Archive for September, 2012

When The Rivers Run Dry

Chrestomather | September 26, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)

 

 

When The Rivers Run Dry is about water, especially fresh water – where it comes from, how it flows and what happens to it. The news is not good, but it needs to be listened to, especially in Asia – and nowhere more so than in the Indian subcontinent, which may be heading towards a catastrophic scarcity of water even faster than other parts of the planet.

Fred Pearce is an English journalist, currently the environment consultant of New Science magazine. He is a writer who knows how to craft a compelling narrative out of mind-numbing facts.

‘Get your head around a few of these numbers if you can. They are mind boggling. It takes between 250 and 650 galloons of water to grow a pound of rice. That is more water than many households use in a week. For just a bag of rice… And when you start feeding grain to livestock for animal products such as meat and milk, the numbers become yet more startling. It takes 3000 gallons to grow the feed for enough cow to make a quarter-pound hamburger, and between 500 and 1000 gallons for that cow to fill its udders with a quart of milk…. And if you have a sweet tooth, so much the worse: every teaspoonful of sugar in your coffee requires 50 cups of water to grow… (G)rowing the crops to feed and clothe me for a year must take between 1500 and 2000 tons – more than half the contents of an Olympic-size swimming pool.’

This introduces us to the concept of ‘virtual water’: ‘In this terminology, every ton of wheat arriving at a dockside carries with it in virtual form the thousand tons of water needed to grow it. The global virtual-water trade is estimated to be around 800 million acre-feet a year, or twenty Nile rivers… This trade “moves water in volumes and over distances beyond the wildest imaginings of water engineers”.’

Much of this trade is unnecessary and illogical. Pearce points out that US is draining its aquifers only to export enormous quantities of virtual water as wheat; Pakistan is pouring a third of the flow of the Indus into cotton, and thus exporting it as virtual water: ‘the global trade in virtual water… lies at the heart of some of the most intractable hydrological crises on the planet.’

Much of Pearce’s reporting comes from the Indian subcontinent. His travels take him to Pakistan, which is as dependent on the Indus as Egypt is on the Nile. But ‘it is abundantly clear that the Indus is in deep trouble. In the first years of the twenty-first century, the river was largely dry for its final few hundred miles to the sea.’ He attributes the rapid growth of Karachi’s population to Pakistan’s hydrological crisis.

In India  the crisis takes a somewhat different form: the green revolution has led to an indiscriminate plundering of underground water reserves. In Pearce’s account the electrical water pump is largely to blame because it allows farmers to pump water at will, with highly subsidized electricity. In Tamil Nadu he meets farmers who have stopped farming and spend their days doing nothing but pumping up water, which they then sell to tankers. They know the water will soon be exhausted; the table is sinking so fast that they have to deepen their boreholes every week. But no one person will voluntarily end this suicidal practice – because that would only leave more for his neighbours, most of whom are also pumping up water as fast as they can. As Pearce notes, this ‘is a classic case of what environmentalists call “the tragedy of the commons”. Everybody chases short-term wealth even at the cost of destroying their long-term collective future.’

The celebrated ‘white revolution’, which has led to a huge output of milk in semi-arid parts of Gujarat, is also creating the conditions for a water disaster. Pearce goes to meet a farmer who keeps a herd of cows, which he feeds with alfalfa grown on his five acre plot. ‘I did the math. He uses 4.8 million gallons of water a year to grow the fodder to produce just over 2400 gallons of milk. That’s 200 gallons of water for every gallon of milk… (C)alculated over the year, it means he pumps from under his fields twice as much water as falls on the land in rain. No wonder the water table in the village is 500 feet down and falling by about 20 feet a year. What looks at first sight like an extremely efficient local economy, making milk in the desert for a dairy that trades across India, is in fact hydrological suicide.’

The notion of ‘hydrological suicide’ is hard to comprehend – this is perhaps the reason why people tend to shrug it off. It is their indifference that allows policy-makers to ignore it too. But ‘hydrological suicide’ is a real predicament; it happens. Perhaps the most dramatic chapter in the book is Pearce’s account of one instance of it: the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which has been described as the ‘greatest environmental disaster of the 20th century.’

The Aral Sea was not a small water-body: it was once the world’s fourth largest lake – the size of Belgium and Holland combined – and was fed by a river the size of the Nile – the storied Amu Darya. Its waters were filled with fish and it was famous for its beach resorts; the lands that surrounded it had extensive orchards and vineyards. Now it is largely a desert, surrounding a few ‘hyper-saline’ stretches of water. It was essentially killed by cotton: in order to cultivate the crop on a large scale, the Soviet Union diverted the waters of the rivers that fed it into irrigation schemes, reducing the flow of water to a trickle by the time it reached the sea.

