world’s leading democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States: they were evident for example, in the ways in which these countries were led into the Iraq war in the teeth of widespread popular opposition; no less were they apparent in the way that the interests of banks were privileged over the interests of ordinary people after the financial crisis of 2008.

To millions of people around the world it has become evident that the forms of democracy are not in themselves a safeguard against the manipulation of government by unseen powers. The most moving articulation of this came perhaps from the indignados – the protesters who filled the streets of Spain earlier this year: ‘Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice… Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.’

In India the events of the last couple of years have unmasked, as never before, our own ‘deep state’. As scandal after scandal has unfolded, it has become evident that the collusion between politicians, corporations and the media, is of a staggering magnitude, and that it operates on a scale that far exceeds anything that most people could even imagine. Indeed it has become apparent that the locus of power in the country has largely moved away from New Delhi to the corporate towers of Mumbai; it is apparent also that the political class is unable to rectify this.

Something clearly had to be done; it was clear also that the formal institutions of Indian democracy were incapable of doing it. The movement that has filled the gap offers cause for both hope and misgiving. In its insistence on bringing political processes into the open it is trying to restore some of the content that has leached out of governance in India. In failing to address the role of the private sector in corruption it is itself ignoring the elephants in the room. What is undeniable is that its emergence is a development of enormous significance. The movement has already tasted power and in the months to come it could turn in many directions: the political class is right to be apprehensive about this. Yet it was this very class that allowed the substance of politics to leak from its grasp even as it clung to the forms. Inasmuch as the country, as a whole, has allowed this to happen, we are all to blame.

 

Amitav Ghosh

[A version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, on August 29, 2011, under the title 'The Grand Illusion'.]


Hurricane Irene in Brooklyn

Amitav Ghosh | August 29, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

 

Brooklyn after Hurricane Irene

 

 

Although these images might suggest otherwise, Hurricane Irene was not in a particularly intemperate mood when she passed over Brooklyn on Sunday, August 28. It could even be said that the preparations for her passage caused far greater inconvenience than did the swirling of her windy skirts. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Irene, in fact, was the extent of the attention she attracted and the degree of concern she caused, locally and globally. I have been through many storms but I have never received as many messages as I did in these last few days (and here let me pause to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who wrote – I was really touched).

Kolkata has witnessed some of the most devastating storms of the last couple of centuries: it is the place where Henry Piddington invented the word ‘cyclone’ in the 1840s (why the word never caught on in the Americas and the Caribbean I cannot say – it is just a fact that ‘hurricane’ has always been their preferred term). Yet, despite their familiarity with storms, members of my family in Kolkata were almost in tears because of all they had read and seen about Hurricane Irene. It was something of a job to explain to them that Kolkata sees weather of much greater violence several times each year.

Yesterday, as I looked bemusedly at the gentle rain that Irene had sent down on Brooklyn, I found myself speculating about the reasons for the storm’s extraordinary notoriety. What does it say about our times? What does it presage? Here are some thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The concern caused by Irene is due, in no small part, to a deepening anxiety about global warming and unpredictable weather events (this is after all the year when New Zealand experienced its first tropical cyclone; the year when  Queensland was hit by a devastating Category 5 storm, Cyclone Yasi).

2. Weather channels on television and weather-related sites on the net have turned the weather into a 24 hour spectacle: what could be more compelling, or more democratic, than a reality show in which everyone can compete? (It is a matter of some surprise to me that no one has thought to start a dedicated  weather channel in India yet: with quizzes, competitions, crop forecasts etc. thrown in I am sure such a channel would find huge audiences – perhaps even larger than those which follow political talk shows).

3. The greater the threat the larger the audience: in other words, for the media, ratings depend upon the scale of the event. This creates an incentive to amplify the dimensions of the approaching event.

4. It has been widely remarked that intensive media coverage contributes to a culture of anxiety that feeds upon itself. In a situation (increasingly common worldwide) where imaginary threats often seem real, it is easy to see why a quantifiable and predictable threat would lead to a metastasizing of anxiety.

