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Remembering the past: an unfinished conversation

Chrestomather | October 31, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)




Last week my Twitter feed led me to a thought-provoking piece by Raghu Karnad on Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Karnad writes: ‘The subject of The Narrow Road is cruelty and survival along the ‘Burma Death Railway’, one of the worst Japanese atrocities in the Second World War.’ Pointing out that the great majority of the men who worked on the railway were Asians – including a large number of Indians – Karnad notes that these men are almost always excluded from the historical account. He concludes: ‘Had The Narrow Road been a memoir, I’d have no questions about what Flanagan chose to include, or not to. Since it is fiction, though, one can wish that he had extended himself toward those many others that were chained to those same rails. Instead, it is a troubling tale of how literature can visit an atrocity again and again, and continue to omit most of its victims.’

I disagree with Karnad on several counts. To begin with I don’t see why the burden of providing a rounded narrative should fall more heavily on a novelist than on the writer of a memoir. If anything, it should be the other way around since a memoir, being a work of non-fiction, necessarily makes certain truth-claims, which is not the case with a novel. Nor do I believe that novelists have a duty to represent every aspect of a historical situation: if that were at all possible then the task would surely fall more to the historian than the novelist. And whether literature has a special responsibility towards victims is another question that is not easily resolved.

But the broader issue that Karnad raises certainly sounded a chord with me: I have long struggled to understand why Indians, and other Asians, are so often omitted from historical accounts of events in which they played a major part. The power to narrate, and who possesses it, is of course at the heart of the matter; equally important perhaps is the ambivalence of those who participated in these events, most notably sepoys.

But there is another aspect to it too, as I discovered while working on my 2000 novel, The Glass Palace. In researching the book’s historical background I






took to the road in Malaysia,







seeking out men,













and women, of Indian origin






[Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan of the Rani of Jhansi regiment]













who had played a part in the Second World War.


Many of the men who worked on the Death Railway were Indian (mainly Tamil) workers from the rubber plantations of what was then the British colony of Malaya. I visited several such plantations, hoping to find survivors: even though the war was then more than fifty years in the past, it did not seem impossible that a few men who had worked on the railway would still be alive. But my efforts were unavailing: I met none.

On one occasion I was saddened to learn that a Death Railway survivor had died quite recently on the plantation I happened to be visiting: after the war he had returned to the only home he had ever known and had raised a family there. At the suggestion of one of the managers I went to see the survivor’s son, hoping to learn something about his father’s experiences. This man was, as I remember, in his forties, and spoke a little Hindi as well as English. He confirmed that his father had worked on the Death Railway but was unable to tell me much else. At length, trying to jog his memory, I said: Didn’t your father talk about his wartime experiences? He must surely have spoken of the horrors of the Death Railway?

He fell silent and thought about the question for a bit. His answer, when it came, was to the following effect:

You must understand – the Burma railway was of course a horror beyond imagining for the English and the other white men who worked on it. But at that time, under colonial rule, conditions on rubber plantations were also terrible. For men like my father the difference between what they had to endure there and here was not so very great.

I recall that conversation every time I read about the Death Railway: to think about the implications of those words is to confront degrees of complexity that extend far beyond ‘The War’.

Which war? When? Where?




Schooning with Dragons 2

Chrestomather | October 27, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


Komodo is the kind of island







that inspires fantasy.



From a distance, the ridge that runs along it






has the appearance of the armoured spine of some gigantic Saurian creature.







As it happens the island did play a part in the genesis of the story of King Kong.







Merion C. Cooper, the man who is credited with inventing the idea of a ‘gigantic prehistoric ape’ is said to have been fascinated by the adventures of his friend Douglas Burden, whose travels resulted in the book Dragon Lizards of Komodo. And the mysteries of these islands are not all imaginary: it was in this region that the remains of the prehistoric  ‘hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) were found.





We on the Katharina were exceptionally lucky.










The night before our visit to Komodo





we witnessed a spectacular lunar eclipse.



















Our visit to Komodo began at the Rangers’ station of Loh Liang.






