Archive for June, 2012

Philip Hensher’s ‘Scenes from Early Life’

June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)




I met Philip Hensher in 2008:


his novel, The Northern Clemency, was on the Booker Prize shortlist that year, as was my Sea of Poppies.







The Booker festivities are a bit like an Indian wedding: a giddy chukker of dressing up, eating and being photographed. That year the proceedings came to a climax at a dinner in the Guildhall in London, a space that dazzles with its glitter and chuckmuckery.

Meeting the other short-listed authors was the most enjoyable aspect of the experience. The very last thing one expects of a circumstance like that is that it will lay the foundations of some lasting friendships. But so it did.

Philip came to the dinner with his spouse, Zaved Mahmood, who grew up Dhaka, where I had lived as a child. Zaved and I spent some time chatting in Bangla and reminiscing about Dhaka. For me those were among the best moments of that evening. It turned out – such are the surprises of the world we live in – that Zaved had grown up in Dhanmundi, the same part of Dhaka that my family had lived in, albeit long before Zaved was born.

I had not, at that time, read any of Philip’s books, but I soon acquired a copy of The Northern Clemency. I must admit that I was a little daunted at the outset, partly by the book’s formidable heft (700-odd pages), and partly by the jacket copy, which described it as an ‘epic of provincial life in northern England in the Thatcherite era.’

But once I started I couldn’t put it down. Like all really good books The Northern Clemency began to consume my days: I would rush through everything else to get to it. In retrospect it isn’t easy to explain why the book is as compelling as it is. The characters are memorable mostly for their ordinariness; the writing is brisk but never calls attention to itself.

So what is the secret of The Northern Clemency? What makes it work?

The answer, I think, is empathy – a quality that is rare (and increasingly so) in contemporary fiction. Philip possesses this gift in abundance. The book spills over with empathy – for the characters, for the dull Sheffield suburb in which they live, for their sometimes objectionable views and unattractive mores. The central character, the father of the family, loves his garden, and his persistence with it, becomes as it were, a metaphor of redemption: the book succeeds in much the same way – through accretion, tending and nurture. The writer’s gift of empathy becomes the soil that accepts and transplants the reader into this world.

Recently I came upon a proof copy of Philip’s new book, Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, London), at the house of a common friend.


The jacket copy said: ‘Philip Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood, was born in late 1970 in Dacca, then a regional capital of Pakistan. In the months following his birth, the eastern part of the country split from the western side in a savage war of independence. In December 1971, after the deaths of uncounted innocent victims in the civil war, a new country was declared: Bangla Desh, the Home of the Bengalis.

Scenes from Early Life is the story of one upper-middle-class Bengali family, told in the form of a memoir, narrated by Zaved. It is partly a life story, partly a novel and partly a history of one of the most ferocious of twentieth-century struggles for independence.’






On opening the book I came upon a paragraph about Dhanmundi: ‘The roads of Dhanmondi were quiet, and lined with trees, all painted white to four feet high, to discourage the ants. ‘Ants can’t walk on white,’ my mother used to say. ‘They are frightened of being seen. So that’s why they paint the tree trunks white.’ I still don’t know how true that is.’

I borrowed the book and read it in a few sittings.

Scenes from Early Life is a biography in the form of an autobiography – a first person account of another life. As such it begs comparison with Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and as a work of empathetic recreation (an extended act of ‘channeling’ so to speak) it is certainly similar. But Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were from the same country and spoke the same language: the gulf that Philip has had to cross is far wider. Yet, amazingly, he has succeeded: his portrayal of a childhood in Dhaka, in a liberal and highly-educated Bangladeshi family, is completely persuasive. The pitch is exactly right, the details thoroughly convincing. The only quibbles I could find were with a few spellings – ‘Githo Bitan’ instead of ‘Gitabitan’, for example – but in an odd way even these add to the verisimilitude of the narrative in that they recall the faulty diction of childhood.

Philip’s writing is so skilful that it appears artless; his dexterity is evident only in that it leaves no visible traces. Through most its length Scenes from Early Life is about the early years of Zaved’s boyhood. But the book’s climactic sequences, which come near the end, are set in 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, when Zaved was a baby. And so skilfully is the the story told that it never occurs to the reader to question this premise!

