Archive for January, 2013

Shared Sorrows – 6

January 31, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 6.


[Below is a map of the region referred to in this and the last few posts, with the boundaries of the administrative divisions  (vilayet) of the Ottoman Empire marked.]



Iraq 1914 (

Iraq 1914 (




To return to On to Baghdad: on August 25, when Sisir Sarbadhikari and his fellow POWs reached Mosul they still did not know where they were being taken.


Mosul, Old Boat Bridge (

Mosul, Old Boat Bridge (


It was in Mosul that they received word of their destination: the Hindus (and Sikhs) were to be separated from the British and Muslim POWs; they would be sent to Ras al-‘Ain, where they would work on a rail line. (p. 124)[i]







Although Sisir does not make much of it, there is something distinctive about his use of the word ‘Hindu’ here. The word does not occur often in the text, and until this point in the narrative, it has never been used to suggest that the various different non-Muslim groups in the British Indian expeditionary force had felt themselves to be ‘alike’, and different from their fellow soldiers. Sisir’s use of it in this sense here suggests to me that he and his comrades were surprised and disturbed to learn that the POWs from the British-Indian 6th Division, who had served together on the battlefield, were now to be split up along religious as well as racial lines.[ii] Many of them would probably have concluded that Hindus and Sikhs, being neither Europeans nor co-religionists of the Turks, would have to endure the worst conditions.[iii] Their apprehensions would surely have deepened when they learnt that they were being dispatched to an area where thousands of Armenians had been confined in concentration camps. The sense of being singled out for a shared plight probably contributed to the bonds of sympathy that developed between these Indians and the Armenians they encountered.

From Mosul the prisoners marched to Tell Kaaf.[iv] Shortly after this they entered a markedly different landscape:

Here everything is beginning to change[v], writes Sisir, ‘from the climate to the landscape and the appearance of the houses. It’s much cooler than before and the nights are cold. The terrain is no longer flat or undulating, we are now marching through mountainous country; the houses don’t have mud walls and roofs, they are made of stone. Before, there were no trees and no greenery, it was desolate, barren.[vi] Here trees can be seen. Amongst the stone houses, those that are clean, well-kept and nice-looking belong to the Christians (‘Nasrani’)… We are now on the frontiers of Kurdistan. 




Kurdish village, c. 1938 (

Kurdish village, c. 1938 (

The Kurds’ villages are mostly perched on mountain-tops, in inaccessible locations. How people can get to them is beyond our reckoning. The Kurds aren’t wanderers like the Bedouin (‘Badu’), they do some farming.’ (pp. 124-5)









Sisir’s first mention of Armenians comes a few days later, on August 18th. In the course of that day’s march the prisoners encountered two rosy-cheeked Armenian boys, eight to ten years old. Sisir notes that they had crucifixes on their chests. ‘From what they said to us in broken Arabic,’ he writes, ‘we understood that the Turks had slaughtered their father and older brothers; where their mother was they did not know.’ (p. 126)


'Armenian village of Gundemir' c. 1901 (Wikimedia commons)

‘Armenian village of Gundemir’ c. 1901 (Wikimedia commons)

On the 23rd of August, the prisoners came to a small village. ‘From a distance the small stone houses, cradled by the mountains, were as pretty as a picture.










On approaching closer we saw that they were empty of people. A dog emerged from an abandoned house… At that time we didn’t know that the inhabitants of these villages were Armenians; the men had been slaughtered and the women and children had been driven away.’ (p. 129)

Sisir’s description of the village is accompanied by a few lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Deserted Village’ (quoted in English):

Along thy glades, a solitary guest…

Amidst thy bowers, the tyrant’s hand is seen,

And desolation saddens all thy green. (129)’


[i] Cf. Heather Jones, (op. cit.) suggests that the separation of prisoners happened at Ras al-‘Ain: ‘Non-Muslim other rank Indian prisoners were eventually segregated at Ras-el-Ain to work on the railway line; Muslim and British other rank prisoners were transported on from Ras-el-Ain by train to separate camps in Turkey proper.’ But Sarbadhikari’s account suggests that it happened earlier.

[ii] The term ‘Hindu’ was perhaps more relevant to the British army’s administrative practices than to the conceptions of the soldiers themselves. In dividing the Indian soldiers by religion the Turks were possibly following British practices.

[iii] It is generally agreed that Indian Muslim troops were better treated by the Ottomans; whether this was true of British troops is not clear. For a full discussion of this issue see Heather Jones op. cit.

[iv] Vedica Kant, an Indian research scholar in Turkey, suggests that this was probably a small town to the north of Mosul. I am very grateful to Vedica for looking up place names, and for providing translations of some of the Turkish words that occur in the text.

[v] The 19th century English traveler J.S. Buckingham, also remarks on the distinctiveness of this general region and its inhabitants, Travels in Mesopotamia, London 1827 (204-5).

[vi] Sisir uses the English word. Here and elsewhere I have italicized words from the text that were of particular interest to me.




