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Gandhi urged to make common cause with China on opium

Chrestomather | July 13, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


My old friend, Ramachandra Guha, was kind enough to send me a copy of a letter that he found in Correspondence File No. 19 of the Gandhi Papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. It is from a correspondent in Los Angeles, urging the Mahatma to make common cause with China on a number of issues, including that of opium.



letter to Gandhi


I am grateful to Ram for giving me his permission to reproduce the letter here.







Sleepwalking towards Disaster

Chrestomather | May 17, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Over the last couple of decades, largely because of changes in technologies of communication, the political sphere has become larger and more intrusive than ever before. The digital media have made it almost impossible to escape the sound of haranguing voices; not a day seems to pass but we are asked to post or re-tweet or sign some petition or the other. Digital activism has in fact become a big business, in which companies reap profits from stoking our indignation. Small wonder then that they should wish to keep us stewing constantly, at a low simmer, like ever so many pots of daal.

Yet, astonishingly, the intensification of political activity has not led to a wider engagement with what is self-evidently the single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change. This is understandably a matter of despair for the activists and scientists who have been battling to warn the world about what lies ahead. Their mounting anguish and frustration at the world’s continuing indifference is itself an instructive commentary on our institutions and the myths they are built upon. Many scientists and activists have gone from combativeness to rage and then to a quiet resignation in the face of what they now believe to be an inescapable catastrophe – or rather a series of catastrophes which will consume tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.

How can this be? There is no threat to any society, anywhere, that is remotely comparable to that of climate change. How can people summon so much indignation on so many matters and yet remain indifferent to a process that threatens their very existence?

Nowhere is the disjunction more confounding than in India, which is likely to be one of the worst-affected countries in the world.[2] Over the last couple of decades, as television has penetrated into once-remote areas, India’s population has become highly politicized. Millions of people regularly take to the streets on account of matters ranging from religious outrage to corruption. Yet climate change does not seem to have sparked mass outrage in the country. This despite the fact that India has many eminent climate scientists, some fine environmental reporters and several excellent environmental organizations. Nor is ‘denial’ an issue in India as it is in the Anglosphere: the majority of the population is aware that the climate is changing – yet that awareness does not seem to translate into a major political concern.

What is true of India is true also of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal: climate change has not been a significant political issue in those countries either, even though the impacts are already being felt across the Indian subcontinent, not only in an increasing number of large-scale disasters but also, and perhaps more significantly, as a slow calamity that is quietly but inexorably destroying livelihoods and stoking social and political conflicts.

Across the subcontinent the media have allowed the meta-crisis to be largely obscured by the noise and dust of ‘breaking news’. When crops fail the focus is usually on political and human stories, not on changes in climate; that erratic rainfall may have been a factor in the Maoist insurgency in Nepal is rarely reported; when factory buildings collapse in Dhaka, killing hundreds of workers, it passes almost without notice that many of those workers are ecological refugees from districts where formerly productive land is being gradually invaded by saline water. Climate change may also be a factor in the insurgencies of central and eastern India[1] – but to what degree we do not know, for one of the failures of global knowledge systems is that they have yet to provide us with a means of gauging the effects of climate change on human conflicts.

It is a certainty however that climate change will cause an intensification of conflict in the subcontinent. What, for example, will happen when Pakistan’s lifeline, the Indus, is affected by the shrinking of Himalayan glaciers?

This question is no doubt already being discussed in think tanks in both New Delhi and Islamabad. But in the wider public sphere there is scarcely any mention of climate-related issues except in connection with global conferences where the focus is, as it should be, on issues of justice, historic responsibility and restitution.

But some dimensions of the crisis are quite specifically domestic. Sea-level rise, for instance, will continue and even accelerate in years to come, no matter what the actions of the global community. It is therefore not just a possibility but a certainty that cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Vishakhapatnam and Kochi will face serious threats. These possibilities require local preparedness and mitigatory action, and in that sense they belong squarely in the domain of national and regional politics. Moreover this is an issue that can only be confronted collectively: to frame it as a matter of individual consumption decisions is to capitulate to a kind of denialism.

In the run up to the elections of 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi did indeed make passing reference to climate change, which was encouraging. But since coming to power his government has exerted itself to support and expand the coal industry, not just in India but also in Australia, where an Indian-funded mining project has begun to pose a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef. At the same time the Modi government has also launched what can only be called a stealth war against environmentalists and green organizations, preventing their representatives from addressing audiences abroad and taking measures to cut their funding.

If right-wing positions were balanced by vigorous advocacy elsewhere in the Indian political spectrum, there would be some reason for optimism. However, the indifference to climate change is a feature also of the centre and left (and this is true globally). Nor is it only the old, moribund institutional left that is silent on the matter of global warming: the silence extends to the independent or alternative left, which is otherwise eloquent on many issues.

Strangely, none of this is anomalous: in India as elsewhere it would seem that the broadening of the political sphere has led to an ever-greater engagement with issues of personal liberty, equity, identity, free expression and so on, at the cost of matters related to collective well-being. In other words, in extending its reach into our lives the political sphere has itself been transformed, in ways that make it very difficult to address issues of long duration even when they involve the most elemental human need: survival.

That our political systems have failed utterly in this regard has been noted by many. But a broader failure of imagination is also at work in this crisis – and inasmuch as writers, journalists and artists have not reckoned adequately with our collective predicament we too are at fault.


Amitav Ghosh

May 8, 2015


[This was in the inaugural issue of The Wire (May 11, 2015).]


[1] Cf. Parenti, Christian: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Nation Books, 2012; e-book locations 264 & 2238.


Fractal buckwheat

Chrestomather | April 4, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


As I’ve written elsewhere, what daffodils were to V.S. Naipaul, frangipanis were to me: As a child, while reading ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ I’d been fascinated by the word ‘frangipani’ which seemed to me to be redolent of all that was mysterious, desirable and secret. Then one day I discovered that the gnarled old branches by my window belonged to none other than a ‘frangipani’ tree…

My list of frangipani moments grew a little longer three months ago, in Kolkata, when a friend handed me a packet of what she said was buckwheat flour, bought at a bazar around the corner. Till then I had thought of buckwheat as a rare and exotic substance, encountered primarily as the silken noodles the Japanese call soba: great was my astonishment when I discovered that it is actually none other than the food known as kottu in much of India!

Despite its name buckwheat is not a grain;


Field of buckwheat in Bumthang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)

Field of buckwheat in Bumthang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)


it is the seed of a finely-scented flowering plant (the flowers are said to produce excellent honey).









The virtues of buckwheat are legion: not only is it gluten-free and exceptionally nutritious, it has a very short growing season and flourishes in difficult conditions (in fact it does badly on fertile soils). It is also intrisically resistant to efforts at ‘improvement’ because it cross-pollinates naturally: in other words, buckwheat is Nature’s way of sticking a finger in Monsanto’s eye.




Roasted buckwheat or 'kasha' (Wikimedia Commons)

Roasted buckwheat or ‘kasha’ (Wikimedia Commons)












Buckwheat is a shape-shifter, with a wonderful ability to adapt itself to different tastes. Thus in Japan it assumes the guise of an actor upon the almost-empty stage of a Noh play;




Soba noodles (Wikimedia commons)

Soba noodles (Wikimedia commons)

the austere but refined aestheticism of that culinary culture turns it into strands of exquisite delicacy, to be savoured almost without any flavourings.







In the Indian subcontinent, by contrast, buckwheat takes on the avatar of a dancer in a Bollywood item number, strutting, leaping, dancing, jiggling, flirting.

A mathematician of my acquaintance, Harpreet Singh, has a theory that India is a ‘fractal culture’. Last year (in a letter that is posted on my blog) he wrote:

a form has a fractal geometry, or is a fractal, if the form repeats itself infinitely upon magnification… When I say that I think the Indian aesthetic is fractal in nature I am not referring to this repeatability upon magnification but simply to the presence of details upon details that exhibit themselves as you pull in closer. The Indian psyche would not have been happy with a straight edge temple, which is very different from the Greeks or the Egyptians for example. It was felt necessary to add details upon detail in the smallest of spaces. Compare this with the Parthenon in Greece where the straight edge observed from afar is a true straight edge of a pillar or the roof… I see traces of this Indian need/appreciation for complexity in their music, with notes between notes, and in Indian cuisine where the interplay of many different flavors is not just the strength but also the defining characteristic of the cuisine.

Recently he developed this theme in another letter:

If you recall, about a year ago I shared my theories of the fractal nature of India’s art and how the Indian need/appreciation for complexity also appears in Indian music, and Indian cuisine. The complexity and uniqueness of Indian cuisine was highlighted by a research paper from IIT Jodhpur, that has been heavily referenced this week in social and commercial media.

