Archive for October, 2012

Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 3 of 7

October 31, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]



From confluence to crossroads: we come now to a fork in the road that confronts not just Europe but our entire planet.

In some ways the dilemmas that face Europe today are unique. But there should be no doubt that in a broader sense the crisis that faces this continent is not Europe’s alone. The whole world is facing a crisis of multiple dimensions, in which economic breakdown, political paralysis, environmental degradation, and a broad cultural and imaginative failure are building up to a ‘catastrophic convergence.’

Even as I say this, I am acutely aware of the historical ironies that are implicit in using apocalyptic words like ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ in a place that is as prosperous and tranquil as Amsterdam; and indeed, at a moment when people around the world are living longer than ever before – and some would even say, better than ever before, at least in that they are able to buy more things and consume more than at any time in the past. It is strange most of all, to be using these words in an era of peace, in the heart of a continent which has so often been convulsed by war – it forces us to recall other critical moments in the not-too-distant past. What for example, was it like to be here in Amsterdam, in August 1914, when this continent was hurtling towards the killing fields of the First World War? What was it like to be here in May 1940, when Germany invaded Holland? To someone who had lived through those times, it might seem a gross exaggeration to use the word ‘crisis’ in relation to what we are faced with today.

But this is indeed what makes the present global crisis so unprecedented and so peculiarly confounding. Everything we have learnt from our forbears, everything in human history and pre-history – including, indeed, the instincts of our primate ancestors – teaches us to think of crisis in terms of conflict. But the crisis that we are faced with today is not, in the first instance, a situation of conflict between groups of human beings: this is exactly why it is so intractable –  because it has no precedent in history. There is nothing in our past, nothing in our collective memory that equips us to confront this crisis – or even to recognize it as such. This is a crisis that is cumulative and, in a sense, invisible: that is exactly what makes it so easy for people to turn away from it.

One universal aspect of the human experience is that we value the past and try to learn from it. But now we are at a moment in time when we have to unlearn much that we have learnt – a moment in which much of the wisdom of the past looks like folly, and what seems like success is revealed to be failure; a moment in which the remedies that were once seen as solutions are now identifiable as precisely the causes of the catastrophe that we are now confronted with.

What then is the nature of this crisis? Let me put it briefly: the resources of this planet, which we all inhabit, are dwindling very fast, while its atmosphere and climate are changing in ways that may bring an end to civilization as we know it. There is now an almost-universal consensus amongst scientists that human activity – that is to say, industrialization and what is often called ‘development’ – have contributed significantly to changes in the world’s climate. The record shrinkage in the Arctic ice cap this year is proof that the changes are happening much faster than was anticipated by even the gloomiest forecasts. Yet the political economy – and indeed culture – of our world is moving ever faster in a direction that is certain to lead to catastrophe.



Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 2 of 7

October 29, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]



In the latter half of the 20th century European governments, often with the best intentions, responded to immigrants by providing support for what they saw as the most ‘authentic’ elements of their cultures. These policies – let us admit it – frequently had retrograde and damaging effects: the state’s money and support went to the most ‘traditional’ – which were also often the most hidebound – sections of migrant communities. The secularists and progressives were ignored and seen as irrelevant. I have known many migrant feminists, secularists and activists of different kinds, who have been confounded by this approach – embattled within their own communities, they also found themselves marginalized as ‘inauthentic’ by the wider society; sometimes they were even derided with variants of that peculiarly offensive French term deraciné.

The problem lies perhaps in squeezing the lived reality of life into rigid frames like ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘religion’ and so on. These frames set artificial limits on what people actually think and do; worse still, people come to believe in them and they even sometimes reinvent their lives to fit the frame.

Instead of thinking of ‘culture’ why don’t we think about everyday practices – what people actually do? Why don’t we think about the ways they spend their time; what they like to eat; what sort of music they listen to? When we think about questions like these, an odd thing happens. We find that migrants and their hosts are not so different after all; neither of them are stuck within their own ‘cultures’. Both have evolved, unwittingly or not, towards each other. We find that Holland is a country of soccer-playing rijstaeffel eaters who are famous for growing a Turkish flower – the tulip; we find that Britain is a land of cricket-playing, korma-eating reggae singers; Germany becomes a land of doner kabab and Eurovision and skateboarders. Why then should states support mosques and temples rather than football clubs and dance troupes and art exhibitions?

And why, in any case, should that support come from departments of welfare and social services? For many hard-working immigrants, who pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, the whiff of charity is a taint. Why shouldn’t the support come from those arms of government that serve the wider community – that is, ministries of sports, culture and so on? Why shouldn’t state-supported operas or museums or theatres throw their weight behind such projects? For let us make no mistake: the temples of Western ‘high culture’ are among the most rigid and exclusionary institutions on this planet. The lines they draw between ‘ethnic’ and ‘classical’ music, and ‘folk’ and ‘modern’ art are among the most important barriers to dialogue and assimilation. They too need to be muddied in the confluence of modern Europe.

But the issue of cultural assimilation, as it arises in Western and Northern Europe, is not the most pressing problem in regard to immigration in the continent today. The issue takes on a completely different aspect at the edges of the confluence – that is to say in southern Spain, and especially in Greece.

As I see it, the violence that is being visited on immigrants in Greece today is just as critical a test for Europe as is the collapse of that country’s economy. There are many in Greece who are strongly opposed to the right-wing groups that are leading the attacks on immigrants: they need the support of other Europeans no less urgently than the country’s bankers.

Greece is sometimes looked upon as an exception. But in my view Greece is not a laggard but an outlier – it is a country that sometimes provides glimpses of things to come. When riots broke out in Greece in 2008 they seemed inexplicable. But in retrospect it is clear that they were the first signs of a wave of unrest that the currents of the Mediterranean would soon carry to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Spain, and even beyond to England and the United States.