 

credit: treehugger.com

The sea was gone in a few decades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The population that once lived off the sea’s bounty have now been reduced to penury; the rate of throat cancer in the area is 9 times the world average. They too were probably unable to envision the prospect of hydrological suicide, even as the water that sustained them was vanishing before their very eyes.

Pearce is at pains to explain that the problem lies not in an absolute lack of water, but in the patterns of water use. ‘Today,’ says Pearce, ‘the countries around the Aral Sea – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – occupy five of the top seven places in the world league table of per capita water users. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two countries that take their water from the Amu Darya, use more water per head of population than any others on earth. The Aral Sea basin is very far from being short of water. The problem is the simply staggering level of water use.’

In every country where cotton is grown in dry regions people should know that cotton is a slayer of rivers. The warning should be heeded in Egypt (where I lived amongst the cotton fields of Beheira a long time ago) and in Pakistan where, as Pearce writes, the British, by building the Sukkur barrage, ‘established what amounted to one giant cotton farm’ to feed the mills of Leicester.

But Pearce also has some encouraging stories, including some from India. There is for example the interesting case of Pepsee, a kind of plastic tubing for ice candies. ‘Sometime around 1998, somewhere in the Maikal hills of central India, someone – perhaps a farmer with a sideline of selling ices – started using Pepsee rolls for another purpose: to irrigate the fields.’ This became a kind of indigenous drip irrigation technique that minimised the loss of water through evaporation. The idea caught on and Pepsee is now in wide use among farmers.

Pearce’s best stories are those of rainwater harvesting. ‘In China,’ writes Pearce, ‘it was Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution that began the revival of the ancient tradition of rainwater harvesting. In India, it has been a mixture of swamis and scientists, schoolteachers and even policemen.’

Pearce writes about many such figures: Haradevsinh Hadeja, a retired police officer who has transformed the village of Rajsamadhiya in Gujarat; Rajendra Singh, a government scientist in Rajasthan who gave up his job to dedicate himself to water-harvesting; G.N.S.Reddy, a Gandhian; Pandurang Shastri Athavale, a Vedic scholar who is known as Dada to his followers. These are the real visionaries and innovators of our day: if the world were a saner place they, and their movement, would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

For a long time now the world has been in the grip of ideologies that celebrate ‘growth’ for its own sake. One particularly powerful version of this is the neo-liberal iteration of a philosophy that has historically regarded air and water as ‘free goods’. Ironically this ideology has found some of its most enthusiastic proselytes in countries where water is in short supply – India, Pakistan and Egypt are good examples. Egypt and Pakistan are both dependent on single  river systems. But Pakistan, as Pearce writes ‘abstracts five times more water per person than Ireland does, Egypt five times more than Britain.’

How long can this go on? It is time to recognize that the idea of ‘unlimited growth forever’ is a fraud, a hoax. This book shows us why – the planet will not allow it.

When The Rivers Run Dry is an exceptionally readable and well-written account of the world’s water crisis. It should be on every bookshelf.

 

___________________________________

 

When The Rivers Run Dry: Water – The Defining Crisis Of The Twenty-First Century, by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston 2006; there is also a Kindle edition).

 

 


Aatish Taseer’s ‘Stranger to History’

Chrestomather | September 25, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)

 

I met Aatish Taseer

 

 

in New York last year, at the prize-giving ceremony of the National Book Awards of the USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(my wife’s book, The Convert,

 

 

 

 

was on the short list).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was pleased to meet Aatish because I had recently read his 2011 novel Noon. I had liked it very much and that had made me eager to read Stranger to History, which was published earlier, in 2009. But it was only recently that I got around to it: I was lucky to have it with me on a couple of long flights.

 

 

Stranger to History is the story of multiple quests: starting with a search for a ‘lost’ Pakistani father, it evolves into an inquiry that is simultaneously personal, familial, historical, religious and political. It sends Atish off on journeys that take him to Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and finally Pakistan.

In Teheran Aatish meets a disparate crowd of party-goers, film-makers, former revolutionaries and members of the Hare Krishna movement. They paint an unexpected picture of their country. One of them says to Atish: “The people suffer from a kind of schizophrenia… in the day even a little girl has her head covered in school and has to learn about religion, but when she comes back there’s no religion and she takes her headscarf off… Have you seen the mosques? … They’re empty except for a few people and Basiji. People use them as bathrooms.”