The rangers warned us that the dragons are elusive creatures and that we might not see any on our walk.







But in no time at all we came upon a large male.















A magnificent creature,















it seemed to be stalking a herd of deer.
















Dragons can sprint over short distances,
















but their usual gait is slow and stately.






photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie




This was not this hunter’s lucky day;







stalking isn’t easy when you’re the cynosure of many eyes.




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie











The trail gave us glimpses of a savannah-like landscape,







thirsty for rain at the end of the dry season.









But the conditions were just right for certain orchids.





















The waters of Komodo National Park are famous for their reefs.





photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie















I have done a fair amount of snorkeling in my time






DSC04758 but I have never seen coral reefs as fine as these; nor have I ever come across such abundant and varied marine life.










We were fortunate in having two experienced divers with us,






Jennifer Hayes, our guide,









and Joris Kolijn,






DSC04959 Sea Trek‘s manager. They are both intimately familiar with these waters and thanks to them we saw some amazing sights.













One unforgettable morning we swam with giant manta rays,





Wikimedia commons




with wingspans of three metres or more.








The mantas circled playfully around us,






Wikimedia commons


coming back again and again, as if to check us out, even making eye contact.











One day Joris and Jennifer took us to a channel






where marine life abounds because of a rich supply of nutrition, brought in by a powerful current.








The current swpet us along like birds in a gale, carrying us past reef-sharks, barracudas and




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie



schools of fish, with the brilliant colours and fantastical shapes



of a hallucination.
















Photo Summa Durie

Photo Summa Durie




these fish end up in fishermen’s nets.














at a market in Lombok,







I came upon







some of these species of fish laid out on display.








Even there,







long dead,








their colours







and shapes seemed unreal.









One afternoon, I found myself swimming some twenty feet above a green turtle.






Wikimedia Commons


It was a clear day and a bright funnel of sunlight was focused upon the turtle’s emerald-tinted shell.










It was gliding effortlessly along, like an eagle on an updraft. The slow, undulating motion of its limbs, as much as the penumbra of radiance that surrounded it, gave it the appearance of an angel.





Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly a school of fusilers appeared, encircling the turtle in a halo of flashing colours.











It was as though I had been granted a vision of something not of this world: it was perhaps the most beautiful sight I have ever seen; no human creation could come close to rivalling it; no picture could do it justice.







And when we weren’t swimming with rays or walking with dragons, there was wonderful food to sample.





UWRF-SeaTrek Bali - Komodos Oct 14 - Summa Durie (70 of 111)




Janet de Neefe, who runs two of the finest restaurants in Bali – Casa Luna and Indus









was on board, to explain Indonesian cooking techniques:






how spices and herbs are combined and ground;










how a Sumatran fish curry is made;















and how to serve prawn fritters.

















Janet is the author of  Bali: Food of My Island Home - one of the best, most user-friendly cookbooks ever written. I love it and use it all the time.






DSC04463It has inspired me to grow my own turmeric, ginger, galangal, chilies and lemon grass.









In Indonesian cookery







these spices are always used fresh, never dried, as is usually the case in India. This makes for an enormous difference in taste










and vastly enhances the medicinal and health-sustaining properties of these spices.












And to top it all, there were many wonderful conversations. Most of the Katharina‘s passengers were writers and every evening we talked of writing and reading.




But  the most wonderful thing about the Katharina









was her crew.






DSC04950Efficient yet fun-loving













they were the most cheerful group of seamen






I have ever come across.







Whether singing,





or playing the guitar














or rattling the rigging DSC04739










they threw themselves wholeheartedly into everything they did.





To them goes the credit for turning their vessel into a ship of dreams.











Schooning with Dragons 1

Chrestomather | October 25, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


The Bugis (or Buginese) are one of the great seafaring peoples of the Indian Ocean. Like those other great mariners, the Greeks, they are also great story-tellers: their epic, Sureq Galigo or La Galigo, is longer than the Mahabharata. The Buginese were converted to Islam in the 17th century and except for a few sub-groups of Christians and Hindus they are predominantly Muslim today. One interesting aspect of Bugis culture is that it recognizes five gender categories including a ‘meta-gender’.