This is why Greece is so important: if the ascendancy of the fascist, anti-immigrant right continues its rise in that country, it will have profound consequences for all of Europe. These developments will spread beyond Greece, and the violence that is now being inflicted upon Africans and Asians will soon be turned against other Europeans – the problems that the Roma are facing across Europe is evidence of this. Soon the tide of prejudice will turn also against internal immigrants – southerners in northern cities, East Europeans in the West, and so on.

One thing we can be sure of is that the pressures of migration are only going to intensify in the years ahead, not just in Europe but around the world. This is because the numbers of people displaced by climate change is going to grow very fast.  It is essential for Europe to take the lead in creating a template that can be used everywhere for dealing with the mounting crises of displacement that will arise from accelerating disruptions of our planetary environment.



Europe and the fate of the Earth – Part 1 of 7

October 25, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]




Bengal, where I was born, is a vast delta where thousands of creeks and rivers flow into each other to form a landscape that is mapped upon a grid of interlocking waterways. Here a confluence of rivers is both a seam and a separation – it joins many shores even as it holds them apart. The Bengali word for confluence is mohana which reflects this ambiguity while also adding to it an element of beguilement that evokes, in my mind, the image of the ‘crossroads’ – a metaphor that is almost universally identified with riddles and paradoxes, confusion and crisis.

A terrain in which the mohana is the dominant feature is inevitably a landscape of ambiguity, where there are no clear lines between river and sea, earth and water, island and mainland. In an imaginative sense it is the opposite of the landscape of Europe, which has come to be powerfully identified with certainty and solidity, with sharply drawn lines and clearly demarcated borders.

The irony however, is that Europe’s neatly-mapped terrain terminates in one of geography’s great mysteries, a matter that has perplexed schoolchildren for centuries: where exactly does the continent’s eastern boundary lie? Where is the line that separates Europe from Asia? It would seem that the location of this border is largely a matter of opinion – for Europe is is not of course, a continent at all, in the geographical sense, but rather an idea, of shifting shape. Nonetheless, in the imagination of the world ‘Europe’ is still a landmass in the first instance – that is to say as a terra continens, or ‘continuous land’, as defined by the geographers of the 16th century.

But this was not how Europe was first imagined. Greece, where the concept was invented, is a region where water plays almost as important a part as it does in Bengal. The ‘Europe’ of the Greeks was defined by bodies of water – among them the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Hellespont (‘Sea of Helle’). These ‘seas’ were precisely ‘mohanas’ in that they were a kind of crossroads that served to both join and separate.

The Europe of the Greeks was thus a point in a triangle that had Africa on one side, and Asia on the other. The Mediterranean was the confluence that joined Europe to those other continents; and the Hellespont was the confluence that lay between Athens and Troy, Greece and Persia. Without these confluences ‘Europe’ would not have been imaginable. Let us recall that the word derives from the legend of ‘Europa’ who was not herself ‘European’: she was a Phoenician princess, who died, like so many modern migrants, while crossing a confluence that was also a crossroads.

But a crossroads is not just a link between points in space. It is also a junction in the axis of time, in the sense that it lies between the beginning of a journey and its end. This is one of the reasons why I want to use the twin images of the ‘confluence’ and the ‘crossroads’ to frame two issues that are of critical importance today, to Europe as well as the rest of the world.



The first of these issues is migration. In recent years, as you well know, migration has come to be associated, in the minds of many Europeans, with a failure of cultural assmilation. This is an important question and to treat it fairly I think it is important to direct our gaze across the confluences that join Europe to other continents. Let us consider the example of the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Europeans who are are now working on other continents: for example, in Dubai, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Mozambique, South Africa, China, India, Thailand and so on. Let us ask: to what degree do these Europeans integrate into their host societies? The reality is that many, if not most of them, make every effort to maintain a strict distance between themselves and the countries they live in. They have their own clubs, they send their children to their own schools, they live in their own neighbourhoods; and very few become conversant with the languages and cultures of the places they inhabit.

To make the matter even clearer, let us turn our gaze back, by a few decades: let us consider European populations living in colonial societies – in India, Indonesia or East Africa for instance. Those circumstances were always characterized by a vast distance between Europeans and the wider population; they lived, in fact, in racially defined zones of exclusion where non-Europeans could only enter as servants. Similar situations persist even today, in the Gulf countries, and in parts of Asia and Africa. Compare this with the situation of Asian or African immigrant in Europe: no matter how sequestered their lives, it would be impossible for them to live in such complete isolation from the worlds around them.

If we look at the issue from this point of view – that is to say, if we start, not by looking at immigants in Europe but by asking what Europeans do when they are working abroad – I think it quickly becomes apparent that most human beings respond in much the same way when they find themselves in an unfamiliar place. They look for what is familiar and reassuring; and if they fail to find it they begin to create it in their homes and neighbourhoods. In that process a strange thing happens. They forget about the travails and disappointments of home – all those things that prompted them to pack their bags in the first place – and they create a new home of the imagination, a place that is imbued with a sentimental glow. This was exactly what happened with European colonialists in the 19th and early 20th centuries: travelers from England and Holland who went to India and Indonesia were often amazed by how rigid and old-fashioned their colonial countrymen were, and how they made fetishes of traditions that had long been forgotten at ‘home’.

Sunil Gangopadhyay and his legacy

October 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (10)



Sunil Gangopadhyay was a great writer and a warm, kind and generous man. I can scarcely believe that he is gone.

Our interests overlapped in odd and sometimes surprising ways. Sunil-da loved Indian classical music for instance, and it was through a novella of his, about the life of the great singer Amir Khan, that I was first introduced to his work. He was also among the first to write about the refugee settlement of Morichjhapi, in the Sundarbans (which figures prominently in my novel The Hungry Tide). I particularly loved his historical fiction, especially the novel Shei Shomay (which was published in English as Those Days): 19th century Calcutta was one of our shared passions.

Sunil-da was supportive of my work long before we became friends. He frequently reviewed my books in Desh, Bengal’s most important literary magazine. He would often say to me ‘you write Bengali novels in English’ – I treasured those words.

