Blog Archives

The Lascar War Memorial, Kolkata

Chrestomather | January 25, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is a guest post by Commodore Bibhu Mohanti (retd.) of Cuttack, Odisha. Commodore Mohanti also provided the collage below.]





The Lascar War Memorial is located in the Indian Naval premises of Hastings, Kolkata. In 1920, William Ingram Keir, an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, started the construction of this historical monument. He had also designed Kidderpore Bridge, the buildings of the Bengal Engineering and Science University (erstwhile Bengal Engineering College) in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Islamia College. He’d also replaced the spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral (damaged in an earthquake in 1934), and designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras  in the city. He would never talk much about his life but would always say, “I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else”. He died three months after he left India in 1967. The Lascar War Memorial earned William Ingram Keir an award of Rs.500/- for its design in an international contest in 1929 and it “remained of special value to him”.

Apart from this memorial, Kolkata has two others: the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial, erected in the memory of Bengali martyrs of the World War in 1914-1918. The Lascar memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within few yards of Prinsep Ghat, in the memory of the 896 Lascars of undivided Bengal and Assam  who lost their lives at sea during World War I. It was unveiled on 6th February 1924 by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal. The memorial, a four-sided ‘oriental’ column, with the prow of  an ancient galley projecting from each of its sides, is capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. The undulating lines beneath symbolize waves, with chhajjas and trellises to give it a distinctly Indian look.

On his regular visits to the city of Kolkata, James Keir, son of William Keir, living in Hongkong  since 1962, was struck  by the neglect of Lascar monument. In 1998 he noticed a change – the memorial was restored in 1994 under the care of Commodore Bibhu Mohanti, who was then the Naval Officer-In-Charge Kolkata.

On a winter morning in January 1994 Commodore Mohanti, on his usual morning walk from Navy House, noticed smoke billowing out of the surroundings of the memorial -  someone had lit the grass around it, for warmth. The monument was in ruins and shrubs and wild plants had grown around it due to neglect. The surface was cracked and the dome was damaged due to the vagaries of the weather, over six decades. He had a closer look at the memorial and was really  struck by its historical relevance. He took it as a challenge to renovate the memorial and it was adopted by the Indian Navy in February 1994.

It look almost one year to get the memorial to its present pristine state. The gardens around the memorial were aptly laid out. He approached Philips (India) to help in illuminating the memorial. Trials were conducted for a week with different combinations of lighting. The lights are visible from the Vidya Sagar Setu (second Hooghly Bridge).

The Cenotaph, at the northern end of the Maidan to the west of Ochterlony Monument, was erected by public subscription, and its inscription reads, “The Glorious Dead”. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall,    London, and it was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII. Two bronze soldiers stand guard at its approach. On Armistice Day each year, its base is covered with flowers and the Governor and his entourage, representatives of the Army the Navy, and a large gathering of people of all communities stand in reverential silence for two minutes. On 3rd September (Merchant Navy Day) in 1995 for the first time wreaths were laid at the Lascar War Memorial by personnel of the Merchant Navy and Indian Navy which is now an annual feature. The illumination was switched on by the Governor of West Bengal on Navy day in December 1994.

James Keir had not met Commodore Mohanti as he had retired from the Indian Navy in May 1997 and moved out of Kolkata to lead a retired life at Cuttack (Odisha). On 3rd November 2012, James Keir and Bibhu Mohanti met under the portals of the memorial. It was a special meeting for them. Now they are in constant touch and exchange emails regularly.

Kolkata has a lot to offer in terms of heritage. It is for the people to connect with these monuments that make the City of Joy unique says  Commodore  Bibhu Mohanti.