Shared Sorrows – 5

January 29, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (2)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 5


A few words about Sisir Sarbadhikari’s book. On to Baghdad was self-published, as I’ve said, and it seems to have vanished quickly into obscurity. I first learnt of its existence through the work of a military historian, Kaushik Roy, but it was an essay by a brilliant young literary critic, Santanu Das, that prompted me to seek it out.[i] Santanu is now working on a longer treatment of the subject and only after his account is published will we have a full understanding of the book’s historical contexts, the manner of its writing, and its place in relation to other accounts of the Mesopotamian war.

A detailed account of the making of On to Baghdad will be of immense value, not just in relation to the book itself, but also in regard to the muteness from which it emerges. For the most remarkable thing about On to Baghdad is that it was written at all: as a published account of the military experiences of Indians in the early 20th century, it has very few peers or predecessors.

In the hundred and fifty years before the First World War hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers had fought for the British Empire, at home and abroad: during the First World War alone, over a million and half Indians were deployed on different fronts. Yet, mighty though these legions may have been in the field of battle, outside it they were as silent as an army of ghosts. Almost everything that is known about them is spoken in the voice and language of the soldiers’ masters, the British. The number of accounts authored by Indian military personnel, in the century and a half that preceded the First World War, is so small as to be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As followers of this blog will know, over the last year the Mumbai researcher, Murali Ranganathan, has unearthed two other First World War memoirs from the Indian subcontinent, one in Gujarati and one in Marathi (see for example, my post of October 15, 2012). Yet it remains true that as a full-length, published memoir of the First World War, by an Indian, On to Baghdad has very few peers.[ii]

India’s literary silence about the First World War is especially notable because this great conflict was an enormously fecund subject for soldiers of other nations. In England, France, Germany and elsewhere it generated enormous amounts of writing, of many sorts. Yet even in this vast corpus On to Baghdad commands a place of special notice, and not only because it happens to be one of the few such accounts written by an Indian. Sisir’s memoir is also one of the relatively few accounts to be written not by an officer, but by a low-ranking private, (the greatest of all First World War memoirs, Erich Maria’s Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front, was another).

On to Baghdad is remarkable also because it is based on a very unusual source – a journal that Sarbadhikari kept through his time in the Middle East, including his years in captivity. His notes went on grueling marches with him, hidden in his boots; at the Ras al-‘Ain camp, where their discovery could have resulted in disaster for Sisir, they were buried underground. Yet, despite the attendants dangers, Sisir seems to have continued to make regular entries in his journal whenever circumstances permitted. There was only one prolonged break, during the months between March 1917 and April 1918.

In his entry of March 18, 1917, Sisir explains this break and describes the manner of his note-taking: ‘After this I couldn’t write in my journal for about a year. In the first place opportunities were hard to find. Apart from that I had to tear up many of my notes for fear that they would be found; I re-wrote some of them later; but I couldn’t with some. You [the reader] mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the diary that I’ve referred to so far, and which I’ll refer to again, was my original diary (156). After the surrender at Kut, I ripped apart my diary, tore the pages into pieces, and stuffed them into my boots; using those scraps I filled out a new journal later – in Baghdad. This journal was also ruined when I crossed the Tigris on foot. But the writing wasn’t all wiped off, because I had used a copying pencil. I dried the book and used it for my notes of the march from Samarra to Ras al-‘Ain. At Ras al-‘Ain I had to bury the diary for a while but it didn’t suffer much damage. In the infirmary at Aleppo I wrote it out again. (157)’

The journal traveled back to Calcutta with Sisir and was put aside for decades. In his brief account of the writing of On to Baghdad, Santanu Das suggests that the book might never have been written if not for the encouragement  and support of Sisir’s daughter-in-law, Romola Sarbadhikari.[iii] It is not uncommon of course to come across war memoirs based on notes made ‘in the field’ – but few indeed were the journals that survived the sort of captivity that Sisir had to endure. Indeed it was this journal’s very existence, insistently miraculous, that seems to have prompted Sisir’s daughter-in-law into midwifing the book into existence.

Sisir’s notes lend an extraordinary immediacy to his book: at times it reads almost like a diary. Sisir’s descriptions of battles, marches and life in prison-camp are sometimes startlingly vivid. The dates and details also serve to make his account unusually persuasive. There is no showing off, no dwelling on personal injuries and hardship. Perhaps the passage of time had blunted the edge of Sisir’s experiences, for he is able to write about even the most difficult situations with the detachment of an ethnographer. His book is also, to a quite extraordinary degree, free of rancour: he very rarely speaks of ill of anyone, including the ‘enemy’. Despite the horrors that he witnessed and experienced, he evidently never lost his ability to perceive the humanity of others, his jailors and captors not excluded. This too must be considered a remarkable quality in a book about the First World War: this was, after all, a time when most European writers were scarcely able to appreciate the humanity of people outside their own class, let alone their nation. The much celebrated English war writer, Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, was also in the Middle East for a while – but he seems to have been largely indifferent to his surroundings, even though (or perhaps because?) he was himself descended from a Mesopotamian Jewish family that had made its money in India.

For all these reasons, On to Baghdad  is not just a gripping read but also a credible historical document.


[i] Santanu Das:  Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history  (in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing (CUP, 2011).