Although Sunil-da felt strongly about the Bengali language, when it came to books what he cared about most was the quality of the writing, not the choice of language. No writer had a greater influence on him perhaps than Allen Ginsburg (he spoke of this at length with my wife for her book A Blue Hand).

One of Sunil-da’s greatest qualities, as a writer and a human being, was that he accepted, acknowledged and encouraged the interplay of influences between languages. For him the literary world wasn’t a neat array of boxes with labels like ‘Indian Writing in English’, ‘Regional Writing’, ‘European literature’ etc. He understood that the literary life is lived in a kind of whirlpool, formed by the currents of many rivers.

Sunil-da gave Kolkata many things, but perhaps the most valuable among them was that he nurtured a fluidly cosmopolitan literary culture, where no one needed to feel excluded. This always gave me a great sense of privilege when I was in Delhi, London, New York or in other parts of the world where there are tall barriers between writers who write in different languages. I felt fortunate to be a part of a literary culture in which languages embrace and enrich each other – this was a gift that Sunil-da gave to me and many others.

In 2004 Sunil-da released my novel The Hungry Tide in Kolkata. My publisher, the late Ravi Dayal, who was another dear friend, came to Kolkata for the occasion:




here Sunil-da is in conversation with my wife, Deborah Baker, and Ravi.









Here Sunil-da’s wife, Swati Gangopadhyay is seated beside him.







Despite his great accomplishments and his vast erudition, there was something almost child-like about Sunil-da. He was the very embodiment of that elusive quality that is spoken of in Bengali as saralata – the literal meaning of which is ‘simplicity’, but which refers rather to a certain sweetness of spirit and an absence of malice. One of the ways in which this manifested itself in Sunil-da was that he would often sing at social occasions (it’s interesting that the other great Bengali writer of his generation, Mahasweta Devi, also often sings spontaneously).

This is how I would like to remember Sunil-da – in song.






M.V. Ramana on the Future of Nuclear Energy in India – Part 2 of 2

October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)




The most disturbing sections of M.V. Ramana’s  Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India are those that relate to safety. Ramana describes two incidents that came fearsomely close to disaster. One occurred at the Narora reactor in Rajasthan on March 31 1993: ‘Early that morning, two blades of the turbine of the first unit at Narora broke off due to fatigue. They sliced through other blades, destabilizing the turbine and making it vibrate excessively. The vibrations caused the pipes carrying hydrogen gas that cool the turbine to break, releasing the hydrogen, which soon caught fire. Around the same time, lubricant oil too leaked. The fire spread to the oil and throughout the entire turbine building. Among the systems burnt by the fire were four cables that carried wires and electricity, which led to a general blackout in the plant. One set of cables supplied power to the secondary cooling systems, and when it got burnt those cooling systems were rendered inoperable. To make things worse, the control room was filled with smoke and the operators were forced to leave it about ten minutes after the blade failure. Prior to leaving, however, the operators manually actuated the primary shutdown system of the reactor… Fortunately, the reactor shutdown systems worked and control rods were inserted to stop the chain reaction. The problem then was something that was on display at Fukushima: the reactor went on generating heat because the fuel rods in a reactor accumulate fission products which continue to undergo radioactive decay.’

The situation was saved by some workers who ‘climbed on to the top of the reactor building, with the aid of battery-operated torches, and manually opened valves to release liquid boron into the core, further absorbing neutrons. Had these workers not acted as they did, it is possible … that there would have been a local core-melt and explosive fuel-coolant interaction… The names of those heroic workers have never been made public.’ (185)

But for a stroke of luck, another major disaster would have occurred at Kakrapar in Gujarat: ‘On 15 and 16 June 1994, there were heavy rains in South Gujarat and the water level of the lake began to rise. That resulted in the ducts that were meant to let out water becoming conduits for water to come in. Water began entering the turbine building on the night of 15 June … There were no arrangements either for sealing cable trenches and valve pits, both of which also allowed water to enter the reactor building. By the morning of 16 June, there was water not only in the turbine building but also in other parts of the reactor complex. The workers in the morning shift had to swim in chest-high water, and the control room was reportedly inaccessible for some time…  No action was taken till 11 a.m. on the 16th, when a site emergency was declared and workers were evacuated… [T]he gates of the Moticher Lake could not be opened, even after the … management requested help from the district and state authorities. Fortunately, villagers from the area, who were worried about the security of their own homes, made a breach in the embankment of the lake which allowed the waters to drain out.’

Fortunately ‘the reactor had been shut down for over four months at the time of the flooding [and] there was no great danger of an accident. Had it been functioning and there had been reason to issue an off-site emergency, the situation would have been desperate. In the words of Surendra and Sanghamitra Gadekar: ‘The scene … was one of utter devastation. A thousand houses were demolished in Bardoli alone, and many more elsewhere were damaged. Whole sections of roads, railway lines and bridges vanished into oblivion. Trees were laid low and farms turned into ponds. We were caught 100 km from home and had to trudge back through rivers and streams and making long detours’ (Gadekar 1994b). There was simply no way that people could have been evacuated on time.’ (188-9)

It is interesting to note that in both cases these great ‘temples of modernity’ owed their salvation to ordinary people, who remain unnamed.

Ramana’s review of preparedness training and safety precautions at the major nuclear sites leaves no doubt that it is luck alone that has spared India from a major accident. He concludes with this chilling passage: ‘There is one obvious question that this constellation of hazards—physical and institutional—provokes about nuclear power around the globe: Why are there not more accidents? One part of the answer is that, while the nature of the technology implies that there will be failures, there is nothing that determines the rate of failure as such. Therefore, the chances of an accident on any given day may be small but, sooner or later, there will be one. This parallels what happens in a lottery: ‘the odds of any given person winning are extremely remote, but the likelihood that someone is going to win, sooner or later, is certain’ (Chiles 2001, 286).’

