Archive for February, 2012

The Last Hindu Temple in Kabul

February 29, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (19)



This hill, which looms over the center of Kabul, was once home to many Hindus and Sikhs. There was a Sikh gurudwara on it as well as a Hindu temple – the Asha Mayi Mandir. Many of the Hindus and Sikhs of this area had been in Afghanistan for generations. They had grown up speaking Pashto and were thoroughly assimilated into Pakhtun culture. They were protected by the Pakhtun tribal code, being regarded as guests. They prospered in Afghanistan in much the same manner that many Afghans did in India – through business and the retail trade. They ran shops and some  had extensive lands and property.







But in the last few decades most of the Hindus and Sikhs have left. Only a few managed to sell their houses and businesses. Mostly their properties were seized or encroached upon.

The Asha Mayi Mandir too has moved elsewhere. Today it is located in a featureless building with high walls. Until quite recently some fifty Hindu families lived within the compound. Now there are only five or six families left and they too may not last long.






The temple is tucked away under a gnarled mulberry tree. It is looked after by a few sevadars. Some of their families have been settled in Afghanistan for many generations. Some are more recent immigrants from Nepal: young men who came to Afghanistan to look for work.

Some of the caretakers  remained in the temple through the Taliban years. They told me that when the Taliban entered Kabul, they were quick to conceal their murtis. But even though the temple was empty, the community continued to gather for prayers and other ceremonies.

For the most part the Taliban left them alone. But at one point they decided that all Hindus and Sikhs would have to wear yellow robes and put tikas on their foreheads. “When they came and told us to do this, we refused,” said the caretakers, “and in the end they gave up.”

One time, there was a jagaran and all the remaining members of the community were present in the temple. This attracted the notice of the Taliban who forced their way into the inner sanctum. “There were thirty of them squeezed into that little space. They looked here and there, expecting to see our murtis, but we had hidden them all. Only one nishana remained, the most important one, and it was right in front of them. But still they did not see it. The Devi had closed their eyes.”

“How are things now?” I asked, and their answer surprised me. They said that in some ways they had been better off under the Taliban. In those years, despite all their other difficulties, when members of the community died they were able to cremate them, at a site that had been in the community’s possession for generations. But over the last few years the old cremation grounds have been seized by squatters; all their attempts to reclaim it have come to nothing. This is one of the principal reasons why they are leaving. They are no longer able to perform the last rites for the dead.



Kabul, National Archives of Afghanistan

February 27, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (3)


On February 20 Kabul was relatively calm and a light blanket of snow lay upon the building that houses Afghanistan’s National Archives.





Once a palace, the building is one of the finest in the city.













It is located in an area known as the Bagh-i-Charmgari (‘Tanners’ Garden),















and it sits at the foot of Asmayee Mountain.














The palace was constructed in 1892 by Amir Abdul Rahman, for his son Sardar Habibullah Khan.







The Sardar admired the architectural style of British cantonments in India and the palace was designed to suit his tastes.















The interior is relatively austere, except for the ceilings which are  panelled with floral motifs.















In the past the building has served as a military academy and a barracks. For a while it was in ruins, but was restored in the 1970s. Afghanistan’s national archives were moved there in the late 1970s, and miraculously the building and its holdings escaped damage in the following decades. Now the archives are stored in the basement and the main public areas are used as exhibition spaces.















One of the works on display was a copy of a magnificent example of Kufic calligraphy.














The accompanying label describes it as a gift from the USSR to King Amanullah Khan; the original is in ‘Leningrad’.

For me the Archives’ greatest surprise lay in its extensive collection of Pahari and Rajasthani miniatures.
















There is no explanation of how these Indian paintings had come into the Archives’ possession.














And the labeling is not helpful.













As is common with Pahari and Rajasthani miniatures, many of the paintings have Hindu themes.















And some could even be described as amorous.
















The Archives’ brochure is silent on the subject of these miniatures, although they are of immense value.

The collector who acquired them was evidently a conniosseur of Indian painting. Who was it? I wondered, and an answer was suggested by Prince Mostafa Zaher, who is a member of the erstwhile royal family.






The prince was born in Kabul’s royal palace which is now the residence of President Karzai. He went into exile with his grandfather, Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, in 1973.






Prince Mostafa was with Zahir Shah when he returned to Kabul in 2002 and was by his bedside when the ‘father of the nation’, as he was then known, died in 2007.




Mostafa Zaher now occupies a position in the government; he is also an excellent raconteur and  has many interesting stories to tell of the family’s life in exile and their eventual return to Afghanistan.



He told me that his great grandfather King Nader Shah (Zahir Shah’s father) was born in India, in Dehra Dun (where I myself went to school).

There are several pictures of King Nader Shah in the National Gallery in Kabul. In this one he is the bearded figure in the centre. He is pictured with his son, the future king Zahir Shah, who is dressed like an English schoolboy.












Here his portrait is on the far left, looming over the shoulder of one of the gallery’s curators.












Perhaps it was in Dehra Dun that the young Nadir Shah developed a taste for miniatures?
















Elsewhere in the archives there is a display on recent Afghan history.
















Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the leftist, Soviet-allied President of Afghanistan (generally known as ‘Najib’ or ‘Najibullah’) is prominently featured.



Najibullah was in the UN compound in Kabul in 1996 when the Taliban laid siege to the city. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the revered Tajik leader, offered to help him escape even though he was his political enemy. But Najibullad refused to flee and insisted on remaining in the city. On Sept 27 1996 the Taliban broke into the UN compound: they castrated Najibullah and hung him from a lamp-post. The lamp-post still stands, right opposite the presidential palace.


Now, sixteen years later, there is a growing respect for Najibullah. This display is perhaps a sign of changing perceptions of this period.