Scenes from Early Life is a triumph, an astonishing feat of empathy and narrative virtuosity. It deserves to be garlanded with many prizes, and nowhere more so than in the Indian subcontinent.






Ludu U Sein Win and the School of ‘Feeling, Mood and Action’ in Yangon

June 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



On Sunday June 17, the democracy movement in Myanmar lost one of its pillars, Ludu U Sein Wein.


Ludu U Sein Win, Jan 1996




Ludu U Sein Win was a writer, journalist, political activist and teacher. He ran a school that played a significant part in keeping the country’s intellectual and literary traditions alive through the darkest years of military rule.

U Sein Win was from a prominent literary family of leftist political leanings (‘Ludu’ is a honorific reference to a famous Burmese journal). He was arrested in 1967 and spent many years in prison, some of them in the infamous Coco Island. For two years he was in solitary confinement. His cell measured 10 feet by 12 feet and he had no books – nothing but a mat and one blanket. Every day he would walk 20,000 steps in that cell. Counting his steps helped him control his mind. He was released in 1978 when a new constitution and a general amnesty were announced, but was detained again in 1980. While in prison, he had a stroke that left his right side paralyzed. Through all this he was never tried or charged. He had broken no law – his political views were his only offence.

‘The incredible thing about the Burmese people,’ he said to me once, ‘is that we have learned to survive all this and more.’ There was not a trace of bitterness in U Sein Win although there was plenty of outrage and anger. He exuded kindness and decency and was beloved by everyone who knew him.

U Sein Win was released in 1981 and in the following year he founded the ‘Feeling, Mood and Action School’: it was nominally a language school and existed for the purpose of teaching English. I visited it several times in 1995 and 1996, and spoke at great length with Ludu U Sein Win. Below are some of my notes from those conversations, along with some of the pictures I took during my visits.



The Feeling, Mood and Action School runs from 9 to 5 every day. There are no holidays – it is open on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. There is no curriculum and U Sein Wein is the only teacher. He lectures on everything – business, politics, art. Students can come and go as they please. The only rule is that they are not allowed to utter a single word in Burmese – only English. The basis of the school is argument; he teaches his students to argue against established notions.

‘I am not teaching,’ he says, ‘just speaking, developing their minds, their mental powers.’



The school is necessary, he says, because in Burma even those who have graduate degrees in English cannot use the language. In Burma from a very young age, ‘young people are trained to obey their superiors – parents, teachers, the government.’ The Burmese educational system encourages rote learning. Students have no opportunity to think. There are no textbooks because the govt can’t provide textbooks to every student. They learn from notes written by teachers.

‘They have trained our youth like animals from a circus. People don’t know how to think.’

Many of his students have romantic problems because of family pressures. When they tell him about their troubles he says; ‘Look to your conscience.’

‘Especially in our Oriental society we are trained to obey our parents. The military takes advantage of this mentality of obedience.’

A course at his school costs 1000 Kyat – it doesn’t matter whether the student attends for one year or ten. ‘It’s like a club with life membership.’ He has two or three hundred students; doesn’t accept anyone who is not recommended by a former student.



It’s very hard to get in – 10 or 20 applicants come every day. They beg him to let them in, some even offer money. He has all kinds of students. Some are drug addicts, some are the problem children of rich families. He accepts them and they change. Even the junta sends him their children. His old students shower him with gifts (looking around I notice that the room is filled with all kinds of gifts – electronics, flowers…).



The reason he founded the school was to train young people to think freely, to think bravely, to do the right thing no matter how much they might have to suffer.




In his school everything is discussed. Even businessmen and military officers speak their minds about the junta. But they also talk about international affairs, movies, songs, novels – but only in English.







The junta knows what goes on inside, but they haven’t interfered so far.


Aung San Suu Kyi, Dec 1995





‘Only Aung San Suu Kyi can lead the country out of the quagmire it is in.





‘Other politicians have been killed; there is no one left. But she is like her father, she is not a politician, she doesn’t do any ‘politicking’. She always speaks her feelings and tells the truth.’


Ludu U Sein Win, Dec 1995




He laughed. ‘In a democracy maybe she would not be elected.’