In a nutshell, the flavor of a food or a spice is determined by specific chemical components of the food that receptors in our tongue, mouth and nose respond to. The more two foods share these “flavor” chemical components the more we say they are positively paired or correlated. If two foods share very few of these flavor chemicals then we say they are negatively paired.

Most western cuisine involves a few ingredients with very strong positive pairing. A good analogy is fashion. Western fashion involves matching a few similar or compatible colors. Indian cuisine however (like Indian fashion) involves a riot of ingredients with little flavor correlation. It is actually a sign of Indian genius that the specific negative pairings that make up an Indian recipe are made to work as well as they do by the inclusion of spices (accessories)! The point isn’t just that Indians can make this complexity work but that they wouldn’t have it any other way. A simple pairing of just wine and cheese just doesn’t satisfy the Indian need for complexity, a characteristic that I am loosely calling fractal because of how it manifests itself in Indian art.


The research paper referenced above draws much of its data from a source that offers many excellent buckwheat recipes (more are to be found here and here).

While experimenting with buckwheat rotis, dosas, uppma etc. I chanced upon something unexpected: buckwheat flour makes a great crust for pies and quiches. When baked it becomes very crisp and stays so no matter how moist the filling. A buckwheat crust also requires very little effort because it doesn’t need to be rolled out: it can be pressed gently into place with one’s fingers. This site has a recipe for the dough.

Compelled by the fractal nature of my own tastes I’ve tried adding garam masala, chili powder and ras al hanout to the dough, and have found that they all work very well. Others still more fractal than I, might want to try adding all of these together and a dash of Sriracha sauce too. Why not? After all in some culinary traditions more is better.






The Psychological Effects of Partition: a letter from a reader

Chrestomather | February 2, 2015 in Letters | Comments (1)


26 Oct 2014

Kolkata’s Once and Future Chinatown

Chrestomather | January 27, 2015 in Uncategorized | Comments (5)




Breakfast at the Sunday morning market in Chinatown is an old tradition in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).



Visitors have to be up early because the market’s hours are short – from about 6.30 to 8.30 a.m..











The market is in a lane in the city’s crowded centre (beside Poddar Court, a recently bulit commercial complex).






DSC04334This was once the heart of a thriving, centuries-old Chinese community (some members of the cast of River of Smoke and Flood of Fire [forthcoming, May 28, 2015] are from this community).










Now only a hundred or so Chinese-Indian families remain in this neighbourhood.



DSC04123But still, every Sunday vendors gather to sell Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, dumplings, home-made noodles, shu-mai, Chinese sausages, steamed glutinous rice, meatballs and so on








In an adjoining lane,



DSC04189 (480x640)Chhatawala Gulee, named after the umbrella-makers who once had workshops there,











is the Sea Ip Church,




DSC04193 (640x480)

which was founded in 1905,








by migrants from four counties






DSC04191 (640x480) in China’s Guangdong Province.











Pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen


DSC04131hang in the entrance hall.











We are fortunate to have with us,


DSC04137a brilliant scholar of China, Dr. Tansen Sen, a Kolkata-born historian who is an expert on Indo-Chinese connections and cultural exchanges. He is the author of Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) and many other books and articles.










Tansen explains that the ‘churches’ of Kolkata’s Chinatown are traditional Buddhist-Daoist Chinese temples.


DSC04139 (480x640)

The ‘church’ designation derives from British colonial administrative practices.












The Sea Ip Church is consecrated primarily to




Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.













This notice explains how to get a



DSC04152‘Guan-Yin Blessed Card.’













There is also a side chapel






DSC04182 (480x640)dedicated to a community deity.













Tansen explains that he is





DSC04186 (480x640)Ba Gong, a deified official, one of many such.













Here he is garlanded with



DSC04183 (480x640)

rupee notes.













In the main shrine room,







DSC04148at the altar Of Guanyin,












a ceremony is under way,





DSC04165 (640x480)conducted by a few members of the community.










One of them tells us about





DSC04187 (480x640)the accompaniments of the ceremony (which she describes as a puja).













She says that







the incense-sticks











and other offerings,






DSC04188 (640x480)like these paper ingots, representing gold, are all locally made, by artisans who had once worked in factories owned by members of the Chinese-Indian community.










A stone’s throw from the Sea Ip Church, is a building that once housed a great Calcutta institution:






DSC04218 (640x480)the Nanking Restaurant. It was one of my father’s favourite restaurants and I have fond childhood memories of it.








The restaurant closed down years ago




DSC04196 (480x640)

and the approaches to the building are now choked with refuse.













It is a sorry sight, but things may soon get better.






DSC04205 (480x640)Rinkoo Bhowmick is one of the founders of the Cha Project,  an initiative which hopes to transform Chinatown.












If all goes well, this building, which is also known as the Toong On Church, will be restored to its former glory.





DSC04207 (480x640)In the main hall (which once housed the Nanking Restaurant), there is an image of the Buddha.











The salon upstairs is empty now,





DSC04211 (640x480)but was once filled with fine artefacts.










Lee Han Kuang, a prominent member of the community, is working to reclaim some of those artefacts and hopes one day to


DSC04212 (480x640)bring some of them back to the Toong On Church.













Once upon a time, crowds would gather around the building when film stars like Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari came to the restaurant. The stars  would often step out on the balcony to wave to their fans in the lane below.




This is what the lane looks like today. DSC04213 (480x640)















Across the main road, on Blackburn Lane,






DSC04224 (480x640)is the Hupeh Association. Tansen tells me that the favoured profession of migrants from Hupeh was dentistry. In my childhood the clinics of Chinese dentists were a common sight in Calcutta; their premises were easy to recognize because of the giant teeth that hung above their doors.











Many families of Chinese origin once




DSC04225 (640x480)

lived in this building and those around it.









A portrait of Sun Yat Sen hangs inside,





DSC04231 (480x640)














And in an adjoining room there is a shrine to Lu Ban,







DSC04236 (480x640)

God of Carpenters.














There is also a little altar to Atchew, who is regarded as the founder of the Chinese-Indian community.






DSC04238 (640x480)He settled in Bengal in 1785 and is said to have had an Indian wife. The town of Atchipur takes its name from him.









Down the road is the community’s funeral parlour,


DSC04240 (480x640)


tucked in beside











a long row of houses:





DSC04241 (640x480)

this was once the residential core of Chinatown.










Many of the houses still have






DSC04239 (480x640)



Chinese lettering on the doorways.












Making our way past a






DSC04247 (480x640)(very serious) cricket match














and the doorway of a now-defunct





Chinese bookshop DSC04223













we walk past the bricked-up entrance





DSC04250 (480x640)

to what was once the Guang Shun club and restaurant,












and enter a lane





DSC04251 (480x640)














that leads to the oldest Chinese temple in Kolkata.






DSC04288 (480x640)














The address is 17A Tiretty Bazar.





DSC04254 (480x640)A narrow passageway, filled with debris,













bears witness to





DSC04256 (480x640)

a history of contentious litigation within the community.













The main shrine room is upstairs;





DSC04257 (480x640)

it is dedicated to Tianhou, Goddess of Sailors.













This temple is said to have been founded in the early 19th century,






DSC04258 (480x640)before the First Opium War (1840-42).














The temple’s custodian,




DSC04261 (480x640)Zeng Jian Chuan,














shows us around the premises.









DSC04275 (640x480)The terrace is lined with commemorative inscriptions.













In a nearby building a man




DSC04270 (640x480)hangs some leaves, freshly bought at the market, on a window-sill: they will soon be turned into Chinese-style pickled mustard greens.










Returning to the lane





DSC04283 (640x480)

we walk deeper into Tiretty Bazar,










to what was once a ceremonial gateway






DSC04290 (480x640)















Inside lies the tranquil courtyard of the






DSC04313 (640x480)

Nanshuan Native Place Association.












The principal deity in the shrine room is Guandi, the God of War.




DSC04294 (480x640)The inscription hanging above the altar says: ‘Prosper in Foreign Lands’ (the character yi, which was cited by the British as a major grievance during the First Opium War, is third from right).













Amidst the







DSC04297 (640x480)decorative weaponry,












is a mysterious statuette






DSC04296 (480x640)the provenance of which not even Tansen can explain.














Next to the shrine room, is the hall







DSC04304 (480x640)

where the members of the association would gather for meetings.













In a cabinet on a wall,







DSC04302 (640x480)there is a poignant display of photographs of members who have left for other shores.












At the far end of the complex






DSC04307 (480x640)


are a few schoolrooms.












The headmistress,






DSC04306 (480x640)Lily Ho, tells us that her efforts to teach her pupils Chinese have been unavailing: ‘They find the language too difficult.’















Another short walk down the lane







DSC04315 (480x640)















brings us to the last stop on our itinerary.







DSC04321 (640x480)The Yi Xing temple, which is another shrine-cum-‘native place association.’