Another man says to him: “You know what happened in Iran?… People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now that the government is religious, most of the people want to get away from religion. They see it as killing people, putting journalists in jail. That is the true religion. It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim. Most of the terrorists today are religious. I prefer to say I have no religion.”

This leads Aatish to a bleak conclusion: ‘When I saw that Iranians were no longer looking to religion to solve their problems, I concluded that they were on a healthier path than other Muslim countries I had visited. But though the mosques were empty in Tehran, though I hardly ever heard the call to prayer, never saw a woman fully veiled or a man with a beard, unless he was a government man, the revolution had not been kind: it had brutalized its children.”

Later he writes: “Though Iranians had not known the great machines of socialist and Fascist repression, they knew a subtle, daily harangue. That it was conducted in the name of Islam was a great pain: the people’s deepest allegiances were used to subdue them, their religion turned to nonsense. It left a terrible vacuum.”

I spent some time in Teheran in the early seventies , when the Shah was at the height of his power. It was a very different country then, oppressive in another way. But Aatish’s portrait of Teheran – “a modern city, full of energy, anonymity and menace” – was instantly recognizable to me, as indeed were some of the people he met.

Aatish’s journey leads him on to Pakistan: ‘it amazed me now that the journey which had begun in Europe… had yielded the subcontinent, Lahore and, even more miraculously, my father.’

The Pakistani parts of the narrative are conflicted in ways that mirror the relationship between India and Pakistan. But this is exactly what gives the book its power and interest: as the child of an Indian Sikh and a Pakistani Muslim, Atish embodies, in his person, the tormented history of the Punjab.

The ‘lost’ father is Salman Taseer, an important figure in Pakistan. When Atish finally meets him, he proves to be everything that he expects – charming, impressive, brilliant, larger-than-life. But he is also, in some ways, disappointing, even though he and his family go out of their way to be generous and hospitable.

Salman Taseer explains that he is a ‘cultural’ Muslim, rather than a pious believer. That is to say, while he is not personally religious, he feels a powerful sense of identity with the traditions of Islam. In a sense he is a familiar figure, a man who rarely prays but whose imaginative life is mapped on the grid of Islamic history: the kind of person who might enjoy a drink, but likes to listen to Sufi music and wants to travel to Sicily and Andalusia.

Aatish’s uneasy relationship with his father leads to the discovery that this too can be a narrow and exclusionary way of looking at the world. What makes the discovery poignant in Aatish’s case, is that it is couched as a personal rejection – it comes about through his father’s refusal to acknowledge that Aatish too might be ‘culturally Muslim’, and that he too might have a claim to being in some way Pakistani. This leads to a harsh summation: “Pakistan’s founders were not clerics and fanatics, but poets and secularists. It was from the most sophisticated Muslims of that time that the case for the country was made… For me, until I saw the faith’s unspoken hold on my father’s notions of history and politics, and the chauvinism it could produce, the idea would almost have been too strange to understand.”

The tragic irony of this is that Salman Taseer eventually proved himself to be one of the most courageous and open-minded men of his time, by calling for the repeal of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law. For this he was murdered, in cold blood, by a member of his own security detail, in 2011.

Did Salman Taseer’s encounter with his own half-Sikh, half-Indian son play a part in prompting him to stand up for tolerance and pluralism in Pakistan? Had he read the book and was he perhaps trying to address his son’s judgement of him? It is impossible not to wonder.

With Pakistan, as with his father, Aatish’s vision is sometimes clouded by his personal conflicts. But this only serves to make the story all the more poignant – it is as if he were trying to unmake a border that had divided his own heart.

Stranger to History is a remarkable book – touching, brave, honest, elegantly written and filled with political and historical insight.

 

Aatish Taseer: Stranger to History, Picador India, 2009.


Pankaj Mishra’s ‘From the Ruins of Empire’

Chrestomather | September 22, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

 

A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal (Asia) wrote to me asking for a short recommendation of a soon-to-be-published book. My pick was Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire.