The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China: Part 6

in The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China | Comments (1)



From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Country’ by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani), pp. 48-49


On May 1, 1962, Pu Yi married for the second time. Mrs Pu Yi is a nurse. Pu Yi receives a salary of 100 Yuan (almost 200 Rupees) and Mrs Pu Yi receives 50 Rupees. ‘My wife is a good nurse,’ said Pu Yi, ‘so she gets a special allowance. With that allowance our monthly earnings amount to 150 Yuan. It’s enough for our needs.’

One of Pu Yi’s uncles is is now a deputy in the National People’s Congress and a member of the national political consultative conference. He is an specialist on horses and is therefore an advisor to the national people’s army. Pu Yi’s six sisters now have jobs. When they were princesses they never left the palace. But now, in Pu Yi’s words ‘respected workers, servants of the people’. The new scions of the dynasty are all studying in schools and colleges. Some of them have even joined the Communist Party and Youth League…

In the old days, Pu Yi told me, there was little love lost between members of the ruling family. Pu Yi’s uncles, brothers, sisters had to kowtow before him when he was the Emperor.



There were no sincere attachments between any of them. ‘After the Revolution even our family got back a sense of normal family feeling and personal affection.’








Gautam Buddha sought to banish the afflictions and suffering of the human race by renouncing his throne and seeking enlightenment.


The Leshan Buddha, Sichuan



That is why the Lord Buddha (Buddha-deb) does not belong to any one country; he has elevated all of humanity. Pu Yi similarly, by reforming himself and by committing himself to the betterment of the people has ascended beyond the limits of family and has brought honour not just to his dynasty but to all of China.

Every person in China now takes pride in the name of Pu Yi.



The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China: Part 5

June 18, 2012 in The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China | Comments (0)



From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Country’ by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani), pp. 46-47


‘But still I’ll tell you a few things about my life in those dark days,’ [said Pu Yi]. ‘When I was a ruler my movements were confined to the four walls of my palace. I had no opportunity to step outside.



My life was tightly bound with rules and prohibitions. I did not have permission to step outside the palace. I came to Beijing after regaining my freedom and that was when I walked on the royal thoroughfares for the first time. Let me tell you about a funny incident.

‘When I came to Beijing everything seemed strange and unfamiliar. I didn’t even know how to ride a motorbus. I didn’t know that tickets were needed for the bus. One day I was waiting at a bus station near the the Bei Hai park with a sister of mine.The bus came and my sister got into it. I saw a lady standing in front of me and asked to her to get in before me. The moment she got in the bus left. I learnt later that the lady was a bus conductor. When I asked her to get in she assumed that I was not traveling on that bus.

‘In my life as a ruler I would get up whenever I pleased. But twice a week I had to get up early. On those two days the Prime Minister and the Commander in Chief of the Japanese forces would come to see me at 9 in the morning. I would have my lunch whenever I was hungry, between ten in the morning to one o’clock. And after that a long, undisturbed siesta. I wouldn’t wake up till six or seven in the evening. At lunchtime I would usually eat alone. Breakfast I never ate in those days. In the evening at about nine I would dine with the other men. My first wife, the Queen


Pu YI and his fiirst wife*


in other words, died in 1945. I never kept any concubines. The daily expenses of the palace were borne by the Treasury. Apart from that I would receive a personal monthly allowance of 66,000 Yuan (132,0000 Rupees in Pakistani money).’












* Arnold C. Brackman, The Last Emperor, 1975

The last emperor by Arnold C. Brackman

The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China: Part 4

June 15, 2012 in The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China | Comments (0)




From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Country’ by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani), pp. 45-46


Pu Yi spoke of his days in the camp with intense feeling. In his voice there was not the faintest trace of disaffection or resentment. I said: ‘Pu Yi, you’ve told me about your days as a prisoner.

Now I want to hear about your life as a ruler. How did you become the monarch of Manchukuo?’

Pu Yi Sewing*

Pu Yi laughed. A strangely serene laugh. He said: ‘From my infancy I was taught – I was the lord of China. That was why I could not accept it when my China was declared a republic. How could I accept that my dynasty would end in my own era? Naturally I wanted a restoration of the monarchy.








Japan had a long-standing policy of aggression towards China. That policy and my desire for a restoration resulted in the link with Japan. We both used each other.

My hope was that with Japanese help I would be a ruler again, by regaining the throne of Manchukuo. At the same time the Japanese were looking for someone to rule and occupy China. They adopted me as their coolie. This was the principal reason for my alliance with the Japanese.’