A Jewish connection with pre-war Rangoon

Chrestomather | January 15, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Dear Mr. Ghosh

I just finished reading your book The Glass Palace.
I enjoyed it very much.
It has a very personal meaning to me and I would like to ask you
if you have more information regarding the

“Forgotten Long March” of 1941

My husband’s father was a Jewish merchant in Rangoon at the time.
His wife and many children, including my husband (two years old at the time), were able to board a ship that took them to Calcutta where they lived for about 10 years before making Aliyah to Israel.
His father was among the trekkers that walked from Burma to Calcutta over several months. They thought he did not survive. He turned up several months later in Calcutta but in a very sad state after the long march.
Due to his trauma, he did not speak much about this journey and the family would
like to know more about the experience.
My husband and I visited Rangoon in 1970 en route from the US to Israel where we lived for several years on a kibbutz. It was difficult to get a visa here in the states and we were able to get a 24 hour visa for Burma in Japan.
Synagogue, Rangoon

Synagogue, Rangoon

 I have some slides from the visit, most from the Jewish synagogue where my father in law was very involved and some street scenes and of course the Pagoda.
I am planning to have the slides converted to a DVD.
Is it possible to email or write to Nellie Casyab, a survivor in Calcutta who you mention in your book?
Do you have more material about this march and in particular do you have anything about the Jewish survivors.
I hope this email comes to you and would appreciate hearing from you.
We live in NY, in the Rockaways and would gladly come to you or would love to have you visit with us.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you in advance.
Susan Sagiv  and Abraham Sagiv


Chrestomather | November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (75)


I am pleased to announced the title of the third book of the Ibis Trilogy. It  is:

Flood of Fire.

The estimated date of publication is the Spring of 2015. More details will appear anon in the catalogues of my publishers: Penguin India, John Murray (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA).


An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 2

Chrestomather | November 7, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (0)



One of the pleasures of Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan §  is that it addresses the pressing issues of contemporary Europe through a chorus of contrasting voices. Pallavi is a diligent reporter and a fine interviewer; she has an extraordinary knack for finding interesting people to talk to, on a wide range of subjects – the environment, inter-faith relations, immigration, the crisis of the Euro, the resilience of the German economy, the legacy of imperialism and so on.

Her other great strength is her knowledge of India and China: her gift for comparison often leads to unexpected insights. For instance, on the subject of tolerance and religious pluralism:

For most Indians, a certain amount of role-playing is an accepted part of life and the contradictions between one’s varied roles is not usually a matter of existential angst. An atheist bowing down before a shrine in a temple; a habitually mini-skirted girl choosing to dress demurely to meet her more conservative relatives; an observant teetotaller Jain offering his dinner party guests a glass of beer: such common accommodations are not about lacking the guts to stand up for one’s own beliefs as much as about expressing a respect for the beliefs of others. In Europe, this would probably have been frowned upon as hypocrisy. In India, it is considered tact. And tact has a definite advantage in a multicultural space. (85)


Europeans are usually quick to censure authoritarian China for the restrictions on the practice of religion placed by Beijing on its western Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, muezzins are banned from using loudspeakers during their call to prayer. Imams are not permitted to teach the Koran in private, and the study of Arabic is allowed only at designated government schools. But the difference between the constraints on Islam imposed by China and those by some European countries is arguably a matter of degree rather than substance. (80)



In one wonderfully entertaining chapter, Pallavi accompanies a group of Chinese schoolchildren on a tour of Europe. ‘Chinese travellers have emerged as the European tourism industry’s knights in shining armour, riding to the rescue of otherwise stagnant economies.’ (187)

She visits Bordeaux where the Chinese have become a major force: ‘Thanks to the explosion of Chinese wine consumption, the price of Bordeaux wines had risen in recent years, even though wine consumption in France itself (where 50–60 per cent of the region’s wines are sold) had been falling. Chinese consumers of wine had played an important part in ensuring Bordeaux continued to flourish despite the economic slowdown in Europe and aggressive competition from new, world wines.’


Zhang stands on the steps of his Chateau Grand Moueys

Chinese tycoon Zhang Jin Shan stands on the steps of the Chateau Grand Moueys


She interviews Zhang Jin Shan the new owner of Chateau du Grand Mouëys, a well-known French vineyard.










Like Baron Dilip Mehta, Zhang Jin Shan is a man who does not mince his words.

‘Born in 1963, a few years before the start of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang grew up in the hardscrabble of an obscure town in one of China’s poorest provinces, Ningxia. His mother was a peasant working the fields, while his father had a small-time job in the local railways.