Bugis seafarers have long been associated with a distinctive kind of sailing vessel: a fore-and-aft rigged craft known as a Phinisi or Pinisi schooner (the words are said to be derived from the Dutch ‘pinas’ or pinnace). These vessels are still constructed by traditional methods in Sulawesi.








Phinisi schooners are an old interest of mine (a Bugis vessel makes a brief appearance in River of Smoke); I have also long wanted to visit the Komodo Islands. The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is surely one of the most fascinating creatures in existence – the planet’s largest  living species of lizard, it was not ‘discovered’ till the 1910s. So when an opportunity arose to sail around Indonesia’s Komodo National Park in a Phinisi schooner I could hardly believe my luck: needless to say, I jumped at the chance.



The journey began with a flight to the port of Labuan Bajo, at the western end of Flores, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region.



On the way there we sighted smouldering volcanoes, rising out of the sea.







Labuan Bajo’s airport is picturesque













and of impressive size,













for a quiet little town.















It’s harbour is spectacular,








especially at sunset.








After nightfall little warungs














appear along the waterfront,















offering a colourful assortment of fish,
















which go straight to the grill,















brushed with a little oil and a few spices.

















They are ready for the table

















in a few minutes.




















Our vessel, the Katharina,






was at anchor in the harbour: a sleek 40 metre Phinisi,







she is operated by a company called Sea Trek Sailing Adventures, which also owns another, slightly larger, Phinisi, the Ombak Putih.









From Labuan Bajo we sailed to an island called Rinca, one of the largest of the 29 islands of Komodo National Park.







Surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs, Rinca has some 1,300 Komodo dragons.






An elaborate gateway














leads to the ranger station of Loh Buaya.















There are a half-dozen or more dragons around the rangers’ quarters;






they are apparently drawn there by the smell of cooking








(the guards never feed them and visitors are forbidden to do so,







although this does not, unfortunately, always stop them from trying).






We were led into the island by a group of rangers –




they all carried forked sticks, like this one, to fend off the dragons.










With the dry season drawing to a close the landscape was reduced to its stark essentials.








Only a few of the rangers are of Bugis heritage but many are good story-tellers: it is easy to imagine that story-telling helps while away many a long hour, when the visitors are gone and there is not much to do.





They explain that the dragons eat nothing but (dead) meat: mainly buffalo and deer.









Apart from hooves and horns,








they will consume







every bit of their prey




DSC04564 – with the exception of the innards, which are usually filled with vegetable matter.










A Komodo dragon’s bite is lethal:





it was previously thought that their saliva contained a toxic community of bacteria but it has now been confirmed that the animals possess venom glands.








Once bitten, a deer or buffalo will die a slow, lingering death, sometimes over a period of weeks. Komodo dragons do not hesitate to attack spitting cobras, which are abundant on these islands (as in this video).

Attacks on human beings are rare but not unknown.








A ranger tells a rather gruesome tale of a tourist who strayed from his group and was never seen again









– all that was found of him was some undigested clothing and hair.






Komodo dragons are not good parents, says another ranger, with a laugh.














They are cannibalistic and love to feed on their children. The females have an advantage in this regard since they know exactly where their eggs are hidden.








In an interesting twist to the phrase ‘expectant mother’, this young female is keeping vigil beside her nest so she can make a meal of her hatchlings when they emerge .







Fortunately for the species, some of the young usually manage to make a getaway. The lucky few must spend the first three years of their lives on trees, where they subsist on lizards, birds’ eggs, insects – and of course other juveniles.




DSC04567Life isn’t easy for baby dragons.










Our rangers were a cheerful lot





but their stories gave rise to a disturbing question: in years to come, when climate change and sea-level rise have forced a generation of human beings to retreat to higher ground, will they come to think of their forebears as dragons whose unbounded appetites resulted in the devouring of their young?