Yet, the question remains: if not nuclear power, what?

This intractable issue has forced many environmentalists and climate activists to embrace nuclear technology as the last, best hope for cutting back on carbon emissions. James Hansen, the pioneering scientist who was among the first to alert the world to climate change, is one of them. In his book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity he makes a strong case for ‘fast-breeder’ nuclear reactors. ‘Fast reactors can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined, compared with less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors. So fast reactors increase the efficiency of fuel use by a factor of one hundred or more… Fast reactors also produce nuclear waste, but in volumes much less than slow (thermal) reactors. More important, the radioactivity becomes inconsequential in a few hundred years, rather than ten thousand years. The waste from a fast reactor can be vitrified – transformed into a glass-like substance – placed in a lead-lined steel casket and stored on-site or transported elsewhere. Plus, this waste material cannot be used to make explosive weapons…’[i]

These claims, if true, would amount to a compelling case in favour of fast-breeder reactors. But are they true?

After reading Hansen’s book I wrote to Ramana (I hadn’t yet read his Power of Promise): ‘I’ve been thinking of you recently while reading James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. He, like many other serious environmental scientists, makes the case that fast-breeder nuclear reactors are the only hope for the planet in the sense that they alone can replace coal-burning power plants. I’d be interested to know your views on this.’

This was Ramana’s reply:

Dear Amitav,

I have two responses, at different levels. In my ms, I argue against relying on nuclear power, especially fast breeder reactors, in India, not on ideological or moral lines, but based on an evaluation of the costs and the benefits. (I hope that comes through in my writing.) To some extent, that argument carries over globally, but I am uncomfortable making strong statements about other countries that I haven’t examined even cursorily, let alone at the level of detail I have done in the case of India.

The technical response is that while there may be a case for nuclear power as a means to mitigate climate change, the case for fast breeders doing that is weak. This is for two reasons. First, the type of FBRs that Hansen talks about (and I may be wrong because I haven’t read his book, but have heard him elsewhere on the subject), the integral fast reactors, have never been built. They involve not just a new kind of reactor, but also an associated new type of reprocessing technology called pyro-processing. Both breeders and reprocessing plants have been notoriously problematic, much more so than nuclear power in general. So any strategy based on rapid construction of these untested technologies is very likely to suffer from setbacks. Second, the problem that these breeders are meant to solve is an imagined one. The main case for breeders is that uranium is likely to run out. There is plenty of evidence from around the world that this is unlikely to happen for decades at the very least. In that case, even if one were to advocate nuclear power, it would be much better to rely on the relatively more proven light water reactors.

The sociological(?) response is that I have been thinking about climate change and attending many meetings and so on related to the subject for about a decade now. My sense is that many of the scientists who are involved in studying the subject are a depressed lot. (Of course, I use depressed in a loose sense rather than in a clinical diagnostic sense.) This is but natural, for every conference they attend and every paper they read, offers more evidence, not just of an inexorable descent into the abyss, but also of their sheer powerlessness to stop this descent. And one response that many of them have adopted is to put their hopes on some technological miracle, clutching onto such hopes in the face of all evidence. In that sense, I don’t consider that aspect of their argument as serious science, even though they may be completely rigorous in their analysis of, say, ice core data or hurricane intensity.

In The Power of Promise Ramana makes a persuasive case against pinning our hopes on fast breeder reactors. In sum ‘The bottom line on breeder reactors, therefore, is that they cannot be constructed at the pace envisioned by the Department of Atomic Energy, they will be susceptible to catastrophic accidents, and they will produce very expensive electricity.’

What then is the solution?

It has become customary nowadays for environmentalists and climate scientists to end their books on an upbeat note by suggesting various ‘fixes’. Not Ramana. He mentions the ideas of a few visionaries, like Amulya Reddy, but he does not suggest any ‘solutions’ as such. Why? Possibly because there are no quick fixes, no magic bullets. I suspect that Ramana knows that his arguments lead to a conclusion that is too bleak to be put into words.

The Power of Promise is as timely as it is important. I have no doubt that it will come to be regarded as a landmark, not only in the debates on nuclear and energy issues, but also in the history and sociology of Indian science.

[i] Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth of Our Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Bloomsbury (references are to the Kindle edition), location 3553.

M.V.Ramana on the Future of Nuclear Energy in India – Part 1 of 2

October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


On December 3, 2011 I wrote, in a post on this site: ‘I met M.V. Ramana in 1998 when I was writing Countdown, my essay on the nuclear situation in the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the most knowledgeable of the many experts I sought out (he has a PhD in physics from Boston University and has devoted many years to nuclear issues)… Ramana is associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. His forthcoming book  “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” is sure to be the definitive study of the subject: I can’t wait to read it.’

Ramana has since sent me the book (or rather the manuscript, which is soon to be published by Penguin India). I have just finished reading it and it is indeed the definitive work I had thought it would be.

Ramana has been working on nuclear issues for a long time and The Power of Promise is the summation of decades of research. This is not to say that it is a daunting tome, either literally or metaphorically: at a mere 241 manuscript pages (not including notes and appendices) it is actually surprisingly concise.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the book is that it is not primarily about nuclear weapons. Its subject, as the subtitle states, is nuclear energy and the claims that are being made for it, in India and elsewhere – that it can feasibly meet the world’s expanding energy needs and that it is a relatively safe and economical alternative to fossil fuels.