On one of the gallery’s walls hangs a poster that evinces a nostalgia for another time: it features pictures of King Zahir Shah and other Afghan leaders with world figures like John F. Kennedy. It bears the wistful legend: ‘Good relations with neighbouring and other foreign countries.’






Prof Sakhi Muneer is the head of the Archive and a well-known media personality.




I asked him how the Archives had fared under the Taliban and he said that it had suffered no harm. ‘Some of the Taliban,’ he added, ‘were cultured persons.’










The director of the Archives under the Taliban was Mullah Jamal Shah.















What did Mullah Jamal Shah make of the Rajasthani and Pahari miniatures? How did the paintings survive the iconoclastic furies of a period that saw the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan?

On inquiring about this I was told by many Afghans that the furies that destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas were not indigenous. In Afghanistan many different tribal and ethnic groups have lived side by side for thousands of years. This is a country that had once straddled the Silk Route; its inhabitants have long known that ‘the world is wide’. The destruction of the Buddhas was neither initiated nor executed by Afghans; nor was it the result of a spontaneous local upheaval. It was the result of a project that was conceived and executed by foreign zealots. Many Afghans were horrified by the destruction; they too understood that it represented a turning point in their history.

As for the Indian miniatures, it was the Archives’ Afghan staff who preserved and protected them. For all I know Mullah Jamal Shah may himself have encouraged their concealment.




Herat Restaurant, Kabul

February 23, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (1)



The Herat Restaurant is one of Kabul’s most popular. It is in the Shar-e-Naw ((New Town) section of the city, a busy commercial area.














The door opens into the ‘public’ (i.e. mens’) section:













The ‘family section’ (where women are allowed) is tucked away at the back:















The servers hurry between both sections, carrying platters of freshly made naans.

















The menu is uncomplicated and serves also as a bill:








The meal begins with shorba (soup):











and is followed by seekh kababs










and murgh (chicken) kababs.



















All of this is accompanied by naans and the Herat Restaurant’s homemade yoghurt, which is possibly the best in the world.








And afterwards there are delicious dried fruits on offer at a stall outside.













Kabul Public Library

February 21, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (8)






The library is a 1960s style building, modest but well-constructed. It was snowbound on this late February day and there were few readers present.


In the main reading room a charcoal-burning bukhari stove was being used to ward off the cold.









Some heating was certainly necessary since this was the view from the windows:










But it was not the only bukhari in the library, and it was unsettling to think of so many smouldering stoves in the midst of so much flammable material.







The library is said to have 220,000 books, of which 180,000 are in Farsi/Dari. Of the rest most are in English, French, German and Urdu.









‘Tarikh Inklistan’, a translation of a history of England, is one of the Urdu texts in the collection.












I was interested to see that it had been donated by Hyderabad’s Osmania University.


One of the librarians, Abd al Rahman has spent 35 years in the Library’s service. He worked there through the Taliban years. Although some books were burnt and destroyed the library stayed open through that time and he continued to receive his pay.









There is a small but cheerful children’s section.










It includes a displayof toys, complete with guitars and toy guns.












The card catalogue is in an unfortunate state.













There are plastic bottles in a drawer.









The entrance to the  Afghanistan section has a sign in English:














Mr Nisar Ahmed is in charge of this section.










The collection is not large but it contains many 19th and early 20th century books in English and other languages. This one is called ‘The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’, and is not in bad shape despite the scribbles on the title page.















There are some fine collections of prints, including this one: ‘The Character and Costume of Afghaunistan’.












This print has the Bamiyan Buddhas in the background.










This is an illustration of Afghan military costumes and equipment.









This is the newspaper reading room.




The picture on the far wall is of Jalal al-din Rumi (‘Mawlana’).






The library has one small mobile unit:











The General Director of Public Libraries, Mr Abdul Humid Nabizada (far left)



and his staff do their best to cope under difficult circumstances. Even as we were speaking a reminder of this arrived in the form of a text message announcing a suicide bombing in Kandahar.

The building is badly run down but considering all that has happened in Afghanistan in the last thirty years, the library is in better shape than might be expected.


There is a great thirst for reading material in Afghanistan,











as is evident from the brisk business done by pavement booksellers in central Kabul.









A thriving public library would serve a real need. It is surprising that nobody from the world community has stepped in to help. Surely there are thousands of libraries across the world that could enter into partnerships with the Kabul Public Library?




Kabul, International Press Centre

February 20, 2012 in Kabul Journals | Comments (0)



The International Press Centre in Kabul was destroyed by suicide bombers some years ago but has since been rebuilt.



Yesterday a snowstorm had knocked the power out but work was continuing.











A workshop on issues of governance was under way.












The participants were taking an examination on such issues as the writing of applications, basic management, employee relations and departmental attendance.



In the background were portraits of figures from Afghan history.









A room nearby featured a large portrait of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan.





Crowned in 1933 he reigned for four decades. Deposed in a coup in 1973 he returned to Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban and died in 2002.









Nearby were other royal portraits.












The centre’s workers were  doing their best to carry on despite the lack of heat and electricity.




They were somewhat crestfallen to learn that I was not Prof Bharat H. Desai, a legal scholar from Delhi: apparently he has been long and eagerly awaited here. But such was their politeness that their disappointment barely showed.  Had I been the Professor himself they could not have been more helpful and welcoming.




An Amazing Genealogy

in Uncategorized | Comments (5)




Dear Mr. Ghosh:

My name is Derek Lang.  I am close to finishing River of Smoke, having read Sea of Poppies last year.  I’ve found these 2 books enthralling and reading them has coincided with research into my own Eurasian genealogy which I ramped up a couple of years ago.