A game of mah-jong is under way when we enter.





DSC04323 (480x640)















In one corner of the room






DSC04333 (640x480)

is an old chest













filled with papers





DSC04327 (640x480)













like this one,






DSC04328 (480x640)


a funerary inscription.













Tansen is horrified to learn that the papers may soon be







DSC04332 (480x640) (2)disposed of as trash. He offers to have them digitized.














which draws a big smile from one of our guides,







DSC04331 (480x640)


Dominic Shien Woun Lee, an activist who hopes to preserve and restore the  community’s heritage.







For a long time preservation and restoration were not a high priority for Kolkata’s Chinese-Indians. Following on the India-China war of 1962 the community faced many vicissitudes, including mass internment, expropriation of property, dwindling numbers, and so on. If this was a dark chapter in the history of independent India, it was even more so in that of Kolkata, where Chinese migrants have been a part of the urban fabric for many generations.

The city has paid a steep price for the treatment that was meted out to its Chinese-Indian residents: had the community been allowed to thrive it would have brought in, decades ago, investments of the kind that India’s current leaders are now earnestly soliciting from many countries, including China. Diasporic Chinese communities have generated great wealth for Bangkok, Saigon, Jakarta and many other cities across South East Asia; they are now doing so also in Vancouver, Sydney and elsewhere. Unfortunately, for Kolkata, this was yet another of a long string of missed opportunities and squandered advantages.

But fortunately for the city, it is still in possession of the legacy that was left to it by its once flourishing Chinese population. The remaining buildings of Chinatown are a unique endowment, the like of which exists in no other Indian city; if properly restored these buildings could become a huge draw for visitors and serve to revitalize a decaying neighbourhood. Only time will tell whether this legacy will be squandered or cherished.













Prasenjit Duara’s ‘Crisis of Global Modernity’

Chrestomather | January 21, 2015 in Reviews | Comments (0)





Prasenjit Duara’s The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge University Press, 2015)


Coverpic.12July (429x648)is a wide-ranging overview of Asian environmental history and philosophy. A singularly timely publication, it is a hugely important intervention in the global discussion of climate change.










Prasenjit Duara is singularly well equipped for this ambitious undertaking. Assamese by birth, he was educated at Delhi University and Harvard, and was for many years a professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago (he also taught briefly at Delhi University where, I am proud to say, I was one of the many undergraduates who hung upon his words). He is currently the Raffles Professor of the Humanities at the National University of Singapore and also the director of the university’s Asian Research Institute. Fluent in Japanese, Mandarin and several other languages, Duara is the author of many books and articles in East Asian history, among them the ground-breaking study Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern.



Crisis of Global Modernity is thus founded upon a lifetime of scholarship, in diverse fields: it is at once a magisterial tour de horizon of many centuries of Asian thought, and also a provocative meditation on the resources that Asian traditions can offer to a world in which the dominant models of economy and governance have proved catastrophically dysfunctional.

Through his scholarly career, nationalism and the nation-state have been among Duara’s central concerns. In Crisis of Global Modernity he identifies the institution of the nation state as one of the prime drivers of the present crisis.

In the post-Cold War era, the growing collusion between transnational capital and the nation-state means that the latter is not as capable of protecting the interests of the community and the natural world in their territories. Not only are many national institutions diverted from promoting public services and protecting the commons, profit-driven economic globalization has wreaked environmental degradation across the world that can hardly be addressed only by national policies. The growing economic interdependence of the world requires the political and cultural authority to be able to manage and regulate it. Global sustainability requires a cosmopolitanism that is able to transcend the nation. (241)

He then proceeds to identify several domains of cosmopolitanism that could serve to overcome national divisions and inter-state rivalries in Asia. Among them are maritime and mercantile connections:

The Asian maritime networks of the pre-colonial era … involved a wide variety of merchant communities at different points who did not speak the same languages or trade in the same currencies… In many ways, contemporary Asian regional interdependence resembles the maritime Asian trade networks, because of the separation of political, economic and military levels and power…. Although the actual products flowing through the Asian maritime networks were miniscule compared to today’s figures, the cultural flows they enabled–packaged in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Islam—were nothing short of world-transforming… Nonetheless, the older Asian models of cultural circulation without state domination of identity presents us with a historical resource to explore new possibilities. (277)

Duara finds reason for optimism also in regional economic groupings, ASEAN in particular.

[T]he quickening pace of ASEAN integration has spawned a vast and vibrant space of civil society including those sponsored by ASEAN administration and those committed to an ‘alternative’ or ‘people-centered ASEAN.’ At any rate, the development of the region not only furnishes a wider framework to observe and manage the problem of the commons, it also provides opportunities for alliances and networking across a diverse region with a variety of informational and organizational resources. (273)

In the growth of trans-Asian cultural connections Duara identifies yet another promising trend.

There is some indication of greater cultural interest of Asians in Asia. We see this in the increase in the number of tourists circulating the region to over pre-crisis levels. Not only has the market demand for Asian art sky-rocketed, but there are plenty of exhibitions and showings of Asian art in which artists and curators experiment with new ideas of Asia as well as art. These shows often deliberately distance themselves from the culturally unified notion of Asia or reified versions of national civilizations prevalent among their predecessors like Okakura and Nand Lal Bose. They often seek to showcase the contemporary, urban multi-cultural experience of Asia emphasizing heterogeneity and cultural encounters. At a popular level, the circulation of East Asian cinema, manga, anime, TV shows, food, design and allied areas in East and Southeast Asia have been the most conspicuous cultural development in Asia since the 1990s. (256)






Prasenjit Duara

Prasenjit Duara

Among the most interesting chapters of Crisis of Global Modernity is one that provides an overview of contemporary environmental movements across Asia. Some of these, such as India’s Chipko and Narmada Dam movements, have been extensively chronicled.










It is the material on environmental movements in China that comes as a real surprise: here again Duara paints a picture quite different from those we usually see.

[W]hile the daily news is filled with small and large environmental disasters, China has also witnessed some remarkable developments in the environmental sphere. Among all developing countries, the Chinese government’s efforts in environmental education are probably the greatest. In 2007, President Hu Jintao coined the idea of Ecological Civilization through which he sought to replace economic construction as the core of development with sustainable development that must incorporate a balanced relationship between humans and nature. The central government in China has been steadily developing the institutional and financial infrastructure of environmental protection. In 2005, China raised its expenditure for environmental protection in the national budget to 1.4% of GDP and in 2008, the State Environmental Protection Agency was given full ministerial status and established local environmental protection branches all over the country. (35-36)

Over the last twenty years, environmental NGOs or ENGOs as well as informal groups and movements have mushroomed across the country. Indeed, Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun have dubbed this activism as the “green public sphere” in China. According to the government affiliated… All China Environmental Federation, in 2008, there were 2768 ENGOs (employing 224,000), which rose to almost 8,000 in 2013. . There are many thousands of others which are not formally registered as ENGOs. Their role has been enhanced by recognition at higher levels of government for the environmental services they can render such as enhancing environmental consciousness among the public and mobilizing for projects like reforestation. More importantly, they are able to serve as watchdogs to expose the violation or non-implementation of environmental laws. Of course, as civic organizations in the PRC, they occupy a vulnerable status and most organizations are careful not to oppose state policies, but serve rather in a vital ‘supplementary’ role as pressure groups, guardians and enablers for the victimized. (36)

Nonetheless, ENGOs have been perhaps unexpectedly successful in influencing state policies over the last decade—until very recently. A landmark event for Chinese environmental history was the halting—or shelving– of the massive Nu River Dam projects in 2004 … The event was important for various reasons, including the collective action taken not only by the Chinese groups, but with international NGOS and groups and governments in Southeast Asian countries that would have been affected by the enormous environmental impact on their societies. The Chinese groups also ignited the media campaign– including both the old and new media—that launched the vigorous ‘green public sphere’ and ‘greenspeak’ which is remarkably continuous with the global green discourse of climate change, sustainable consumption, bio-diversity, desertification, etc. (37)

The profile of activists and activities of the ENGOs suggests an orientation that transcends consumerist and materialist approaches to life, at least among the youth for the time being. Bao Maohong notes that eighty percent of the staff of the registered ENGOs is under thirty and although over half of them have college degrees, they are motivated by their mission rather than their rather paltry, if any, salaries. Greenspeak tends to promote a new moral-spiritual/religious vision and practices and promotes volunteerism and civil participation in opposition to materialist and consumerist practices. The All China Environmental Federation notes that 70% of the public surveyed by it recognized and supported the activities of the ENGOs. (37)

[T]here are some interesting experiments in environmental education among grass-roots environmental NGOs,


Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

especially in Yunnan, a province rich in bio-diversity and called the “cradle of NGOs.”