Zhang never made it to university but a technical diploma landed him an accounting job with a state-owned enterprise in 1983. By 1996, he had somehow made the leap to running a baijiu (a popular Chinese spirit) factory, and in 2000 he bought Ningxiahong, then a struggling factory, and transformed it into the successful, diversified business it is today. Other than goji berry-related products, the company’s activities currently also include real estate, printing, catering, and a travel agency.

Zhang did not seem to want to dwell on the past. During our interview, it was the future he was all fired up about. He was dismissive about the wine produced at Chateau du Grand Mouëys, in its current avatar, and oblivious to any hurt French feelings his curt assessment might engender… ‘It’s no good,’ he said, of the wine.



Zhang Jin Shan (Bordeaux's latest wine baron) & Pallavi in his Chateau in France

Zhang Jin Shan (Bordeaux’s latest wine baron) & Pallavi in his Chateau in France


The taste, he claimed, was mama huhu, mediocre. Everything must change, including the packaging, he continued, because it was of ‘low quality’.











Pallavi is often scathing about European pretensions, most of all on matters relating to the environment (there is a wonderful section on the Copenhagen conference, which she covered). In my view though, this is one subject on which she allows her gift for satire to get the better of her judgement.

There can be no doubt that Europe does speak in many voices on the environment and some of these are indeed sanctimonious, hypocritical and self-serving. But this cacophony can be misleading: it is more productive perhaps to focus on what Europe actually does. And the fact is that Europe has moved in a direction that is markedly different from the trajectory of the US, Australia and Canada: some of the countries of the EU have banned fracking for example, and many are vigorously exploring sources of alternative energy. Most of all in Europe there is a willingness to accept the reality of climate change: it is telling that Europe does not have any counterparts to the well-funded denial movements that play such an important part in the debate in Anglo-Saxon countries. Some European countries, like Holland, have already made extensive preparations for large-scale flooding etc: the world has a great deal to learn from them. I have written about this subject elsewhere and will not belabour it here. Suffice it to say that  in my view Europe holds what little hope there is for any kind of leadership on matters relating to climate change.

Although Pallavi does not pull any punches, she is at heart a firm believer in the idea of Europe. She also insists on its relevance to the world, and especially to India. One of her most interesting insights is this:

‘It struck me with some force how in many ways the Chinese were the Americans of Asia, while the Indians were the Europeans. As players on the international stage, the United States and China are both goal-oriented and able to act decisively in their national interest. Despite the existence of internal divisions, they are coherent entities that speak with a unified voice. Backed by hard power, their strategic planners take a long-term view of evolving rivalries and alliances.

‘In contrast, the Indians, like their European counterparts, are notable for the glacial pace of their decision-making. Constrained by the workings of coalition politics, both the twenty-seven-member EU and India valorize plurality and argumentation over actual outcomes and performance. They often appear unable to articulate a clear vision of their core interests, with internal factiousness hijacking unified, long-term agendas. Unlike the Unites States and ironically, ‘communist’ China, the political mainstream in both Europe and India is Leftish and characterized by a distrust of unfettered markets.

‘Polyphonic (both boast over twenty official languages) and seemingly chaotic, the EU and India are the world’s two most populous democracies. The commonalities between them are underscored by the fact that their governments use an identical catchphrase to describe their union: ‘unity in diversity’.

‘But despite the similarities, or perhaps because of them, neither India nor the EU was particularly engaged with the other. Rather, the US and China formed the twin poles of their (once again) common strategic fixations. Ultimately, both India and the EU were in essence soft powers, beguiled by and envious of the hard muscle shown by the Americans and the Chinese.’ (226-7)

As she points out, India and Europe are in many ways mirrors of each other, only they don’t know it:

In some ways, India is a proto-European Union, having stitched together a large region of diverse social and cultural fabric into a political and economic union. Like the EU, it is the antithesis of the concept of the nineteenth-century European nation state where a single religion, a single language and a common enemy form the ‘natural’ basis for the only sustainable kind of political unit.’ (306)