Some brief background.  I was born in Hong Kong BCC in 1957 and attended King George V School where I completed my A levels before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area which has remained my home these past decades.  Both my parents are Eurasians with a generous mix of European, Asian and South Asian ancestry – forbears of whom could easily have been any number of the characters in your Ibis Tales.  My father and his father both worked for the British Government in Hong Kong.  My paternal Grandfather, John Charles Lang, died at the age of 42 during the Japanese Occupation.  His mother was Kathleen Paterson, the 4th of 5 children born to Jardine Matheson Tai Pan, William Paterson and his protected woman, Wong Miu Kiu.  Katherine’s husband, my paternal great grandfather, was Cameron Laurence Lang (Laing) (Leung Kam Lun) Compradore of the HK & Kowloon Wharf & Godown for 34 years.  I have not been able to definitively establish his parentage, but we think Scottish or German merchant, Chinese (wife) protected woman.  My paternal grandmother was Susan (Sherine) Nancy Kotwall, eldest daughter of Parsee broker/merchant Edulji Dorabji Kotwall originally from “Bombay”, and Anna Tata (Tung Ashu) local Chinese woman – though we do not know how the name “Tata” came to be associated with her – perhaps some conjured front behind which Edulji managed to be buried in the Parsee cemetery despite marrying outside both faith and blood.




Apologies …. I know I said “brief.”  I will leave it at that for now and not even touch on my mother’s multiculti side.  Long story short, late last year after connecting with a cousin in England, we uncovered a long neglected stash of old photos, many of which I have digitally restored or enhanced (my background is in art, photography and web design) an uploaded to a web site to share with those interested in the extended family.





These photos and the stories I have uncovered over the last couple of years are still as fresh and fascinating to us as to others who see them for the first time.  I must tell you that the process of scanning and working close up with enlargements of these long forgotten images has been, for want of a better expression, mind-blowing.  It seems fairly typical within Eurasian families of this 150 year Brigadoon-like colonial time span in HK that, unsurprisingly, much secrecy and cover-up of the past ensued.  It’s taken the consequential exodus of my generation of Eurasians back out into the Western World from the colonial experience  that have given us freedom to look back, uncover,  view and embrace the realities of that time for what they were.

All for now.  Will keep in touch.







Dear Derek

Thank you so much for this letter! I am writing in haste, on the way to the airport but I just wanted to say: what an amazing history – completely fascinating! I would love to know more. And I would love to post your letter on my blog – I know it will be of interest to many people. I wouldn’t of course post the link to the photographs (but on the other hand it would be great to feature a few of these amazing pictures).

 Please do stay in touch.

With my best wishes








How nice to hear from you.  I trust you had a pleasant flight.

First of all, per your request, I re-read my initial quick email to you yesterday – corrected a couple of typos and made a couple of minor edits pending your posting it to your blog.  That version follows this reply, below.  Please feel free to post this version if you choose.

I am in half a mind to add “we believe” to the claim “His mother was Katherine Paterson, the 4th of 5 children born to Jardine Matheson Tai Pan, William Paterson and his protected woman, Wong Miu Kiu.” but believe persistent researchers within the extended family have now uncovered enough corroborating evidence to prove this beyond a doubt, at least in our minds.

 All for now.  Will keep in touch.





Letters from Korea

February 17, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Namaste. I’m korean girl who love your novel ‘The glass place’.

Recently I read your book. (I bought a korean translation book.)

And than I searched your contact mail in the internet.

Maybe this is your mail address. I think.

I’m really interested in india. Because, my major was hindi at my university.

After study hindi, I like india, bollywood, realigon etc.

And more than want to know indian history.

I studyed indian history my self. I just studyed hindi at school.

Your book was great! Amazing!

I got so much information from your book.

Sorry, Actually I’m not good at english.

Anyway I want to tell you, I’m your fan and I like your story.

I wish, I meet your more book in korea.

with lots of love




Dear Dahye

I am very happy to hear from you and I am really glad to know of your heartfelt response to my book. I hope you will be able to find some others in Korean translation. A couple of them have also been translated into Hindi.

I am sure you are aware that Korean films and television are very popular in some parts of India!

Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog?

With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh




Nomoskar, apni keamon arsen? ( I can’t speak begali. I searched this sentence in the internet -)

I’m so happy and exciting! Because of your reply. I can’t belive it!

Sure, of caurse, you can post my mail on your blog! It’s my pleasure!

This mail also you can post on your blog (If you want to do -)

You said, korean films and TV programs are very popular in some parts of india.

I know, maybe in manipur and some parts of north india.

They are look like a little bit korean, right? 🙂

When I lived in delhi, some indian asked to me ” Are you from manipur, mijoram, asam? “

(Sometimes nepal, sometimes tibet )

In korea, some people love to bollywood movies. Me too.

And some movie fans are love to begali film maker satyajit ray.

I also know him. But indian literature is not famous at here. Thats too sad.

I’m interested in indian literature. I can understand indian culture from novel.

My favorite indian novelists are you and N.R.I writer ms. Jhumpa Lahiri.

And My favorite novels are The glass place and Train to pakistan (writen by mr. Kushwant singh)

Both are my favorite. I read some indian novelist’s books.

(Like a Kushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Chetan Bhagat,Vikas Swarup etc.)

I read, very very famous bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s book.

Like a Gitanjali. And I read indian mythology ‘Ramayana’ (It was interesting)

I want to know india more than now. If you don’t mind please recommend to me.

What’s your favorite book? What should I read?

I intrested UMA In your book (The glass place). She is an inspiring force.

I admire for her courage. She was the modern woman (new woman).

Korea & India history is very similar.

The Japanese colonial government brutally executed anyone participating in the independence movement.

And our people have lived divided for over half a century.