 

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra

(Farrar, Strauss, 2012)

 

History is sometimes a contest of narratives. In this book Pankaj Mishra looks back on the 19th and 20th centuries through the work of three Asian thinkers: Jamal al-Din Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore. The story that emerges is quite different from that which most Western readers have come to accept. Enormously ambitious but thoroughly readable, this book is essential reading for everyone who is interested in the processes of change that have led to the emergence of today’s Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Turkish POWs in India and Burma: First World War – Part 2

Chrestomather | September 17, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (7)

 

Guest post by Vedica Kant:

 

The Turkish POW camp at Sumerpur was a self-sufficient camp on a large plain bordered by rocky hills and intersected by a river that dried up in the heat, held 3,366 prisoners, mostly Mesopotamian Arabs, and Christians (the Greek Consulate in Calcutta confirmed that the camp had Orthodox Greek prisoners; Armenians were also present.). An International Red Cross report on the camp, talking about the make-up of the camp, notes that the many “nationalities” of the camp were not well disposed to each other. The British allowed the prisoners to dress according to their customs and the camp became a sartorial showcase of the medley that was the Ottoman Empire. On show were military tunics, civilian waistcoats, smocks, long cotton robes, Turkish frock coats, fezzes, turbans, caps, slouch hats, and embroidered skullcaps.

 The Armenian contingent of the camp is of particular interest. Most of the Armenian prisoners were from Mardin (in Turkey’s southeast) and complained to the Red Cross officials that they had not heard from their family members and were sure that they had been massacred by the Turks. Why were these Armenians fighting for the Ottoman army if relations between the two communities had deteriorated so much? Was it just that they were forced? And what did they do when they were given freedom – did they go back to Turkey after the war? In some senses these Armenians were lucky. The official targeting of Armenians crystallised after the failure of the disastrous Turkish campaign of Sarikamish (22 Dec, 1914 – Jan 17, 1915) against the Russians that was led by Enver Pasha, the war minister. Armenian troops fought on the Turkish side, but were singled out for blame after the campaign’s failure. On 25th 1915 February, Enver ordered all Armenians in active Ottoman forces be demobilised and assigned them to labour battalions, an important step in the subsequent genocide.

The British probably understood that co-locating the Turks with the other ethnic groups of the Ottoman Army would be an exercise fraught with trouble and headaches. Turkish soldiers were kept exclusively in separate camps.

 

 

 

Thayetmyo, the largest Turkish POW camp, was located on the right bank of the Irrawady river.

 

 

Turkish Cemetery, Thayetmyo

 

The splendid mango trees, which gave the place its name sheltered pagodas whose white spires rose above the dark foliage. The high banks of the camp commanded the great spread of the river, which at low water exposed some sandy islands. In the distance a chain of blue-tinted mountains bound the horizon[1]. Here the Turkish POWs played backgammon, dice, and drank copious amounts of Turkish coffee.

 

 

 

 

 

The prisoners produced a camp newspaper called the ‘Irawadi’ that discussed topics like religion, literature, science, and history (but not politics, personal matters or any criticisms). It wasn’t all an idyll for the prisoners though. Later, they were also put to work on tobacco plantations and the Pyinama-Minbyin railway line. The National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens in the town of the Pyin U Lwin (earlier Maymyo) was also largely built by Turkish POWs. It is hard to imagine what these Turks felt living a life some ten thousand kilometres away from their lands. The distance seems enormous on the map even today; it must have been a whole world away for them. Fav Kaymakam? Halid Efendi, who was prisoner at Thayetmyo wrote:

“To be rescued from this unending, inexhaustible captivity that has gnawed away at my family’s life for the last year and a half; to return to my country and kiss its ground.”[2]



[1] Anon., 1917. Reports on British Prison Camps in India and Burma. London: Adelphi Terrace

[2] Ta?k?ran, C., 2001. Ana Ben Ölmedim: I Dünya Sava??nda Türk Esirler. Istanbul: Türkiye ?? Bankas? Kültür Yay?nlar?


Turkish POWs in India and Burma: First World War – Part 1

Chrestomather | September 14, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

Guest post by Vedica Kant:

 

 

A number of posts on this blog over the last few months have focussed on the experience of Indian soldiers and army officers in foreign lands during the First World War. The most recent posts have looked at the experience of two Indians in the Mesopotamian campaign, where more than half a million Indians played a major role in the campaign, and some stayed as an occupying force to aid in the administration of the province long after the war was over.

 

 

I am writing about another aspect of the Mesopotamia campaign – India as the site for camps for Turkish Prisoners of War captured during the battle. It has been argued that the First World War was the first ‘total war’ where the distinction between war and civil society blurred[1]. While Indians played a huge role in the war effort in theatres of war outside India, the geographical space of the British subcontinent was not divorced from the war either. When I started looking at India’s role in Mesopotamia, it was an enquiry that was very much informed by a geographical focus on the Ottoman lands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was surprised to learn of the other side of the equation – that the British sent captured prisoners all the way to the Indian subcontinent. When I moved into my new flat in Istanbul, my neighbour, an old Istanbullu lady who has the air of secular republicans who constituted the Kemalist elite in the 1950s, told me that I was the first Indian she had met, but her father had fought in Mesopotamia in the Great War and she had heard stories of the Indian soldiers he had fought against. Later he had been captured and sent to India as a POW (she was vague on the details of where exactly), and because he was educated had become a translator between the British officials and other prisoners.