Robert Erfid’s study of NGOs working in the Naxi region of  Lijiang and particularly Lashihai shows how some of these small,


Lijiang, Yunnan

Lijiang, Yunnan

 shoe-string budget NGOs committed to environmental education have sought, not merely to tailor environmental learning to local circumstances, but also to engage children in a practical, hands-on education with the environment. (38)










Although Crisis of Global Modernity teems with detail, Duara’s fundamental concern is not with the nitty-gritty of historical and social analysis. The book’s essential engagement (and this perhaps is its greatest surprise) is with what Duara calls ‘transcendence’. By this he means

a way of human knowing based upon an inscrutable yearning or calling with several attributes that coexist in varying degrees. It is a critique of existing conditions that draws on a non-worldly moral authority. (6)

The domain that Duara is gesturing at is that of religious and spiritual tradition: these, he seems to suggest, are Mankind’s last best hope for tackling the climate crisis.

Much of this book has dealt with the descriptions and expressions of … a reaching beyond the self that is not committed to a single all-powerful God, truth or eschaton. Dialogue involves incrementalism and negotiation between local needs and universal requirements and is intertwined with ideals from the living historical repertoire that can engage the changing requirements of the present. Its value today will lie in the capacity to create a sustainable ideal which much of the world can endorse. The second requirement is the capacity of culture to create personal and collective commitment, a problem of hope and sacrality. [282]

… Modern universalisms have tended to lack confidence in investing the transcendent or utopian truths they propose with symbols and rituals of sacred authority. Their hesitation doubtless has good reasons that we may see from the rampaging power of extreme nationalisms, such as Nazism, or blinding faith in utopian science triumphant over reason. But no movement of major social change has succeeded without a compelling symbology and affective power. [282]

Working with the Abrahamic religions, Ricoeur identifies faith, hope and the sacred as a primordial complex identified with ‘manifest communities’ founded on numinous and preverbal experiences of the sacred in nature before they become book-centered, interpretive, intratribal and iconoclastic ‘proclamation communities’. At the same time, he does not believe that interpretive reason or kerygmatic logic can negate the primordial sacred. Rational exposition and logical interpretation derive from and are dependent upon the symbolism of the sacred, say, the figure of Christ; but, just as much, they are necessary for the sacred. From this he argues that the task of contemporary interpreters and philosophers of religion is to rationally explicate such figures of hope in a contemporary world of injustice and suffering. (283)

In the course of writing this book, I began to wonder if the thorny task of mediating the sacred with reason could be eased if we can recognize that the gap between ideal, project, and effort and its realization may be occupied not principally by faith or belief, but by hope. Consider some of the cases I discussed in the book where reverence and reason were inseparably entwined with hope. (284)

Whether by the Confucian sage or the laywomen of the Morality Society, Tian and Dao were viewed as the source and highest judge of the ethical mission for humans. Yet, neither Heaven nor the Way is anthropomorphic like an all-powerful God with a clear and singular message, and failure to follow its path – by this time in Chinese history – does not result in punishment either immediately or in the afterlife. The sacrality of Heaven was intertwined with reason and hope; indeed, the ambiguities of Heaven’s message ironically subjected it to rational deliberation and empirical persuasion… (284)

Similarly, the environmental, rural reconstructionist and moral (anticorruption) movements inspired by Gandhianism draw on a complex matrix of goals and methods. Their moral authority derives significantly from Gandhi – his message, goals, methods, life and the movement he spawned – as a figure of hope … (284)

The perspective of Crisis of Global Modernity is thus post-secular and post-national: Duara recognizes that the climate crisis has indeed changed everything and that it is futile to attempt to engage with it through the 19th and 20th century frameworks of economy and governance that created it in the first place.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 12

Chrestomather | January 4, 2015 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (1)




Troops of 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma, during the Chindwin River crossing. - See more at:

Troops of 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma, during the Chindwin River crossing.




By this time the DC had become a good friend and we enjoyed working together; I gauged the needs and he did his best to meet them. Two or three days after the bombing, as I was going round the City Camp one morning on my usual rounds, I was suddenly confronted by a tall, lean man with greying hair, dressed in pyjama and kurta and before I could call out his name found myself lifted off the ground in a tight hug. With tears streaming down his bearded face he kept repeating ‘Nadir baba’ and refused to let go of me.

I knew immediately that there was something wrong; his body felt burning hot and he was covered in sweat. I touched his brow and hands and asked him what was wrong. I went cold when he told me of his problems; these were the obvious symptoms of the dreaded cholera and no time was to be lost. I had him admitted into the Field Hospital without delay. They took him in hand immediately, but the duty M.O. told me quite frankly that in his opinion matters had gone too far for him to be hopeful but – he would do his best. I sat by the faithful retainer’s side for almost an hour listening to his story from the time he left Rangoon. All had gone well till he reached Kalewa but he felt that he must have picked up the bug before reaching Tamu. Since the Camp had been wound up, he carried on towards Palel on foot, but was fortunate in being able to get a lift in an Army convoy up to Imphal, and there he was.



Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon

Abdul Rehman had been with us for almost 15 years, first as our house driver and later as Bus-Driver in Zeenat Islam Girls High School started by Mother of which she was the Hon. Headmistress.






It had developed from an initial 40 students (mostly Zerbadis[Indo-Burmese Muslims]) to almost 1,000 students by end 1941. Confirmed reports indicate that the School is still a going concern and flourishing under the dedicated guidance of its Old Girls trained under Mother’s strict supervision. However, poor Abdul Rehman was going down fast and the doctor told me that since there was little chance of recovery, it would not be possible for them to continue to accommodate him in the Hospital with a large number of emergency cases waiting for proper beds. I saw the point and with the DC’s permission shifted him to an out-house in his compound where the poor man met his end in peace. It was early morning, and I was able to see him through those last moments – born in a remote village in U.P., we buried him under a shady tree on the hill-side. I had buried many along the road from Mandalay but this hurt the most. He had not seen his family for almost 5 years and was so looking forward to joining them again with a tidy sum saved up. I took charge of his meagre possessions, requesting the DC arrange their delivery to the family due course. I know he honoured my request. The money I kept with me till I got to Calcutta and then arranged its actual handing over to his wife through the local DC’s office. I received an acknowledgement from the wife in due course and that brought this sad episode to a close.

We were well into June 1942 and the heavy rain (almost 200 inches) was beginning to create problems. Fortunately most of the Camps were empty as also the hospital and we arranged for the last few hundred refugees to be transported to Kohima-Dimapur by the 3rd week of June. At a last informal meeting with the DC and the Army representative (a Major), it was agreed that there was nothing left for me to do in Imphal and that I should leave in a convoy leaving for Dimapur the next morning. Having walked all the way from Mandalay and with no further responsibility on my shoulders from there on, my ego and perhaps the prospect of a leisurely trek through that beautiful country,



60 miles to Kohima and 40 miles from there to Dimapur, made me suggest to my friends somewhat diffidently that I would like to do the journey on foot, if they did not mind.









They did protesting loudly that it would be madness, quite unnecessary and the torrential rains in the area could make it somewhat unsafe. I tried to see the point without much success but in the end agreed to take a lift. Evidently the Gods were on my side.

As luck would have it, I was seated next to the Driver in the last truck, which developed trouble a few miles out of Imphal. The others broke convoy discipline and carried on which gave me no qualms whatsoever for I knew my chance had come. Eventually the truck came to a halt at a small hamlet, the bonnet was lifted and a few minutes later I was informed that there was not a hope of our proceeding further that day owing to a major breakdown. I lost no time in getting free of the Army, said my thanks and farewells as solemnly as I could manage and was on my way without a care. The pipe was pulling well, I had filled up with a couple cups of green tea and life was sheer bliss. Unfortunately I gave no thought whatsoever to the possible consequences of my escapade in so far as the people sitting in Calcutta and Bombay were concerned, waiting anxiously for some news of my whereabouts after leaving Imphal. A DR from Dimapur to Imphal with a message for me was sent back with the information that I had left Imphal in a convoy some 3 days back and should have reached Dimapur the same day or the next latest.



The DC at Dimapur seemed to have scoured the area for my whereabouts and also requested his counterpart in Kohima to do the same.






Since I had hopped off the convoy, they had no means of confirming how, where and why I had disappeared and so, in order to place everything on record, informed the Agent, Mr. Hutchings, that having scoured the countryside without luck, he greatly regretted having to suggest that I be listed ‘presumed missing if not dead’. Poor Mr. Hutchings. I believe he had been telling all and sundry (whenever the topic came up) that he just could not believe that anything would happen to me. In his view I possessed an uncanny instinct for self-preservation and that I would, without a doubt, turn up like the proverbial bad penny when least expected. Needless to say the telegram from Dimapur gave his optimism a bit of a jolt but worst still, what would he say to my Mother anxiously waiting for news from him. In the end he decided to play it straight and repeated the Dimapur telegram verbatim adding a few words to say that he expected everything to come out right in the end and not to worry. I shall come back to this a bit later.

