Archive for September, 2014

My Foreword to ‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’

Chrestomather | September 22, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



Below is my Foreword to Vedica Kant’s fine new book: ‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’: India and the First World War published September 15, 2014, by Roli Books, New Delhi.






Of the many poignant images in this book none captures better the plight of the colonial soldier than the photograph (on p. 171)





in which a sepoy in a prisoner-of-war camp is seen to be washing his foot while a German soldier looks on bemusedly from the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Whether in captivity or not, the sepoy had always to contend with the gaze of those he served: on the other side of the battle-lines too he would have known himself to be under constant watch, hemmed in by fences that related not only to his physical being but most significantly to the question of his loyalty, this last being a matter of such profound uncertainty that no one perhaps was more unsure of it than he himself. It is this ambivalence above all, that defines the predicament of the sepoy, not just in the First World War, but in many other conflicts before and after.

The sepoy’s way of soldiering dated back to a time when mercenary armies were the norm rather than the exception – that is to say, the mid-18th century, which was when the East India Company raised its first ‘Native Infantry’ regiments in the newly-founded Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal. The First World War sepoy is thus the embodiment of a paradox: a soldier schooled in modern weaponry and tactics but recruited, remunerated and officered by methods that belonged to another era. The sepoy was in other words a warrior of a completely different ilk from the citizen-soldiers who were the main protagonists of the 1st World War: this is one reason why his role in that conflict is so often overlooked, at home and in the West.

Since the creation of the East India Company’s standing armies, the sepoy had fought in innumerable British campaigns in Asia and Africa through – the Mysore Wars, the Maratha Wars, the Opium Wars, and so on. Yet through those centuries of service one thing that remained constant was the sepoy’s ambivalent relationship to his job. His loyalty could never be taken for granted; mutiny, which always simmered beneath the surface, regularly came to the boil, most spectacularly in 1857. Nor did his ambivalence end with the start of First World War: sepoys mutinied at Singapore in 1915 even as their compatriots were fighting side-by-side with English regiments at the Somme; a generation later the story would repeat itself on a much larger scale, in the same theatre, during World War II (this split in the sepoy’s loyalties is perfectly captured in Vedica Kant’s account (below; Chapter III, pp. 119 – 21) of two Afridi Pathan brothers, one of whom Mir Dast, won the Victoria Cross at Ypres, while the other, Mir Mast, deserted to the German side at Neuve Chapelle, along with 15 other sepoys. [i])

This is why the Indian[ii] soldier’s experience of the First World War resists appropriation by those who would like to merge it seamlessly into the triumphal narrative of the winning side. The sepoy’s ambivalence, as much as the anomalous circumstances of the army to which he belonged, made sure that his story could not be fitted into the usual frames of ‘victor’ and ‘vanquished’. This is another reason why the sepoy’s role in the war is so often overlooked.

In a sense the sepoy was himself complicit in this neglect – for not the least aspect of his ambivalence was his witholding of his own story. Through the history of his existence, silence was one of the sepoy’s most enduring traits; it goes so far back and is so consistent that it is hard not to see it as an act of resistance in itself. Consider that in the century and a half that preceded the First World War hundreds of thousands of Indians, many of them literate, served as sepoys. Yet over that entire period there exists only one first person narrative of a sepoy’s experiences, and this too is possibly an apocryphal text: Sitaram Subedar.[iii]

Nor did the First World War, which was to result in an enormous outpouring of prose and poetry in English, French and German, have a similar effect on the Indian subcontinent. While Europe produced tens of thousands of books about the war, in India only a tiny number of first person accounts were to find their way into print: to date they can still be counted on the fingers of one hand – and not one of them was written by a sepoy.

In fact two of these accounts were written by men who were not even eligible to serve as sepoys by reason of their ethnicity; they were Bengalis and thus excluded from military recruitment because of the British Indian army’s racial policies.[iv] One of these men, Kalyan Mukherjee, was a doctor in the army’s medical corps, the other, Sisir Sarbadhikari, was a medical auxiliary.[v] Although neither of them bore arms, their writings are to my mind, among the most remarkable accounts of the violence of the First World War. This is of course a tall claim to make of a conflict that was so fecund in literary production: since neither of the two books has been translated, I am afraid the only substantiation I can provide, for those who do not read Bengali, is the evidence of the excerpts that I have translated for my own blog (several passages of which are included in this book).[vi]

As for the sepoys themselves, true to their tradition, they left behind very little: inasmuch as their voice can be heard at all it is through their censored letters,[vii] and through the various materials that were collected by scholars in German prisoner-of-war camps[viii]. These sources have only recently seen the light of day and this book is one of the first to incorporate them into a panoramic overview of the Indian subcontinent’s involvement in the First World War. It is a welcome and long-necessary endeavour but it should be noted that on certain subjects there remains a yawning gap in information: for example the role of lascars, who probably contributed more, proportionally, to the seaborne war effort than sepoys did on land.