 

The main POW camps for Turkish POWs were in Sumerpur (Rajputana), Bellary (Bombay Presidency), and Thayetmyo (Burma). There were smaller depot, quarantine and convalescence camps at Calcutta, Rangoon and Shwebo respectively. (Other than POW camps, there were also a number of internment camps in the country where civilians of enemy nationality were kept.) I still have not reached the bottom of why the prisoners of war were sent all the way to India, when they could have been interned at other, closer locations. The journey to India, and especially Burma was arduous. To reach Thayetmyo, for example, prisoners would be gathered at Basra, where they would stay for two to four weeks for observation. Once a convoy had been made up it would be be taken by steamer to Bombay or Karachi and then across the country to Calcutta by train. From Calcutta, the prisoners would be taken to Rangoon by steamer and from Rangoon by large flats up the Irrawady to Thayetmyo. I imagine this randomness was just another way the Empire worked. Someone decided that prisoners would be sent to a remote camp in India or Burma (perhaps because manpower was needed, perhaps because India, given its role in the war, was expected to house prisoners) and the imperial machinery lined up to ensure that this was made possible.

 

 

 



[1] Roy, F., Leibau, H., Ahuja, R., eds., 2011. ‘When The War Began We Heard of Several Kings: South Asian Prisoners in World War I Germany’. Delhi: Social Science Press.


A Kolkata Tragedy

Chrestomather | September 10, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

 

On Saturday, February 11, 2012, the Telegraph, a Kolkata daily, carried this report:

 

The body of a Class XI student of La Martiniere for Boys was found in the Rabindra Sarobar waters on Friday afternoon, two days after he was reported missing. Riju Basak, 17, did not return home on Wednesday after setting out on a city trip programme organised by the Goethe-Institut at Max Mueller Bhavan. His family last heard from him around 6.30pm on Wednesday.

“The post-mortem report confirms that he died of drowning. No injury mark was found on his body,” said Damayanti Sen, joint commissioner of police (crime).

 

Rhiju Basak

Riju, the only son of Kajal, a businessman who deals in gems and runs a catering business, and Mitra Basak, lived with his parents at 10/1A Chaitanya Sen Lane, near Hind Fame. “I do not suspect anyone and I have no complaint against anyone,” was all that the grieving father could say.

According to police, Riju’s father lodged a complaint with Charu Market police station on Wednesday night after a stranger informed them over the phone that his bag, shoes, school blazer, tie, diary and identity card were lying near Bhavani cinema, off the Rabindra Sarobar Metro station and not far from the Sarobar.

“His mother had received the call and the family began a search in that area with his photograph,” said Arup Kumar Basak, his uncle.

Cops said Tarun Kumar Mali, a local resident, spotted Riju’s belongings on the concrete slab around a tree trunk. Mali found the cell number of his father from Riju’s school identity card and called him.

Riju’s body was found floating in the Lakes around 11.45am on Friday by some gardeners who work there. They alerted the security guard, who got in touch with the police. His wallet and wrist watch were missing.

“For two days we have been searching in the area. Today when we asked a security guard, he said a body had just been recovered. We rushed to the spot and found that the police had fished out the body and kept it on the banks. We knew it was Riju, he was in his school trousers but without a shirt,” said Arup Basak.

On Wednesday, Riju and two other students of the school had gone to Max Mueller to participate in a cultural exchange programme organised by the Goethe-Institut. He had been selected on the basis of an essay he wrote.

 

On August 29 I received this letter.

 

Respected Mr. Ghosh,

                                          I, Mitra Basak, have just lost my son, Rhiju Basak forever in the month of February, 2012. He passed ICSE exam from Don Bosco School Park Circus and them bacame a student of La Martiniere for Boys with Humanities. Rhiju was a devoted reader of all sorts of books specially he was an eager reader of your writings.

                               Rhiju met you in South City Mall last year on the day of opening of your book RIVER OF SMOKE and had some dialogue with you, where Rhiju told you that he also writes poems and he has an intention to publish a book of poems written by him. With a smile you told him you would get the book with a signature of Rhiju. It is a matter of deep sorrow that this cannot happen as now Rhiju has gone very far away from us. I wish he will be living in all of us forever through his creations. So I have arranged to publish a book of all poems of Rhiju on his birthday 12th September. Inaugration of the book will be held in OXFORD, Park Street. Title of his book was settled by Rhiju himself as “A BUNCH OF LIES”.