(South & north korea like a India & pakistan + Bangladesh)

Thats why I exceted your book.

Once again, Thanks for your reply!

Have a nice day.

Ps. You know? It’s the glass place’s korean ver. book cover.

Life after SEA OF POPPIES: Students lead Deeti, Kalua and Neel into the future

February 14, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Dear Mr Ghosh

I am Prema Raghunath of Chennai (Madras). Needless to add, I am a great admirer of your writing. I was at the launch of your book River of Smoke in Madras in May last year, when you were in conversation with Mr Gopal Gandhi and you even signed my copy!

However, that’s not what I’m writing about: I also teach at an IB school in Madras and one of the texts we are reading as part of the course is Sea of Poppies. My students have absolutely loved it and are completely absorbed in the lives of Deeti. Kalua, Neelratan and the others. This morning we had an IOP as part of the examining process and I thought I must share with you two of the students’ expositions. One spoke as Kalua and said after reaching land, he decided he could not live without Deeti and went back to India in search of Kabutari. They both then set sail to Mauritius, but on the way disaster struck. Their ship capsized and Kabutari went down with the ship. Kalua managed to escape and went on to Mauritius and found Deeti had delivered their child, but he had to break the sad news to her. However the birth of the child, a girl, made the grief bearable. The second played the part of Neelratan and went on to say that when he got on to the lifeboat and they rowed away from the Ibis, the darkness seemed to serve as a reminder of his own darkness, the fact that he had been a weak exploiter of those who loved him best and a lame sycophant of those who used him worst.As the dark sky was illumined by flashes of lightning, and as they rowed further and further away, his past seemed to be slipping away. The only saving grace was the presence of Ah-Fatt : the trials of the past months, the betrayal of Elokeshi and the machinations of Mr Burnham, all culminating in his imprisonment and exile, had made him more determined than ever to return as promised to his wife and son. It had been his utter humiliation that had taught him true grit in relationships and come back he would to show his wife and son the new Neelratan.

These are seventeen year-olds and I found the whole experience very moving and thought I must tell you, the author, how much your writing means not only as exemplars of fine fiction but also as inspiration to young Indians. As a reader, I have greatly enjoyed all your books but here is another slant you may be glad to hear of.

I must hasten to add that this is just an oral exam and in no way published, and is merely the imagination of the students. I got this email id from your home page- I do hope you get it and reply so that I can read it out to my class.

Thanks and warm regards

Head of English

M Ct M Chidambaram Chettyar International School
Mylapore, Chennai 600 004

Dear Prema Raghunath
Thank you so much for this wonderful letter. It’s really gratifying to know that your students have responded to ‘Sea of Poppies’ in this way. Please do congratulate them for me, and please let them know that I was delighted and impressed by their ideas.
Would you mind if I posted the letter on my blog?
With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh

Dear Mr Ghosh
Thank you for your prompt reply – I was hoping to hear from you but
not like this.
Yes, of course you can post this letter on your blog, I am sure  my
students will be delighted and honoured, as I am. By the way, their
names are Aditya Govindaraj and Regi Ramanathan.
Can I read this out in the assembly on Monday?
May I know who Mr Munshi is?
Thanks and regards



Dear Ms Raghunath

You are welcome to read my letter out. Please do tell Aditya and Regi that I was deeply touched by their engagement with my book. They obviously have  a great deal of talent and I hope they will cultivate it.

With my best wishes


p.s.: Shri A.K.Munshi is my virtual assistant.

Goa and the Challenge of the New

February 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)


[This is an edited version of an address delivered in Panjim, Goa, on the 50th anniversary of the events that led to Goa’s incorporation into the Indian union, in December 1961.]


It is truly an extraordinary privilege for me to be here today, with so many friends, old and new. It is a privilege particularly because this is, as we know, a special moment for Goa – the 50th anniversary of a very significant event in its history, an event that marked the end of an era that began before the arrival of the Mughals and lasted until modern times.

As someone who spends a lot of time daydreaming about history I often wonder about the unrealized possibilities that lie embedded in the past. What would have happened for example, if the Portuguese dictator, Salazar, had seen the writing on the wall and granted Goa its independence in the 1950s? Would that independence have then become a fait accompli, establishing Goa as an independent nation? Or was the post-independence euphoria of that time so strong that Goa would have been pulled into the Indian orbit anyway, either through a Sikkim-style annexation, or perhaps even by its own accord, through a popular vote? The latter may seem like an unlikely possibility today, but the 1950s and 60s were a different moment in time – a moment when Egypt voted for union with Syria, and Kuwait with Iraq.

Perhaps a better question is: what difference would it have made? Would there have been less corruption, less construction, less mining in Goa today if Salazar had taken that fateful step?

In the public commemoration of history certain dates are treated as if they represented absolute and irreversible breaks with the past. But history is a mighty river and its course is not easily changed. Within the Indian subcontinent certain patterns and continuities seem to persist irrespective of boundaries, dates and disjunctions. I remember once being taken to a hill above Kathmandu. The valley below was a vast lake of smog and pollution, filled with the clamour of Tata trucks, Tempos and three-wheelers. I remember thinking: Nepal didn’t need to go down this path; it’s a different country isn’t it? Why didn’t they choose a better way? I remember my first visit to Pakistan. From the air the outskirts of Lahore looked exactly like the suburbs of New Delhi. The airport was no different either; the walls had the same paan-stains and there was the same pervasive smell of urine. I said to myself: But they embraced free-market capitalism while in India we were socialists of some kind. Why do so many things look the same in spite of that?