5. At a time when the efficacy of government is frequently questioned, emergency situations are increasingly a test of governmental performance.

6. Extreme weather events provide officials with opportunities, increasingly rare, where they command the full attention of the public and the media. It is only to be expected that this would bring a certain kind of infrastructure into being: situation rooms, briefings, press-conferences etc. Are these occasions exactly calibrated to public need? Or is there a degree of excess in them that might suggest that they are not just means to an end but ends in themselves, with their own dynamics and compulsions? No doubt someone will produce a study some day.

7. The fact that Hurricane Irene was destined to pass over New York was probably the single most important reason for its notoriety. This was due partly perhaps to the concentration of population in the area (but I need hardly point out that there are similar or even greater numbers of people in many regions where cyclones come and go without attracting much attention – southern China, Bangladesh, West Bengal, Vietnam, and the Phillipines). New York commands attention not only because it is a centre on which many peripheries converge: it has also become a screen on which people project their fears (this may have been true even before 9/11, but it is certainly more so now). In an age of anxiety, the city has become, so to speak, the epicentre of a global tectonics of unease.

 

 

 


North Africa Journal, 1979: Sbeitla

Amitav Ghosh | August 27, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (0)

August 13, 1979

Roman acqueduct, Sbeitla, Tunisia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day we went off to Sbeitla. Their plans originally were to go to Bulla Regia,

 

Amphitheatre, Bulla Regia, Tunisia

 

 

 

 

but they decided to go to Sbeitla instead – the deciding factor apparently being that I hadn’t ever been there, whereas I had already been to Bulla Regia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bulla Regia, 2-3 cent AD

 

 

 

 

Sbeitla was spectacular; enjoyed the ruins even more than those at Dougga – although this wasn’t quite right for Dougga is really better. But Sbeitla is built in a marvelous golden stone (rather like Bath) and we saw it when it had the setting sun on it so it was melancholy and haunting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temple, Sbeitla

 


North Africa Journal, 1979: Dougga

Amitav Ghosh | August 25, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (0)

 

Dougga (from Google Images)

 

 

August 13, 1979

 

Dougga is perched on a hill and right at the top is the spectacular skeleton of the temple of Mercury, with its four columns looking out over the countryside. The whole [Roman] city is fairly well-preserved and one has a vivid impression of being in a place that was once very busy. There’s a theatre and it must once have been the most magnificent in the whole Roman world.

 

Forum & Temple of Celestes, 3rd cent AD, Dougga

 

As nightfall was approaching, and I was beginning to wonder where I would spend the night, I bumped into a group of tourists who were also looking over the ruins. Within five minutes learnt that they’d been at the Bourguiba Instt as well, doing the same course (I thought one of them, Bernard, looked familiar). They had hired a car in Tunis and were traveling around the country. They immediately offered me a lift to Teboursouk, which is the town closest to Dougga, placed conveniently on the main road. When they heard I was going to Kairouan, Laurent (there were four of them, Laurent, Bernard (both French), Marith, a Dutch girl, and Faris, a Tunisian) immediately suggested that I go with them. But Bernard hedged a bit at that and said the car was too small (which it was) to take 5 people a long way.

 

Dougga, from Teboursouk

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, we reached Teboursouk and went to the local tourist hotel. Naturally it was too expensive for me but as soon as I suggested that I’d go off to sleep in the wilderness they said they’d pay. Absolutely insisted and I couldn’t really have said no without being offensive. But as it happened we didn’t stay there after all and went on a bit. The car broke down and we had some trouble, but eventually stayed in a town called El Kef, in a place I could afford.


From a reader

Amitav Ghosh | August 23, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (1)

You are too muchi good, Mistoh AMMY “The White head Ghosh”

(Letter from Li Shiu-je “Chi-Mei”)

I wanchi thank Mister Ammy. Mister Ammy put me … a litti washerwoman in too muchi big book. Me blongi no sing-song girlie but you catchi me. Too muchi sad thing … you make me die, but people blongi reading-reading send me chitties. Say ‘we like you too muchi…but what thing we do…Mister Ammy make you and Mister Barry die’. Also they say ‘we too muchi like the lob pidgin… you Chi-mei are the heroine of the book, no sing-song girlie’.