                               It was my earnest desire that you would be present on the occassion and will put your auspicious hand on my head and Rhiju could be happy by witnessing the scene and i shall also be happy. As this is not posiible, So if you kindly write few lines which we can treat as a “Preface” of the book. If and otherwise we will include your writing in the book(not as a preface). I will treat your writing as a grace to a bereaved mother.

                               A quick response from your end will help us a lot. Awaiting eagerly for your reply.

                               I pray for your better health and peace.

                               Thanking You.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   Yours Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                                                                                   Mrs. Mitra Basak

 

 

I was moved by this letter and I asked Mrs Basak to send me Rhiju’s poems. Afterwards I sent her these lines, for the book’s preface:

There is something about Rhiju Basak’s poetry that reminds me of the young protagonist of my novel The Shadow Lines. It is strange to think that the two of them had walked the same streets and sat in the same classrooms. But their commonalities extend beyond the shared experiences of a Kolkata adolescence. There is something similar also in the nature of their response to their surroundings. It is evident that Rhiju was acutely aware of the poverty and suffering that he witnessed every day. Thus these lines of his poem ‘A Cold Man’:

 

 

 

            I walk through the city…

            Right through the middle of a death parade…

            Electric guitar hanging from my shoulder…

            I stop at a corpse lying on the ground…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was moved to learn from Rhiju’s mother that my work had meant a great deal to him. She tells me that he had attended one of my public events in Kolkata and that we had exchanged a few words. After reading Rhiju’s poems I am saddened that we could not speak at greater length: I know that we would have had a lot to talk about.  

My heart goes out to Rhiju’s parents, relatives and friends at this time of grief. It is evident from these poems that he had great promise: his tragic death is a loss for us all.

 

Amitav Ghosh

September 2, 2012

 

On September 6 Mrs Basak sent me the photographs that are posted here and this message:

 

Rhiju Basak

Respected Mr. Ghosh,

                                 I have received your brief and nice “PREFACE” and it has already been sent to proper place for printing. On this context i would like to express my gratitude temporary relief brought to my heart with the above message. Though it is an irrepairable wound that can be cured fully with my death. Once more I would like to thank you for the pain you are taking and spending your valuable time for my son Rhiju.
                                 Lastly, I would like to tell you that you have every liberty to quote any portion of my letters written to you for your purpose. I enclose herewith two copies of photograph of my only son Rhiju for your choice and action. For your information the proloque  the title of the book (A BUNCH OF LIES) and layout of cover was done by Rhiju himself.
                                                                                                  Thanking You.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Ever Grateful,
Mitra Basak.

 

 

 

 

 

Rhiju Basak’s book of poems is to be released at the Oxford Bookstore, on Park Street, in Kolkata on September 12, at 6 pm.  His parents have extended a welcome to all who would like to attend.

 

 

 


Letter from Guangzhou/Canton

Chrestomather | September 5, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

‘A Plan of the City of Canton and its Suburbs’, 18th Century

 

 

August 12, 2012

Dear Mr. Ghosh,

After reading Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke consecutively this summer, I am greatly delighted by your stories about Canton back in the 19th century. As a current resident in this modern city, I am enchanted by your use of those pidgin English.  As a Chinese more used to the Pinyin system(I am from Anhui in eastern China), I have to admit that I also have some trouble in deciphering some of the Canton dialect in River of Smoke, though I have been here for almost 8 years. Therefore, I can’t help admiring your uses of this language, let alone your extensive knowledge in history, gardening and art. Your novels have enriched my understandings of The Opium War, furthering my knowledge about India-China relations.

 

Foreign Factory Site, Canton, 1805, Reverse Painting on glass, Chinese Artist, Peabody Essex Museum

 

 

With the fresh impressions of your novel, I assume that you must have been to Canton(Guangzhou). That’s how I find your blog and photos taken in Guangzhou. You attention to the details (the Indian residence in Shamian) again impressed me. Incidentally, I also find news report about your visit to Zhejiang University and the translations of your novel Sea of Poppies by Professor Guo Guoliang. I hope that the Chinese version will come out soon so that more readers with get to know your writings. However, I am also afraid how much of your interesting languages will be lost in translation. As a College English teacher in Canton, I naturally feel that it would be rather amusing to use your text in the class since most of the students in our university are from within Guangdong Province. Their knowledge of Cantonese is surely above my level.