Four days on the road to Kohima, spending nights in small hamlets and repaying their hospitality with the princely sum of one rupee which was invariably accepted with considerable enthusiasm. This included the evening meal and morning Tea! Three days to Dimapur and I was almost home and dry. Unfortunately, my sudden appearance in the DC’s office caused some consternation. The DC, a youngish man could not quite make up his mind whether to receive me like a long lost brother or to display the right temperature of coldness for having forced him to send off that unfortunate telegram.

I quickly sensed his embarrassment and lost no time in reassuring him that he was not to blame. If anything, this unfortunate situation had arisen entirely due to my own irresponsible action. He was not to worry! I would ensure that the Agent got the full story from me which would put the whole thing in the right perspective. This made him feel somewhat better and I was invited to go over to his bungalow and freshen up with a bath. He joined me for Tea later and since my train to Calcutta was not to leave till eight in the evening I thought I would run down to the Hospital where almost 75% of the patients were refugees. He decided to come too, and we strolled over after Tea. Going through the Men’s Wards, I noticed quite a few familiar faces, from Tamu and even earlier. Most of them were skin and bone but the doctor said they were all out of danger and would pick up fast. The mere fact of being a few days away from their homes was a tonic of sorts. We exchanged greetings and shook hands and these were the last tangible memories of our long association on the road from Mandalay to Dimapur.

Then we came to the Women’s Ward and as the Matron met us I told her about the two delivery cases on the road to Tamu. An English girl she listened to the story in a matter of fact sort of way obviously uncertain whether to accept it or let it be. I was a bit amused at her attitude and moved on towards the beds where a majority of the women had babies with them. As we moved up there was a slight commotion on the far side and looking round, I found one of the women waving her hand obviously trying to draw my attention. All I needed was a second look and was over-joyed to find my very first delivery case sitting up in bed with her youngster in her lap and telling everyone around her that I had been responsible for saving her child! Though delighted at this blatantly inflated recognition I thought the matter had to be put right and gave them all a highly coloured re-cap of the affair which brought peals of laughter from the other beds. By this time, my second patient, the mother of the baby girl, neighbour to my first, had also woken up and drawn my attention to the bouncing baby in her lap. I sat down and we had a long chat and it was good to see that the young British DC who spoke good Hindustani had also joined in the spirit of the occasion. However, the time came to say goodbye and as I was about to move on, the mother of the boy shyly asked me to write down my full name and address. She could read English and asked me what the ‘N.S.’ stood for. I wrote my name down in full and she asked me to underline my ‘christian’ name to be able to tell her husband.







In order to wind up this episode, I must record the fact that it was in September 1945 when I was doing a Course at the Staff College, Quetta, that I got a letter from the lady’s husband (a driver in the RIASC) recalling my part in the delivery of his son on the Kalewa-Tamu road and informing me that the family was well and happy by God’s Grace. The letter concluded with the information that they had named their son ‘Nadir’ in remembrance of the somewhat unusual circumstances of his birth. The letter was in Urdu and has been lost – its being written was an act of grace which has remained etched in my memory all these years.




Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944

Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944


Then it was time to leave and that was when I faced my moment of truth.











In saying goodbye to those women, I was in fact saying good bye to an adventure which had begun with the bombing of Rangoon, taken me to Mandalay and from then on, turned me into a refugee like any other of the twenty odd lakhs who had taken the road to India with its promise of safety, security and a new life. That circumstances had cast certain responsibilities on my shoulders in relation to the others was incidental to my basic status of refugee. There was, of course, one factor which made a difference. I have been a loner all my life and all my travelling whether on foot, bicycle, rail or steamer, on business or pleasure carried in my mind a certain element of adventure and excitement and this is exactly how I viewed my duties as Assistant to the Agent and my trek northwards. Walking was a pleasure and the ruck-sack on my back gave me a wonderful sense of being entirely on my own. My responsibilities added to it a sense of being needed which at 29 years of age is something to cherish. Leaving the Hospital I realised that I had finally come to the last link of my association with this massive operation; perhaps among the world’s biggest of its kind (involving a vast stream of humanity trudging over a distance of approx. 800 miles of rugged country living on rice and salt most of the time and leaving behind countless dead who would be mourned only when the journey ended. I was entering a world which I had almost forgotten. I knew I was in for some shocks and would have to come to terms with emerging realities in the hours and days ahead from total involvement to being just a refugee.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 11

Chrestomather | January 2, 2015 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)



Burmese locals show little interest in the arrival of the Japanese occupying forces in their village, during World War II, circa 1942.

Japanese occupying forces in a Burmese village, World War II, circa 1942.



Imphal, 1942

Roberts ran a Spartan household with just a bedroom and living/dining room in full commission apart from the Office complex. He had a Camp bed set up for me and I woke up at six feeling fresh and ready for the fray and the thought of another attack remained an unspoken dread and neither of us had to mention it at breakfast. I was fully conscious of the traumas the day held for me. The male component of the large group of women who had been delivered at the Camp the previous morning before the air raid, which had been held back on our instructions some 5 miles down the road due to accommodation problems would be reaching the Camp around 7.30 a.m. in a highly emotional frame of mind since the news of the raid and casualties had spread far and wide in the valley.

We discussed the matter and decided to request the Army maintain a discreet presence in the neighbourhood of the various camps in case matters tended to get out of control. I was at the Camp just after seven o’clock and the first batch of menfolk started trickling in around 7.30 as expected. They presented themselves at the Camp gate silent and ashen-faced, with dread in their eyes as they scanned the emptiness beyond. Only a few sobbing women and children waited at the gate to meet them and they were immediately surrounded by the men imploring them for news with baited breath. Apart from a few, most of the men seemed to have steeled themselves for the worst and wept in silence.




After a while I decided to intervene to inform them that there were a large number of women and children in the Camp too shaken to move out of their enclosures.









I suggested that the men should go round in an orderly fashion to meet their families or confirm their whereabouts. I also told them that we would offer all help to visit the various hospitals in order to contact their missing wives and children as and when they were ready. I had just moved away from the gate and was talking to the Matron when an obviously agitated Anglo-Burmese man (in his late thirties) wearing a loungyi and khaki shirt, carrying a bundle on his shoulders came to me and speaking in English told me in gasping sobs that he knew his wife had been killed in the raid but could I help him to identify the spot or area where she had been seen last.

The query sounded almost grotesquely incongruous but I kept a hold on myself and asked for details concerning her height, complexion etc., hair-style and clothes she had been wearing. His description of her physical characteristics was hardly helpful but it was when he came to describe her clothes that my memory took a sudden jolt. Even as late as 1942 the vast majority of Burmese women stuck to the traditional white ‘aingyi’ or waist length jacket and only a few, even among the younger generation, wore coloured aingyis – mostly pastel shades of yellow pink or blue. Even in that moment of stress I remember clearly his telling me with an element of pride that his wife must have worn a pink aingyi above a dark mauve loungyi since that was all she had with her. It just happened that as I had been returning to my basha from the bazaar after the siren had sounded, I had noticed, quite by chance, a small group of women under a large banyan tree some 150 yards from my basha and whereas the rest were in white aingyis, one of them was wearing pink and it had registered.

I had seen no one else in a coloured jacket that morning. I told him casually that I thought I had seen a pink jacket but since all the bodies had been removed and disposed of it may be impossible to confirm the location where she had been killed. He asked me to point out where I had last seen the pink jacket and I pointed to a large tree which had been split in half by the blast. I picked up a spade and we walked over to the large crater next to the tree. The area had been totally cleared of the previous day’s gruesome debris and as I tried to explain that there was little chance of finding anything buried in the crater since everything had been blown clear, he hardly seemed to take any notice of what I was saying. His eyes were fixed on the crater and he suddenly burst into almost maniacal action digging methodically from the rim downwards to the bottom, to a depth of 18”.

After about 30 minutes, as I was wandering looking absently for other souvenirs of the raid, I heard a loud shout from the crater and ran up to discover that my young friend was tugging at the shoulder-loop of a red Shan-bag which he managed to pull out, place it reverently at his feet and kneel down in the Buddhist ritual of prayer. Eyes closed with tears streaming down his face and body shaking convulsively, I found myself rooted to the spot finding it difficult to accept the reality of this near miracle. It just did not make sense and yet the evidence was right there. Having calmed down, he picked up the bag and spade and scrambled up; holding out the bag, he asked me to look inside. The lips had been closed with 2 safety pins and as I looked inside I discovered 3 or 4 bundles of currency notes lying at the bottom together with other bundles of currency note lying at the bottom together with other bundles of papers and bits of jewellery.