[ii] Murali Ranganathan has recently unearthed two First World War memoirs: one in Marathi, by Captain Gopal Gangadhar Limaye, published in 1939 (Murali glosses the title as Capturing the War: The Marathi War Memoirs of Capt. Gopal Gangadhar Limaye), the other was written in Gujarati by a Parsi, Nariman Karkaria. This is how Murali describes it: ‘this book 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.’ For more on this, see my blog post of Oct 15, 2012 ( I am convinced that other such accounts were written in languages like Marathi, Punjabi, Pahari and Gorkhali. But as of the time of writing, I do not know of any.

[iii] Cf. Santanu Das op. cit. For a more complete account of the making of On to Baghdad and for a fuller picture of the wider contexts of the Mesopotamian campaign, we will have to wait for Santanu’s next book, which is, I am told, nearing completion. I eagerly await its publication.




Shared Sorrows – 4

January 27, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 4



In the first few months of the campaign, the British-Indian forces met with little resistance from the Ottoman army. The going was so smooth that the campaign was decribed as a ‘river picnic’.


Ctesiphon, Capt C.H. Weaver (

Ctesiphon, Capt C.H. Weaver (


But just south of Baghdad, at the ancient town of Ctesiphon,







General Townshend’s army ran into a large and well-entrenched Ottoman force. The British advance was blocked and the 6th Army was driven back to a small town called Kut al-Amara.



Kut al-Amara, Capt. C.H.Weaver (

Kut al-Amara, Capt. C.H.Weaver (


There, with just one month’s foodstocks in store,






the British-Indian force endured a siege of five months, at appalling cost.



Sepoy after the Siege of Kut (wikimedia commons)

Sepoy after the Siege of Kut (wikimedia commons)


Many soldiers died of hunger and disease











before General Townshend surrendered to Khalil Pasha, the Ottoman commander on April 29th , 1916.[i]



General Charles Townshend with Khalil Pasha and staff shortly after the surrender of Kut (

General Charles Townshend with Khalil Pasha and staff shortly after the surrender of Kut (



At the time this was thought to be the greatest defeat that the British had ever suffered in Asia.









On May 12 1916 Sisir Sarbadhikari



Paddle Steamer, Mesopotamia, Capt. C.H. Weaver (

Paddle Steamer, Mesopotamia, Capt. C.H. Weaver (

and the other prisoners of war were sent to Baghdad on a steamer.









Sisir remained there for a couple of months, and then,


Samarra, Iraq

Samarra, Iraq


on July 19th he and some other prisoners were dispatched to Samarra, about 60 miles away, by train.









Then began a series of grueling marches, in the burning heat of the Mesopotamian summer: the prisoners were driven brutally northwards through inhospitable country with very little food and water. British accounts of the march speak of floggings, starvation and terrible cruelties: ‘troops (British or Indian) falling out of the line of march from sheer exhaustion were left to perish either of starvation or the probability of being murdered by the Arabs.’ [ii]

Cruelty and hardship figure in Sisir’s narrative too, but his tone is stoic, almost dispassionate, and he often pauses to reflect on history and comment on the beauty of the countryside. Of the horrors of the march, the recollection that was to remain most sharply etched into his memory was of the shouts with which the guards would wake the prisoners in the small hours of the night. (121)

In twenty-five days the prisoners marched from Samarra to to Mosul, by way of Tikrit, Sargat and  Hammam Ali. It was after leaving Mosul that they began to see signs of the devastation that had been visited upon the Armenians of this region.



[i] The precise numbers remain undetermined but it is estimated that about 3,000 British and 10,000 Indian soldiers went into captivity after the surrender. Cf Heather Jones: Imperial Captivities: Colonial Prisoners of War in Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1918, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Heather Jones ibid.



Shared Sorrows – 3

January 24, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 3


When Sisir Sarbadhikari volunteered for the Bengal Ambulance Corps, in 1915, he was in his early twenties and had just earned his Bachelor’s degree in law. Such was his eagerness to join the BAC that he actually pulled strings to get in: he would later attribute his enthusiasm to the ‘Spirit of Adventure’, of which he evidently had more than his fair share. Nor was he the only eager volunteer: some were so enthusiastic that they falsified their ages in order to enlist. One of them, Bhola, was only sixteen when he joined up – he would become a close friend of Sisir’s and he too would end up in the camps of Ras al-‘Ain.

The BAC was a small unit, with a total strength of 117, of which about a third consisted of ‘camp-followers’ –  that is to say, cooks, sweepers, water-carriers and so on. It was led by five British officers and about a dozen Indian NCOs. The remaining sixty or so members of the unit were privates, of whom Sisir was one.

Although lowly in rank Sisir was from a family of well-educated middle-class professionals – a class that is often referred to in Bengal as ‘bhadralok’ or ‘gentlefolk’. Sisir himself was well-read in English as well as Bengali: his book is embellished with lines of English and Bengali poetry and he frequently refers to Xenophon and other figures from antiquity.

Many of the other volunteers seem to have been from circumstances similar to Sisir’s. They were not the kind of men who would have joined the regular army as privates, even if that had been a possibility. If the Ambulance Corps appealed to them it was probably because its medical associations lent it a touch of middle-class respectability.