From Yangon

Chrestomather | October 23, 2014 in Letters | Comments (1)



Dr Thant Myint-U is one of Burma’s leading contemporary historians.


DSC04035His book River of Lost Footsteps is essential reading for anyone interested in Burma. His 2011 book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia has also been widely acclaimed: he was recently named one of the world’s ‘One Hundred Leading Thinkers‘ by Foreign Policy magazine (he has an excellent twitter feed: @thantmyintu ).











Many years ago Thant, as he is known to his friends, gave me a copy of View from the UN,


51byxSyYYOLa memoir written by his grandfather, U Thant. As Secretary General of the UN from 1961 to 1971, U Thant was once a household name around the world. He played a part in many important events and his memoir is, to my mind, a major historical document: it also makes for compelling reading.










Much of Thant ‘s childhood was spent in his grandfather’s house in Westchester, New York. He studied at Harvard and the University of Cambridge, where he earned a doctorate in history. He taught history at Cambridge for a few years and has held fellowships at several leading universities around the world. He has also worked at the UN in various capacities. But he is now back in Burma, doing many things: he helps to run a trust commemorating his grandfather; he is the Chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust; he is a member of the President of Myanmar’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council; and as if that were not enough he is also participating in the ongoing talks between the government and Burma’s ethnic minorities.


I recently met up with Thant in Rangoon,




and we had a long talk about the current situation in Burma: suffice it to say that he is cautiously optimistic.










Shortly after our meeting he wrote me this:

I received the message below just now from U Kyaw Thein Lwin, a former navy officer in his late 80s, and thought you might be interested.  He’s an old friend of the family and he knew I had seen you this morning. U Kyaw Thein Lwin is a treasure house of information on 20th century Burmese history.  His father was the distinguished educationist U Ba Lwin who founded the Myoma National School in the 1920s and who was a key figure in the country’s fight for independence.




I wanted to tell Amitav Ghosh that his Book  [The Glass Palace] is not all fiction, and perhaps I’m am the only living person in Myanmar who is actually connected with some of the characters and plots in the Book. For example , the ship he hired to bring coolies from East India , named the DUFFERIN was converted as a training ship in Bombay in 1927 and I spent three long years on it, from 1941-43. I also remember a Mr. Dinanath , who was a Rotarian and a close friend of my father and we often visited their residence before Japanese invasion. The other family. Arjan Singhs , connected with the story, were also prominent teak exporters and Boat builders who lived in Moulmein and were friendly with my in-laws. Of course I could vividly follow his stories about pre-war Rangoon commercial life. Pegu Club etc. and and the part played by Subhas Chendra Bose, whom my Dad knew during the war and the exploits of the I.N.A. Lastly, DA Ahujas and TN Ahujas were the two leading photographers dealing with studio photography during pre-war years as mentioned in his story. Hope I will have the chance to meet him somewhere.
[these messages are reproduced here with the permission of Dr Thant Myint-U and U Kyaw Thein Lwin]

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

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



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






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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Amitav Ghosh

August 2014



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Eating Arakan-style

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


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




Mingun Pagoda, Sagaing region


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











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




Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right

Bagan, with the Ananda temple to the right


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










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


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



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











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





Bay of Bengal, seen from Sittwe













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


Some of the projects,




DSC03086like the new port at Sittwe,











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


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






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









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












to be dipped in ngapi, a fermented fish sauce,





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











including one that I usually regard with distaste –







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









Dinner is usually preceded by snacks, including almost always,






some pickled tea leaves,










a few pakora-like fritters,







which are never better than in Burma,











some succulent gingko nuts,










perhaps some





dry-cured, shredded venison,










maybe a tart salad






of tomatoes and garlic,









and perhaps even some stir-fried pork with chilies.















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





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









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







grown on a rice-field like this one.










And if you’re lucky  you may even partake





of an Arakan banquet,











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






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











and long beans



with coconut and crispy shallots,













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












and mutton cooked with daal,



DSC03505(not unlike a Parsi dhansak)













and DSC03504coconut-crusted prawns,












and DSC03502crispy greens with shallots,













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










and, of course,






a soup, in this instance, of split peas,










and, as a final flourish,







an enormous crustacean.