One thing that unites the Indian subcontinent is that we make many of the same mistakes: another is that certain traits endure. Our tastes, our injustices, our eccentricities – they endure in every corner of this landmass. Yet, even as they endure they are refracted into startlingly different configurations. There is an analogy here with Indian classical music. The notes of a raga are always the same, yet its realization is always unique, unrepeatable: the music exists only in the moment, in improvisation.

Of no part of the subcontinent is this more true than of Goa. When I look around me here I see things that are distantly familiar, from Bengal or Kerala or North India – and yet something is elusive; there are elements from places far beyond our horizons; there is always something surprising, something new.

I remember the first time I encountered the familiar Goan gesture of greeting, where, after shaking your hand people will touch their fingertips to their hearts. I was astonished – for this seems to me a quintessentially Arab gesture. And indeed the Arab world is everywhere in Goa – it is after all, only on the other side of the pond. The taxi driver who brought me here tonight speaks Arabic; sometimes we use it as a secret language. In Panjim I have heard young Goans arguing with each other in Arabic – they had perhaps grown up in the Gulf. Here is something at once very old and very new.

Nothing is more difficult to recognize than the new; and nowhere is it more difficult to recognize it than in Goa, where the past has such a weighty presence. We know very well, from the history of modernism in the arts, that the challenge of the new is often met with bewilderment and anger, confusion and outrage. This history is, I think, repeating itself in relation to Goa: it seems to me that in this instance the anxiety of the new has given birth to something that might be called a narrative of dystopia.

There are many strands to this narrative. One is a prelapsarian strand and it is woven largely by Goans themselves – or at least by those who look back in longing upon one or the other of many pasts. In comparison with those lost Edens the Goa of today seems irretrievably fallen: it is difficult to see anything of value in its present aspect. Another strand is woven by people outside Goa – foreigners as well as Indians. This is a braid that joins together various threads of envy, puzzlement and an abiding distrust of the new. We come across it in the writing of Richard Burton, who came to Goa and saw only miscegenation and the flouting of racial boundaries. We see it in the reactions of certain Westerners who are shocked or outraged by Goa because it refuses to conform to their idea of India or the Orient. We see it most of all in the constant chorus of press reports highlighting the various ills of Goan life.

The longer one is in Goa, the more one is astonished by the extent of the purchase of these narratives of dystopia. Every so often friends who live elsewhere will send me news reports about violence and drug-running on the beaches; or about prostitution and the Russian mafia and so on. These reports are not of course, without foundation. I know there is crime and violence on the beaches of Goa – but I know also that the beaches of Goa are not nearly so dangerous as the streets of New York or New Delhi.

I go to the beach as often as I can and what I see has no relation to what I read in newspapers and magazines. I see young urban Indians who look as though they’ve been freed of their fetters for the first time in their lives; who find themselves hesitantly exploring new versions of their own selves. I see vendors from Karnataka and Maharashtra who are perfectly at ease in this improvisatory world; I come across workers and waiters from Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and the North-East and I have conversations that would not be possible anywhere else. I see young Russian families who appear to be ordinary, middle-class people, desperate only to escape the Siberian cold. I listen to coconut sellers from Siolim, bargaining fluently in the language of  Tolstoy and Turgenev. I marvel at the fact that there is a shack on a Goan beach, run by a best-selling Russian novelist, where you can eat blinis and borscht beside the Arabian Sea.

All of this is new. I am not afraid of it.

Every so often friends will send me reports about land-grabs, illegal mining and corruption in Goa. Some of these friends live in places where corruption is rampant and the governmental machinery is in terminal breakdown. Yet the ills of Goa seem to loom larger in their minds than the abuses of their own experience. And of course they are not wrong in pointing to these ills. I have only to look out of my window to see hills that have been stripped clean of their forests and topsoil; intensive mining has left these once-verdant landscapes with scars that will last for generations.

But this is not all I see. I see also evidence of an extraordinarily energetic and creative activist community. Goan activists have been arguably more successful in exposing abuses than their counterparts in any other state. Ironically, it is this very success that has led people elsewhere to imagine that there is something uniquely malign about Goa’s problems.

More often than not, when I read about Goa I do not recognize the place I know. Perhaps this is because I was fortunate enough, when I first came here, to meet people of exceptional talent and ability (and it must be said that this tiny state contains an extraordinary number of such people). But I don’t think it is just that. My Goa is a place where village schoolteachers seek me out to talk about books; where my neighbours’ children are among my readers. I am speaking of a village that rose up in protest when a telecom company decided to place a cellphone tower in its midst. The villagers produced reams of material on the health hazards associated with these towers and ultimately the panchayat rejected the proposal. I remember at the time thinking that my neighbours were over-reacting. But some years later, when hearings on the same subject were held in the United States, I realized that they had anticipated the findings of the US Congress by many years.

The village I am speaking of is a place where jazz as well as filmi music is heard at festivals; where if I walk towards the church of an evening, I know I will hear some remarkably fine choral music. I know also that it is no accident that this land gave birth to Mogubai Kurdikar, Kesarbai Kerkar and Kishori Amonkar; I know that the local mandirs offer Indian classical music of an exceptional standard. And just as a Renaissance altarpiece is best seen in the chapel for which it was painted, no one who has ever experienced it can doubt that the most wonderful way to listen to Raga Malkauns is to hear it wafting across a paddy field and over the coconut palms.

And yet elsewhere in the same village youngsters will be dancing to techno music. This combination of tradition and innovation is one of the many things that make Goa what it is; it is evidence of Goa’s incomparable ability to accommodate the new.

I have long been fascinated by cosmopolitanism and the one thing I have learnt about it is that it is rarely to be found where one might expect. The cosmopolitanism of New York, for instance is often a kind of provincialism, for it assumes that its existence is proved by the mere fact of having a variety of cuisines at its disposal. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to travel very widely and yet remain completely provincial: European colonial officials made a practice of this in the 19th and 20th centuries; World Bank functionaries excel at it today.