The BAC volunteers were given three months training before being sent off to Bombay to join the 6th Poona Division which was on its way to Mesopotamia under the command of Major General Charles Townshed.


Troops unloading baggage, Alexandra Docks, Bombay, 1st WW

They left Bombay on a hospital ship, the Madras, on July 2, 1915, and reached Basra a week later. From then on, they accompanied the 6th army as it advanced steadily northwards, towards Baghdad.





Shared Sorrows – 2

January 23, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18


As a writer of fiction I am accustomed to creating characters and inventing stories. But I also often deal with historical sources, and every now and again I come upon something that serves to remind me that reality often exceeds fiction in its improbability. Certainly, I could never have invented a story like the one I am going to recount here. The events date back to the latter years of the First World War, when groups of Indian soldiers and paramedics were imprisoned in the vicinity of Ras al-‘Ain, in what is now Syria. Some of the worst massacres of the Armenian genocide  occurred in the vicinity of this town, and through force of circumstances, the lives of the Indians and the Armenians often became closely intertwined.

The reason the story has survived is that one of the Indian prisoners happened to write about about his war experiences  forty years later. His name was Sisir Sarbadhikari and his book Abhi Le Baghdad (or On To Baghdad) appeared in 1958[i]:


on to baghdad_0002

Cover: ‘On to Baghdad’ (Abhi Le Baghdad)

it was self-published and was probably only ever read by a handful of people. But the fact that the text was committed to print was crucial to its survival. It meant that a copy of the book had to be deposited in the National Library in Kolkata – this was the very copy that I sought out last year[ii].









Sisir Sarbadhikari was (as am I) a Bengali from Calcutta [now Kolkata] and he belonged to a middle-class Hindu family.


Boats on Hooghly River, Kolkata 1912-14

Boats on Hooghly River, Kolkata 1912-14

This adds greatly to the improbability of the story, for in the early years of the twentieth century the chances that a young man from such a background would find his way into the front lines of a military campaign were close to nil.








This is because Bengalis were not eligible for recruitment into the British Empire’s Indian army, which drew its soldiers (or sepoys) from certain specially designated ‘races’[iii]. Oddly, especially since Britain’s martial prowess was founded on her navy, the British do not seem to have regarded the term ‘martial’ to be relevant to sailors-


ww1 5

Sepoys and lascars in German POW camp near Berlin, 1st World War (Photos: Otto Stiehl, Repros: Ute Franz-Scarciglia, Copyright: Museum Europäischer Kulturen – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

– for ‘lascars’ (Asian sailors) served on many naval vessels, and they were recruited mainly from coastal regions, such as Gujarat, the Konkan, Tamilnad, Orissa, and, very substantially, Bengal.











TheBritish Indian army’s recruitment policy excluded most Indians and was widely resented, partly because it was felt to be based upon demeaning racial stereotypes, and partly because it blocked access to one of the most important sources of employment in the colonial economy. The bar did not however apply to the army’s administrative and medical wings and many Bengalis found their way on to the military payroll through this route. When the First World War broke out some prominent Bengalis decided that the army’s medical services might be a means of furthering their claims to serve in the ranks of the regular military. To that end they offered to raise a unit of voluntary ambulance workers in support of the war effort. They reckoned that such an offer would not be refused at a time of crisis, and they were right. They were quickly granted permission to form a unit that came to be known as the Bengal Ambulance Corps (BAC).  This was the unit that Sisir Sarbadhikari volunteered for in 1915.


[i] Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history  (in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing (CUP, 2011) that prompted me to seek it out.

[ii] I owe many thanks to Dr. Swapan Chakravorty and Sri Ashim Mukhopadhyay of the Indian National Library, Kolkata, for their help in this regard. The page references (in parentheses) are to this copy of Abhi Le Baghdad.

[iii] Cf. Barua, Pradeep P., Inventing Race: The British and India’s Martial Races, Historian, 58(1), 1995, pp. 107-16; & Roy, Kaushik: Recruitment Doctrines of the Colonial Indian Army: 1859-1913, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 34 (3), pp. 322-54, 1997.




Shared Sorrows – 1

January 21, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18.


[In August 2012 I received an invitation from Neery Melkonian, co-founder of The Blind Dates Project, to deliver a keynote address for a conference to be held in Yerevan, in Armenia. There was an element of synchronicity in this because unbeknownst to Neery, I was then writing a series of posts on two Bengali accounts from the First World War, written by Indian medical personnel who had ended up in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, in northern Syria, in 1916: this was one of the major sites of the Armenian genocide (see my posts of July-August, 2012).

The conference, which was called Strategies of UnSilencing, was held on October 26-27, 2012, in the American University of Armenia, Yerevan. This is a slightly expanded version of the essay I wrote for the occasion and it will be posted here over several weeks as a multi-part series. The complete essay will be available later, in the ‘Essays’ section of this website.]



Noravank Monastery, Armenia




In memory of Stephen Vertannes.