Yet, few Indians are invested in the idea of Europe—an attitude that is mirrored in Brussels, where few seem even aware of the idea of India. As a result, both India and the EU fail to engage with the other seriously, in what seems to be a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. As essentially soft powers, hamstrung by coalitions and the niceties of convoluted political processes, and consumed by the challenges of handling enormous diversity, the EU and India sneer at each other’s purported incompetence and arrogance. Instead, it is the hard powers of the United States and China that are the poles of their common strategic fixations and awe.’ (312-3)

Elsewhere she writes:

‘India and the European Union are not just cumbersome polities; they are huge political achievements that allow the world to imagine alternative, inclusive configurations to the exclusions and bigotry of national tribalisms. This is not to claim that either lives up perfectly to its own underlying idea. Both remain messy and contradictory and half-baked. But in their idealized potential there resides considerable hope for humanity.’

These are words of real wisdom.


Pallavi Aiyar & family

Pallavi Aiyar & family

In sum Punjabi Parmesan is the story of the shared journey of Europe, India and China over the last tumultous decade.







It is an enormously ambitious narrative, yet the human scale of its perspective, its unflinching honesty, its critical acuity, its humour and generosity, and the directness of the writing make it wonderfully readable as well as richly instructive.

The book ends with Pallavi and her family moving to Jakarta where her husband has been appointed to a position in the EU’s delegation. Pallavi is now the Hindu’s Indonesia correspondent. I very much hope that her new assignment will lead to another volume of this engrossing journalistic autobiography.





§ Forthcoming Penguin India, December 2013. All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar.


An Asian View of Europe: Pallavi Aiyar’s ‘Punjabi Parmesan’ – part 1

Chrestomather | November 4, 2013 in Reviews | Comments (2)



Pallavi Aiyar’s new book, Punjabi Parmesan (Penguin India, December 2013) is an account of contemporary Europe seen through Asian eyes. The project is ambitious, timely and important, and I cannot think of anyone who is better equipped to undertake it than Pallavi Aiyar.

Born, raised and schooled in India, Pallavi also has a degree from Oxford. She lived in China for many years, reporting for the Hindu, and speaks Mandarin. Her first book Smoke and Mirrors was about her time in that country. A fine blend of memoir and straightforward reporting, the book is woven around an account of the time Pallavi spent living in a hutong in Beijing, with her Spanish husband, Julio Arias. It is to my mind among the best of the slew of recent books about China – a  compelling blend of autobiography, social history and journalism.

I should add here that my personal acquaintance with Pallavi is very brief. I met her at a book event some years years ago, soon after I’d read Smoke and Mirrors. I told her how much I had liked the book, which is why, I suppose, she sent me the proofs of Punjabi Parmesan



Pallavi Aiyar in Spain

Pallavi Aiyar in Spain


(later, when I decided to write about it, I asked for some pictures and she sent the photographs that are posted here).












Punjabi Parmesan (and I must note here that the title is one of the few things I didn’t like about the book) could be described as the second volume of Pallavi’s ongoing journalistic autobiography. In this book we follow her from Beijing to Brussels where her husband Julio has taken a job in the offices of the European Commission.

The move, undertaken for family reasons, brings about a sea change in Pallavi’s journalistic career: ‘For years I’d had front row seats to the volcanic awakening of this Asian colossus [China], the consequences of which were leading to an epochal inversion of world power… Indian newspapers had developed a Chinese obsession, alternatively adulating and vilifying the country. This had worked to my advantage as a journalist, as almost every story I filed from Beijing was prominently showcased. Europe, on the other hand, barely registered a bleep on the Indian media’s radar… I was resigned to the fact that I’d be lucky if my dispatches from Brussels made it to the newspaper at all. … I consoled myself with philosophical reflections on my stage of life. I was, after all, no longer a footloose youngster, guzzling sea slugs with ne’er a care. I had a baby now, and planned on more. Adventure for me had become equated with the contents of a diaper. Perhaps pretty, stable, pleasant Europe was exactly what I needed.’