The repast ends with




fruit: DSC03508pomelo and














DSC03510and mandarin oranges.











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







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

An Arakan Angkor 2

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




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



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







Today Mrauk-U is a quiet little town,



Mrauk-U’s main street

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














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





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










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





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


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













The region exported a wide range of goods,







including locally-made









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














The small but well-laid-out








museum of Mrauk-U has a good collection









of artefacts and


























monumental sculptures in stone,
















and Buddha images from different eras.






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











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


















while this is from the








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










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




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

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

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






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





Rocky with two of his students




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

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









Here Rocky illustrates the differences














between certain Buddhist architectural forms.

















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






in which a ten-foot high image of the Buddha












rises above smaller




fern-draped figures  DSC03202













some of which





gaze out of mossy niches.














Then we move on to the magnificent




DSC03213Koe-thoung temple,










built by King Tikkha





in 1553 CE.









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





Some are carved upon the walls,












and some sit
















in subtly-lit corridors,















and mossy














and crumbling terraces.

















The surroundings are as verdant as the temple itself.









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





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











The modest entrance




leads to












labyrinthine passageways








in which images of the Buddha









are placed in




DSC03314precisely aligned niches.














The vestibules converge upon a cavernous inner sanctum.






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










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




for example the Sanda Muni temple,












where we run into a group of schoolgirls

















who are following






in the footsteps of others before them.










This temple is run mainly by young novice monks



who live on the premises and bathe in adjoining wells,












and even




do the cooking.













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







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








Here, as in many of Mrauk-U’s temples





the inner sanctum is ringed









with images of gods
















from the Hindu pantheon.
















Here too there is a labyrinth of richly carved galleries,





where children play hide and seek,











watched over by





the Remover of Obstacles.












On the surrounding walls





fierce dwarapalas (gatekeepers)









rub shoulders with startled tigers.

















At intervals there are arches




through which children peer in;












they also provide glimpses of neighbouring temples

















and rain-drenched stupas.

















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





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





An Arakan Angkor – 1

Chrestomather | September 9, 2014 in An Arakan Angkor | Comments (0)



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



DSC03337coast like a mirage,











at the end of a long journey




over weather-worn roads,









after innumerable swollen streams















have been crossed on trestle bridges,














while schoolchidren, with thanaka-daubed faces, look on















as they make their way back to tiny hamlets














and quiet villages






that ought to be recognized as models of sophisticated sustainability,









with carbon footprints too small even to be measured,





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








Countless rivers and creeks






wind through the landscape







meandering through ranges of hills that are shaped





almost like pagodas









so that the spires of Mrauk-U




DSC03189become visual echoes of the site’s setting.











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









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








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
















The Dark House of the Neighbourhood

Chrestomather | August 30, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




In an article written in 1996 I wrote of Burma that for several decades the country had been

DSC03059 ‘the dark house of the neighbourhood, huddled behind an impenetrable, overgrown fence.’ Today Burma is a completely changed country, yet one of its most important buildings still embodies that metaphor: it is the Central Secretariat, which was until 1947 the seat of the British colonial government in Rangoon.








The Central Secretariat (which was long known in Burmese as ‘the Minister’s Building’)


DSC03000was designed by Henry Hoyne-Fox (1855-1905), the Executive Engineer of the Public Works Department of the colonial government.










Work on the building started in 1889 and most of the brickwork was completed by 1892











but construction continued until 1902. The builder was a contractor from northern India by the name of Baboo Naitram Rambux.













The complex sprawls over many acres of central Yangon, where land prices in some areas rival those of Tokyo.













The Secretariat has been abandoned for many years.














It is a vast, haunted labyrinth of echoing, empty corridors and warehouse-like rooms.






The floors are uneven because parts of the building  were destabilized by Japanese bombs during the Second World War. Earthquakes have also played havoc with the  structure.