This is how Ramana describes The Power of Promise: ‘This book is an attempt to assess the success or failure of the nuclear programme according to the terms it set itself. Rather than deal with these topics in the abstract, I focus on the concrete: on specific facilities, the technologies used, the materials involved and the economic performance of reactors that have been built and are being contructed… The aim of my exercise at the very minimum is to deepen the debate about whether India should indeed embark on a massive nuclear programme. I have tried to do so by uncovering and presenting technical and historical information and analysing it.’ (14§)

This makes the book sound more technical than it is. The Power of Promise certainly does not lack for technical detail but it is still an absorbing read. The writing is one of its pleasantest surprises. Ramana shows himself to be one of those rare writers who can make science interesting: his prose is crisp, he has an eye for telling details and apt quotations, and he has a remarkable facility for narrative. He is evidently fascinated by history and the characters who shape it. Homi Bhabha, who brought the Indian nuclear programme into being, is inevitably a large figure in this story.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is devoted to Bhabha’s clash with the physicist Meghnad Saha, who was from the other end of the country in every sense. This is how Ramana sums up their struggle: ‘Saha and Bhabha differed in their notions about the goals of science and technology, and the means for achieving these goals. Saha ‘emphasized judicious and equitable distribution and advocated participatory democracy even in engineering projects that involve highly technical information’ … But such an approach was not the one adopted in India after independence. Despite the deep political roots in the Indian nationalist movement that Saha had, Bhabha’s more élitist approach prevailed over Saha’s more open and democratically disposed approach.’ (25-6)

Bhabha’s personal personal charm had a great deal to do with the extraordinary influence he came to wield. Among his many friends, as Ramana writes, ‘was the man who was to become India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru and Bhabha met for the first time on a ship in 1937 and seem to have hit it off right from the beginning… This was hardly surprising for they had much in common. Both were born to wealthy parents, had been educated in Cambridge, and were deeply interested in arts and music. Over the years, a deep friendship developed between the two … As Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was to reminisce years later, ‘The life of a politician lacks many of those warm moments of sensitivity that other people take for granted in their everyday life … I know that Homi Bhabha opened one such “window” for my father … he always found time for Dr Bhabha, not only because the problems which Dr Bhabha brought were important and he wanted to give them urgent attention, but because he found at the same time it was relaxing and it was an entirely new world’. (21)

It was Bhabha who first articulated the claims that are made for the nuclear energy programme today. The most important of these are the following: that only nuclear energy can feasibly meet India’s expanding energy needs; that in comparison with other sources nuclear energy is cheap and plentiful; that it is relatively safe; and that it is far less destructive to the environment than energy generated by fossil fuels, especially coal (which provides most of the electricity that is consumed in India and China today).

Ramana tackles each of these arguments in turn. Can the nuclear programme really provide as much energy as it says it will? Through a detailed empirical analysis Ramana shows that the nuclear establishment has consistently over-stated the amount of electricity it can feasibly generate in the near future: ‘In 1984, a decade after the 1974 nuclear weapon test, the DAE drew up a new atomic energy profile that envisioned setting up 10,000 MW of nuclear power by the year 2000.’ (45). But an audit in 1998 found that ‘’the actual additional generation of power under the profile as of March 1998 was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5291.48 crore’… Nil, as in zero. In the words of Polonius from Hamlet, ‘…’tis true ’tis pity; / And pity ’tis ’tis true.’ (46)

Ramana notes: ‘Even without the wisdom of today’s hindsight, it should be obvious to anyone who knew the history of construction of the operating reactors… that the projected growth in nuclear capacity was highly improbable if not impossible. But such comprehension was not to be found within the Department of Atomic Energy’s leadership.’

The feasibility of generating enormous amounts of nuclear energy is not limited by technology alone. There is a human constraint as well. As Ramana shows there has been massive public opposition to the siting of nuclear reactors across the country (the demonstrations in Ratnagiri and Kudankulam are merely the latest manifestations of a long series of protests). Several sites have had to be abandoned because of public opposition. Where then are all the promised new reactors to be located?

Is nuclear energy really as cheap as its advocates say? Ramana shows that this claim is an illusion conjured up creative accounting – that is by hugely underestimating costs, by hiding subsidies, and perhaps most signficantly by limiting liabilities in the event of catastrophic accidents. At the end of this exercise he asks: ‘If nuclear power is uncompetitive, then why do many people believe that it is cheap? In part, this is because, at every opportunity, the nuclear establishment keeps repeating the claim about the competitiveness of nuclear power. It also tries to substantiate it through ‘calculations’. These calculations, however, are flawed. Typically, they are based on estimated costs of future facilities rather than actual costs of facilities already constructed. Given the huge cost overruns at most facilities, as documented in Chapter 3 on Power Reactors, the distortion due to this practice is significant. Then, it makes assumptions about other cost components, with no support from data of any sort. For instance, the operations and maintenance cost is merely pegged at a specific percentage of the capital cost, with no basis for arriving at it. The costs of decommissioning a reactor are accounted for by periodically adding a set amount of money, called a decommissioning levy, into a fund … But there is no clear idea of how much decommissioning a reactor will cost, and the few examples in other countries that have decommissioned reactors have invariably cost much more than expected. Similarly, the cost of radioactive waste management is completely arbitrary (typically, Rs 0.05 per unit).’ (174)

In sum: ‘The result has been to bear out I.M.D Little’s prognosis from 1958: ‘As Dr Bhabha says, electricity is in short supply in India. It is likely to go on being in short supply if one uses twice as much capital as is needed to get more’ (Little 1958, 1486).’ (176).



§ References are to manuscript pages.




Letter from a composer – with a theme for ‘Sea of Poppies’

October 17, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Received on Oct 4, 2012


Dear Mr. Ghosh,
I have been an admirer of your work, ever since I read The Circle of Reason.
The Ibis Saga has deeply moved me not just as a reader, but also as an
amateur composer. The yet to complete trilogy inspired me to create a
thematic musical piece. The track was composed and played on a
synthesizer, arranged recorded and mixed on my laptop. The end result
was finally uploaded on Soundcloud, where I go by the name of

While waiting eagerly for the final episode of the trilogy from you, I
would like to share the track “Sea of Poppies” with you. I request you
to kindly logon to the link given below –

It will give me immense satisfaction to know your comments. Looking
forward to hear from you.
Thanking you,
yours sincerely
Tridibesh Sanyal.