‘You want to know about my ‘life as a ruler’. There’s not much to tell.



Those were the most wretched, the most unfortunate days of my life, filled with memories of my offenses against humanity. But today I can say with pride, I can say with joy, that I am a changed human being, that I have become a true citizen of China. This reformed life is a life of happiness. The earlier life was like a ghostly existence, darkened by the curses of phantom souls…



‘I often say to my friends, the Pu Yi of the past is no longer alive. A new Pu Yi has been born. That is why I don’t want to talk about the past.’



* Arnold C. Brackman, The Last Emperor, 1975.


The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China: Part 3.

June 13, 2012 in The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China | Comments (1)






From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Country’ by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani), pp. 44-45


‘The veteran official then explained to us that the Communist Party would be generous with us and would give us every opportunity to examine and reform ourselves. The Party would not look too deeply into the past because there was nothing to be gained from that. He informed us that we would be sent to a war criminals camp in the south-eastern province of Fujien.

‘That was the day when it dawned on me that I would not be shot after all. My relief and gladness was such that I cannot hope to convey their extent. The water of gratitude came into my eyes. That was the day when for the first time in my life, I cried out of gratitude.

‘We went to the camp for war criminals. When I was a monarch no doubt there were hundreds of prisoners in my camps. I have no knowledge of how they were treated. I never saw a jail or a camp for prisoners. But I had a terrifying mental picture of these things. You could say that to a great extent this was like a picture of hell. When I saw a prisoners’ camp for the first (and possibly the last) time in my life it was as a prisoner. All the way from Mukden to Fujien I was quaking with fear and misgiving at the thought of what awaited me. In such a place what would become of the rest of my days! No blankets in the winter, a hard, cold stone floor for a bed, for food, such things that even the dogs of my palace had never touched – whether death would not be better than this unbearable life was a thought that often occurred to me.

‘On arriving in Fujien I saw that there was no connection between the Communist camp and my imaginings. The camp was not intended to punish people.


Pu Yi in a Work Camp after his return to China

It was a centre where people could try to change their characters – you could say a place for people to heal. The treatment we met with in the camp was so humane and so respectful of our dignity that we were amazed yet again. …










‘In 1949 at Chairman Mao’s behest it was decided that prisoners who had undergone a genuine change and accepted the revolution would be set free. I had not imagined that I would be set free –

Pu Yi with Japanese Generals


I was the plaything of the country’s enemies!










But when the list of those to be set free arrived I saw that my name was in first place.’




The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China: Part 2

June 11, 2012 in The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China | Comments (2)




From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Country’ by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani), pp. 43-44




I heard from Pu Yi’s own lips that the crown of China had been placed on his head when he was three years old and that he lost the throne three years later.








Then at the age of 12 a warlord again proclaimed him king. But this time he sat on the throne for only a few days. After that ‘I became the king of Manchukuo. This was then a Japanese colony and I was a doll in the hands of the Japanese imperialists.’


Pu Yi as Emperor of Manchukuo


The Japanese kept Pu Yi on the Manchu throne until their defeat in the Second World War, and inflicted terrible oppressions on the people of China, doing everything possible to thwart their aspirations for freedom. After the Japanese defeat the Soviet Union’s Red Army took the Manchu monarch Pu Yi prisoner and moved him to Russia.










Until the success of China’s revolution in 1949 he remained a prisoner in the Soviet Union. While living there Pu Yi wrote three letters to Stalin.



Pu Yi with Soviet Military Officer, August 1946


Pu Yi said: ‘In those letters I beseeched Stalin for only one thing – not to be sent back to China. Because it was my belief that to go back to China would mean certain death.’













Pu Yi told me the whole story of his return to China from the Soviet Union, so it is best that I recount it in his own words. ‘Soviet leaders wanted to send me back to China. I was stricken with terror. Those days were fraught with disquiet and nightmarish dreams. I thought, the Chinese Communist Party will never forgive me. I thought, how indeed could they forgive a king like myself, who had collaborated with the Japanese! My own thoughts reduced me to a state of terror. As you must know, in Chinese history whenever a new dynasty came to power, the dethroned kings would immediately lose their lives, along with their families. That is why I thought, now the Communists are in power, this means that it is my turn to lose my life.’