But of course nothing ever works out as expected. ‘The ‘story’ found a way of chasing me. The timing of my move, in 2009, was such that before long I was once again in the eye of a news maelstrom. From the “Rise of China,” I now found myself with front row seats to the “Decline of Europe”. In some ways, of course, the two were the flip side of the same coin.’

The way Pallavi frames her project is characteristic, both in its modesty and its sly subversiveness. Her family and her children are placed at the very centre of the narrative and she makes no bones about subordinating her career to her husband’s: but far from constraining her, these choices lead to the discovery of an exciting new project, one that becomes all the richer because she approaches it not just as a journalist and writer but also as a mother and spouse.

The confounding of expectations is a recurrent and refreshing theme in Pallavi’s narrative. Europe turns out to be rather different from the ‘pretty, stable, pleasant’  place that she had expected. Arriving in Brussels airport is a bureaucratic disaster; within minutes of stepping out of the airport the family is robbed of a large part of their possessions.

Expectations of ease and comfort in Europe are confounded in other ways too: ‘Efficiency, reliability, quality, cleanliness: these words had echoed in my head, taking on an almost hallucinatory allure as our plane prepared for landing in Brussels on a late April’s day.’ But, in the event: ‘It took me a day to get a phone connection installed in Beijing, but several weeks to get one in Brussels. It took me five days to get my residence card in China when I moved there back in 2002, compared to nine weeks for the equivalent in Brussels.’

The plot thickens as Pallavi and her family learn to cope with the Great European Vacation. ‘We began our European lives just as continental Europe was gearing up for what the Belgians (or at least the French-speaking amongst them) called ‘Les Grand Vacances. This was a staggeringly long period between July and August when large parts of the continent, and certainly Brussels, came to a halt, with everyone from EU civil servants to primary school teachers heading off on a grand vacation, clasping suntan lotion and beach towels. (11) ‘I was increasingly convinced of the religious overtones to vacations in Belgium, where many seemed to hold holidays as the raison d’être for work, and even life itself.’ (12)

Imagine, then, my disorientation in having landed from China in Brussels, a city that not only shut shop for les grand vacances but every Sunday as well. When I tried to impress people by telling them how China was pretty much open for business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they would shake their head sadly, exclaiming,  ‘Yes, isn’t it terrible?!’ Not quite the reaction I was hoping for. (13)

This leads Pallavi to ask some searching questions about the contemporary European work ethic. She seeks out Baron Dilip Mehta, a hugely successful Gujarati diamond merchant, now based in Antwerp. The Baron minces no words; according to him the key ingredient in the success of Indians in the diamond industry is ‘a willingness to work harder and longer hours than the competition.’


Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world

Baron Dilip Mehta examining a large diamond. His Rosy Blue is one of the largest diamond companies in the world


This, he says, is how Gujaratis came to displace the Jews who had previously dominated this industry.










‘‘[They] just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,’ he said with a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. ‘We are married to our businesses. We will work at night. We will work on the weekends. We will do whatever it takes to get a client. And we are willing to work this hard even for small margins.’

The baron sighed.Of course, sometimes I feel guilty that I’m such a company-driven person. My family always comes second to the business. But that’s just the way it is.’ (29)



Diamond Street in Antwerp

Diamond Street in Antwerp

Pallavi then interviews a Jewish diamond merchant, who essentially confirms the Baron’s diagnosis:










The Indians work too hard,’  he spat. It was the first time I’d ever heard ‘work’ made to sound like a dirty word.That’s all they talk about, “diamonds”. It’s their life and they won’t stop at anything to grab customers. Even if it means selling at a loss.’ (32)

The irony, as Pallavi points out is that ‘[These] allegations … against the Indians—the ‘unfair’ competition they posed because of their willingness to work too hard and their desire to ‘grab’ business at any cost—are charges that have been levelled time and again, over centuries, against the Jews themselves.’ (34)





Sikhs at the Gurudwara in Sabaudia in central Italy


Pallavi hears a similar story in Italy where ‘Punjabi agricultural immigrants … constitute the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe, after the UK’.








‘‘Italians don’t like to work too much,’ said Sartaj Singh,



Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy



a clean-shaven Sikh who was working alongside Harbhajan on the day. ‘They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.