One of the ways in which Goa is new is that it has invented a kind of cosmopolitanism that is peculiarly its own. It is a cosmopolitanism of lived experience; a cosmopolitanism of inner dialogues, where the outsider becomes a part of an inner voice. Sometimes embraced and sometimes excoriated, this voice is nonetheless not ignored as it might be elsewhere. It is this very cosmopolitanism that has led you to invite me to speak here on this very special day, the significance of which will perhaps never be fully understood by someone like myself. This is one of the reasons why I am truly honoured to be here, and what I would like to impress upon you on this occasion is this: change is never a simple story; it brings many evils and these must be identified, criticized and resisted. But it also brings with it many exciting new possibilities and we must not shrink from these merely from faint-heartedness or a lack of imagination. Let this be a day to celebrate the newness of Goa – in music, art and literature.


Amitav Ghosh

December 19, 2011


Responses to ‘Festivals and Freedom’

February 9, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (15)





 The responses to my post ‘Freedom and Festivals’ suggest that I am not in as small a minority as I had thought.*


Salil Tripathi worked for Amnesty for many years and is a leading authority on issues related to the freedom of expression. His book Offence: the Hindu Case; Manifestoes for the 20th Century is one of the most important inquiries into contemporary threats to the freedom of expression. He is also a noted reviewer, blogger, human-rights activist and an occasional writer of fiction. He sent me this message (it is reproduced with the author’s permission, as are all the others that were sent directly to me):


Very thought-provoking ideas about Jaipur. The key question is how does one confront non-state actors. I’ve some experience in this, having worked on human rights responsibilities of business for some time now. Business is a non-state actor, but businesses, by and large,would at least like to appear to be law-abiding.



What about armed groups? The International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva did produce human rights principles that apply to them. The humanitarian law too applies to all of them. Armed groups also benefit from humanitarian laws; vigilantes don’t see any benefit from such laws, and we are talking about vigilante groups here. The fact is that many of them are religion-based – though it isn’t only religious groups that object to this and that; in India caste groups and professions too have objected to films – the challenge is to make them accountable under human rights law. 


That seems almost impossible, because human rights law is human-made; religious groups take instructions from what they think of as a ‘higher authority,’ which is why state-centricism is all we have in international law. 



We need the state to protect the vulnerable – and in this case, it is the writer under siege. Returning to such basics might help. I accept, as you say that the Danes, the Dutch and the Americans haven’t been able to protect the individual. But focusing on the state might be the only practical way forward. Jailing violent rabble rousers – note, violent rabble rousers, not mere rabble rousers – is one way forward. 



After Jeet Thayil, Ruchir Joshi, Hari Kunzru, and Amitava Kumar read from The Satanic Verses, why were they being held accountable for inciting violence? The incitement was done by the ulemas or other “community leaders” who said we’ll be hurt and beware of consequences. That’s the fundamental issue that the state misses. And the state panders to that, and infantilises an entire community. 





I think Salil makes some very good points here, especially in the last paragraph. But in regard to ‘focusing on the state’, it seems to me that the issue is this: the state has finite resources. If we had the choice would we want these resources to be used to provide security for events like festivals? Or should the top priority for the Indian book world consist in ensuring that the government uses its resources to make sure that writers and publishing houses are protected from pressure and from threats? Unfortunately we don’t have the choice, but if we did I don’t see how we could possibly choose the former over the latter.

Vijay Prashad is the author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, The Karma of Brown Folks, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today and many other interesting and influential books. We have had our disagreements in the past, but in this instance he sent me this:



Dear Amitav,
I read with great pleasure your blog post on festivals as tamashas, and books as creatures with lives of their own. This is very meaningful.
I do, however, love book fairs, but mainly for the browsing, and the sense of being in a place with others who love books. It is like being in a great bookstore or in a venerable library — to walk amongst books, and then to glance occasionally at someone who also shares that same kind of silent reverence. The tamasha of the book fair or in its own way the library-bookstore is a nice social way of sharing that solitude. The literary festival, on the other hand, has nothing of solitude in it. I too do not go to them, but for the one in DC where we were on the same panel!
My best, Vijay.




Amitabha Bagchi is a novelist of exceptional talent. In his first novel Above Average, he performed the remarkable feat of transforming an IIT into a microcosm of contemporary India. His new book The Householder is an equally impressive accomplishment: it is a powerful account of a minor bureaucrat’s journey through New Delhi’s corridors of corruption.



Amitabha sent me this:




Dear Amitav,

I read your blog entry about the dangers of literary festivals. Thank
you for writing it. I could not agree more with your formulation that
repeatedly answering questions makes writers answerable in a way that
inhibits the fundamental processes of writing.

There are, to my mind, a couple of other aspects to this problem of
writers being increasingly pushed to (or willingly acceding to)
offering their own person as the axis on which their writings turn.
The first problem is that by willing interpreting our work for our
readers we run the danger of stifling other readings that may emerge.
I am sure you have also experienced the joy of finding that a reader
has seen something in your work that you had not deliberately placed
there. We strive to create rich textures, but the test of that
richness has to be the exegesis that the author did not expect. When I
read Ghalib’s poetry and found that it spoke seamlessly to situations
that arose in a world whose shape Ghalib, living in his time, could
not have even begun to imagine, it sparked in me the urge to write in
a way that would perhaps be able to wrap around a larger swathe of
human experience than is within my immediate knowledge. But not
wanting to wait till I am dead, it is out of pure selfishness that I
routinely and without exception deflect questions that are framed to
extract from me some definitive (“authoritative”) reading of my own
work, in the continuing hope that it will bring out things I didn’t
plan for. I have had the pleasure a few times, but it is perhaps
because I wanted this so badly that a lot of people have leveled the
charge of “autobiographical” writing against me, and, even worse in
some way, told me they liked Above Average because they “identified”
with the character.

