Archive for September, 2011

Charles Correa’s greatest?

Amitav Ghosh | September 30, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



The morning began with my son sending me this (note #29) and after that I still had the pleasure of writing about Charles Correa to look forward to…

As promised yesterday, here are some glimpses of what may well be Charles’s greatest achievement (so far – there are many yet to come). It is the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, in Lisbon, Portugal.




The site is spectacular, as will be evident from these pictures.


















And the building rises magnificently to the challenge.







Charles has succeeded in creating a startlingly new configuration of some of the recurring elements in his work: sculptural monoliths;














echoing geometrical forms;




reflecting surfaces;













courtyards that both embrace and separate;









and the interplay of light and shadow.










The landscaping is particularly striking in its references to Portugal’s role in the diffusion and exchange of botanical species around the world.











At the age of eighty-one Charles has the spirit, energy, liveliness of mind and argumentativeness of a teenager (and the sense of mischief too). In the league of his peers he is indeed a stripling: Niemeyer at 104 and I.M.Pei at 97 are still producing some of their best work. There are many projects ahead for Charles and we can only hope that those who have it in their power to commission major buildings will make it possible for him to build something on the scale of the Champalimaud Center in India.




[For the record: I didn’t take these pictures; they were sent to me a good while ago. No photographerwas credited].


Shouts and whispers

Amitav Ghosh | September 29, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




I was delighted to read Saurabh’s comments of Sept 27 and this post is a continuation of that conversation.

Charles and Monika Correa are dear friends and I count myself among their most ardent fans (Monika is a major artist in her own right – she weaves tapestries, some of which are on display in I.M.Pei’s ‘Four Seasons’ building in New York – a fine building but not his best, in my view, but I’ll save that for another post…).

Monika and I have talked about Frank Gehry’s MIT building (the Stata Center) and I have to say that much as I love her, I disagree with her on this. I think the Stata Center is a miracle, one of Gehry’s greatest works. What I particularly love about it is the way it plays with the forms of the medieval European university town.



The curved lines and shapes give the interior an unexpected intimacy; it is the least institutional of any institutional building I have ever been in. Even the corridors are broken up by little nooks and corners where people can gather and talk. It struck me that such a playful building might not appeal to a student body like MIT’s  – but everyone I spoke to there loved it.

But Monika is certainly right about the leaks in the building (in fact they prompted MIT to sue Gehry but the matter was amicably resolved). But many innovative buildings have practical shortcomings and this one’s are unlike any other. There is a room that cannot be used because there’s something about its shape that makes people seasick – I didn’t believe it until I stepped in.

Charles’s MIT building  (‘The Brain and Cognitive Sciences complex‘) is across the road from the Stata Center, almost begging comparison. Only a very brave architect would take on such a commission – but Charles is nothing if not brave and he succeeded in creating a splendid counterpoint to the Gehry building. It is quite unlike anything else he has built, a marvel of understated elegance. I once asked him about the thinking behind it and he said: There’s no point in answering a shout with a shout; sometimes a whisper is better’.

But Charles’s masterpiece is not at MIT. Nor is it in India, which is rather sad… but I’ll save the rest for another post.

Old and New in São Paulo, Brazil

Amitav Ghosh | September 28, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



Oscar Niemeyer’s Auditório Ibirapuera (inaugurated 2005), in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo





Modernism and  cyber-medievalism




Entrance, Auditório Ibirapuera (the portal has been nicknamed Labareda which is Portuguese for ‘flame’).









At the age of 103, Niemeyer has plans for a university that will efface distinctions between disciplines – in order, as he says, ‘To eliminate the specialist man’.

I’m wondering when they’ll start taking applications.

For an interesting interview see:


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The common denominator of Niemeyer’s old and new projects is his consistent exploration of reinforced concrete’s versatility, his drive to create structures that seem lighter even as they become larger. ”My ambition has always been to reduce a building’s support to a minimum,” he reflects. ”The more we diminish supporting structures, the more audacious and important the architecture is. That has been my life’s work.” For that work he was awarded the 1988 Pritzker Prize.

Long a member of the communist party, Niemeyer is a vocal defender of left-wing governments in Brazil and abroad. His Bolivar monument, in Caracas, will be shaped like a lance pointing at the US. In an accompanying text to the Paco Imperial exhibition, he writes: ”Only in politics I am intransigent and radical – I am against Bush’s murderous empire, and against anyone who in this country opposes [president] Lula”.