He lowered his voice even though we were talking in Punjabi, and indicated Angelino, his overseer, with a quick sideways motion. ‘He never gets to work before 10 in the morning, even though we start at dawn.’




Gurudwara, Sabaudia, central Italy


‘Before we (Punjabis) got here, the fields were barren,’ chipped in Harbhajan.








There was no one to work in the fields. If there is agriculture in Latina today, it’s all because of us,’ he beamed.’


















Pallavi goes to Rome to interview a First Secretary in the Indian embassy.

He tells her: ‘‘You know, Italians don’t like to work in the fields … Italy needed labour and since the late 1980s Indians have been providing it. It’s worked well because they [the Italians] see the Indians as reliable, enterprising and quite docile. They work hard and don’t demand things like some of these others . . . the First Secretary left the rest of the sentence dangling complicitly between us.

The words ‘docile’ and ‘reliable’ leapt out at me: it was astonishing to see this 21st century Indian diplomat using the exact words that British colonial officials liked to use to describe Indian indentured workers in the 19th century.

I was reminded also of another set of words that occurs often in European writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘the lazy native’. Colonial officials of that period concocted all kinds of theories about what they saw as the laziness and profligacy of Asians and Africans.  These notions were of course bitterly resented and the Malaysian politician and thinker, Syed Hussein Alatas, even devoted a whole book to the subject:  The Myth of the Lazy Native.

Can we soon expect a screed with a title like The Myth of the Lazy European /First Worlder? To judge by the furore that greeted Ratan Tata’s comments on the British workforce, it would certainly seem so.

Sometimes the wheel of history turns very fast.



All pictures courtesy Pallavi Aiyar





Letter from a reader

Chrestomather | November 3, 2013 in Letters | Comments (0)


Dear Amitav,

I just finished reading The Glass Palace. It was such an amazing read. I had no idea about Burma; that it was an egalitarian society, that it was a rich country, that it had no caste system and many other things. I think The Glass Palace will remain in my head for those scenes of Burmese jungle with timber and elephants and local and other asian men working under 18-20 year old British officers. It is so interesting to read that in some other time in history 18 year olds did things which 30 year olds don’t do now. And knowing life could be so uncertain then at 18, when most 18 year olds I know today are having burger and watching Hollywood films :). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that things can be so different.
I was so glued to the book during that scene when cow elephant kills British officer and in turn gets shot. Somebody had freed her of those chains in night, there were foot-marks on soil. But, it was written as if we are reading a dream. I was just thinking it would make such a great scene on a screen.
That part on Arjun fighting as a rebel (rebel from British perspective) and shooting when he could have surrendered was so troubling and yet touching.
I’ve been a bit pissed with India and your book seemed to generate interest in subcontinent’s history. I thought I would ask you for few suggestions of books, which are similar in terms of weaving stories, which throw light on subcontinent’s history.
Great writing and I am looking forward to reading Sea of Poppies.

‘Ode to the Ibis’

Chrestomather | October 15, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



On Oct 13 I received a message from Prof. Meg Samuelson of the Dept of English, University of Cape Town.


Dear Amitav Ghosh,

Excuse me writing to you out of the blue … I’ve been teaching your novel, Sea of Poppies, and gave my students the choice of responding analytically or in creative forms. One wrote this “Ode to the Ibis” that I couldn’t resist sharing with you (which I’m doing with her permission – Laura-Anne Wilson). I hope you enjoy it!

Warm regards,



I enjoyed the poem very much: it is posted here with the permission of Laura-Anne Wilson.


Ode to the Ibis


Once a blackbirder with a belly of slaves

The Ibis would sail across seas,

Riddled with peepholes made by poor souls

While those above them were deaf to their pleas.


With sparkling white sails and a billed figurehead

She glided like a great bird in flight,

Now carrying a cargo not of slaves this time

But migrants with a comparable plight.


Mr. Chillingworth was the captain aboard

But not all was what it seemed you see,

For the one who truly commanded the vessel

Was head of the lascars Serang Ali.