Despite the gaps in the record, Vedica Kant has succeeded, to a quite remarkable degree, in conveying a sense of the texture of the sepoy’s experience and of the conflicted, ambivalent cadences of his voice. It is a voice that cries out to be heard, precisely because it’s story does not conform to the mirrored Western narratives of victory and defeat: what it offers is the possibility of an alternative reading of that history – as a story both of defeat-in-victory and victory-in-defeat. To my mind this is closer to the truth of what happened on the battlefields of Europe and Asia during the Great War than many more familiar interpretations of those tragic events.



Amitav Ghosh

August 2014



[i] The Second World War was to produce many similar stories, most notably that of Captain (later Lt-Gen) Premendra Singh Bhagat, winner of the Victoria Cross, and his brother Nripendra Singh Bhagat, who joined the INA in Malaya.

[ii] Needless to add, I use the words ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ here to refer to British India, which included most of the subcontinent.

[iii] Cf From Sepoy to Subedar, trans. James Thomas Norgate, London 1873 (also pubd. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1911). The original Awadhi text has never been traced: it is said to have been dictated by Sitaram Subedar to an English officer. The Hindi writer Madhukar Upadhyaya has rendered the English text back into Awadhi in his marvelously evocative book Kissa Pande Sitaram Subedar (Saaransh Prakashan, Delhi, 1999): I strongly recommend it to anyone who can read Hindi (I am grateful to Dr. Ashutosh Kumar of Delhi University for bringing this book to my attention).

[iv] Vedica Kant explains the ‘martial race’ policy on p. 27, Chapter 1.

[v] The writings referred to here are Sisir Sarbadhikari’s Abhi Le Baghdad (privately printed, Calcutta 1958; listed in the Indian National Library, Kolkata as: Sarvadhikari, Sishir Prasad: Abhi Le Baghdad; Prothom Mahajudhher Khanikta, Kolkata, 1958), and the letters of Captain Kalyan Mukherji, which figure prominently in the account of his life written by his grandmother, Mokshada Debi, Kalyan Pradeep (listed in the Indian National Library, Kolkata, as: Kalyan Pradip, being the Memoir of Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukhopadhyay, IMS, Kolkata, privately printed, 1928). It was Santanu Das’s piece Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history (which is his introduction to the volume Race, Empire and First World War Writing, Das, Santanu (ed.), CUP, 2011) that led me to both books – I shall forever be grateful to him for this.

[vi] My posts can be found here, here  & here.

[vii] Painstakingly edited and published in a magisterial edition by David Omissi, under the title Indian Voices of the Great War (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999). My blog post on the book can be found here.

[viii] The volume When the War Began We Heard of Several Kings: South Asian Prisoners in World War I Germany (ed. Franziska Roy, Heike Liebau and Ravi Ahuja; Social Science Press, 2011) presents a wide variety of these materials; it includes several voice recordings in the accompanying CD ROM. My blog post on the book can be found here.



Eating Arakan-style

Chrestomather | September 17, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Unnoticed by the world at large India has, over the last few years, made massive financial commitments to its eastern neighbour, Myanmar:




Mingun Pagoda, Sagaing region


$9 million for the upgradation of hospitals in Sittwe (Akyab) and Sagaing;











$6 million for industrial training centres in Pokokku and Yangon; $25 million for ‘Border Area Development Projects’;




Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right

Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right


$3 million for the restoration of the Ananda temple in Bagan; $1 million for ‘reconciliation and reconstruction assistance’ in Rakhine (Arakan) State – and a great deal else.










The total commitment, including lines of credit, amounts to over US$ 1,500 million.[i]


A large part of this sum is devoted to infrastructure projects,



DSC03108including a port at Sittwe and several roads in border areas, to connect the Arakan coast and north-western and central Myanmar to India’s northeastern states.











The projects have the potential of revolutionizing the economies of eastern India and western Burma should they ever be brought to their envisaged conclusion.





Bay of Bengal, seen from Sittwe













They would provide direct access to the Bay of Bengal to India’s landlocked North Eastern states and to several states in Burma.