I handed the bag back to him with a reassuring smile and he then quickly emptied the contents on to the ground, checked through and confirmed that his life savings was intact! As we walked back, I learnt that he was an employee of the Burma Railways and being Anglo-Burmese he did not want to stay back in Burma under the Japanese but decided to take a chance in India. He had drawn all his dues from the Railways and Bank savings and handed them over to his wife for safe custody in case something happened to him. In the event it was a tragic reversal of fortunes. The shock-waves from the loss of his wife would hit him by and by but the loneliness would somewhat be tempered by the fact of her having assured his immediate future even as her life was taken from her. He took some water but refused all food that day and left for Kohima the next morning. I can still remember almost every detail of this episode, at times with a lump in my throat, and often wonder how things went for him from the time he left Imphal.

There was a slight silver-lining to the cloud of gloom over the camp in the news that almost 80% of the morning’s arrivals had found members of their families either in Camp or hospital and they were invited to stay on till their dependants were released from hospital. Many of the injured were to be shifted to the Hospital in Dimapur and wherever feasible we tried to ensure that the family remained together.



Elephant Co. No. 1, Tamu Road

Elephant Co. No. 1, Tamu Road


With increased military traffic on the Dimapur-Tamu road,






the Army was prepared to lift a far greater number of refugees on the return trip to Dimapur and hence, we had no difficulty accommodating almost 90% of the refugees in Army trucks on their way to Dimapur. We almost finalised this plan the day after the bombing with a few minor details remaining to be tied up.

Roberts dropped in round about 1230 hrs and I told him the story of the near miracle that morning. He was a highly rational young man with a family background steeped in scholarship. He looked at me for a while and asked quietly to be introduced to the young Burman still sitting passively outside my basha but. I took Roberts to him and after a quiet chat we strolled over to the crater where the phenomenon occurred. I had no film in my camera and Roberts did not possess one but we both agreed that a mere picture of the tree and crater would have no meaning. I had laid some emphasis on the manner in which the young man had seemed to be driven to start digging – almost a matter of inner compulsion. Talking it over we were both agreed that there was little point in taking the matter beyond the factual happenings. This we agreed, was the stuff life was made of.



Nadir S. Tyabji (left) with British and Indian officers

Nadir S. Tyabji (left) with British and Indian officers


One of the matters we talked about, at lunch time, concerned the two options which had emerged during my talk with the Agent and I asked him if Mr. Hutchings had spoken to him about it.









Evidently there had been no time since the Agent had been driven straight up to Dimapur without even a short halt at Imphal. We mulled over the issue for a while till realisation dawned upon us that the matter was no longer in our hands; the previous day’s bombing had settled the issue by driving the refugees back on to the road to Dimapur in ever increasing numbers starting from that morning.

As if on cue, a DR arrived with a cryptic message from one of the out-lying camps that it had almost been emptied of refugees within the matter of an hour as a result of a rumour that a second Japanese attack was imminent – either that afternoon or the next morning. I had experienced this situation earlier in Mandalay and knew that there was little one could do to stop the rot for the simple reason that neither we nor the Army were in a position to deny the possibility on any rational basis. All we could do was to intervene before things went much further and the ‘disease’ spread to the other camps as well.

The essential thing was to keep the road open and the Army readily agreed to put some of their trucks on the road to pick up as many refugees as feasible and drop them at Dimapur before the day’s end. The Army again did a splendid job and that evening the DC and I went round to all the Camps around Imphal to talk to the refugees and inform then that with low monsoon clouds over the whole of Burma it was unlikely that the Japanese would mount another attack just them. However, the Army convoys moving up to Dimapur would carry as many refugees as they could so there was no need for panic evacuation of the camps, in fact, we would keep them informed of the situation as it developed and arrange regular evacuation by Army convoys on a daily basis.




The daily showers were also beginning to make conditions difficult in the Camp.













Leaky roofs overhead and soggy ground conditions underfoot made life somewhat trying even for these refugees accustomed to the dampness of the Burmese monsoon. The growing influx of refugees had imposed tremendous pressure on the relatively meagre supplies of essential commodities including firewood, available in the Imphal market and though the Camps provided rice and salt in adequate quantity to each refugee family, there was obviously a need to supplement it with whatever else could be procured in the shape of lentils, vegetables and eggs but firewood remained the most important single commodity. Its non availability could create a serious problem as we discovered one evening when we came across a ‘gang’ of refugees pulling down some temporarily vacant ‘bashas’ for fuel leading to serious fights and quarrels. This was no time for half measures. We straightaway called the local wood contractor and arranged to set up a special fuel dump solely for refugees in one of the more centrally located camps at a rate to be fixed by the DC. He moved fast and we were astonished to find the fuel-wood depot at the designated camp in full operation the next morning.

These remained our major concerns on an hour-to-hour basis from morning till late at night we were both fully aware that with this large population of refugees living under a pall of tension, it would not take much to spark off a major ‘law and order’ situation literally on the drop of a coin. I was beginning to realise that I could not possibly leave Imphal before the refugees had been cleared from the town.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 10

Chrestomather | December 30, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)



I moved out into the Camp to assess the casualties and damage in order to organise the urgently required clearing up and rehabilitation of the severely depleted infra-structure so as to be able to cope with the fresh arrivals expected later in the day.



Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944

Capt. Nasir S. Tyabji, Arakan, 1944



The immediate need, of course, was the removal and disposal of bodies and limbs before putrefaction set in under a hot sun.











Simultaneously, it was essential to collect vast number of belongings abandoned by the refugees as the bombs fell in order to prevent the danger of looting and thievery by the locals as well as the Camp inmates. This had to be organised before the initial shock and trauma had worn off. As I went round the Camp I found all those who had escaped injury going round in dazed groups trying to identify relations and friends among the bodies spread throughout the Camp.

The bombs made largish craters in the soft earth, up to 10’ in depth in some cases and almost 20’ in diameter. Dismembered limbs and tattered pieces of clothing littered the area presenting a ghastly sight. However, my immediate concern was to organise manual labour and I managed to persuade some of the refugees to help with the clearing up. The ‘Matron’ had wisely confined herself to her own basha hut having decided to take her chances there. Somewhat shaken, she put on a brave face and immediately produced a hot cup of tea with sweet condensed milk which, according to her, was the next best thing to a tot of brandy in these circumstances. It worked and I quickly explained to her my plan for cleaning up the Camp within the next 6 to 8 hours.

I have omitted to mention, in fact, the first thing we got organised was the shifting of the injured to the Field Hospital close by with the active help and whole-hearted cooperation from the Hospital staff. The ‘Matron’ took immediate charge on a no-nonsense basis and so leaving her there I decided to call on the Dist. Collector whose Office-cum-bungalow happened to be just a furlong or so down the road, to put him in the picture regarding casualties and ask for immediate help in the way of labour and tools to get on with the job. I was fully aware that with almost 10 large refuge camps spread around Imphal, most of which had been attacked by the Japanese that morning, he would have his hands full with similar demands for help.




 Two boys in northeast India have a look at an American observation plane

Two boys in northeast India have a look at an American observation plane




As I got on the main road I realised for the first time the ferocity of the attack and the extent of damage – military and civil – caused by the morning’s work. The road was cluttered with a long line of Army trucks, some smouldering, others burning and still others completely shattered by bomb splinters and direct canon fire. I could also see a number of drivers slumped in their seats either dead or wounded. Saddest of all was the sight of a group of refugee women and children taking a lift in the trucks, mown down in the attack with just a few survivors. It was re-assuring to see the Army on the job of removing the injured and dealing with fires.

I found the DC, a young English ICS officer, in his office, introduced myself and we immediately got down to the business of listing our problems, priority-wise, and how we should go about tackling them in an even-handed fashion so that none of the Camps suffered. He met me most cordially and I discovered that the Agent had already spoken to him about me which made thing much easier. He assured me that he would let me have all the labour I needed from the two large ‘Road Construction’ Camps 3 miles away at the bottom of the hill. I needed 200 men and he readily agreed.

Since none of the other Camps-in-charge had arrived by then, we had a quick cup of tea and then walked down to ‘my’ Camp for him to get a clearer idea of conditions there. He was appalled by what he saw inside the Camp and on the road. He had only just returned to Headquarters from a tour and had heard the thunder of the bombs and roar of aircraft just a few miles outside Imphal and had no idea of the extent of damage and casualties till setting eyes on the carnage in what came to be known as the City Camp of which I happened to be in charge.