Mister Compton also send Chi-mei a chittie. Says ‘Ah Meet…a good fellow. You not makie angry. Meet knows all good thing. He makie you die because he write real life stories. Now…understand Chi-mei !… Meet not a bad man. He makie you popular…No? Next he says ‘Ah Meet also make Ah Neel known to all’. ‘Neel told me that writer Ah Meet make Deeti, a poor village widow girl – a heroine, a popular woman in his last book.’ Deeti very gtateful to Meet.

Deeti is old now, but very happy with her large family in Mauritius. She says ‘Ghosh Babu gimi a new life. Hamar pehla husbun was afeemkhor when we lived in a gaon in Inndustan. After his death, there was a big tamasha and I became ready to be sati… but Kalua came like Bhagwan Marut and bachao me. Ye Ghosh Babu ki krupa haiki now I have a big fami in Mauritius. I tell all these chutkas and chutkis, laikas and laikis sab agil-pichheel.’ Next she says ‘All that which happened on Ibis might look ridikil but it was no golmaal.’ ‘Neel’ she says ‘ you will soon suno of this cheeni Ah Fatt’s mother. I saw it with my own eye in the tufaan. Jab sab logue running agram bagram on the Ibis because of the burra tufaan… I saw cheeni’s raja jaisa father meet his destenn. A burri naag jaisi nadi swallowed him but cheeni’s baba was much shant because he meets his cheeni patni in that nadi. Phir all pani became dhuan-dhuan and that nadi looked like a naag made of dhuan’.

 

Dear Mr. Ghosh

I have just finished reading River of Smoke. I couldn’t help talking to you (in my mind) like this. I’m a lecturer in English and am planning to write at least two research papers on this book. Since that will be a serious affair and will be against your choice, I won’t like to bother you with that.

I’ve a boy chilo ‘Parth’ who is a teenager. These days we enjoy talking in pidgin. Sentences like…’what thing you wanchi-fruit or milk?. You have started eating too muchi maggie these days.’ have become common between us. I’ve been wanting to communicate with you in pidgin and kreol … since I read Sea of Poppies, but at that time I never knew you had a blog on the Net.

Mr. Ghosh,  your novels are really ‘encyclopaedic’ and great contribution to world & Indian history.

Hats off to you!

Daisy

BPS Memorial Girls’ College

BPS Women University

Khanpur Kalan, Sonipat

HARYANA

 

 

 


North Africa Journal, 1979: 4

Amitav Ghosh | August 22, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (0)

 

Carthage, Tunisia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 13, 1979

Fell mildly ill for a while in Tunis. Think it was just a fit of exhaustion –worked very hard for the exams and did better than I had expected: 15/20 in written Arabic and 19/20 in the oral.

Left Tunis on the 11th, after prolonged goodbyes to Noel, Edward, Zeenat, Jessica and many other new friends. Had been worrying a great deal about the money situation, but I think I’ll be able too last another month in North Africa, although only just. Anyway, doesn’t seem worthwhile worrying too much.

Left Tunis and arrived at Dougga at about 2.30 pm on the 11th. Dougga is quite a long way from the nearest village, and there’s very little habitation in the area. Walked a part of the way up – a passing farmer stopped to give me a lift on his donkey.

 

On the road to Dougga

 

I thought it right to get off in the steep bits, but he carried my rucksack all the way to the top. Extraordinary phenomenon of children asking for money as soon as they set eyes on one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruins spectacular. Unfortunately very, very windy and dusty – though that was a blessing in a way, for it was cooler.

Roman Theatre, Dougga (ancient Thougga), 2nd cent. C.E.