Can politics and architecture mix? ”Architecture doesn’t matter,” Niemeyer tells me. ”Someone who is out on the streets protesting is doing a much more important job than I am. Politics matters. Changing the world matters because we live in a shit world.” What, I ask, can architecture do to change the world? Nothing, he replies.

Yet one of his current projects betrays an entrenched idealism – he has plans for a university designed to eradicate barriers between intellectual disciplines. ”To eliminate the specialist man”, he says solemnly, as if this worthy humanist ideal were not an ancient one.

There is a favourite phrase of Niemeyer’s. I have heard him say it at interviews, and read it in his books. Even as my 15 minutes run out, he is not prepared to let me go without reiterating it for my benefit: ”Life is more important than architecture.”

More on coincidences

Amitav Ghosh | September 27, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)


Following on my post of September 23rd, Catastrophes and Coincidences:


A few days ago – on September 20 – to be precise, I did a joint reading at the Russian Samovar in Manhattan (coincidentally, it turned out that the other reader, Paul La Farge, whose new novel, Luminous Airplanes, will be out next week, had been a neighbour some ten years earlier).

Later I was talking to one of the organizers of the Samovar reading series, Mark Krotov, a young editor at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux: he was born in Russia and still maintains a close connection with that country. We spoke of Russian novels and films, especially those of Andrei Tarkovsky. I happened to remark on a curious aspect of Tarkovsky’s career: after leaving the Soviet Union for the West he wasn’t able to function with the same latitude. His peers in the Russian art world had somehow made it possible for him to work on an epic scale – in the West he wasn’t able to find the financing that would allow him to make films of that kind. In other words, he escaped the repression of Soviet censorship only to find himself restricted by the market (I wonder if Abbas Kiarostami, and the other extraordinary film-makers who continue to work in Iran, saw a lesson in this?).

We spoke also of Tarkovsky’s 1972 amazing film Solaris (based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name) and the next day Mark sent me this clip of the famous ‘highway scene’.

I first saw Solaris in a stuffy auditorium in Delhi, at a screening organized by ‘Celluloid’ the university’s film club. Few of us had ever seen a highway then and the scene took our breath away. I have seen many highways since that time, but when I watched the scene I was entranced once again. At the end of it, in a kind of daze, I clicked on this and suddenly it was as if I were watching another piece of science fiction, starring a new HAL.

A few minutes later I happened to turn on the TV. By coincidence, Solaris was playing – not Tarkovsky’s film, but Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 re-make.  I had never watched this version, fearing disappointment. But my fears were misplaced; Lem’s story worked its magic again and I could not leave my seat. And nor did I regret it: the film was certainly eminently watchable, compelling even, the craftsmanship never short of impeccable.

Steven Soderberg is perhaps the most interesting director working in Hollywood today. But he is no Tarkovsky – Hollywood has seen to that. Tarkovsky’s Solaris was a metaphysical meditation; Soderbergh’s is a slick sci-fi proto-thriller.

It was a reminder (coincidental?) that the marketplace has its own modes of restriction and refashioning, invidious and extremely effective.




Coincidences & Catastrophes: A Response from New Delhi

Amitav Ghosh | September 25, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Shernaz Italia, writes from New Delhi:
My initial reactions:
Having lived in Delhi all my life I have experienced several quakes. I have also heard, first hand, descriptions of the quakes both in Quetta [1935] from my mothers cousins wife, and in Pusa from my mothers mama. Both lost loved ones, and in identical circumstances – in both instances they ran out in the open, the earth split wide open and closed again swallowing them forever. I for one, will never run out on to the middle of a road, ever.
I know my home, and during an earthquake will try to move away from under an overhead beam; from under a fan or any overhead object that can fall on ones head; I will stand in the open closest to the edge of a load bearing wall that is least likely to fall; or between it and a vertical girder that I know goes deep into the foundation of the building; if there are serious aftershocks, I will try and make it down to the ground floor and stand close to a pillar of the CP [Connaught Place] arcade with my back to the building. Beyond that, it’s my kismet.
We have tampered far too much with nature and have lost the ability to read signs and heed warnings. The Japanese markers are an amazing case in point. History keeps repeating itself because of lessons never learned; and quite frankly, we are still totally helpless against the fury of nature whose laws have been disturbed.