Armenia has been closely linked to the Indian subcontinent for a very long time. The foremost chronicler of the subcontinent’s Armenian community, Mesrovb Jacob Seth, tells us that it was at the express request of Akbar, the great Mughal Emperor, that Armenians settled in Agra in the 16th century. Akbar also took an Armenian wife, by the name of Mariam Zamani Begum. By the time the English arrived at the Mughal court the Armenians were already well established there: it was they who helped the East India Company acquire the Diwani of Bengal, which was a crucial step in the building of the British Empire.[i]

This connection made India an early centre of Armenian publishing: ‘About forty Armenian titles appeared in Madras between 1772 and 1818, including a number of groundbreaking political tracts and the first-ever Armenian periodical, Azdarar, in 1794. Thereafter, the torch of Armenian book-printing in India passed on to Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata), where the first short-lived attempt to set up an Armenian press had occurred in 1796-1797. Calcutta became a recurrent center of Armenian book printing from 1811 to 1853, and thereafter Armenian titles continued to appear there occasionally until 1888.’[ii]

For many years Calcutta, the city of my birth, was home to the biggest and most vibrant Armenian community in India. Even in my own childhood Armenians were an important presence in the city. As a boy I heard stories about famous Armenian boxers; and my father would reminisce about old hotels and boarding houses that had once been run by Armenians.



photo courtesy Rangan Datta

I often walked past the Armenian College, which was originally housed in the birthplace of the English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray[iii].







At school I had a friend from Calcutta’s Armenian community: his name was Stephen Vertannes and he died tragically young (this essay is dedicated to his memory).

These connections and memories may explain why Armenian characters have often figured in my books. In my novel The Calcutta Chromosome, one of the key characters is a Mrs Aratounian (a family of that name once ran a hotel in Calcutta); in my most recent book, River of Smoke, there is an Armenian watchmaker from Egypt by the name of Zadig Karabedian


El-Muallaqa, Cairo (Wikimedia Commons)

El-Muallaqa, Cairo (Wikimedia Commons)



(he is the nephew of Orhan Karabedian, the icon-painter whose work can still be seen in the Church of the Mu’allaqa in Cairo).











I should add here, in parentheses, that Armenia’s artistic connection with Egypt still exists: one of contemporary Egypt’s most distinguished painters is from Cairo’s Armenian community. Her name is Anna Boghigiuan





and she is a dear friend.

[i] Cf. Armenians in India: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, by Mesrovb Jacob Seth, first published Calcutta 1937, reprinted Asian Educational Services, New Delhi 2005, chapter 1.

[ii]  Celebrating the Legacy of Five Centuries of Armenian-Language Book Printing, 1512-2012 (exhibition booklet), by Ara Sanjian, University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2012, p. 14.

[iii] The school was originally known as the Armenian Philanthropic Academy. The building, at 39 Free School Street was purchased in 1883, for Rs. 48,000. W.M.Thackeray was born there on 18th July, 1811.



Navsari – Home of Indian Zoroastrianism & Hub of the China Trade

January 17, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (35)





The town of






Navsari, near Surat in Gujarat,








is the ancestral home of many eminent Parsi families (of which several were prominent in the China trade).

The First Dastoor Meherjirana Library




was founded and endowed by a prominent mercantile family







and it has been sustained for over one hundred forty years by other Parsi families from Navsari.






The library’s brochure explains: ‘in 1872, a wealthy Mumbai Parsi, named Navsariwala Seth Burjor Bamanji Padam,







commissioned a building to be erected on his own land, known as Lakkad Falia, and,





with a fund of Rs 225, the First Dastoor Meherji Rana Library was born’.







The library is named after a figure of great significance in Parsi history – a Zoroastrian savant by the name of Meherji Rana: ‘According to a Persian biography in the library’s possession… Meherji Rana was chosen by the Mughal governor at Surat to have an audience with the Emperor Akbar to explain the Zoroastrian religion. During his stay at the court from 1578-9 AD, Meherji Rana impressed the emperor so much that according to the Mughal court historian ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Badâ’ûnî, the empreror ordered his vizier Abu’l-Fazl to keep a fire burning day and night at the court… Meherji Rana’s presence in Akbar’s court was a great historic incident for not only the Parsis for Navsari, but for the whole Parsi community. Appreciating this, when he returned to Navsari, all the priests accepted him as the head of the Navsari priests, and for the first time the title of high priest (vadâ dastur) was bestowed. Therefore, he became famous as the First Dastoor Meherji Rana, beginning a priestly lineage which continues to the present day.





Today one of the Library’s most treasured possessions is the Mughal firman that granted land to Meherji Rana. It was issued under the seal of the Emperor Akbar and was signed by Abu’l Fazl, the great Mughal chronicler, in his own hand.





The Library has an extensive collection of manuscripts




in Avestan, Pahlavi, Farsi and










Old Gujarati and











many of which were found in this Godrej safe (built of course, by a Parsi family).
















The Library also has a small museum with a collection of finely-worked gara textiles.














Their Chinese inspiration is evident in their motifs and designs.


















During my brief visit to Navsari I had the good fortune to see a performance by a Parsi theatre company, based in Surat.















The company is headed by Yazdi Karanjia






and it is a family enterprise involving three generations of Karanjias.