‘A day came when I really was sent back to China. Our train crossed the Soviet border and stopped at Mukden. At the station I saw that cars had been sent to receive us. Accompanying me on the same train were some erstwhile ministers of the Manchu empire. We were all convinced of our belief – we were to be taken straight to the execution ground. And at once a barrage of bullets would put an end to the illusions of this world (iholila). Our cars came to a halt in front of a big building. Later we learnt that this was an internal security office. We got out of the cars and began to advance towards the building. I was in the middle of the group. Someone said, Pu Yi should be in the lead. I interpreted this to mean that I’d be the first to be shot. I was taken to a room; on entering I saw a table piled with fruit, cakes, cigarettes and so on. I could not understand where I had been brought. After a while some high ranking officials entered the room. Their manner was polite and considerate. One of them remarked, we had traveled a great distance so we must be hungry. We should eat something. At that moment none of us had an appetite. In old China people who were destined for the gallows were always served good food before they were strung up. I thought, they’re probably observing that custom. I couldn’t take it any longer. I said, take us where you want without wasting any time. A perceptive official understood my state of mind and told me that I could see my nephew if I wished; he was an officer in the Chinese liberation Army and was in Mukden at the time. They would set up a meeting.

‘But with what face could I meet him? I was seized with shame.’




The ‘Red Maulana’ and the Last Emperor of China: Part 1

June 7, 2012 in The ‘Red Mowlana’ and the Last Emperor of China | Comments (22)



I met Layli Uddin in London, in the British Library.

She is of Bangladeshi origin and grew up in England. She has an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies from Oxford and has also studied at the London School of Economics and Harvard. She is now a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. The title of her thesis is: Mobilising Muslim Subalterns: Bhashani and the political mobilisation of peasantry and lower urban classes, c.1947-71.




Layli will soon be traveling to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in search of new sources and information on Maulana Bhashani.


This is how she describes her work:




Thus far, much of the academic work on East Pakistan and events leading up to the war of 1971 reflects an elite bias, with its overwhelming focus on the role of Dhaka and the urban intelligentsia. My work argues though that it is the active and forceful participation of the ‘subaltern’ i.e., the peasantry and lower urban classes in various protests, starting from the language protest in the 1950s through to the industrial and rural ‘gherao’ protests in the 1960s and the freedom movement of the 1970s which transformed the nature and dynamism of these resistances and presented a real threat to the a governing authority in West Pakistan. It therefore thrusts, and rather deliberately too, the neglected and marginalised subaltern in the limelight and looks at how they envisaged this ‘land of eternal Eid’ and why that rather Arcadian paradise soon disintegrated into a land stalked by angry and disenchanted peasants and lower urban classes. I look at the different forms and practices of subaltern resistance and attempt to excavate the consciousness of the peasant through the official records as well as other mediums such as folk songs, rhymes, ballads, anecdotes and literature of that period.




Maulana Bhashani plays a central figure in my work on restoring the creative agency of the ‘subaltern’ in the making and unmaking of Pakistan between 1947-71. Maulana Bhashani, who had made his mark as an unusually powerful pir, radical peasant leader and politician in colonial Assam went onto become one of the main dissenting figures to the rule of West Pakistan authority. American officials described him as ‘East Pakistan rabble rouser par excellence’, the Jamaat-e-Islami as ‘kaafir’ and the East Bengalis as ‘Majlum Jononeta’ (leader of the oppressed).  My work seeks to understand the charismatic authority of Maulana Bhashani and his relationship with the peasantry and lower urban classes in East Pakistan. It is a charisma that befuddled many; the US Consul General, Archer Blood, when paying a visit to Bhashani was left bemused by the popularity of the bare-footed 88 year-old man, clad in a dirty undershirt and lungi who greeted him. My work looks at Bhashani’s network and spheres of influence, ideas on Islamic socialism and his strategies of political mobilisation.