Coincidence and Catastrophe

Amitav Ghosh | September 23, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



Port Blair, Andaman Islands, shortly after the 2004 tsunami

I read Arthur Koestler’s book The Roots of Coincidence in the mid-1970s when I was studying in Delhi University. I don’t now recall the details of Koestler’s argument but I do remember the general drift of it – that apparently random events are sometimes ordered by hidden patterns of synchronicity – and I remember also that this idea made a huge impression on me.

I’ve been thinking about Koestler and coincidences a lot of late, largely because I have friends and family in some of the places that have been shaken by the recent spate of earthquakes. The latest of these quakes occurred on September 18: although centred in Sikkim it also shook Delhi, Dhaka and Patna and caused widespread panic in Kolkata.

News of the Sikkim quake reached me quite early in New York, because Achintyarup Ray, my Bengali translator, happens to work at the Times of India and is always ahead of the news (he also runs a very interesting blog). He was kind enough to alert me to the quake and I lost no time in calling my mother and sister in Kolkata. It turned out that they had barely noticed the tremors. Later I learnt that the quake had taken many lives and caused extensive damage in certain areas, especially Sikkim. But on Kolkata its effect was relatively minor.

Eleven days before that, on September 7, New Delhi had been shaken by another quake. That morning, even as I was sending off emails to my friends, I heard that there had also been a bomb blast in the city. The reverberations of the second event were more serious than those of the first. The earthquake registered 4.2 on the Richter scale and caused little damage.

A few weeks earlier New York had been preparing for a natural phenomenon of a different kind: Hurrican Irene. On the afternoon of August 23 I received an unexpected phone call from Mumbai: at the other end of the line was an old friend, Rahul Bose, the actor. We talked for a while, and then, hearing an odd sound, like that of a noisy truck, I looked up. I was facing a doorway and I saw that the doorposts were shaking. Holding the phone to my ear I ran outside, just in time to see an undulation passing down the length of the block.

Was it a coincidence that Rahul and I were, at that moment, speaking of something that was connected to another seismic event? We happened to be discussing Rahul’s philanthropic work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: he and I had traveled there together in 2004, immediately after the tsunami of December 26th (I wrote a series of articles which are available here). For Rahul that visit was the start of a deep and long-lasting involvement: his NGO has since sent some of the islands’ children to one of the best schools in India.


Rahul with tsunami victims, Andamans, 2004

During our brief stay in the Andamans Rahul and I had become accustomed to tremors and aftershocks: this was one of the reasons why I understood exactly what was happening that day, in Brooklyn. I said: ‘Rahul, sorry to interrupt – but the ground just shook. I think there was an earthquake here.’

Rahul had the television on, in his flat in Mumbai. Minutes later he said: ‘It’s on CNN – ‘earthquake hits New York’. The epicentre was somewhere in central Virginia.’





By yet another coincidence it happened that Debbie and Nayan were in central Virginia that day, visiting her family. I called them, in some alarm. To my surprise I had no difficulty getting through. Nayan was absorbed in a computer game: he was astonished to learn that he had just lived through a Richter 6.8 quake. Debbie had noticed something unusual but hadn’t paid much attention. The damage in any case was negligible. Later Debbie’s brother sent out an ironic email.




Virginia, New York, New Delhi, Kolkata: although they each have their faults, they are not akin to Sichuan or Chile or San Francisco in the sense of being closely associated with earthquakes. Is it merely a coincidence that places like these are suddenly being shaken by unaccustomed seismic activity? Or is this a seismic analogue of the ‘weirding’ associated with global warming (the effect that causes unlikely and unpredictable weather events)? Could it be, even, that global warming is causing a spike in the number of earthquakes? Has the melting of the polar ice-caps so altered the pressure on the earth’s crust as to bring about significant changes in seismic activity? Is a mega-quake in the offing in some completely unforeseen place? Is it becoming more and more likely that we will all – even those of us who had thought that we did not live in earthquake-prone areas – soon have to deal with seismic catastrophe?

I am sure many earth scientists around the world have arrived at conclusions about these matters. But I am sure also that they will not make their conclusions public – partly because it is now one of their functions to provide general reassurance to the world (more on this later); but also because the data they generate is so extensive and so complicated that it is unavoidably subject to varied interpretations. To issue pronouncements that might panic the public, on the basis of inconclusive evidence, would be irresponsible, at the very least.