Some of the projects,




DSC03086like the new port at Sittwe,











are already quite far advanced while others are yet to get off the ground. Since many of these projects are in Rakhine State, Indian officials sometimes travel to this area to check on their progress. Recently an opportunity arose for me to trail along on one such visit so I lost no time in donning my long-doffed reporter’s hat.


Thus it happened that I came to be introduced to the food of the Arakan, with which I had no previous acquaintance. And a most remarkable cuisine it is too, combining many different influences with a refreshing lightness of touch.






The day might start with a breakfast like this one: (clockwise from top left) a few fritters, a plate of balachaung – a relish of crispy shallots and dried shrimp (Naomi Duguid’s fine book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor has a good recipe); a salad of sliced onions and chickpeas; slivers of pork and a fried egg.









Lunch might begin with a dish of raw edible flowers, sliced nuts and lime leaves, DSC03389












to be dipped in ngapi, a fermented fish sauce,





that is served in small bowls (bottom left) with a spread of fish, chicken and vegetables,











including one that I usually regard with distaste –







bottle gourd (known as lau in Bengali and lauki in Hindi). But this preparation, with a topping of scrambled eggs, is truly delicious.









Dinner is usually preceded by snacks, including almost always,






some pickled tea leaves,










a few pakora-like fritters,







which are never better than in Burma,











some succulent gingko nuts,










perhaps some





dry-cured, shredded venison,










maybe a tart salad






of tomatoes and garlic,









and perhaps even some stir-fried pork with chilies.















But woe betide if you sample more than a mouthful, for dinner itself is yet to come:





consisting perhaps of stir-fried cabbage, balachaung, mushrooms cooked with noodles, shrimp, fish and – an indispensable acompaniment to every Burmese meal – soup (in this instance of bottle-gourd).









The rice served with these dishes is of a delectable Arakan variety,







grown on a rice-field like this one.










And if you’re lucky  you may even partake





of an Arakan banquet,











in which is served a dish of that incomparable South-East Asian specialty,






water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), also known as kangkong,











and long beans



with coconut and crispy shallots,













and (I think) stir-fried tripe with tomatoDSC03501es,












and mutton cooked with daal,



DSC03505(not unlike a Parsi dhansak)













and DSC03504coconut-crusted prawns,












and DSC03502crispy greens with shallots,













and DSC03503the best preparation of jellyfish that I’ve ever encountered,










and, of course,






a soup, in this instance, of split peas,










and, as a final flourish,







an enormous crustacean.











The repast ends with




fruit: DSC03508pomelo and














DSC03510and mandarin oranges.











I did a Google search for Rakhine restaurants and it appears that except for a few in Rangoon, there are none outside the state. So this might well be the ultimate in locavore cuisines: you have to go there to sample it.







[i] These figures were provided to me by the Indian Embassy, Yangon, Myanmar.

An Arakan Angkor 2

Chrestomather | September 14, 2014 in An Arakan Angkor | Comments (0)




The Arakan coast was for millenia an important node in the trading networks of the Indian Ocean.



The wealth generated by the trans-Oceanic trade nourished a number of kingdoms in this region over the centuries. Mrauk-U was the capital of a kingdom that flourished between 1430 C.E. and 1785 C.E.:  most of the surviving monuments were built in this period.







Today Mrauk-U is a quiet little town,



Mrauk-U’s main street

in what is now Rakhine State in the Republic of Myanmar.














But in its heyday Mrauk-U was a cosmopolitan city visited by ships from all over the world.





DSC03347It had a large Portuguese quarter with close links to Goa. The Portuguese adventurer










Filipe de Britto e Nicote, also known as Nga Zinga,





Filipe de Brito, c. 1600, (Wikimedia Commons)


spent many years in this region. But he came to a sad end, being executed by impalement in 1613  C.E.













The region exported a wide range of goods,







including locally-made









Chinese-style porcelain and pottery, some of it of fine quality.














The small but well-laid-out








museum of Mrauk-U has a good collection









of artefacts and


























monumental sculptures in stone,
















and Buddha images from different eras.






This is one from the 4th to 8th centuries C.E.;











this is from the Lamro period (8th to 15th centuries C.E.)


















while this is from the








Mrauk-U period (15th to 18th centuries).










Today, although the wealth and grandeur are gone, a vast complex of monuments remains at Mrauk-U, to bear witness to the region’s past glories. I was fortunate to be guided through this enormous site by




U Kyaw Hla Maung whose book The Rakhaing Kingdoms Hidden in South East Asia is soon to be published.

U Kyaw Hla Maung, who is partly of Manipuri descent, also goes by the name Rocky.