It is difficult to summarise the enigma that is Maulana Bhashani and what a complex and exciting figure he presents for research – how did this Deobandi-trained maulana come to defend Tagore’s music and become the leader of Marxist revolutionaries in East Pakistan? Why did the founding father, Mujib, fear being upstaged by the septaguenarian Bhashani? How did Bhashani’s Islamic socialism ‘fit’ with the radical demands made by peasantry and lower urban classes in East Pakistan?  My work has already thrown up some fascinating and tantalising information, which I hope to explore as research progresses – Bhashani’s relationship with radical ‘ulama in colonial India; his meetings and encounters with the grandees of the political left in Europe such as Attlee, Bevan, Bertrand Russell, Neruda, Hikmet and Ehrenburg in Europe and his other trips to Egypt, Cuba and China in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Admittedly, as a first year PhD student, this is all striking me as rather too ambitious, with perhaps all the pretensions of a Howard Zinn impostor, but nonetheless exciting, foray into a rather neglected yet critical part of Bangladeshi history.



My conversation with Layli got off to a good start because it so happens that I have actually met Maulana Bhashani. It happened when I was very young and I have no memory of the meeting: I know of it only because my father liked to tell the story. Apparently, when I was a little boy, the Maulana saw me at a gathering, somewhere in Dhaka, and hoisted me on his shoulder.









When I recounted this to Layli she was not at all surprised. Maulana Bhashani had many unlikely encounters, she said – including one with Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China.

My mouth fell open.





The Last Emperor and Maulana Bhashani? Had they really met? How could she possibly know?







Through the Maulana’s account of it, said Layli.



He had written about the encounter in his book, Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In Mao Tse-tung’s Country, by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani).













Quite apart from the inherent interest of a meeting between the last incumbent of the Qing dynasty and this leftist-Deobandi Maulana, I was also taken by the sudden shrinkage in the degrees of separation between myself and the last Emperor of China. I asked Layli if I could read the chapter and she was kind enough to provide me with a copy.

I was not disappointed: the Maulana’s account of the meeting is strangely compelling, and since it has never been published in English I decided to translate a few excerpts myself. These will appear on this site as a multi-part series.



File photo of Aisin Gyorro Puyi, Last Emperor of China


From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, p. 42

I am on my way to meet the last monarch of the mighty Manchu empire: the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Pu Yi. For 250 years the Qing dynasty ruled and misruled China; it was they who opened China’s doors for foreign looters

Pu Yi conspired against the people of China with Japanese and Western imperialists. And now the same Pu Yi has committed himself to the building of a socialist society. What sort of man is this Pu Yi?

…At one time Pu Yi was training to be a curator in a Chinese botanical garden. But in 1961 a commission was specially created to write a new history of China and he was transferred to an office of the People’s Consultative Conference to help with the research. That was where I met Pu Yi. He is a slim, inoffensive-looking man of middling stature. I couldn’t find any resemblance between him and the Pu Yi of my imagination. His bright, smiling face and his shining eyes betrayed no signs of the sly conspirator. I was amazed – could this be the same Pu Yi who helped the Japanese against Chinese revolutionaries? Who wanted to keep China prone while he floated high on the froth of luxury? I could not quite believe it. How old could he be? Thirty, or at the most thirty-five? But Pu Yi corrected me himself, saying that he was actually 57 years old. He looked very young for his age.

I entered his office at four in the afternoon and when I left it was eight thirty.

[to be continued…]


Correspondence with a doctor

June 6, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Dear Amitavada,

i don’t know whether this mail will reach you or not but i feel a tremendous desire to write to you.i am a specialist physician,working in princess royal univ hospital in london.recently i made a list of 30 books i hv loved in my life which included marquez,kafka,tagore,camus,jibananda das ,maurice materlink,tolstoy,dostoyevski,sukumar roy etc.i didn’t mention a single book of yours because i never read your book until april,2012 when on of my friends asked me to read sea of is 27th april-i hv read 327 pages of this book,bought every single book of yours from amazon and thought of  changing  my list.although art abhors superlative but gabriel marquez has been hitherto my most favourite writer and his “strange pilgrims” topped my list,followed by metamorphosis and “the strager ” by camus.i hv n’t finished sea of poppies yet,but i am baffled as where should i put this magnificent have won my heart and i can easily fathom that within next ten yrs people all over the world would put you in the same rank of marquez,tolstoy for you are one of greatest storyteller of all time and in any indian writer is anywhere near you as far as storytelling is concerned and that includes tagore even.i would write to you more if you confirm that this mail has reached are honoured master.