Dear Tridibesh

Thanks for the link to your composition – I enjoyed it. I would like to post it on my blog, with your letter. Do let me know if that’s okay with you.

Good luck with your work!

Amitav Ghosh


Dear Mr.Ghosh
Its great to know you enjoyed. Most certainly, in fact I will happy if you add the track and my letter to your blog.
Thanking you



Murali Ranganathan does it again – an amazing new find!

October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (8)


Visitors to this site will know that I have corresponded with Murali Ranganathan before. In an earlier post I had this to say about him:

Murali Ranganathan is among the most interesting of the many people who have come into my life through book releases and readings. I met him at the Mumbai release of River of Smoke, on June 21 this year. Our conversation was necessarily very brief but he told me that he knew of a few 19thcentury travel accounts of China, written in Gujarati by Parsi merchants. I had had no inkling of the existence of such accounts and did not quite know what to make of this. Although I had the impression of a man of great intelligence and wide-ranging interests, I could not help being a little sceptical. But sure enough, a few days later Murali sent me a list of the books he had mentioned….

Murali is a scholar … of a breed that is increasingly rare in today’s highly compartmentalized world: an independent autodidact who has developed his formidable linguistic and archival skills largely on his own. He works on texts in Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi and, no doubt, many other, languages, and possesses a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of 19th century India. What’s more, his scholarly work is driven not by a desire for advancement but by a genuine passion for the subject. If the world were a more discerning place Murali would be a celebrated scholar, notable not only for his work but also for the fact that he has chosen to be free of institutions. But Murali prefers (and I have noticed that this is true of some of my most learned correspondents) to hide his light under a bushel.


A while ago I had written to Murali to ask if he had ever come across any accounts of the First World War in Marathi. On October 9 he sent me this letter:


Dear Amitav

I have been looking for clues to answer your questions regarding Maratha soldiers and the First World War for the last few months but I have not got anywhere near answering them with any confidence. In the meanwhile, I was also infected by travelogitis – and the only palliative was to run through as many  travelogs as I could, the constraints being that they had to be from the 19th century and in non-English Indian languages I know. Among other things, there is something I found that could be of interest to you. Allow me to intrude on your time. Nariman Karkaria, a young Parsi from Gujarat, had apparently always wanted to see the world. Sometime in 1913, when he was in his early 20s, he left home with fifty rupees in his pocket to do just that. He eventually made his way to China, travelled among other places to Peking and then to Japan, when somebody suggested that he might as well travel to Siberia since he was so near. And that’s what he did. He eventually made his way across Siberia to St. Petersburg and then on to Finland and Norway and eventually reached London, I think, sometime in 1914 or 15 (he is not very strong on dates). Another long-standing desire was to see a war and he wasn’t going to let pass an opportunity which suddenly presented itself. He went to Whitehall to volunteer but they shooed him away since he was an Indian and suggested he join some desi regiment. He however managed to eventually register as a Private with the 24th Middlesex in its D Company, and thus became a ‘Tommy’ as he proudly announces. The remaining part (about two-thirds) of the book is the typical WWI story — ‘No food, no water, no sleep, no relief’. Incredibly, he saw action on three fronts in the next three years. In 1916, he was at the Battle of Somme and describes life in the trenches in vivid detail. He was lucky not to die (most of the others near him did) and was sent back to London to convalesce from an injury. After the usual recovery period and some weeks of training, he was sent of to the Middle East front where after many trials and tribulations in Egypt, he was part of the Battle of Jerusalem (1917). He describes the triumphant entry into the city by the British forces. He was then moved to the Balkan front where was in Salonika with the 31st CCS; with the British Army he later travelled through many parts of European Turkey. He was eventually discharged and returned to India after five years of travel and adventure. He, presumably on public demand, wrote this book which was published in 1922 by D A Karkaria from the Manek Printing Press in Mumbai. It is deceptively titled Rangbhumi par rakhad which I would translate as Sorties on Stage. It was perhaps intended as pun for jangbhumi, a word he uses often in the text. 
In spite of the extreme trauma he endures over many pages, there is a certain Wodehousian aura which permeates the whole book. The ‘stiff upper lip’ is palpable and sometimes ‘What ho!’ is almost audible. I must confess I have not read the book in toto but have merely flipped through it to glean the bare outlines of his career. There is much more to his book and I might be wrong with regard to details as I am writing from memory. There are many photographs both from his travels and from the War. I am not sure if he took them himself but some of them are intimate – soldiers bathing in the nude at an oasis with camels for company, for instance. I have very little knowledge of this period or this war to be able to form a judgement about the uniqueness of this experience – an Indian serving in an all-European regiment, seeing action on three major fronts of the First World War and living to tell the tale.  But the book is a sure page-turner. I hope I have not taken too much of your time and also hope that something will also eventually turn up on the Marathi front. Will keep you posted.

Best wishes
Oct 10, 2012
Dear Murali
This is amazing! An astonishing find! Congratulations….! You should – must! – translate this.
I would love to post something about this on my blog: this is really big news (at least in my small universe)! I would like to buy you a bottle of champagne some day.
Very best



Links to ‘Imagining Europe’ in Amsterdam

October 13, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


Links to the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ in Amsterdam, including my talk and appearance on the Dutch TV show ‘Buitenhof’:





To my Romanian readers

October 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



Today the Romanian edition of River of Smoke is to be released in Bucharest. I had hoped to be there for the occasion but sadly it was not to be. Romania is not yet a part of the Schengen area, so Indians need visas to enter the country. In August this year I went to the Romanian Consulate in New York to apply for a visa. I am sorry to say that I had a most unfortunate experience. That is why I cannot be in Bucharest today.

When my Romanian publisher Adelina Patrichi (of Editura Raj) announced that my visit had been cancelled there was a strong response from the Romanian press. I am told that all the major Romanian nespapers and TV stations carried reports (a list of links is included at the end of this post). Adelina Patrichi and I also received many letters of support from my readers. I was deeply touched by this.