Rocky was studying medicine in Rangoon in December 1974 when the body of U Thant, the former UN Secretary-General, was brought back to Burma for burial. His interment became the occasion for widespread protests against the military regime, spearheaded by students. In the aftermath of the protests Rocky left Rangoon and moved to Mrauk-U with the intention of deepening his knowledge of his native region. Since then he has done extensive research on the history of Mrauk-U.






Rocky is an expert in the martial arts (of which there is a special Rakhine variant) and he is also a teacher – he runs informal classes in English and history.





Rocky with two of his students




From what he and his students told me of his classes I had the impression that they are a Rakhine version of the classes run by Ludu U Sein Win in Rangoon (which I have written about on this blog).

Rocky’s daughter is currently studying computer science in the US, at Yale University.









Here Rocky illustrates the differences














between certain Buddhist architectural forms.

















The first monument we visit is the Miphara-gri  (Queen’s Cave) temple,






in which a ten-foot high image of the Buddha












rises above smaller




fern-draped figures  DSC03202













some of which





gaze out of mossy niches.














Then we move on to the magnificent




DSC03213Koe-thoung temple,










built by King Tikkha





in 1553 CE.









The temple is reputed to contain 90,000 images of the Buddha.





Some are carved upon the walls,












and some sit
















in subtly-lit corridors,















and mossy














and crumbling terraces.

















The surroundings are as verdant as the temple itself.









It seems miraculous to me that even one such temple exists  – but in Mrauk-U there are many others, among them the Htuk Kant Thein temple,





built by King Min Phaloun in 1571 C.E..











The modest entrance




leads to












labyrinthine passageways








in which images of the Buddha









are placed in




DSC03314precisely aligned niches.














The vestibules converge upon a cavernous inner sanctum.






‘Tradition has it that there was an image cast in nine precious metals in the special chamber.’ (Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U, Myar Aung, trans. Ah Lonn Maung, p. 91)










Some of Mrauk-U’s temples draw many worshipers:




for example the Sanda Muni temple,












where we run into a group of schoolgirls

















who are following






in the footsteps of others before them.










This temple is run mainly by young novice monks



who live on the premises and bathe in adjoining wells,












and even




do the cooking.













And then there is the marvelous Shaitthaung Temple, built by King Thiri Thuriya Sandar Maha Dhamma Raza in 1535 C.E. (897 Rakhine Era).







‘It is also known as Ranaung Zeya (Temple of Victory) commemorating the re-annexation of twelve Bengal towns’ (Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U, p. 79).








Here, as in many of Mrauk-U’s temples





the inner sanctum is ringed









with images of gods
















from the Hindu pantheon.
















Here too there is a labyrinth of richly carved galleries,





where children play hide and seek,











watched over by





the Remover of Obstacles.












On the surrounding walls





fierce dwarapalas (gatekeepers)









rub shoulders with startled tigers.

















At intervals there are arches




through which children peer in;












they also provide glimpses of neighbouring temples

















and rain-drenched stupas.

















As I make my way out it occurs to me that each image in this cascading series of iterations





is an assertion and celebration of the centrality of iconography in human life; they are each a signpost to a spiritual universe that is a galaxy removed from the logocentric, iconophobic worlds of the Book; they each represent an unspoken argument in which the medium is itself the message.  It strikes me also that in a small way this blog, with its meshing of word and image, is also a refraction of that universe, a glimmer of a possibility of broadening the novel’s boundaries of language. This reinforces my belief that the Net has enabled a return to forms of expression and perception wholly different from those of the age of print, with its by-no-means incidental overlapping with the era of Protestant iconoclasm.





An Arakan Angkor – 1

Chrestomather | September 9, 2014 in An Arakan Angkor | Comments (2)



Mrauk-U rises out of the misted hills and valleys of the Arakan



DSC03337coast like a mirage,











at the end of a long journey




over weather-worn roads,









after innumerable swollen streams















have been crossed on trestle bridges,














while schoolchidren, with thanaka-daubed faces, look on















as they make their way back to tiny hamlets














and quiet villages






that ought to be recognized as models of sophisticated sustainability,









with carbon footprints too small even to be measured,





except when the occasional ancient tractor-truck comes sputtering along.








Countless rivers and creeks






wind through the landscape







meandering through ranges of hills that are shaped





almost like pagodas









so that the spires of Mrauk-U




DSC03189become visual echoes of the site’s setting.











In the shadow of the monuments villagers go quietly about their business.









The effect is such that I was reminded of my first visit








to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat twenty-one years ago.
















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