 

 


North Africa Journal, 1979: 3

Amitav Ghosh | August 21, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (0)

 

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

[July 13, 1979, Tunis]

 

 

One evening met two Tunisians quite by chance. Was eating at a little restaurant in a gali

 

Medina, Tunis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and afterwards asked the owner where I could catch the bus. He asked two of his clients to show me the bus stop. They were about my age or a little older  – in their early twenties – Wahid and Omar. They walked me all the way to the bus stop and waited there with me. My French was at its most pitiable and I could hardly say anything sensible. Nor did I understand anything they said, but they were incredibly nice and we arranged to meet again, on Friday. I didn’t really expect them to be there on Friday but Wahid was, and he took me to a café where Omar where was waiting as well.

I walked around Tunis a bit with them.

 

 

Mosque of Sidi Youssef, Tunis, 18th cent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My French has improved a bit, since I spent the first few days working on it, almost exclusively, so I could say and understand a little more than I could the first time. But it was fatiguing for me, and I would have thought, very boring for them. But they tried hard and insisted on paying for everything I had – it was embarrasing how hospitable they were. At dinner they made me eat almost till I was sick. Wahid was trained as an electrical engineer and works somewhere – I haven’t yet fathomed exactly where.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mosque of Sidi Youssef, Tunis, 18th cent


North Africa Journal, 1979: 2

Amitav Ghosh | August 19, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (0)

[July 13, 1979, Tunis]

 

Zaitoun Mosque, Tunis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t difficult to find the hostel I’ll be living in. Everyone seems to know the Cité Universitaire and the people on the bus were very helpful. The Cité reminds me of the Delhi School of Social Work hostel – very noisy. By some peculiar acoustic trick every noise is magnified a hundred-fold. The din from the common-room is unbelievable – it can be heard for miles.

On the whole, not a nice place to live in at all – principally because it’s so far outside the centre of town. The last bus is at about 9 pm and one more or less has to catch it. It also means being cloistered with all the other people in the course.

Our classes begin at 2.30 pm, which means that our days are peculiarly constructed. I don’t usually leave the Cité till about 12.30. Since classes get over at about 7 pm and the last bus is at 9 one doesn’t really have much time to look around.

 

 

 

 

Spent my first few evenings looking around the Medina. Stunning mosque – 9th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have Fridays off, so I’ll try to do some sightseeing then. Carthage is a suburb of the city – Habib Bourguiba [Tunisia’s ruler from 1957-87] has a palace there.Sidi Bou Said, which is near Tunis, is said to be a picturesque place.

 

Carthage, with Bourguiba’s palace in background

 

 


North Africa Journal, 1979: 1

Amitav Ghosh | August 18, 2011 in North Africa Journals | Comments (0)

In July 1979 I traveled to Tunisia, to learn Arabic at the Insitut Habib Bourguiba in Tunis.

 

July 13, 1979

Arrived in Tunis on the 2nd, at about 11 pm (the plane was delayed by three hours). At first glance – at 11.30 at night – Tunis seemed very Mediterranean (or what I conceive of as Mediterranean anyway). There were lots of people on the streets and sitting around in cafés; lots of music, sultry winds etc. Next morning everything seemed somewhat diminished in scale: crowded streets, lots of traffic; people dressed almost universally in jeans, except for the occasional elderly man in a jellaba. Fruit stalls with the wares displayed just as in Calcutta; sweetmeat shops.

The pattern of the city is reminiscent of Tehran and Delhi. There’s an old walled city – the Medina – and all around it the new town.

In the Medina, Tunis

The town’s showpiece streets converge on the entrance to the Medina (characteristically, the most important is called the Avenue de France). The showpiece streets are much of a muchness – huge plate-glass windows, hotels etc. Also a cathedral. The part of the city I am living in is very much like New Delhi – it’s a modern middle-class suburb, very much like Vasant Vihar or Hauz Khas. The houses are almost exactly alike, except that when one walks past them the music playing inside is usually French pop. And the folk art on the walls is Saharan rather than Oriya/Gujarati/Rajasthani.

 

 



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