Subsequently Bianca Felseghi, a Romanian journalist, asked me for an email interview. In answering her questions I tried to explain what happened. I also described my family ties with Romania and the great warmth I feel for that country. The interview is to be published in Romania today, in translation; the English text is posted below (with a few pictures).

Once again I would like to express my gratitude to my Romanian readers. I was truly touched by their support and I hope I can return to Romania again soon.


1. Mr. Ghosh, I’m really sorry for your unfortunate experience with the General Consulate of Romania in New York. Could you, please, show us the reasons why, after meeting the Romanian authorities you decided on canceling your visit in Bucharest? Can your visit be rescheduled?

A. It is indeed an unfortunate story.

I was invited to visit Bucharest by my Romanian publisher, Adelina Patrichi (of Editura Taj)  for the publication of my book River of Smoke. Adelina was careful to lay the groundwork for the visit. She wrote numerous letters to the Romanian consulate in New York, where I was planning to apply for the visa, and also sent me all the necessary paperwork (the requirements are quite stringent for those with Indian passports).

Unfortunately on the day when I went to the Consulate to apply for the visa, I happened to run into an individual who was extraordinarily rude and confrontational, right from the start. When I told her why I was planning to travel to Romania, she berated me for not bringing a copy of the translation of my book. I tried to explain to her that the book had not yet been published and I did not have a copy; I also told her that Adelina (my publisher) had written to the Consulate to explain why I needed to travel to Romania. Her answer was: ‘How can I trust your publisher? I don’t know her. I cannot give you a visa without examining the book and seeing what kind of book it is.’

It was as if she were a censor or something. The fact that Adelina had written to the Consulate seemed to add to her annoyance. Her attitude was: ‘How dare she (Adelina) write directly to the Consulate? Who does she think she is?’

It was like dealing with a commissar from the Iron Curtain era – and that is exactly what I told her, when I took my papers back and walked out.

It was clear to me that she was determined to find some pretext to either deny or hold up the application. I was, in any case, pressed for time, so in the end I decided that it would not be possible to go through with the application in the time available to me.

Afterwards, in consultation with Adelina and my literary agents, I tried to think of various ways in which the issue might be resolved. But every expedient that we could think of involved some degree of uncertainty. Since my travel schedule over the next few weeks is very tight, we thought it best to cancel this leg of my tour. Of course, since Adelina had already announced my visit, she also had to announce the cancellation. When she posted the notice on Facebook, there was a strong reaction in Romania. There were articles in the newspapers and many readers wrote letters of protest. I was deeply touched to learn of this.

I would like to say that I knew right from the start that this incident was caused solely by the attitude of one individual (there are plenty of bad-tempered bureaucrats in India, so I have some experience of these matters).  Since then the Romanian Consul in New York, Mr Marian Parjol,  has written me a very gracious letter of apology, in which he explains that this individual has a history of misbehaviour. I deeply appreciate his consideration: it is quite remarkable that an arm of the government should be so responsive to public opinion.

Mr Parjol and others in the Romanian Foreign Ministry have also very kindly offered to make alternative arrangements. I would have liked to avail of their help, but unfortunately it is too late to re-arrange my schedule again at this point. But I do very much appreciate their offers of assistance.

I am grieved that I will not be able to meet my Romanian readers this time around. Their response to the cancellation of my visit means a great deal to me – I hope I will be able to meet them on some other occasion soon.


2. You recently declared on BBC that you have relatives in Transylvania. Can you talk about your liaisons with Romania? Have you ever visited our country before this episode?

A. I do indeed have relatives in Romania – the story is, in an odd way, the inverse of the story of Mircea Eliade’s relationship with Maitreyi Devi (as described in Eliade’s novel ‘Bengali Nights’).

In the 1960s my first cousin, Shuvendu Basu Roy Chowdhury (I called him Khokon-da) won a scholarship to study engineering in Graz, Austria (like Maitreyi Debi he was from Kolkata). At the university he met and fell in love with a refugee from Romania who was also studying in Graz. As it happens she was Katalin Countess Mikes de Zabola. They married and had two sons.

Katalin belongs to an old Transylvanian family. They are of Hungarian (Székler) origin and have been involved in politics and literature for many centuries. As their website explains: ‘Exile, imprisonment, torture and dispossession have been characteristic of all generations of the family at all times. Two brothers of the Mikes family found even their place in Hungarian folk romance literature after they had kidnapped the daughter of a well-known (protestant) family in 1634; their properties were subsequently confiscated by the government. (“Özvegy és leánya” “The widow and her daughter” from Zsigmond Kemény). Count Benedek Mikes … was sentenced to death when he and his brother deployed an army against the Habsburg monarchy in 1848/49; he fled the country and returned to Zabola twelve years later via Geneva, Paris and Bulgaria…. His brother, Count Kelemen Mikes, who had become a Hussar colonel died at the age of 29, hit by the first cannon ball fired by the Russian army in 1849. He became a martyr to the Székler resistance movement. A few of them were also involved in cultural issues such as Kelemen Mikes. Born in Zabola/Transylvania in 1690 he became freedom fighter against Habsburg rule, escaped to Poland, France and at last Turkey. He became famous after writing “Letters from Turkey” in Rodosto where he lived in exile with the Transylvanian Prince Rákoczi until 1761. With his letters from Rodosto, Kelemen Mikes laid the foundations of the Hungarian prose literature, and he is regarded as the first Hungarian prose writer. A plaque was erected on the lot on which the house where he was born once stood, and in the park of Zágon Manor stand the two old oak trees, which, people say, he planted. The two statues of Rákoczi and Mikes can still be found in Rodosto.’

During the Communist era the Mikes estates were confiscated once again and the family was driven into exile. Katalin’s experience was, in a way, mirrored by my cousin’s. He was from a landowning family in Bangladesh and they lost some of their properties when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. The experience of displacement was, I think, a bond between them.