The other aspect of too many public appearances is that the writer
loses the power to frame the terms of the debate, gets dragged into
the framework set by the moderator or the loudest person on the panel.
In your blog entry you took the space of several thousand words to lay
out your argument. You framed the piece by talking about the quality
of interiority that drew you to literature. If perhaps you had been on
a TV show you would have been repeatedly asked questions like “So, Mr
Ghosh, do you think there are too many literary festivals?” or “Why do
you think the Jaipur Literary Festival has become so popular?” or some
such, and these would be the kinds of questions that the anchor would
think to be deep or probing. The loss in this is, as you said in your
piece, that the writer who probably took to writing because he or she
doesn’t possess the physical courage to bungee jump or become a Navy
Seal will be censored for fear of physical harm. But, at a less
political level, there is also the loss in terms of being unable to
talk about things that do matter to writers, like the aesthetics of
language for example. I have tried to talk to interviewers about my
prose style and where it stands aesthetically, the relationship of
that aesthetic to the place and people I am writing about, and so
forth. They nod politely and move on to a question about Chetan

Perhaps the thing I liked best about your piece was the acknowledgment
that in today’s world the market is the writer’s patron and that those
writers who do not have the stature of a Coetzee or a Pynchon must bow
to the wishes of their patron and bring their “personality” to market.
But, as you very cogently point out, we can decide the extent to which
we do so. And if we decide that we will limit that engagement, then we
must not feel upset when we find that the squeaky wheel is getting the

Thanks again for putting that essay out there. I think there are a lot
of people (I saw quite a few comments) who have been sitting to one
side of the racket surrounding the events at Jaipur last month,
waiting for someone to say something that would rescue them from the
banality of what went on there.



Amitabha is absolutely right about several things but nowhere more so than when he says: ‘I
routinely and without exception deflect questions that are framed to extract from me some definitive (“authoritative”) reading of my own work’.  



Neel Mukherjee is another hugely talented young novelist. My book Sea of Poppies, shared the Crossword Prize with his widely-acclaimed Past Continuous some years ago. He sent me this message:




I read your piece on Jaipur and tamasha with great enjoyment, putting neon ditto marks under every single sentence. Thank you. It means a lot to us that a writer of your stature has articulated the outrage and disgust we feel at this unspeakable circus. You’re not a tiny minority — I know lots of writers who feel the same about Jaipur. The problem is that there will always be a sizeable group of writers who will, despite misgivings, say yes. Beyond the immediate spectacle of Jaipur, the article contains some extremely lucid and valuable thinking about the changing terrain of freedom of expression and the actors involved. It’s the sanest, best and the most intelligent piece so far on what happened in January. (Needless to say, I wasn’t there, never will be, just followed it in the press; I was in the country and the newspapers contained little else).



The Goan writer Cecil Pinto sent this link to an article by another exceptionally promising young writer, the novelist Anjum Hasan, author of the touching and beautiful Lunatic in My Head. She makes some interesting points in this piece:



He also forwarded this response from Sajan Venniyoor:




‘Last week, I took part in two meetings on threats to freedom of expression (or FoE as our netizens prefer to call it) and much of our time was spent, as Ghosh says, seeking methods to combat the government. But as he adds, “threats to free speech today come mainly from private and sectional interests – fundamentalist groups, identity-based organizations, political extremists, corporations and so on.” 



‘This is something many of us are unwilling to accept and it may be too late for us when we do.





Namita Devidayal posted a comment directly on my blog: it was nice to see her name there because I loved her book The Music Room, which brings the world of Hindustani classical music richly and resonantly to life.




dear amitav
thanks for writing this. i fully agree, even though i find that as a young writer, i’ve had a lot to gain from being at festivals.
but yes, the beauty of writing and reading is in the quiet. after finishing a book that moves me, the last thing i wish for is to meet the writer and be distracted from the experience, and have that intimacy (between me and the book) get transformed into some ghastly pointless social exchange!






Many others have posted insightful and interesting comments on my blog. I was a bit surprised though that no one brought up the issue that is today perhaps the most pressing in relation to the question of authorship and performance. This is the possibility that the publishing industry may have to go down a route similar to that of the music industry, where content is now given away almost free in order to boost performance-related revenues. This demands serious consideration and I plan to write a post about it some time soon.  



But for now here are some of the questions and comments that appeared on my blog.




Ketan wrote:


‘Government and censorship aside, what every writer wants is a reader, and this festival is about that. The biggest block in this is the elitism and exclusivity of a select group of writers who want to avoid the ‘unwashed masses’.


‘I think you might want to think about that – if you write about the unwashed masses, then there is nothing wrong in embracing them once in a while – especially when they are enthusiastic fans and paying consumers.


Speaking purely for myself, I would love to have seen and listened to you at the JLF, as you are one of my favourite authors.


This was my reply:



Ketan: I appreciate your response and I’m glad to know of your regard for my work. I don’t for a moment want to dismiss what you’ve said here: I take it very seriously indeed, not least because it comes from a reader.



I’d like to address the part of your post where you suggest that a writer who personally interacts with a large number of readers is less elitist and exclusive than one who does not.  This seems plausible but if you think about it for a moment I think you will see that in fact it is the face-to-face meeting that is by its nature elitist and exclusive. This is because no matter how many people attend an event they are but a tiny minority compared to those who are excluded by reasons of geographical proximity, language, mobility, affordability etc. Whether there are 7 or 70,000 at the event is in this sense, immaterial: the number of people a writer can reach through the printed word is far, far greater. This is actually the very reason why people are attracted to public events with writers: because these occasions seem to promise something more than the printed word, something exclusive and personal, an added value.



