Archive for November, 2017

Two Assamese Novels

Chrestomather | November 28, 2017 in Current Reading | Comments (1)


Rita Chowdhury’s compelling historical novel, Chinatown Days, is about a community that was founded by a handful of Chinese workers who came to Assam in the 1830s at the behest of the British East India Company, which was then attempting to establish a tea industry in India in order to reduce its dependence on Chinese tea. The descendants of those early migrants became a thriving and prosperous part of the ethnic mosaic of Assam. Its members spoke fluent Assamese and developed deep roots in the soil of the region. After 1947, they regarded themselves as citizens of independent India. But then came the India-China War of 1962 which stirred up a maelstrom of anti-Chinese prejudice. Chinese-Indians were arrested en masse and sent away to internment camps in distant parts of the country. Their links with their former neighbours were forever sundered and they were set cruelly adrift in the world.

Chinatown Days tells this shocking story by following the life-histories of a few characters. Rita Chowdhury is an energetic and empathetic story-teller; her novel is a moving saga about a terrible injustice wrought upon a group of blameless people.

Originally published in Assamese, in 2010, under the title Makam (taken from the name of the principal Chinese settlement in the region) the novel was hugely successful: it was re-printed ten times in its first year of publication. The English translation, which appears to be the work of the author herself, is thoroughly readable: the simplicity of its diction is a perfect match for the directness of the story.



Soon to be published by Pan Macmillan India, Chinatown Days deserves to find a wide audience, not only because of its many merits as a novel, but also because it tells a story that ought to be better known.









Jangam (‘The Movement’) is a translation of the late Assamese writer Debendranath Acharya’s novel about the exodus of Indians from Burma during the Second World War. Jangam won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982, and to the best of my knowledge it is the only Indian novel devoted entirely to this sadly-neglected episode in modern Indian history. As such it is a historical document of inestimable value.

The novel has been translated by Amit R. Baishya, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma. In his introduction, Amit Baishya writes: ‘I learnt that the author composed the novel from childhood recollections of conversations with returning soldiers and the personal research he conducted, especially at the British Library when he attended a school for engineering in the UK. Given the relative paucity of accounts by Indian survivors, Acharya’s views on the exodus may have been coloured by the material he had access to.’

Unfortunately the novel is marred by prejudiced and stereotypical depictions of Burmese characters. Nor is the text always well-served by the translation, which is riddled with infelicities and simple errors (for example, the name of the town Myitkyina is rendered throughout as ‘Misina’; Hoolock gibbons are referred to as ‘Hooluk monkeys’ etc.).

Nonetheless, Jangam is an invaluable addition to the existing literature on the exodus from Burma and the book’s translator and publishers (Vitasta, New Delhi) deserve our thanks for making it available to the public.


I am told that The Glass Palace served as an inspiration to both Amit Baishya and Rita Chowdhury: this is, of course, deeply gratifying to know.



letter on the behaviour of vines

Chrestomather | November 25, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Dear Mr. Ghosh,

I just read your notes about vine behavior in your masterful “The Great Derangement” and thought you might be interested in the following. I study vines, but over the past decades my research has become focused on tropical forest conservation and rural development through sustainable management for timber, principally in Southeast Asia. As a side project I study sea level rise in Florida (see the attached popular account of this work).

Sequential expansion of cells around the perimeter of terminal buds of most plants causes elongating shoots to circulate. Because the sequence progresses in an anti-clockwise direction, the circumnutation spirals of most plants are also anti-clockwise. In most species, the radius of the arcs of a circumnutating shoot tips are usually less than a few centimeters, but in many vines, the paths follow by ‘”searcher” shoots and tendrils can be exaggerated by an order-of-magnitude. In under an hour in completely still air, the top 10-20 cm of a rapidly growing vine searcher shoot might follow a circular path 20-40 cm diameter in under an hour. Vine shoots and tendrils that encounter an obstacle within their circumnutation spiral continue to revolve, which is how they attach to trellises. If the obstacle is too large, the angle of ascent is too shallow for the stem or trellis tissue to support against the pull of gravity, and the attempt at climbing fails and the plant falls. (Note that contrary to the old song about the morning glory and the woodbine, it is NOT because she twines to the left and he twines to the right.)
Naturalists have long noted the phenomenon of circumnutation, and I recall that Darwin wrote about it in his book on climbing plants, but I found a series of papers on this topc by researchers from the University of Besancon in France to be particularly intriguing. I do not currently have access to my files, but as I recall, back in the early 60s, Professor Baillaud wrote a tome about the behavior of climbing plants. In that monumental work, he described how when circumnutating vine shoots and tendrils detect the presence of a potential trellis in the vicinity, they switch from following a circular path to an oval, with the long axis oriented toward to the potential support. In a very French manner, he was apparently comfortable describing the support-foraging shoot tip as having detected the “essence” of a support, and change their behavior so as to increase the chance of making contact.
You should note that I never had the pleasure of meeting in person any of the people about whom I am writing, and presume that they are no longer living. In any case, I will take the liberty of “connecting some dots” so as to make sense of the drama that unfolded over the decade after Baillaud published his seminal work.
Continuing the work on vine behavior under Baillaud’s tutelage was a young man by the name of Tronchet. In a paper published in the same journal, which was presumably based on his dissertation research, Monsieur Tronchet described the results of an elegant experiment in which he explored the “essence” detected by circumnutating shoot tips. He demonstrated with a column covered by wet cloth soaked in bark extract that the shoots detected the presence of potential supports chemically.
A scant year or two later, Madam Tronchet, presumably another student of Baillaud and the wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife of Monsieur Tronchet, refuted the latter’s findings. When she presented circumnutating shoots with clear glass columns that were dry, they also elongated their path towards the potential support.
I am not aware of any really definitive follow-up to this research, but by piecing together what is known from related more mechanistic studies, I believe I can explain this phenomenon through invocation of the gaseous hormone, ethylene. In response to even very low concentrations of ethylene, the cellulose microfibrils that strengthen cell walls in plants become arranged randomly, rather than like hoops of a barrel. Growing plants release ethylene, which accumulates where there is some obstacle to its diffusion. Cells with randomly arranged microfibrils expand equally in all directions whereas cells wrapped with parallel (horizontal) microfibrils elongate more than they increase in girth. This differential expansion causes the shoot to bend towards whatever it is that causes ethylene gas to accumulate.

Beautiful, no? I am thrilled by the way that when science reveals some underlying physical explanation for an observed phenomenon, it becomes even more fascinating. I hope you agree.

Looking forward to your next book.

ucuz ukash