Katalin, Zabola, 2009


After the fall of Ceausescu, in 1990, when estates were being returned to their former owners, it was my cousin Shuvendu who took the initiative in reclaiming Katalin’s property.









For many years he traveled back and forth between Graz and Bucharest. Eventually his persistence paid off and the estate was restored to Katalin. But sadly Khokon-da died shortly after the estate was returned so he was not able to live there. Today the estate, Kastely Mikes in Zabola, is run their two sons, Gregor








and Alexander von Mikes Roy Chowdhury. They are doing some interesting experiments in sustainable farming and forestry on their lands.







They have turned one of the cottages




on the estate into a wonderful little bed-and-breakfast. They serve produce that is grown on their land, including amazing wild mushrooms (you can read all about it on their website At the same time Gregor and Alexander have also kept up their links with India and Bangladesh.







They are actively involved in restoring parts of their ancestral village in Bangladesh (which happens also to be my mother’s ancestral village) – Ulpur. They have also maintained their family’s literary interests. Gregor’s wife Szolna,



Szolna with Emma and Clementina, (photo Gregor)


who is also from Transylvania, is a best-selling writer in Hungarian.








My wife and I visited Zabola in 2009. It was a completely magical trip. Zabola itself is an enchanting place,



Zabola village



surrounded by thousands of acres of pine forest. But we were also amazed by some of the nearby towns and castles, particularly Brasov, which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and unspoilt cities in Europe.








It was wonderful also to visit the sites that are associated with the legends of vampires, particularly Bran Castle.



Bran castle













In a way it was like visiting a lost Europe, with horse-carts bowling along the roads



Church, Zabola


and laden apple trees everywhere.








Since then we always tell everyone we meet that they must go to Romania to visit these wonderful places.






Some day when I have time, I would love to return to Zabola.







I would also love to visit the Danuba delta – it would be exciting to compare this with the delta of Bengal, which I have written about in my book The Hungry Tide (which will soon be published in Romanian by Taj).



Zabola in winter (photo Gregor)




3. I understood you lived in India during the same time with Maitrey, the famous character of Mircea Eliade’s novel. Have you met Maitrey? Did you know about her, about her being an inspiration for Eliade’s work?

A. Maitreyi Debi was a famous writer so I do of course know about her and her story. But I am sad to say that I never met her.


4. Do you have a specific writing ritual, do you write every day or do you have inspirational moments? I read that you don’t use computers and you prefer handwriting. Is it true? Will you let us know why? Do you have a specific writing instrument that you use?

A.  I write my first couple of drafts with a fountain pen. I’m very particular about my pens – after all they are the basic tools of my work. The paper has to be just right too. Quite often I’m in places where I can’t get satisfactory paper and it always upsets me. After the first couple of drafts I start typing on a PC. I go through so much paper that I always print on both sides. It often happens that I end up printing one manuscript on the verso of the other. So my first print-outs of Sea of Poppies had my drafts of The Hungry Tide on the other side.

5. The action you imagined in the novel “Sea of poppies” takes place during the Opium War. Why did you chose that time and how long did the research for the novel last?

A. The first Opium Wars were a critical moment in world history. They have had a deep impact on two of the most important countries of today’s world – India and China. In the not-too-distant future I think people will recognize that the Opium Wars have played a critical role in shaping the contemporary world. Unfortunately much of this history has been forgotten in India – but in China it is still a vivid memory.

Sea of Poppies took about four years to write. Although it describes an epic journey the narrative is actually quite simple: it is just a voyage on a ship. But when one thinks of the very different circumstances and trajectories that bring different characters into the same vessel, that journey acquires many different dimensions – so many that it would be impossible to embark on the project if there wasn’t a basic simplicity and coherence to it.

6. Did you plan to write a trilogy or you started to love your characters and decided to write two more books? You have any favourite character in the Sea of Poppies? How about in the Glass Palace or in the River of Smoke (you should have launched this autumn in Romania)?

A. The trilogy will follow the lives and careers of some of the characters in Sea of Poppies. Indian migrants used to speak of people they had traveled with as ‘jahaz-bhais’ – ‘ship brothers’. The trilogy is thus the story of an extended family – one that is brought into being by the shared experience of being in  a ship.

7. Some say in your novels they can clearly feel resentment against British colonialism, specifically its hypocrisy about modernizing India. Do you believe, however, that there were good parts throughout colonialism and if so, what were those?

A. Colonialism was certainly the dominant political reality of 19th century India, but it is important to remember that it was just one aspect of that reality: people also lived and laughed and loved, as indeed people do everywhere no matter what their political circumstances. When I look back at the 19th century, what strikes me is the resilience, the resistance, the willingness to change and the determination to learn. The past cannot, and ought not to, be planed down to any one dimension. As readers will see, there are so many different stories unfolding simultaneously in ‘Sea of Poppies’ that it is impossible to impose one over-riding narrative on the collective journey. But to acknowledge that the past is complicated, is not to say that we should turn our backs on it, either in shame, or because we just want to move on. One reason for this is that colonialism is not really in the past, even in the Indian subcontinent: Pakistan, for instance, is dealing with a situation that is strongly reminiscent of the colonial past. The present incarnation of Empire is in fact uncannily like the old one, with its island prisons, its vast network of jails, its ‘cantonments’, and most of all its tireless trumpeting of its good intentions.

Viewed against this context the question of the ‘good parts’ of colonialism becomes very troublesome: this is because the question is not really about the past. It is about the present – and if an answer is provided, it will be used to justify colonialism today. Present-day colonialism derives its charter from the past: it wants us to give our assent to a certain view of history so that this history can be repeated (as it has been in Iraq). There is not much we can do about the past, but it is certainly within our power to withold our assent in the present day – not in order to seek retribution for what happened, but as Gandhi famously said, to make sure that it does not happen again.




Links to articles in the Romanian press:—166790

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