Fans hang down from the ceiling, twisted into bizarre shapes. DSC03027














One of the main entrances leads to a double-spiral staircase, with banisters entwined in a curious helical form.















The ironwork was cast in Glasgow.


















The building has a tragic history.






On 19 July 1947, a few months before Burma was to gain independence, the leader of the young nation, General Aung San









(father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi)


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996














was assassinated here, along with six members of his cabinet.




The assassins are said to have climbed up this staircase.DSC03007















General Aung San and his cabinet




were seated here when the assassins marched in and sprayed the room with bullets. Today the room is a kind of shrine to the memory of those who died here that day.






















The building that served as Burma’s first parliament is also in the compound.






It was here that independent Burma’s flag was first hoisted.









The pictures of General Aung San




and the six assassinated cabinet members hang inside, under Burma’s first flag.









Now the entire complex is being renovated by a young couple




Le Yee Soe and Soe Thwin Tun.



They envisage a museum, art galleries, offices, restaurants, performance spaces and







an arcade where visitors will be able to buy traditional handicrafts.







If all goes as planned the site will be spectacular – unique in Asia.






Facing the Central Secretariat, across Bo Aung Kyaw Street






is a Durga Temple that also dates back to 1889.









DSC03068Inside is a plaque to Joy Chandra Dutta, who was related to my family. He was from my father’s ancestral village, Medini Mandol (in what is now Bangladesh).











IMG_0009My aunt Molina, my father’s eldest sister, married into the Dutta family which was then based in Moulmein, Burma. It was her husband, Jagat Chandra Dutta, who started me on the path that would lead to ‘The Glass Palace.’




























Petrofiction and Petroculture

Chrestomather | August 27, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


In April this year I visited the University of Oregon, Eugene, which is a global pioneer in cross-disciplinary eco-critical studies. While I was there I had an interesting meeting with Stephanie Le Menager, the author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century – a fascinating study of the role of oil in the contemporary American imagination.

I learnt from Stephanie, to my very great surprise, that a review I had written in 1992 – Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel – has become a seminal text in a field that is expanding rapidly in the US and Canada: Petroculture Studies (as this article explains, the term is adapted from the title of my piece).

‘Petrofiction’ is actually a review of the Jordanian-Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt which I describe as a ‘monumental five-part cycle of novels dealing with the history of oil.’ The review was published in The New Republic (2 March 1992: 29-33) and is also included in my essay collections Incendiary Circumstances (USA) and The Imam and the Indian (India).

I had no idea that Petrofiction had had this catalytic effect. I later wrote to Prof. Alessandro Vescovi (of the Università degli Studi di Milano) who very kindly curates the bibliography on my website, to ask whether some Petroculture studies might be included in the bibliography. A few weeks later he sent me an update prefaced by these words:


I had not included petrofiction studies in the periodical updates as I had not fully grasped how the whole field is indeed a spin-off of your review of Munif’s novels. Almost all of the papers in this short bibliography mention “Oil Encounter” as a starting point, though it is now more than 20 years since its publication; however it seems that the discipline has grown, and so has oil literature. There is even a scholar (Hitchcock) who maintains that the time has come for the discipline to move beyond the tracks laid down by “Oil Encounter” in 1992. Most of these essays have been produced in America, but due to my own linguistic limitations, I could not extend the search to Arabic sources, which might yield interesting results.

This is the material I have found in a few data bases including the British Library, The Library of Congress, Google Scholar, Google Books, Jstor, MLA Bibliography, Abell, Cambridge Univ. Bibliographic centre, with keywords such as Petrofiction, Oil Culture, Oil AND novel. Unfortunately I have not had the time to go through the texts as they would deserve.


Petrofiction bibliography

Aghoghovwia, Philip Onoriode. 2013. Coastlines and Littoral Zones in South African Ecocritical Writing Volume 6 of Alternation / Special edition: CSSALL.

Alissa, Reem. 2013. “The Oil Town of Ahmadi since 1946: From Colonial Town to Nostalgic City.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33 (1):41-58.