It was as if I’d been granted a glimpse of theatrical history: for the Parsi theatre has had a huge impact across Asia – the origins of Bombay cinema have been traced back to it for example. Its influence extended far beyond the Indian subcontinent however: in the 19th and early 20th century Parsi theatre troupes traveled widely in Southeast Asia and such was their popularity that they inspired a genre of performance that came to be known as Wayang Parsi.

In his study of this form Jan van der Putten writes:



Parsi theatrical companies on tour through Southeast Asia met with great success in the [Straits] settlements through its combined appeal for both a relatively large and established Jawi Peranakan community, and more recent migrant groups from South Asia, such as Tamil indentured labourers. Prominent members of the Jawi Peranakan community also invited groups from South Asia…. Localized theatrical troups were formed as nodes in that network, where South Asian, Chinese, and Javanese influences converged into new forms such as Komedie Stamboel, Mendu, Dul Muluk, and Bangsawan. The last of these, which was most popular in the Malay Peninsula, seems to be the most closely related to the Parsi theatre, which triggered the foundation of ‘imitation Parsi theatre groups’ (tiruan wayang Parsi) in the last two decades of the nineteenth century… It is reported that in the mid-1880s, Mamat Pushi, a Parsi businessman in Penang, formed the first local Wayang Parsi troupe, which he named Pushi Indera Bangsawan of Penang, also known as the Royal Malay Opera/Komidi Melayu, and most grandiloquently, The Empress Victoria Jawi Peranakan Theatrical Company, Penang. From the very start this group was a big hit, and stimulated the formation of two other groups around the same time: Sri Indramawan, also known as The Prince of Wales Theatrical Company and Sri Mudawan.’[i]





Navsari has many fine buildings consecrated to Zoroastrianism.













A large seminary attached to a small fire temple;














the complex is known as the Vadi Dar-e-Meher.




Priests of the rank of Navar and Martab are trained here.










And the town also has an exceptionally handsome Atash Behram (fire temple).














Vada Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal



is currently the seniormost Zoroastrian priest in  India.













One of the most interesting aspects of Navsari’s history is its connection with the China trade. Many of Navsari’s Parsi families were deeply involved in this trade and two of the subcontinent’s foremost China traders were born in this town – Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Sir Jamshedjee Tata. They were born in the same neighbourhood, in very similar houses, both of which are now maintained as museums by family trusts.




This is the birthplace of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859),











who, from these modest beginnings,







would go on to become one of the world’s richest men.











This is said to be his father’s loom.
















The house is built in a style that is simple yet elegant as well as utilitarian.





The rooms branch off from a corridor that runs down the length of the house. This is the room where the future magnate was born.











This is the kitchen
















and the cistern, where water was stored.

















Above the rooms, tucked beneath the pitched roof, is a loft,





that spans the length of the house.












It is now presided over





by a statue of Sir Jamsetjee.











The birthplace of Jamshedji Nasserwanji Tata (1839-1904),





founder of the Tata industrial house,











is only a few hundred yards away.















The layout of the interior is much the same as that of the Jejeebhoy house.






There is a similar corridor,











with bedrooms branching off it,







and a ladder leading to a loft above.










And an outhouse in the courtyard beyond.















I don’t know if any research has been done on this, but to my eye, these houses appear to have more in common with the ‘shophouses’ of Southeast Asia and Guangdong than with the urban dwellings of the interior of the Indian subcontinent. Should this be true, it would provide yet more reason to believe that in many respects the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean have more in common with each other  than with their hinterlands.

Small wonder that enterprising young men born under these roofs would go eastwards to seek their fortunes!



Sadly I was unable to determine the exact location of Bahram Modi’s birthplace. But I think this may have been it.
















[i] Putten, Jan van der: Wayang Parsi, Bangsawan and Printing: Commercial Exchange between South Asia and the Malay World, in Feener, Michael R. & Terenjit Sevea (ed.): Islamic Connections: Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia, Instt. Of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2009; pp. 90-1. I am grateful to Michael Feener for bringing this article to my attention.





Review: ‘Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection’

January 16, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)




Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection

by Felix Padel, Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni


Felix Padel, is a British anthropologist who has spent many years living in the forest areas of Odisha. He is now a professor at the School of Rural Managament, Indian Institute of Health Managament Research, Jaipur.

In 2010 Felix co-authored, with Samarendra Das, Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel (Orient Black Swan, Hyderabad, 2010). That book, which I reviewed on this site in 2011, found a wide readership and has had an important impact on the discussion of mining in India.

Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection is Felix Padel’s next book, and it is co-authored with Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni. It is to be published by Orient Black Swan in March this year.

 The introduction to Ecology, Economy explains that the book grew out of a course of lectures. As such, it addresses a wider range of issues than Out of This Earth.

In effect it is a snapshot of India at a particular moment in history, focused around key controversies highlighted while Jairam Ramesh was Minister for Environment and Forests from May 2009 until July 2011, when he made a series of crucial, controversial decisions and statements about balancing environmental and economic imperatives. These controversies reflect an opening in perspectives about economic-ecological balance, and in how to deal with corruption and blatant violations of Law. Jairam’s analysis of ‘Two Cultures’ (Ramesh 2010) provides our starting-point in chapter one, and Rule of Law is the theme in our final chapter.