best regards

dr sukhen chatterji







Dear Dr Chaterji
Thank you very much for this wonderful letter! It is wonderful to know of your response to my books – I cannot tell you how much it means to me.
I sometimes post letters from readers on my blog. Would you mind if I posted yours?
I very much appreciate your taking the time to write to me and I hope you will stay in touch.
Very best

Amitav Ghosh






dear amitavada,

what a joy it is to receive your mail.i would be honoured if you posted my mail in your blog for everything i said about you is true.i hv finished sea of poppies and started the shadow line.

i must tell you the name of a great person who mentioned your book to me.he is a father like figure to me–ex chief engineer of irrigation of bengal,a man of hihgest intelligence and integrity,from a supremely cultured family,an ardent reader of your books.his name is mr rupkumar bose.he lives in calcutta.without his mention of your books,i possibly wouldn’t hv read your books.i am very grateful to him.this is a thorough gentleman who has also taught me to listen to subinoy ray,to read marquez and harper lee (to kill a mocking bird).







On Blogging:4 of 4

June 4, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (1)




For me the most direct aspect of the blog’s appeal is its hospitality to visual imagery. I am an inveterate snapshot-taker and have accumulated a large trove of pictures over the years. By no stretch would I call myself a ‘photographer’


China Hill Camp, Thai-Burma border




– my pictures are at best competent and usually a good deal less than that.










But often, when taking pictures,


China Hill Camp, January 1996











I also make notes. On their own, neither have any particular value, but joined together they reinforce each other.


[China Hill Camp: The camp is on the site of an old KMT  camp (from the ’70s). Thus the name…]











The conjunction of word and image represents a way of apprehending the world – a way that comes naturally to me. Apart from the blog there exists no other medium in which their publication would be feasible. To print them together would be prohibitively expensive.

Besides, the experience of turning a page and scrolling down a screen are not the same: the attribute that establishes the blog as a form unto itself is precisely its resistance to print. The print version of this article, for example, will have considerably less content than the post that will appear on my website. This is because the printed version will not contain any images. Does that mean that the meaning of the two versions will differ? The answer is yes, at least in the sense that the force of the argument will not be the same in both. Only a fanatical logocentrist could argue otherwise.

The free-standing blog differs also from Facebook, MySpace and other hosted pages. Those pages function within formats provided by corporations; the functions of commercial and social utility sit heavily upon them. The blog is to a much greater degree shaped by the tastes of its maker. With the pressures of the Here-and-Now removed, it is also one of the few virtual forms that is no longer primarily utilitarian.




Wintry Trees, Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) British Museum

If the blog, as a form, has any true predecessor it is the painted scroll. Not only does the eye follow the ‘content’ in a similar fashion, but scrolls also served as records, narratives, anouncements and so on. Painted scrolls even had the equivalent of a ‘comments’ feature, with interpolations and seal-marks being added  over the centuries.









But most of all, scrolls represent what may well be the most supremely beautiful pairings of text and image that have ever been created. They have set the standard to which blogs must aspire.



Nymph of the Luo River, Gu Kaizhi (344-406), Liaoning Museum copy


Nothing that I have said in these posts is intended to deny or diminish the strengths of the print media. The process of publishing in print consists of a collaboration between authors and a great number of others: editors, agents, book-designers, jacket-artists, proof-correctors and so on. Every one of these people puts something into the process and the finished works are, without a doubt, vastly the better for it. This process adds enormously to the quality, value and significance of books. That is why the institutions of print will not disappear: they are irreplaceable.

Nor are books the only beneficiaries of the publication process: authors too gain a great deal from it. In dealing with editors, translators, agents, fact-checkers, proof-correctors and so on, I have had the benefit of a continuing education that has lasted for decades. My blog would not be possible without this education.

But all this being said, I must admit that one of the most exhilarating aspects of blogging is that it does not require any intermediaries. It is a form of expression that needs neither reason nor reward, neither audience nor cause – and as such it is about as pure and as pleasureable as any that can be imagined.

Having tasted this freedom I find that it has become much harder to write for newspapers and magazines. To deal with even the nicest and most accommodating editor is awkward in comparison to dealing with oneself. The time lag between writing and publication, even if it is just a matter of a day or two, seems very long in comparison to the pleasure of posting a piece within minutes of writing and editing it.

But that’s just it: nothing about blogging is as surprising as the sheer pleasure of it.




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