It was he who aided one Zachary Reid

A mere carpenter from the shipyards of Baltimore,

To become a gentleman refined and so well attired

That his past was foreseeable no more.


For Zachary was the son of a Maryland freedwoman

If we were to trace his past back,

And it would never be thought that this second in command

Could be marked on the crew’s list as “black”.


Far different from he was the Lascari crew

Who were arabs, malays, and Chinese,

Bengalis and goans, tamils and east Africans,

And even those termed Arakanese.


Up the tall masts like two nesting cranes

Were the tindals Babloo and Mamdoo,

Who at sea were the brothers they could not be on land

One being Muslim and the other Hindu.


Mamdoo-tindal was a tall lithe man

But occasionally he would assume,

The kohl-eyed, earringed, silver-heeled dancer

And female Ghaseeti-begum.


True females there were, eight women on board

Who left their pasts on Indian soil,

Braving a journey across the Black Water

To Mareech where there only was toil.


Munia the young, husbandless girl

Whose morals Deeti found to be swaying,

Since despite having a secret past of assault

Could not keep her coy eyes from straying.


Sarju, the oldest, once a valued midwife

Was driven from her village in shame,

The seeds she gave Deeti of the Best Benares poppy

Was the only worth she had to her name.


That Deeti once wife of a high-caste Rajut

Became Aditi the simple Chamar,

But the same are her eyes, piercing and grey

Even noticed by those from afar.


Was it this steeling gaze that earned her a place

As the Bhauji of those coolies packed below?

Or did they have an idea of her prior premonition,

Could they sense her great gift, could they know?


Though the tale of their past was not one that was true

It was easy for Aditi to say,

That she and Kalua had been married since twelve,

So naturally suited were they.


While her strength was her power to command the crowd,

His was the muscles his long limbs displayed

Which were as dark as a whetstone recently oiled,

And unusual for a man of his trade.


From the leather-workers caste he once did come,

So gentle and simple was he,

That one would have never expected the change to Madhu

Who would kill the evil Bhyro Singh at sea.


Fearing mutiny of the armed silahdars

Mr. Crowle acted as first mate of the ship,

Terrifying many-a-person on board

By giving Kalua sixty strikes of his whip.


One of those quaking souls was Jodu the topas

Who was once a fresh-water Jack,

But the Ibis crushed his dinghy of hollowed out logs

Forcing his life path to completely change track.


Nevertheless the Ibis offered, as it did for all,

A new life far from India’s monsoons,

Where even a lowly lascar who scoured deck

Could be thought a baka-bihari in pantaloons.



Not fooled for a second was Paulette down below,

Whose pale skin she did not let be seen,

With veiled face, hennaed arms and the name of Pugli

No one would think her white and seventeen.


Disguised as the niece of Baboo Nob Kissin

With an arranged marriage as her fictional plan,

She could sail away from Bethel to the Mauritius Isles

Helped by that strange looking man.


Odd because while Baboo was clearly a male

There was within him a feminine side,

The soul of his uncle’s saintly widow Taramony,

Who after death would in his heart reside.


Thus with a womanly gait and hair worn long

He squeezed into robes bursting at their seems,

Believing Zachary to be Krishna incarnate

Leading him to the temple of his dreams.


But no one was more changed on board that great schooner

Than the man who was locked up below,

Shut in the chokey with fellow convict Ah Fatt

Neel had a past that nobody could possibly know.


Zemindar of Raskhali who would have guessed

That Raja Neel Rattan Halder he had been,

Now a scorned criminal destined to exile

Where not a single familiar face would be seen.


The disparity of his single humble cloth bundle

Compared to the many goods of his lavish estate,

From being named after the most noblest of winds

To being inked forgerer alipore 1838.


Together this array of individuals would sail

Trying to survive to see Mareech’s shore,

Their fate in the hands of the great white Ibis

Where nothing was as it had been before.


Laura-Anne Wilson




Penguin India’s Special Collector’s Edition to mark the 25th anniversary of ‘The Shadow Lines’

Chrestomather | August 29, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



The Shadow Lines slipcase (417x640)

Penguin India is issuing a special collectors’ edition of ‘The Shadow Lines’ to mark the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication.