This means that we lay people must use our common sense in examining such information as is publicly available. Here are some figures, published by the US Geological Survey on its (extremely interesting) website: in the ten years between 1990 and 1999, there were 196,782 earthquakes around the world (most of them very minor), which yields an average of 19,678 a year. In the ten years between 2001-2010, the figure is 271,479. The annual average is thus 7,470 higher than the previous figure, a steep increase by any count. The casualty rate is even more striking: in the ten years between 1990 and 1999, 114,646 people were killed in earthquakes; the figures for the decade of 2001-2010 is 790,913. The casualty rate of the last decade is thus about seven times higher than that of the decade before.

Certainly, in 2004, in the Andaman Islands, there were some who were convinced that the earth had become unusually restless of late. The islands sit on the same fault line where the slippage occurred on December 26 of that year. In the months leading up to it several people noticed unusual happenings: they spoke of fissures opening in the ground, of steam gushing from sink-holes, and so on. A few had paid attention and taken precautions. Needless to add, most people hadn’t: those who are awake to their surroundings are perhaps always few in number; the heedless and inattentive are always in the majority.

Now, in thinking of the quakes of the last few weeks, I find myself divided: in my head there is a voice that says these are random events; that the only connection between them is that I, as an individual, had friends and family in some of the affected areas and that this is entirely coincidental; that the earth’s crust is unimaginably vast and geological time is inconceivably slow; that there is no intrinsic connection between the recent quakes and they portend nothing. But there is another voice in my head and it says: Every fragment of the earth’s crust bears upon the others; every dislocation sets others in motion; there is nothing random or disconnected about phenomena like these; they are a warning of something much bigger to come.

Is it possible that these two voices come from two parts of myself, one of which is atavistic, superstitious and irrational, while the other is scientific, rational and modern? As a schoolboy I was taught that one of the great virtues of modern science is that it teaches people to lose their fear of Nature. This is largely true, I think. Everywhere in the pre-modern world, people regarded natural phenomena with awe and reverence, wonder and terror. Nature was regarded as unpredictable and inscrutable, vengeful as well as nurturing. The expectation of catastrophe was integral to this vision.

The great intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment changed this vision, perhaps irretrievably; Nature came to be seen as predictable, comprehensible and subject to laws. There was a boundless confidence that Nature could be tamed and made to serve human purposes. Catastrophe was marginal to this view.

These contrasting visions were not just speculative: they influenced society in many ways, and even determined where people lived, where they built their houses and so on. When I look at maps of the Indian Ocean region, I find it very striking that pre-colonial ports in Asia were rarely built to sit on the edge of the sea. Most of them were so located as to be protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries or deltaic river systems – Cochin, Surat, Tamluk, Guangzhou and Malacca are all cases to point. It is as if the people who founded these cities had a clear understanding of the unpredictable furies of the ocean – tsunamis, storm surges and the like.

The Portuguese, being pre-Enlightenment colonizers, seem to have preserved some of this instinctive respect for the powers of the earth: they were generally quite circumspect in choosing locations for their ports (witness their earliest settlements in Goa, which were a fair distance upriver). It fell to a later generation of European colonizers to choose totally exposed locations for what are now some of India’s most important cities: Chennai and Mumbai, for instance (Rahul Srivastava, the brilliant urban theorist and co-founder of URBZ, often points out, in relation to Mumbai, that Salcette, the location chosen by the Portuguese, would have been a far better bet in the long run than the islands that form the core of today’s megalopolis).

The east coast of India has a long history of tsunamis dating back to the 1760s. This is only to be expected since the Bay of Bengal is seismically a very active region. The coast was hard hit by the tsunami of 2004 even though the epicentre of the quake that caused it lay quite far from the subcontinent, in the Sumatra Trench. The West Andaman fault runs much closer to the east coast: a major movement there could have a devastating impact, especially on cities that sit directly on the water.