Although uneven, the book offers many insights – as for example in this passage on the so-called ‘Green Revolution’.

Earthworms are the key to ‘living soil’ – the subject of Darwin’s last research and book [1881]. Thousands of farmers tempted into Green Revolution fertiliser-based methods have found themselves complicit in a holocaust of worms.

This is what had happened to Upendra, he was told by the government, the companies and many others that if he spent his money on agricultural chemicals he would make more money. He tried it and it worked. For five years his yield increased, the more he spent, the more he used and the more he seemed to make. Little did Upendra know that the reason for this was the combined efforts of the natural richness of the soil and the chemical fertilisers’ boosting effects. While this was happening nothing was being put back into the soil. The chemicals were killing his soil, the worms and other organisms… all the life of the soil. Soon there was nothing left and his yield went down. Now he had nothing but the hybrid seed and chemicals to produce his crop and year after year he began to pay more and more to the companies while, now knowingly, destroying his own soil. (Taylor 2011)

Until he started working actively with worms, breeding them in compost to bring back the nutrients to his starved soil. Fertilisers kill earthworms within a few hours of application to fields. And what life-forms do pesticides kill? Punjab witnesses a silent spring already, yet Rachel Carson, the visionary scientist who issued the first major warning against fertiliser-pesticide-intensive agriculture in Silent Spring (1962), was the subject of vicious attacks and attempts to discredit her meticulous research by the chemical industries (Laura Orlando 2002).

So plans for a new Green Revolution in Eastern India, and MoUs recently signed between Monsanto, Du Pont and other multinational biotech/seed companies, and state governments including Odisha and Rajasthan, spell grave danger for accelerating the already rapid displacement of small-scale cultivators from the land, by promoting hybrid rice and other new cash crops, in a context where the role of unrepayable debts to seed companies is already a major cause of farmers’ suicides, and where farmers in Punjab are committing suicide due to the legacy of the Green Revolution, due to the land’s infertility and a vast depletion of ground-water (Living Farms, Dec 2010).


Ecology, Economy addresses important and complex questions with a refreshing directness:

For a start, what is poverty? Does industrialisation reduce it or massively increase it? Its definition changes rapidly, in accordance with ‘poverty reduction programmes’ that claim to reduce it; and claims to raise people out of poverty are the rationale behind the very development projects displacing people. Jean Dreze has co-authored books about The political Economy of Hunger (1990), and displacement and impoverishment by the Narmada dams. His recent essay with Amartya Sen (‘Putting Growth in its Place’, November 2011), shows how industrial-development-oriented growth is not equivalent to real development, and has massively increased poverty, in stark contrast to current developmentalist rhetoric.


Unusually for a book with ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ in its title, this one pays close attention to the etymologies of many terms that have become hackneyed with use (this may be because Felix is also a trained classicist):

Mort-gage is medieval French for ‘death pledge’, mortuum vadium in Latin – a type of contract forbidden under Christian law. Indeed, usury (moneylending at interest) was forbidden under Christian law until the Medici got around the restriction in the 14th century by masking it under foreign currency transactions, and it remained forbidden under Islamic law until recent times.

Ecology, Economy provides a valuable overview of some of the most pressing issues that confront India, and indeed the world, today. It is essential reading for all who seek to understand why so much of India’s population is up in arms against the policies that are being imposed upon the country by its elite.




A Picture and an Update

January 10, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)




From Alessandro Vescovi, who compiled the bibliography on my website, a picture of the Lascar war memorial in Kolkata:





and an update of the bibliography covering the last six months. Alessandro has not included entries in Bangla or Hindi but would be glad to do so if the details are sent to him (he can be contacted through this site). I am very grateful to Alessandro for taking the trouble to do this.


Ain, Sandip, ed. 2011. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines : A Critical Anthology. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Aldama, Frederick Luis. 2010. History as Handmaiden to Fiction in Amitav Ghosh. In A User’s Guide to Postcolonial and Latino Borderland Fiction: University of Texas Press.

Bharali, Pabitra. 2012. Amitav Ghosh’s “The Shadow Lines”: Problematics of National Identity. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science (JHSS) 2 (2):44-46.

Chambers, Claire. 2011. “[A]cross the border there existed another reality”: Nations, Borders and Cartography in The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Chatterjee Sriwastav, Sharmista. 2011. “Because stories are all there are to live in”: Mixed Blessings of Memory in The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Choudhary, S.K., and SD Sharma. 2012. Amitav Ghosh and the Expression of Subaltern History: A Study of The Calcutta Chromosome. The IUP Journal of English Studies 7 (4):7-18.

Cottier, Annie. 2012. Settlers in the Sundarbans: The Poetry and Politics of Humans and Nature in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. In On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English, edited by G. Ganapathy-Doré and H. Ramsey-Kurz. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars.

Das, Sukanta. 2012. Morichjhapi Revisited: Fictionalizing History in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Criterion III (III):1-8.

de Oliveira Ramos, Regiane Corréa. 2011. Ila and the Third Space in The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Devi, P. Prasanna 2012. The Hunger Motif: A Study of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Criterion 3 (2):1-7.