 

 

View of Canton, 1865, shows the entire city with Shamian Island (lower left) oil on board, Peabody Essex Museum, photo Jeffrey R. Dykes

 

 

Currently I am also busy with my PhD thesis in English literature.  While preparing my thesis, I am trying to keep a close watch about the developments of English fictions, with a special attention to the BOOKER prize. In the past, English novels are not easily accessible but it is getting better. Novels that are on hot sale or those prize-winning ones are, comparatively speaking, easier to obtain in China through online bookstores. I have written essays and reviews about Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Last Man in Tower, and translated an excerpt from Between Two Assassinations. I am sorry to say that I only get access to your novels this summer. Putting aside other books on my agenda, I devoted the holidays to your books. It allured me so much that I am not able to fall asleep without finishing it. Luckily I have done it last night, reading sleeplessly  to 6 a.m. To be honest, it is really rewarding for me, because through history textbooks we have learnt about Opium War, with tedious facts to remember. But your novel connects so many incidents together that makes the significance of the historical event to a global level. I feel it is recommendable for Chinese readers to read it.

 

A close View of the Foreign Factories (Thirteen Hongs), Canton, about 1807, attributed to Guan Zuolin (‘Spoilum’), Oil on Canvas, Hong Kong Museum of Art.

 

 

Maybe you are in the process of writing the last book of the Ibis triology. I will keep myself informed by regularly visiting your website and anticipate to buy a copy. If possible, I will try to spare some time to write more about you to the Chinese audience.

Best wishes,

Li Daoquan

 

 

‘The Hongs of Canton’, William Daniell,early 19th Century, Oil on Canvas, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

 

 

Dear Mr Li

Thank you ever so much for this wonderful letter. It is great to know that you, as a resident of Guangzhou, have enjoyed these two books. I’ve very much enjoyed my visits to the city – I do think it is one of the world’s most amazing cities, with a remarkable history.

I don’t know yet when the book will be out in Chinese. I think it should be out quite soon. I will write to Prof Guo to find out.

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

Warm regards

Amitav Ghosh

 

View of Canton, painted ivory bas relief. Details include Sea Calming Tower, Yuexiu Hill, and Flowery Pagoda, down to minuscule bells, Peabody Essex Museum

 

August 14, 2012

Dear Mr. Ghosh,

It’s OK to post the letter on your blog.  I have enjoyed reading through that informative site.

By the way, I have noticed that quite a few Indian writers take interests in adopting Chinese elements in their recent novels. How do you interprete this phenomenon?  Will you continue to include Chinese elements in your next fiction to the Ibis triology?

 Best wishes,

Li Daoquan

 

Canton, Fire of 1822, circa 1822, Chinese artist, Peabody Essex Museum

 

Sept 2, 2012

Dear Mr Li

I am sorry I have been slow to get back to you. I was busy with a long series of posts, but that is over now so I will post your letter next week.

You had asked about the Cantonese elements in the Trilogy. It’s not surprising that the Cantonese words are unfamiliar to you. Most of them are obscenities and insults (in both of which Cantonese seems to be extraordinarily rich). My guide in this regard was an excellent dictionary:

Bolton, Kingsley & Christopher Hutton (ed.): A Dictionary Of Cantonese Slang: The Language Of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs And City Life, Singapore University Press, 2005.

Prof Bolton is a great authority on Cantonese and has taught in Hong Kong for many years.

With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh

 

The Hongs of Canton, lithograph by Lauvergne, 1840 (note Indians in foreground)

 


Poem inspired by ‘Sea of Poppies’ and Agha Shahid Ali’s Ghazals

Chrestomather | September 3, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

 

 

Sent: Saturday, 14 July 2012 8:34 AM

Subject: Poem inspired by your work and my English Ghazal’s based on Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘Real’ Ghazals