Alleva, Richard. 2008. “Thicker Than Oil: There Will Be Blood.” Commonweal 135 (134:3):19-20.

Atkinson, Ted. 2013. “‘Blood Petroleum: True Blood, the BP Oil Spill, and Fictions of Energy/Culture.” Journal of American Studies 47 (1):213-229.

Barrett, Ross, and Daniel Worden. 2012. “Oil Culture: Guest Editors’ Introduction.” Journal of American Studies 46 (02):269-272.

Barrett, Ross, and Daniel Worden, eds. 2014. Oil Culture: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Beckman, Ericka. 2012. “An Oil Well Named Macondo: Latin American Literature in the Time of Global Capital.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127 (1):145-151.

Breeze, Ruth. 2012. “Legitimation in Corporate Discourse: Oil Corporations after Deepwater Horizon.” Discourse & Society: An International Journal for the Study of Discourse and Communication in Their Social, Political and Cultural Contexts 23 (1):3-18.

Buell, Frederick. 2012. “A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance.” Journal of American Studies 46 (2):273-293.

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron. 2006. “Of Freedom and Oil: Nation, Globalization, and Civil Liberties in the Writing of Ken Saro-Wiwa.” REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 22:293-308.

Damluji, Mona. 2013. “The Oil City in Focus: The Cinematic Spaces of Abadan in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s Persian Story.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33 (1):75-88.

Fuccaro, Nelida. 2013. “Shaping the Urban Life of Oil in Bahrain: Consumerism, Leisure, and Public Communication in Manama and in the Oil Camps, 1932-1960s.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33 (1):59-74.

Hitchcock, Peter. 2010. “Oil in an American Imaginary.” New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69 (1):81-97.

LeMenager, Stephanie. 2012. “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!” American Literary History 24 (1):59-86.

LeMenager, Stephanie. 2014. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyons, Laura E. 2011. “‘I’d Like My Life Back’: Corporate Personhood and the BP Oil Disaster.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 34 (1):96-107.

Macdonald, Graeme. 2012. “Oil and World Literature.” American Book Review 33 (3):7-31.

McLarney, Ellen. 2009. ““Empire of the Machine”: Oil in the Arabic Novel.” boundary 2 36 (2):177-198.

McMurry, Andrew. 2012. “Framing Emerson’s ‘Farming’: Climate Change, Peak Oil, and the Rhetoric of Food Security in the Twenty-First Century.” Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19 (3):548-566.

Okuyade, Ogaga. 2011. “Rethinking Militancy and Environmental Justice: The Politics of Oil and Violence in Nigerian Popular Music.” Africa Today 58 (1):78-101.

Ryan, Terre. 2010. “Creation Stories: Myth, Oil, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Journal of Ecocriticism 2 (1):81-86.

Schlote, Christiane. 2013. “Writing Dubai: Indian labour migrants and taxi topographies.” South Asian Diaspora (ahead-of-print):1-14.

Szeman, Imre. 2012. “Introduction to Focus: Petrofictions.” American Book Review 33 (3):3.

Szeman, Imre. 2013. “How to Know about Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 47 (3):145-168.

Walonen, Michael K. 2012. ““The Black and Cruel Demon” and Its Transformations of Space: Toward a Comparative Study of the World Literature of Oil and Place.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 14 (1):56-78.

Weine, Stevan. 2007. “Blood Not Oil: Narrating Social Trauma in Springsteen’s Song-Stories.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory 9 (1):37-46.

Worden, Daniel. 2012. “Fossil-Fuel Futurity: Oil in Giant.” Journal of American Studies 46 (02):441-460.

Xinos, Ilana. 2006. “Petro-Capitalism, Petrofiction, and Islamic Discourse: The Formation of an Imagined Community in Cities of Salt.” Arab Studies Quarterly 28 (1):1-12.

Zabus, Chantal. 2001. “Ken Saro-Wiwa: Oil Boom, Oil Doom.” Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society 23-24:1-12.



I am very grateful to Prof Vescovi for the work he has put into this.