In fact the least elitist and least exclusive means by which a writer can reach his or her readers is through the printed word: this is what makes literature such a democratic and accessible art. The great virtue of the printed word is that it does not have to be embodied in the person of the writer: it is open and available to all. A performance can be experienced only by those who are in attendance, as in recitals by musicians or singers. Why should writers embrace the limitations of the performing arts when they have the inestimable good fortune to work in a medium that allows them to reach an audience that is much larger than any that could be contained in a stage, theatre, tent or even mela?



Please don’t get me wrong. I am glad you take the trouble to seek out and listen to the writers you like. Had we ever met, it may well have been a pleasant encounter – but it would not even remotely have approximated the experience of reading my books. And it’s perfectly possible that you might have been terribly disappointed (I say this because I know it has happened more than once).



This is why I am in complete agreement with Namita when she says: ‘after finishing a book that moves me, the last thing i wish for is to meet the writer and be distracted from the experience, and have that intimacy (between me and the book) get transformed into some ghastly pointless social exchange’




Shobha sent this message:



As a person who thoroughly enjoyed the festival, saw huge numbers of young school children and college-goers attending enthusiastically, saw locals participating with genuine interest, I favor literary festivals. Writers who are too introverted to attend and speak, shouldn’t feel compelled to participate, as perhaps their focus on writing will make their work that much superior. But many writers are great speakers/orators, and to listen to them articulate their ideas on the fly in response to an audience helps many individuals who are more auditory than visual in their linguistic abilities (i.e., those who will retain more of the spoken rather than the written word). And if a writer’s intonation, and explanations at the festivals bring many non-readers into the fold, long live the festivals. Those who can do without the tamasha always have the freedom of staying away.




This was my reply: Of course many writers enjoy speaking and are good at it. I don’t grudge them that in the slightest. The problem is this: as public appearances become more and more important it creates a loop that influences who gets published.



The writer Linda Grant (winner of the Orange Prize and author of the surprising and moving The Clothes on Their Backs which was shortlisted for the Booker the same year as Sea of Poppies) tweeted about my post and received the following response: ‘agent watched 3 of us at one event and only took on best performer.’



Linda’s reply, appropriately, was: ‘That really disgusts me.’



Sadly this is becoming a common experience. In considering manuscripts for publication editors now often take into consideration such factors as the writers’ appearance and speaking abilities. It gives new meaning to the old saying: ‘You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.’




The writer Mira Kamdar (author of Motiba’s Tattoos, an excellent account of her familial connections with Burma) pointed exactly to this when she wrote:



Thank you for writing this profoundly thoughtful comment. I am ever reminded of the foresight of Guy Debord. His book La société du spectacle, published in 1967, remains one of the most brilliant analyses of the very phenomenon you describe here with such eloquence.


As a writer of middling success who lives as I can from my writing, I feel under incredible pressure to make of my person the salable product publishers increasingly seek. Am I with a speakers bureau? To I tweet? Am I on Facebook? Do I have a web site? Do I do television? At its extreme, the publishing “industry” pays the biggest advances to celebrities for books they often pay others to write, knowing that a certain threshold of sales will be attained simply because the author is a “brand”. I’ve actually been told by agents and editors: “We love this but (we can’t pay you more because) you are not a brand.”


You’ve given me new courage to resist.




Ashutosh posted a thoughtful response, at the end of which he said:



‘Lastly, I believe now that you have used it, the word ‘Tamasha’ stands a good chance of entering the English dictionary.’




My reply: Ashutosh – the word tamasha/tumasha/tumasher etc has been in English dictionaries for a long time. It actually derives from the Arabic root for ‘walk’.  



Niraj wrote: I have to contest some of the points Amitav has made in his post about the relationship between the writer and the reader. Many writers in the past – especially the famous ones did interact with their readers mainly through public reading.



My reply: I certainly don’t believe it to be unacceptable for writers to do public appearances – I do many myself. The problem arises when public presentations gain ascendancy over the printed word – and this is certainly happening in India today. Just consider this: some years ago a leading Indian newspaper chain decided that it would no longer publish book reviews. Yet this same chain publishes reams of articles about various festivals, literary controversies, quarrels and so on. Even in serious magazines, the coverage of literary controversies, scandals etc. often takes precedence over the discussion of books. As for the general media discussion of literary festivals, the space devoted to books is far outweighed by the attention given to controversies, quarrels and scandals.







What do these developments signify?



A tamasha is, in a sense, a kind of hectic noise-making, resorted to when there is nothing of substance to say. It is what comes about when presentation overtakes content, when spectacle overwhelms substance. At a certain point the sparkling surface ceases to be merely a kind of packaging and begins to devour the thing within: the waraq makes a meal of the barfi and the curtain will not yield to the stage.



What results is a kind of flattening. Every meaningful activity is specific and particular but all tamashas are essentially the same; they are predictable and repetitive. When the Tamasha colonizes activities a sparkling skin forms over them, slowly fusing them together: they become a continuum, a single seamless tamasha. The activities are digested to form a gas, light but flammable, that can hold aloft a great shining blimp. This is how Cripollywood came about.



It would be sad indeed if books too were to disappear into this floating void. But I don’t think it will happen. The responses to my post leave me in no doubt at all that books will be the principal site of resistance to the Tamasha’s advance.



 * An earlier version of this post contained a critical discussion of the Oxford University Press’s decision to suppress A.K.Ramanujan’s seminal essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas.’ At the time of writing I was not aware that the OUP had reversed its decision: I offer the Press my apologies and applaud it for doing the right and responsible thing.





ucuz ukash