Dear Mr.Ghosh,

Greetings Sir! I am a medical graduate from Mysore ,Karnataka and am an ardent fan of your writing. Sir, I recently discovered your wonderful blog and was delighted to find that you spared a little bit of your time to read mail from thousands of fans like myself and could not resist the temptation to write to you about your writings which have moved me even to poetry . Of all your Novels the one that means the most to me is ‘The sea of Poppies’. Disparate stories of several characters blended together in that Novel , Sir , into a dream like narrative vividness that stays with the reader forever. Particularly haunting is the first prevision Deeti has of the Ibis and the way she comes to comprehend it as the tale unfolds. But the scene that forms,  to my mind , the crux of Deeti’s and Kalua’s story is Kalua’s rescuing Deeti from the pyre of the Sati. The description was so vivid and impressive that I was impelled to keep aside the book for a while to think on what might have happened if Deeti would have died on the Pyre. Particularly evocative was Deeti’s first guess on coming to after being rescued as she drifts toward her destiny on Kalua’s raft-’None of this was surprising , for it was in exactly this way that she had expected to awaken from the flames-afloat in the netherworld, on the Baitarini River, in the custody of Charak, boatman of the dead.’ What if Deeti’s tale would end not with Kalua by her side but Charak ? This thought inspired me to write this Sonnet, Sir-

No one could tell

 

Above, the light and dark in twilight met,

As her young body ‘pon her pyre did burn;

And then collected in an earthen Urn,

Her ash was ‘pon the holy Ganges set.

It drifted like a mooring lost canoe,

Without a destination or direction;

Where would it come to rest, no one could know,

Perhaps in some very different dimension.

 

And look! Her soul alike her ash recedes,

With Charak boatman of the dead, upon

The Baitarini, all her thoughts and deeds,

As naked as her body when newborn.

O Does she drift to heaven or to hell?

Souls drift like urns, where to, no one can tell.

 

Another piece of your writing which inspired me to write , Sir, was the beautifully poignant essay you wrote on Agha Shahid Ali sahib’s death. I first read ‘The ghat of the only world’: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn’ when I was researching the Ghazal form in English in the hope of writing in the form myself . Your Essay introduced me to ‘Ravishing Disunities’ and moved me to delve into Agha sahibs other work. Reading ‘Ravishing Disunities’ and ‘Call me Ishmael tonight’ opened up a whole new world before me and showed me how powerful the Ghazal could be even in English. I owe you the gratitude not only of a fan but also a student for writing this moving piece on Agha Sahib, Sir, and am glad to gather from other fan mail on your blog that the essay has been included in a textbook that is read by millions of school children in our country. I hope this essay will inspire many others to look into ‘Shahid’s’ work especially in the Ghazal. I have written over these last few years several Ghazals in English and have collected some of these into an e-book collection. I am taking the liberty of attaching this collection to this e-mail as PDF in the hope that it may merit your perusal. You bring out in your Novels ,Sir, better than any other living writer , the fusion of languages and cultures into one another. I hope you enjoy my poetic efforts at fusing the Urdu-Persianate traditions with the English idiom and I would be delighted if you would accept this little work as a gift , a small literary Pesh-kash from a literary novice to a literary master.

Thank you Mr.Ghosh,

Sincerely,

Syed Faizan,

Mysore,

India.

 

 

Sun, Jul 15, 2012 at 9:45 PM

 

Dear Syed Faizan

Thanks so much for this wonderful letter. The ghazal is beautifully done – I think Shahid would have liked the way you’ve observed the rules.

I would like to post your letter and poem on my blog if that’s okay with you. Do let me know.

With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh

 

 

Sunday 15th July

 

Dear Mr.Ghosh,

                    Delighted to receive a reply from you. I am thrilled to know that you liked my poem,  I would love it if the poem and letter are posted on your blog Sir. I am also overjoyed and honored to know that you read my English Ghazals and thought them well done. Even more pleasing is your thought that Agha Sahib would have liked these Ghazal’s. I am honored and delighted by your response Sir,

                                                                                  Thanking you Mr.Ghosh,

Sincerely,

Syed Faizan,

Mysore,

India.

 

Sept 3, 2012

Dear Syed Faizan

I am sorry I have been slow to get back to you. I was busy with a long series of posts, but it is over now so I will post our correspondence on my site tomorrow.

Thanks very much once again.

Wishing you the very best

Amitav

 

 

Sept 3

Dear Mr.Ghosh,

                    Thank you for your reply.I thank you once again for sharing my poem with your readers through your blog.Sir,I am myself among the avid followers of your blog and have found your last few posts ‘On to Baghdad’ a veritable revelation! The deep research, rare photos, your own translations, are almost a Novel in themselves.Captain Kalyan Mukherji’s letter in an earlier post,’I spit in the face of Patriotism’ is truly ‘one of the most remarkable of the 20th century’ thanks for bringing it to us,Sir.Looking forward to the third Novel in the ‘Ibis trilogy’ and Anusha Rizvi’s movie adaptation of ‘Sea of Poppies’ and many many more stories from you, 
                                       Thank you Mr.Ghosh
Sincerely,
Syed Faizan,
Mysore,
India.



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