By the time we got there a couple of his Office assistants had also joined him and he dictated instructions on what was needed to be done. About half and hour later the ‘runner’ who had been sent to the Labour Camp below with instructions to bring one column of 200 men immediately, arrived with the news that most of the labour had scattered far and wide into the thickly-wooded country side after the bombing and were unwilling to work in the Town due to fear of further attacks. However, a more senior assistant was despatched with instructions not to return without at least 400 men since pressure had begun to build from other Camps. The Army had moved fast and tidied up the main road towing away the damaged vehicles for necessary repairs. All the bodies and severed limbs had been removed and covered with tarpaulin but we knew there was not much time left for their disposal before the stench became unbearable with its inevitable effect on morale. While the DC was in favour of mass burials, I suggested that we could also perhaps consider disposal by mass cremation provided he could arrange the necessary quantity of wood and petrol for the job. It was agreed that we should try both – burial and cremation – since the problem would apply to other Camps as well.






The City Camp had somewhere near 400 bodies to be disposed of and we would expect at least double that figure from the other camps (in total) though they had not received the same attention as meted out to City Camp.

In addition, the town itself had received several hits in residential and bazar areas causing some 100 deaths. It was about 2 p.m. by the time we finalised our plans. All this time, we had to be moving about with the other volunteers helping in search and collection not only of bodies but also odd items still lying around. Many of the bags contained cash and items of jewellery as also papers identifying the owners. I handed over almost 1,000 such bags etc. to the DC who agreed to retain them in safe custody for eventual return to bonafide claimants.

The Field Hospital manned by Army Medical Corps personnel was doing a remarkable job by taking on whoever required their help, sending the more serious cases to the Base Hospital just outside the Town.



73rd Evacuation Hospital at Shingbwiyang, Burma, Mile 103 on the Ledo Road.

73rd Evacuation Hospital at Shingbwiyang, Burma, Mile 103 on the Ledo Road.




We had also managed to contact the other officers in charge of Camps (ten of them) to convey the general pattern of action recommended for dealing with common problems – disposal of the dead, emergency hygiene and public health measures to control the outbreak of cholera and other diseases, treatment of drinking water. Cholera was our most dreaded concern and regular patrols were set up on a round the clock basis to identify and isolate any case which aroused the slightest suspicion for professional diagnosis after First Aid had been administered.

The DC’s labour force had done its job well completing two long trenches to serve as common grave for 200 odd bodies on a terrace half-way down the hill slope. The remaining bodies and what remained of them were taken further down the hill and given a solemn cremation in the presence of a fairly large gathering of locals and refugees. It was almost midnight by the time these chores had been completed, but there still remained the small matter of preparing the Camp for the fresh arrivals expected early the following morning.

The DC remained on the scene throughout, with periodic absences to deal with urgent matters in the office. The close inter-action throughout the day had established a sense of comradeship and I think, mutual respect. He went for a quick dinner about 8 o’clock and on his return some 30 minutes later, he brought a hamper consisting of boiled eggs, a flask of soup and sandwiches for my refreshment which touched me greatly. He was a bachelor and so the thought was his own. It was almost daylight by the time we completed our business and he asked me where I intended to spend the rest of the night. I took him to my basha, showed him the remains of the Agent’s pair of shorts and told him that I would be quite comfortable on the bunk. He would have none of it and insisted that I move in with him for a couple of days at least till things had settled down at the Camp.

I accepted the offer without demur and throwing everything into the ruck-sack was ready to move out. The Matron with a small staff would remain in charge for the rest of the night. As we walked back to his bungalow I could not hold myself from blurting out the one question which had been rankling in my mind all day – would the Japanese repeat the attack the next day as they had done on Rangoon and Mandalay. It had obviously been bothering him as well for the implications were disastrous. The Camps would empty out with the refugees thronging the roads and blocking Military traffic. Our medical resources had been stretched to breaking point and stocks of rice and other basic needs like salt had reached a critical low in the morning’s raid. Telegrams had been sent for replenishment of supplies but these would take a good week or more to arrive and there could be further losses. Just thinking and discussing the possibilities brought on a cold sweat of it from my mind. The young DC (I think the name was Roberts) just could not get off the subject and I could well appreciate the trauma he was going through. It was 2 a.m. by the time we got to the house and we sat up for another half-hour or so over a cup of coffee to discuss the morning’s schedule. I wanted to be at the Camp by 7 a.m. so he ordered breakfast for 6.30 and we turned in for what remained of the night.




Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 9

Chrestomather | December 28, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (1)






Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943


I cannot remember the date of my marching out of Tamu, it was like any other.












My departure having been delayed considerably because of the dogs, I managed to crawl into Palel around midnight and slept the sleep of the ‘innocent’ under a large banyan. Being high ground the night was cool and my light woollen jersey came in handy. Since I was expecting the Agent within the next two days, I made a round of the open-air camps which had cropped up all round the small town and found a perceptible change of mood – from tired sullenness to a more cheerful and hopeful frame of mind.

The Agent reached Palel by jeep, from Imphal, that evening and after a snack meal of green tea and Manipuri rice and curry we decided to sleep in the open. However, it turned quite chill by ten p.m. and having nothing to cover ourselves with, we decided to crawl under an Army truck which was still pretty warm after a run from Dimapur. We slept well but the morning brought a shock. The Agent took one look at me and burst into a roar of laughter which was heartily reciprocated from my end. We discovered to our mutual satisfaction that a drippy oil sump had covered us both in sticky oil from head to foot and even with a dip in a nearby stream and much scrubbing with a small piece of soap which we shared, a sticky mess continued to cling to our arms, face and head. It required major effort later, to get rid of the oily mess. There was nothing one could do about the clothes and they continued to adorn our bodies.



map-small-2The Agent stopped over at Palel for the day which we utilised for detailed planning of our functioning from Palel to Dimapur Via Imphal and Kohima.











He had received instructions from Delhi to return to the Capital earliest feasible and it was evident that the Government would want to know in some detail not only regarding conditions and events up to Tamu but particularly so regarding volume of refugees crossing over into Indian territory/ casualties, status of food stocks at various Camps, sanitation, transport facilities for women and children, sick and injured along the 160 miles of hilly track connecting Tamu-Palel-Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur.



Indian soldiers on the Burma-India border

Indian soldiers on the Burma-India border road

He made copious notes of my experience thus far – from Mandalay-Monywa-Kalewa-Tamu on the Burma side linking up with the newly laid Military road from Tamu onwards on the Indian side.








However, there was one issue on which we thought differently; should the refugees be kept moving on a day-to-day basis or in any case without loss of time or should they be encouraged to stop longer at the Camps in order to ensure (1) Recoupment of physical condition and morale, and (2) exercise of regulatory control on the Palel-Dimapur stretch in order to be able to make maximum use of the military vehicles for previously mentioned categories, and have planned release of refugees from the various Camps after a 2-day rest. This would also make it easier for the interim Camps to adjust more easily to the daily inflow. My most important argument in favour of this plan was the fact that un-controlled influx of refugees into Dimapur would impose an impossible burden on the small township and the single line rail service from Dimapur to Calcutta involving two longish river crossing by railway ferry steamers, could also be subjected to severe strain with tragic possibilities.

The Agent too had a cogent reason in favour of fast clearance of refugees from Manipur and that was the imminent on-set of the S.W. Monsoon which could create the most adverse conditions for transit of refugees from camp to camp creating major health and hygiene problems. We had also to bear in mind that the road was still ‘kutcha’ and though well laid and maintained by Army Engineers it was subject to land slides blocking traffic for longish periods of time. This would lead to accumulation of refugees at intermediate points quite unprepared for servicing them and so on. He had evidently discussed the matter at a higher level both in Delhi and with local military and civil authorities who in their wisdom had whole-heartedly supported the first option.

After our comprehensive and frank exchange of ideas he decided to leave immediately for Imphal for a review of the problem and consideration of available options with all concerned and earliest possible departure for Delhi where a final decision would be taken. It was also decided that I should stay back a couple of days at Palel in order to get a clearer idea of the size of residual streams still crossing the border. He left for Imphal that afternoon in an Army jeep and I decided to go along with him to a Camp some 5 miles up the road towards Imphal to see if it would be feasible to take the pressure off Palel by persuading the refugees to do a further 5 miles thus reducing the next day’s march.

The conditions at the Camp were satisfactory and it was agreed that it could easily accommodate 5,000 instead of the 1,000 envisaged earlier, with minor additions to available facilities. By the time I returned to Palel it was well after sundown and that night as also the two subsequent ones were spent in relative comfort in one of the Dak Bungalow rooms, which had suddenly become available with the chowkidar raising an excellent meal for my sole benefit. I discovered that this sudden glow of goodwill had also seeped into the consciousness of the skeleton Police and Civil staff who reacted in typical fashion ignoring the fact that hardly 24 hours earlier even my request for ‘verandah’ accommodation had been summarily turned down and the young Inspector of Police had refused to accept my identification for discussing certain minor law and order problems which cropped up between the refugees and locals.