Unlike the east coast, the west coast of India has never, in recorded history, been hit by a tsunami (although in 1883, after the eruption of Krakatau, the sea is said to have retreated by a mile or so around Bombay). But the west coast’s good fortune may be merely a function of the providential protraction of geological time – for the Arabian Sea is by no means seismically inactive. Earlier this very year a previously unknown fault system was discovered in the Owen fracture zone off the coast of Oman. The article that announced the discovery (which is available for free download here) concluded with this: ‘Our work sheds light on a previously unknown 800-km-long active fault system associated with giant landslides at the Arabia–India plate boundary. These results will motivate a reappraisal of the seismic and tsunami hazard assessment in the NWIndian Ocean.’

A tsunami emanating out of this zone would reach the west coast of India very quickly. What would its impact be on a completely exposed, low-lying megalopolis like Mumbai? The very thought is terrifying.

What made the founders of cities like Mumbai so unmindful of the possibilities of natural disaster? The fact that British and French had little direct experience of seismic upheaval may be a factor, but I think there was more to it than that. In the post-Enlightenment West people who thought about catastrophe were (and mostly still are) regarded as irrational and benighted: religious fanatics, millenarians, antideluvians etc. The men who built empires and founded cities were educated to think ‘rationally’ about nature, which meant that they saw it as orderly and predictable – not unlike the bourgeois societies of their imagining. [i] Their scientific thinking often reflected this: the great Victorian geologist, Charles Lyell, is a case to point – he and his followers made it their mission to dismantle ‘catastrophism’, substituting in its place a ‘uniformalist’ vision of geological processes as cumulative and gradual. Of quite another cast was the vision of Alfred Wegener: his theory of continental drift is a vision replete with titanic disruptions, continuous upheavals and and movements of sudden and unimaginable violence (can it be entirely a coincidence that Wegener formulated this theory around the time of the First World War?).

The gradual and the catastrophic are, of course, two aspects of the same reality: the movements of tectonic plates happens very slowly; the pressure builds over millions of years – but when that energy is finally released, the resulting event occurs in a manner that is, in the human experience of time, catastrophically sudden.

Most of us are perfectly well aware – as are politicians, city planners and institution-builders of all sorts – that we are fated to live with both these dimensions of geological time, the catastrophic and the gradual. But between the two there is a crucial difference: it is exceedingly difficult to incorporate the possibility of catastrophe into the rhythms of everyday life.

When I see a man at a street corner with a sign that says ‘Repent: Doom is Nigh’ my instinct is not to ask myself whether this might be true (and actually it is kind of true, at least in the sense that I, like most human beings, will probably have to deal with a natural catastrophe at some point in the future). But that is not what springs to my mind as I walk past the man with the sign: what I say to myself is ‘oh, just another nut.’



And what if I did dwell on his warning? What could I reasonably do about it? Close my bank account? Take out insurance? Buy a survival kit? Stock up on food? Build a shelter, modelled upon the nuclear shelters of the Cold War? That way madness – or at least eccentricity – lies. And besides, I know also that Nature works very, very slowly. A thousand years may pass before a disaster alights upon my little patch – or patches – of the Earth. What difference will it make to me?

It was perhaps for exactly these reasons that mid-19th century British civil servants in Calcutta – all sane, rational men – ignored the self-taught meteorologist, Henry Piddington, when he warned against the founding of the city of Canning, in the Sundarbans[ii]. Piddington was a visionary with a mission: he did everything in his power to alert the administration to the dangers of the location they had chosen; he wrote letters to the highest levels of government pointing out that the city was in an area that was often hit by cyclones (he actually invented the word); he warned that it was likely to be obliterated by a storm surge. But sane men don’t change course because of warnings issued by eccentric visionaries: the wheels of government ground on and the city was built – but only to be swept away soon afterwards, in precisely the manner predicted by Piddington.

In our dealings with natural disaster there are two kinds of heedlessness. One is the impatience and forgetfulness of individuals. This a product of the same sort of impulse that leads to driving without safety belts: it is what causes people to build houses in vulnerable areas, and to move back into locations that have a history of disasters. The recent Fukushima disaster offered a peculiarly affecting example of this. Along that stretch of coast there were ancient markers that warned future generations against building below a certain line (here is a video).



centuries-old tablet warns of danger of tsunamis


Over time the markers came to be covered by moss and weed and people began to rely so much on scientific warning systems that they became unmindful of the experiences of their ancestors. They began to build lower and lower on the slopes…

The second kind of heedlessness is institutional, and it is caused not so much by forgetfulness as by the fact that the calculus of catastrophe is difficult to integrate into the kinds of planning that is expected of institutions and governments (disaster management is, after all, of very recent vintage). This is the kind of heedlessness that leads to the founding of cities in unsuitable locations; to the placing of nuclear plants in vulnerable areas.