Dutta Ain, Anwesha 2011. “Did you really need to kill the dog, May?”: An Interrogation into the Trifles of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain: Worldview Publications.

Dutta Sharma, Brahma. 2012. Environmentalism Versus Humanism in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide The Journal of Contemporary Literature IV (2):15-22.

Ghosh, Manas. 2011. Two Histories of Partition: Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and Ritwik Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Goh, Robbie B. H. 2012. The Overseas Indian and the political economy of the body in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 47 (3):341-356.

LaMont, Hillary I. 2011. Interrogating the Shadow Line between Joseph Conrad and Amitav Ghosh. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Lemos, G.C. 2012. A Antropofagia Indiana na Obra de Amitav Ghosh/The Indian “Anthropophagy” in the Amitav Ghosh’s Works In an Antique Land and Calcutta Chromosome. Numen 14 (2): 281-296.

Majumdar, Nivedita. 2011. The Nation and the World: A Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Mallory-Kani, Amy. 2011. Constellations of Media, Memory, History and Narrative in The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Martos Hueso, María Elena. 2011. Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Imaginary Homelands’: the Question of Identity in The Shadow Lines. In India in the World, edited by C. M. Gámez-Fernández and A. Navarro-Tejero. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars.

Mukherjee, Pablo. 2011. Surfing the Second Wave: Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. In In (pp. 177-189) Connell, Liam (ed. and introd.); Nicky Marsh (ed. and introd.), Literature and Globalization: A Reader.London, England: Routledge, 2011. xvi, 391 pp.. (Routledge Literature Readers). edited by L. Connell and M. Nicky. London, England: Routledge.

Reis, Eliana Lourenço de Lima. 2012. A Possible Utopia: Cosmopolitanism in Contemporary Art. Aletria: Revista de Estudos de Literatura 21 (2):127-143.

Roy, A. 2012. In Pursuit of Identity: A Study through Selected South Asian Novels. The Criterion: an International Journal in English 3 (3):1-6.

Roye, Susmita. 2011. Partition and Expatriation in The Shadow Lines: The Hysteria of History. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Sarma, Madan. M. 2011. Tha’mma: At Home, yet Homeless. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Singh, Seema. 2011. Dialogics of Novelisation in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Thieme, John. 2012. Postcolonial Mappae Mundi. Simplegadi X (10):47-66.

Thompson, Hilary. 2011. The Shadow Lines as Outline for a Planetary Oblique Archaeology. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Yaitsky, Lydia. 2011. Amitav Ghosh’s Tridib-Tristan: Where does a Knight without a Home Belong? In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

Yusin, Jennifer. 2011. Silent Borders, Mirrored Histories: Living Partition in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Anthology, edited by S. Ain. Delhi: Worldview Publications.

About ‘The Hungry Tide’

January 7, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Bon Bibi & Shah Jongoli, Sundarbans, 2000

Bon Bibi & Shah Jongoli, Sundarbans, 2000


Dear Amitav, 

I have no idea if you will get this message or if I will get a reply-but as they say-those who dare….
My name is Yasmine Thebault, I was born in 1952 in Dar-es-salaam, in  Tanzania.
My parents came from the Gujarat, but we Ismaili originate from the middle east. I went to school in London in 1967, met my husband at Imperial College in the summer of 1973, he is from French parentage, born in Jersey.
We fell in love, and got married despite all the opposition from my family.
Yesterday I finished reading The Hungry Tide and I felt so moved by it I could hardly breathe-something touched my soul. I retired in August from my post as Early Years Adviser to the Minister for Education, this has been my passion and my life’s work for 27 years-I have been feeling a huge sense of loss and Identity-so who am I -where do I belong? Is this it?
Piya spoke to me-I was in her soul, and Fokir-well he is me too-I have felt spiritually lifted since I read about the universality of these big questions.
I just wanted to thank you Amitav-as my mother would say Shuker.
Best Wishes, Yasmine.
Thank you so much Yasmine – it is wonderful to know of your response to the book.
Yours is a very interesting story – would you mind if I posted your letter on my website (
Thanks again and all best
 Dear Amitav,

I am delighted that you have taken the trouble to reply-I would be happy for you to post my letter on your blog.
 You say that mine is an interesting story and I feel it is. I started writing a photographic journal to celebrate my 60th birthday….

Reading The hungry Tide has motivated me to write and lifted my spirit, it is when we see the raw self and are not afraid to look away that we see our essence-my work with children has made me realise how very philosophical they are-if they are given a voice,but now we live in a world where e utility is all.
I will leave you with what a young teacher told me,
She said Yasmine, my headteacher asked me to ensure that all the children in the nursery class had a written target to achieve by the end of half-term. I sat with each child in turn after I had explained about targets for example, they could say my target is to learn five letter sound etc. So a very thoughtful little girl sat on my lap and she said-Miss, my target is to be a fairy in the water tray-she said it with such simplicity and honesty-for the little child there really were fairies and she wanted to be one-she also knew she wanted to be a fairy in the water tray.
Without imagination, our world would never have produced authors like you-so keep going Amitav-do it for the little girl who wants to be a fairy.

Kind regards, Yasmine,.



Sundarbans, 2000

Sundarbans, 2000

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