I made no issue of the matter and received maximum cooperation from them all till the time I left. The two days went fast enough and on the third I set off for Imphal on the dot of five in the morning. The weather was pleasant and the road not much crowded at that time of day. With just a couple of short breaks I managed to cover the 30 miles in 12 hours reaching Imphal at around five in the evening. The main Camp at which I landed up was a large sprawling complex covering approximately 5 acres almost in the middle of the Town with ‘basha’ accommodation for about 5,000 – any overflow to be either accommodated in the open or diverted to other Camps on the periphery of the Town. The Anglo-Indian lady in charge, a large middle-aged, good-humoured soul had evidently been waiting anxiously for my arrival in order to hand over the Camp to my charge as per instructions but willingly stayed on as my 2nd-in-command on being promised a lift to Dimapur in any Army vehicle, whenever she wanted to leave,

A small basha hut was waiting for me and the sight of the empty hut with just one bamboo bunk, was sheer bliss. I dumped my ruck sack on the bunk and emptied it of all soiled damp clothes which needed a wash – 2 pairs of khaki shorts and 2 shirts, some stockings and hankies. The Agent, who expected to return to Manipur within 10 days or so had left one of his shorts with me for dhobying and this too I hung up to dry during the night and suitable attention the next morning. After a sparse Manipuri meal of rice and fish curry I took a round of the Camp, full to overflowing with the evening’s arrivals from Palel, spent an hour or so with the 2nd-i-c, over innumerable cups of green tea and a few pipe-bowls of tobacco.

I remember it as perhaps the most relaxed evening I had spent since leaving Rangoon almost three months back. A grandmother, she relished talking about her husband and grown-up children and especially about the three grandchildren – all safe in Calcutta. A Nurse by profession, she had been posted to the General Hospital in Dimapur as Matron and then volunteered to take up charge of the Refugee Camp in Imphal when the need arose. Though capable and pragmatic, she seemed to have done an excellent job till then but the pressure was beginning to tell – the misery, shortages and a stream of tragic happenings in the Camp had begun to sap her morale and I soon realised that making her continue at the Camp could well lead to a breakdown which would be totally uncalled for. I refrained from saying anything then, but made up my mind to send her away in a couple of days and so free her from the continuing trauma and sleeplessness which had become a part of her daily life.





For me, the day following presaged my entry into an absolutely carefree world where apart from my responsibilities I had no fear of physical damage either by the locals or the Japanese:








I was under the illusion that the Japanese Air Force would not dare make an assault on Indian territory in the face of British Ack-ack and fighter defences which was reputed to be quite formidable. I had obviously not learnt my lesson in Burma. I slept soundly that night and was up early as was my wont. The ‘Matron’ had got a pot of Tea ready to start the day with and, in the event, I was to be grateful for it. The dhoby-woman turned up as we were having our tea to warn me that she would be coming round at 9 a.m. to collect the clothes and it was decided that I would leave them on the bunk in case I went out, as I intended.

It was a bright sunny morning with just a trace of fleecy clouds overhead and I was, quite literally, in a holiday mood. The Matron was anxious for me to go through a sheaf of papers which had arrived a few days back but these had lost all meaning for me at that stage. I told her there would be time for that later in the day but my top priority at that moment was to replenish my stock of pipe tobacco which had run down to critical limits, the last 2 oz. in fact.

After a wash and shave, I strolled over to what is even now known as the ‘Women’s Bazar’ – 3 or 4 long tin-roofed sheds under which stalls selling fish, vegetable, fruit, grocery articles (Milkmaid brand Tinned Milk, etc.), cigarettes, cigars and tobacco and so on, all run by women were ‘laid out in long rows’. I was able to pick up ¾ lb. of Capstan Tobacco in 2 oz. tins @ Rs. 1/- per tin. It was all she had and I was satisfied that it would se me through to Calcutta – all going well. I picked up a few other items like shaving soap, tooth brush and soap and decided to have something in the way of breakfast.

The time was about 0930 hrs. Had just ordered a cup of milk-tea and bread when I heard the first siren go off and shouting to all around me to run or take cover I dashed off towards the Camp which was just a couple of hundred yards away, with my basha almost touching the Town entrance. I kept shouting at the top of my voice for people to take cover and dashed into my basha to fling my small parcel of things on to the bunk and dashed out again to see what was happening. It must have taken almost 5 minutes since I left the bazaar and by this time the deep heart-stopping drone of the Japanese formation with the peculiar beat of the Zeros distinctly audible, was getting louder and louder and in a minute or so I could clearly see the line of black dots, in perfect formation, heading straight for the Camp.

The time was about 0945 hrs and the evacuees who had arrived the previous evening (mostly men) and the women and children who had arrived about 0730 hrs by the first convoy that morning were all busy making family niches with the odds and ends which they carried with them. They were in the open and no trenches had been dug, for the simple reason that no one had dreamed of a Japanese attack so early. The general view among the military was that they would only do so after consolidating their position in the south. In any case it was considered that the administrative and organisational complexities involved in such an attack would be beyond their immediate capabilities.

Unfortunately, the Japanese themselves did not seem to be aware of all this and succeeded in mounting one of the most devastating air raids I had experienced till then. It turned out that there was no immediate fighter opposition and the ack ack batteries seemed to have been taken by surprise. Having shouted myself hoarse to get everybody to lie down on their bellies, I flung myself down 10 feet from the basha door and just managed to beat the first blast from the exploding bombs the closest of which was hardly 100 yards away. The whine of the shrapnel 2 or 3 feet above ground level was somewhat uncomfortable but before I could rise and make a dash for a different spot, I found myself pressed down by a considerable weight of earth from which I frantically tried to extricate myself before the aircraft could come round for the next run.

A quick glance round showed the entire area under a cloud of smoke with several trees up-rooted and a few of the bashas on fire. There were screams and shouts and a loud babble of voices which made no sense whatsoever. I did eventually manage to extricate myself from the large mound on top of me and spurted almost 50 yards before I sensed the approaching roar of the bombers for the 2nd run. Flinging myself down, I suddenly saw a group of 3 young Anglo-Indian boys, all in their ‘teens’ running towards me and shouted to them to lie down. As they reached me the next lot of bombs had already exploded – two of them close enough for me to make my peace with my Maker; 8 bombs had hit the Camp and Field Hospital next to it in a shattering crescendo of noise and the acrid smoke, flying splinters and shrapnel and the screams of men, women and children between the explosions was an unnerving experience. I had however other matters of more urgent concern to bother myself with at the moment.

As I was lying on my face, my forehead resting on my arms, frightened of another explosion, I dared not lift my head but tried to take a quick look from the corner of my eyes at the scene around me. Even in that limited field of vision I could make out the extent of devastation and death; bodies and limbs scattered close to me with the smell of blood mixed with that of cordite impossible to keep from penetrating my nostrils. I had become aware of a heavy parcel of earth flung out by the explosion. I must have lain there for a few minutes making sure the bombers were not making a third run and then tried to bend my knees without success. There was no pain but I felt as if the legs from hip downwards were totally immobile and broke into a cold sweat trying to bend my knees without success.

I remember clearly that I decided to make no further effort immediately until the inevitable pain took charge. I forced myself to calm down and think rationally. It was clear that I had full control of my body and limbs above the waist region and was thinking clearly enough. I also remember telling myself quite calmly that this would be a stupid way to go after having come all this way. It was then that I suddenly decided to make another all out effort to get up and this time it came to me that I was able to move my back without pain though the weight holding me down was somewhat oppressive. I raised myself on my elbows and turned my neck to see what was holding my down and saw a pair of stout legs protruding from a body lying across my back. Making a desperate effort. I managed to roll off what remained of a human body (torso severed at chest level) and stand up.

The scene around me was unbelievable for its starkness. Literally hundreds of bodies, some mutilated beyond any possibility of recognition – men, women and children with their pitiful belongings salvaged from homes in far off Burmese towns and villages scattered all over the Camp area. The Field Hospital with its prominent Red Cross flag on the ground to warn enemy aircraft lay there as a silent witness to this horrendous violation of the Geneva Convention to which Japan was a signatory. Those who had escaped injury, dazed and sobbing were moving about searching for family and precious belongings.

As I stood up and tried to take stock of the situation, my eyes fell on a heap of two bodies – the remains of two lads who had formed a threesome with the young man whose lower half had weighed me down. I found the upper ‘half’ lying close by. None of the three carried any identification having evidently left their belongings in an excess of euphoria with their companions on setting out on what was to prove the last stroll. It took hardly a minute for all this to register and being badly in need of something to steady my nerves, I ran to my basha, a hundred yards away, to collect my pipe and tobacco only to find that it too had had received due attention from the Japanese. Shrapnel had cut through the bamboo walls and missing my clothes had taken out their venom on the Agent’s pair of shorts which needed washing. The tattered remnant was eventually handed over to him as a souvenir of that tragic morning.




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