In the Andaman & Nicobar islands, in 2004, I came across a strange instance of this. The Indian Air Force had built a base on an exeptionally lovely little island, the kind of place that is described in brochures as a ‘tropical paradise’. The functional parts of the base – where the planes and machinery were kept – were located at a little distance from the water. The living areas, comprising of pretty little two-storey houses, were built much closer to the sea, facing a beautiful, palm-fringed beach. As always in military matters, the protocols of rank were strictly observed: the higher the rank of the officer, the closer his house was to the sea and the better the view that he and his family enjoyed. This part of the archipelago is not far from the tip of Sumatra; on the morning of Dec 26, 2004, the epicentre of the undersea quake was so close that when the tsunami struck, there was very little warning. Such was the design of the base that the likelihood of survival was small, and inasmuch as it existed at all, it was in inverse relation to rank.

At this moment in time we have certain expectations in relation to catastrophes and natural disasters. We expect governments to plan for them and we assume that ‘our leaders’ will act decisively to mitigate their effects. We expect, of ourselves, and of our governments, that everyone will act rationally and that our decisions will be based on the best available scientific evidence. In the absence of this we assume that there would be chaos, panic and greatly heightened risk.

But how well-founded are these assumptions? The people who placed the tsunami markers along the Japanese coast, like the people who made sure that pre-modern ports were built in sheltered locations, did so because they had a vivid sense of catastrophe – a thing that might, in modern terms, be regarded as ‘irrational’. On the other hand, when the location of that island Air Force base was picked out, when nuclear reactors were built in Fukushima, when the decision was made to build Canning, and when the foundations of Bombay, Madras and Hong Kong were laid, it was within the context of much the same sort of ‘rationality’ that we expect from governments (and from experts) today.

What does this mean for us as individuals, as we confront a future that may bring more environmental disasters and earthquakes?  Is it possible that circumstances may arise when we would do better to rely on our instincts and common sense rather than on ‘authorities’, civic or scientific?

A case, currently under way in Italy, offers an insight into this. The case has pitted seven scientists against a group of citizens from l’Aquila, the Italian town that was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2009. For months before the quake, the city had been shaken by tremors; many residents took these to be a warning and slept in the open. On asking the authorities for advice they were given reassurances and decided to go back home.



‘In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors’ case,’ says a news report, ‘Bernardo De Bernardinis, then-vice chief of the technical department of Italy’s civil protection agency, responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine. ‘Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc,’ he responded, referring to a high-end red. “This seems important.”’

The report continues: ‘Some L’Aquila residents who lost loved-ones in the quake are now suing the scientists, saying a simple reminder of how to respond to a big earthquake could have saved lives. University of Naples geochemist Benedetto de Vivo agrees.

‘ “Italy has a long experience of people suffering from earthquakes,” De Vivo said. “The first thing they do is not sleep at home for a number of nights, but if an authority tells the people, don’t worry, stay calm, a lot of people will think it’s okay, should think they are correct.”’

In other words, here expert advice – or rather, people’s susceptibility to it – added to the damage and loss of life.

The case is being widely presented as an attack on science and scientists; some have even compared it to the trial of Galileo. Over five thousand scientists have signed a petition in support of their Italian colleagues; the Seismological Society of America has written to the President of Italy expressing concern about what it described as ‘an unprecedented legal attack on science’.

But not all scientists are in agreement on this matter. Another news report tells us: ‘John Mutter, a Columbia University professor of seismology, didn’t sign the petition in support of the Italians. He thinks the charges go too far, but he said the scientists should be held accountable through fines or public or professional censure.

“Even if we can’t predict and everyone knows we can’t, the way to think about it is if you can’t say when an earthquake is going to occur, we equally can’t say when one is not going to occur. And to suggest that somehow we know a major earthquake is not going to occur seems to me irresponsible,” Mutter said.’

For me, what makes this case so compelling is the peculiar predicament of the townspeople of l’Aquila: their instincts, collective memory, experience and knowledge of their own terrain told them that danger was in the offing. What was the process of thought that led them to privilege the views of experts over all of that? What does it say about the reverence for ‘expert advice’ that has been instilled into us? Is this not also a kind of ‘irrationality’? And is it fair to blame individual scientists for the blind trust that society reposes in their (necessarily fallible) work?