The edition will have a print run of 500 numbered copies. It is to be published on high quality paper, and will come with a ribbon book mark and a slip cover.



The Shadow Lines cover (365x640)


I will sign every copy and add a personalized note.



More on this at this link. And the book can be ordered here.







Correspondence with a reader

Chrestomather | August 28, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



I just finished reading River of Smoke, and I felt compelled to tell you what a wonderful, delightful book it is. I am a Parsi myself, and truly enjoyed the story of Behram Moddie, the Anahita, and the numerous characters who inhabited that world. You have truly brought another era to life. It is very rare to read about us Parsis in such an authentic manner. The way Behram spoke, the food he ate, his religion. rituals and life-story are so fantastically portrayed. The other characters of the book are equally engrossing, but this one really stood out, and cannot be easily forgotten.
I have read almost all your books, and my favourites would be River of Smoke and The Glass Palace. I eagerly await your third book.

Best regards,

Countdown Interviews- General V. P. Malik: 3

Chrestomather | June 28, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[I interviewed General Ved Prakash Malik in New Delhi in August 1998, a few months after India conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran. Gen. Malik, who was born in Dera Ismail Khan, in what is now Pakistan, was the 19th Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army. The room I interviewed him in had also been used by the Commanders-in-Chief of the pre-Independence Indian Army. The board in the picture below includes the names of Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Gen. Claude Auchinleck and Gen. Sir George Stewart White, who commanded a sepoy brigade in the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which led to the deposition of King Thebaw, the last king of Burma (as described in The Glass Palace.)  It was odd to see this name there, because I was then still working on the book: it was a reminder of the continuities and ruptures of India's military history,  which was actually one of the central themes of the novel.]


AG.     What sort of strategy can help prevent the many wars that are going on in Central Asia—Tajikistan and Afghanistan for example – from spilling over?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  It’s true that the soldier’s job has become more difficult, given the whole spectrum from Low Intensity Conflicts right up to nuclear threats. And in between comes conventional war – and  instability around your country is always a cause of concern.

Gen V.P. Malik

Gen V.P. Malik

And today what is happening in Afghanistan is not merely a concern for India, but for many neighbouring countries too. So we have to take those into account in our future strategies.













AG.     Could nuclear weapons lead to force reductions?

Gen. V.P. Malik. Yes, it could happen because when the threshold comes down naturally then the requirement of forces will come down.

AG.     It has been said that these nuclear weapons have really decreased India’s security by reducing its enormous conventional advantage over Pakistan. Would you agree?

Gen. V.P. Malik.   I don’t think so. On the other hand I believe that now, things are more transparent, and transparency should introduce greater stability. Transparent in the sense that earlier we knew that people had something in the closet—now everything is out is visible. As far as our advantage in conventional weapons is concerned I think that stays because in the higher level, things have now equalized—so whatever advantage we have is still there, but the threshold, we are also conscious, will come down.

AG.     So is there a possibility that a conflict willy-nilly will escalate into nuclear conflict?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  No, I don’t foresee that— but I can say that we will not be threatening each other with these bombs. No professional will.

AG.     But how can you be sure of that?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  Nobody can be sure of that—Unless all countries do away with these weapons.


Ladakh, below Siachen, 1998

Ladakh, below Siachen, 1998

AG.     Do you think the Siachen question can be resolved soon?









Gen. V.P. Malik.   Everything can be resolved if you start talking to each other. If you refuse to talk, if you have only a one-point agenda and refuse to listens to others’ point of view it cannot be resolved. We have a task in hand and we shall do it.

AG.     So you feel that there is no possibility of an accidental escalation into nuclear war?

Gen. V.P. Malik.  I don’t think so. I think the professionals on both sides have been very responsible, in the ’65 war in the ’71 war. Both sides have avoided collateral damage as much as possible. So from the professional point of view there are no chances—

there are a great deal of responsibilities in the hands of professionals.




AG.     But as you said they are not in hands of professionals always.

Gen. V.P. Malik.  Yes, professionals are also instruments of the political authorities.