‘Who has turned us around like this?’ Rilke might have asked, and the question makes me wonder: Were there any in l’Aquila who did not listen to the experts; who chose instead to heed the warnings of their grandparents? What was their process of reasoning?

I think there are lessons here. The first is perhaps analogous to that which the locavore movement has been preaching in relation to food; even though it is a simple lesson, its meaning is not easy to absorb, especially for transients like myself. But this is I what I tell myself (knowing that I will probably not do much about it): ‘The first and most important line of defence against natural disaster is to know the place where you live – its quirks, its topography, urban or rural, its history, human and natural. It means talking to your neighbours, seeking out people who know the place well and being attentive to their accumulated experience.’

I also tell myself this: ‘Informed scientific advice is very important and you must be careful to pay close attention to it. But you must not, for that reason, discount your own common sense, your memories, your life experience and your instincts. You too are a part of the spectrum of life that surrounds you; and as with every other living creature your faculties of self-preservation are all predicated, ultimately,  on being awake, to the world and to yourself.’



[i] There is a fascinating  discussion of this in Sumathy Ramaswamy’s wonderful book, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories, Univ of California, Berkeley Press, 2004, p. 11.

[ii] For more on this see the chapter entitled ‘A Post Office on Sunday’ in The Hungry Tide


Question from a reader

Amitav Ghosh | September 22, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

‘I shall be obliged if you kindly let me know the meaning and origin of the word “BANKSHALL”‘.

Here is the entry for ‘bankshall’ in the Ibis Chrestomathy which can be found here.

+ bankshall: Neel would have been saddened by the demise of this beautiful word, once much in use: “How well I remember the great Bankshall of Calcutta, which served as the jetty for the disembarkation of ship’s passengers, and where we would go of an evening to gawk at all the griffins and new arrivals. It never occurred to us that this edifice ought to have been, by its oracular definition, merely a ‘warehouse’ or ‘shed’. Yet I do not doubt that Sir Henry is right to derive it from the Bengali ‘bãkashala’”. He would have been surprised to learn that a humbler kind of warehouse, the godown, would survive in general usage, at the expense of the now rare bankshall.’

But you might want to look at the entry in Hobson-Jobson. There are several editions available online; you will find one here.

letter from Lemuria

Amitav Ghosh | September 21, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



“[A] file of the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Geographer … contains the correspondence over two decades between the U.S. Government and various individuals regarding a group of islands off the east coast of Panama… The State Department received a letter (dated November 16, 1954) on a letterhead bearing the title ‘Government of Atlantis and Lemuria’ from one Gertrude Norris Meeker, Governor-General. In the letter, she declared that in 1943 a group of islands (two hundred miles south and west of Florida, eight degrees north of the Equator, and three miles off-shore of Panama and Costa Rica) was the ‘private Dynasty or Principality… named ‘Atlantis Kaj Lemuria’. The letter also informed the State Department that ‘any trespassing in these islands or Island Empire is a prison offence.’ The State Department’s Special Advisor on Geography, Sophia A. Saucerman, responded politely on December 7, 1954, that ‘in the conduct of the foreign relations of this Government, the Department of State does not recognize any so-called ‘private Dynasty or Principality named Atlantis Kaj Lemuria.’ Meeker replied to this disavowal by offering a brief history of her ‘Principality’ which she insisted had been founded in 1917 by a Danish seaman, John L. Mott, at a time when Germany was at war with Denmark. Meeker concluded, acerbically, ‘I am not some quirk hunting a so-called ‘lost continent’ – these islands exist and do belong to my dynasty.’ ”

[from The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories, by Sumathi Ramaswamy, Univ of California, Berkeley Press, 2004, p. 81]

Letter from New Zealand

Amitav Ghosh | September 20, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)







Echoes of Goa: Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Amitav Ghosh | September 19, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



The first Portuguese settlements in Bahia, Brazil, were founded at about the same time as those in Goa. Salvador was Brazil’s first capital and these pictures were all taken in the Pelourinho section of the city.

Convent and Church of St. Francis, 1723.





























































‘Sons of Gandhi’ – one of the biggest Carnival associations in Brazil.




















‘Terreiro de Jesus’





































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