April 13, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Letter about ‘The Ghat of the Only World’.

My essay on Agha Shahid Ali has been on the curriculum of India’s Central Board of Secondary Education for quite a while, which means that it is read every year by millions of schoolchildren. Every now and then I get beautiful letters from young people who have read the essay as a part of their schoolwork: this is one of the best of them. It is posted here with the writer’s permission.

April 2, 2022

Dear Mr. Ghosh,
My name is Ayana. I’m writing this to share with you the impact a piece of your writing has had on me; one that is ongoing and immensely present. 
As I’m sure you’re aware, the CBSE curriculum currently has a version of ‘The Ghat of the Only World’ as a part of its English syllabus. On 11 November, 2019, my English class started reading this chapter. I remember it very clearly; I have to confess that during my schooling, I would allow myself to drift off during English class, because it came easily to me. Not that day, though. That day, I was engrossed, palms flat on my desk as I listened to a classmate read the words out. 
You might wonder how I know the exact date. I keep a journal, to keep track of my tasks and the like, and it’s a habit I’ve had for a few years now. At the end of that English class, I remember sitting still in the bustle of it all, and scrawling out “Mad heart, be brave!”, in pen and highlighter, starry eyed and breathless. Here’s a photo of my journal that day:

I was 16 then. The way you wrote about your friend, someone you clearly loved, whose work you respected, the promise you delivered on… it made me feel like I was growing kinship with the memory of someone who left the world before I was born. 
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this particular chapter, though. That happened roughly a year before this, in a different city. My best friend, who lives faraway now that I’ve moved to a different home, is a year older than me, so when I was in tenth, they were in eleventh. They had an English test, and they were reading this chapter on the bus where we sat together every day (which is how we became so close), and I snuck a peek. I talked to them about it, and we shared our love for poetry, which was a big factor in us eventually becoming best friends. 
And so even before I get to the present day, you can see the impact this piece of writing of yours has had on my life. I adored it immensely for all this before, and now I adore it even more. 
A few months ago, I picked up a copy of The Veiled Suite, Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works. 
When I started reading it… oh, how do I explain? Have you ever read something that sends a chill down your spine? That you know will change you forever? Something that you hold dear to yourself already, that you’re plastering up on the walls of your heart, that drives the urge to make something of your own?
That’s what it felt like. What it feels like, every time I flip a page, every time I scribble a note in the margins, every time sit cross legged on the floor to make art based on a couplet from a new poem. 
I’ve found something that I think I will love for a long, long time. I feel love and respect and admiration and so much fondness for someone I know only through the pages of his writing. That’s how all poetry goes, I suppose, but it feels special. 
I’m writing this to you because none of this could’ve happened without your wonderful tribute to your friend. I have intense respect for you as an author already, and the fact that something you wrote has led me to a love so profound… I wanted you to know. 
I know it’s been years, but I still want to say that I’m sorry for your loss. But I need you to know that your memory and love has led to so much more being present in the world. The book will be my paperback accompaniment, cracked spine and dog-eared pages, and I’ll tell everyone who listens how much I love it and why. I’m so, so glad you kept your promise and wrote about him.
If I come off as too earnest, forgive me. But I hope you read this somehow. If you can, I’d love to hear back from you. If you have anything to share about this, I’ll take it all willingly. 
Thank you. Always. 

Eric Dean Wilson’s ‘After Cooling’

March 22, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)

What kind of collective action is likely to be most effective in mitigating climate change? Switching to electric cars? Installing solar panels? Planting trees? Giving up flying?

These are of course the solutions we usually hear about. But according to the army of experts who compiled the 2017 report Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming the top solution is something quite different. The editor of the report was almost embarrassed about the finding. ‘“The official number one, I’m sorry to say, isn’t very sexy,” she said. “It’s focused on refrigerant chemicals.”’

In his revelatory new book, After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, And The Terrible Cost Of Comfort (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2021) Eric Dean Wilson explains that sequestering or destroying chemical refrigerants could prevent emissions of ‘89.74 gigatons of carbon dioxide…. For scale, total global energy-related CO2 emissions for 2019 were about 33 gigatons. Though the solution of refrigerant management is only one of many, its magnitude is as hopeful as it is daunting: addressing this one sector could radically lower global emissions.’

After Cooling is full of revelations of many kinds. I was not aware, for instance, that there exists a thriving black market in Freon in the United States. Woven into the book is a fascinating first-person narrative in which Wilson follows a Freon-hunter through the dark by-ways of this market.

Particularly interesting is Wilson’s account of how the United States became the first country to integrate air-conditioning into every aspect of daily life. The very idea of tampering with the air was once regarded with revulsion by most Americans: it was through a long and carefully engineered change in the conception of what constitutes ‘comfort’ that they – and later the world – came to be persuaded that air-conditioning was a necessity. Needless to add, the process was closely enmeshed with race and other structural inequalities; and it hardly needs to be added either that the persuasive machinery of capitalism was instrumental in bringing about the transition.

The man most responsible for effecting America’s transition to mass air-conditioning was a chemist by the name of Thomas Midgely Jr., or ‘Midge’. Although little known today he may have had a more devastating impact on the planet than any other human being in history. A British quiz show host once ranked Midgely at the top of the list of historical figures who have done the greatest ecological damage, ahead of all the usual environmental criminals. He said of Midgely: ‘He put millions of tons of lead, into the atmosphere, harming millions of people [and] not content with that he also invented the first of the Freons, but what did he not know it was also doing? Destroying the ozone layer.”

Today the story of the ozone layer is usually told as a hopeful tale since international concern about the issue eventually led to the Montreal Protocol of 1987. This is often cited as an example of a successful international initiative on the environment.

Why did the Montreal negotiations succeed when so many other environmental summits have failed? Wilson suggests an answer: ‘the success of the Montreal Protocol… rested on the public framing of the crisis as targeting, first and foremost, white skin.’

Wilson shows that in the run-up to the negotiations in Montreal, the ozone problem was often framed as a threat primarily to White people, because it increased their chances of contracting skin cancer. He quotes, for example, a prominent Massachusetts doctor, who, at a Senate Committee hearing in 1987, ‘defined Australia, whose population was directly exposed to the Antarctic ozone hole, as “nature’s experiment of taking a white, susceptible population and moving them to a tropical environment and then having them be outside all the time.” Speaking at the 1990 London conference to assess the Montreal Protocol, NASA’s Dr. Robert Watson highlighted the pigmented difference: “For white-skinned people, every one-percent ozone depletion increases by three to five percent the number of people who contract non-melanoma skin cancer”.’

Wilson concludes: ‘The Montreal Protocol would not have happened without the support of Australia, Canada, the United States, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe—the major producers and emitters of Freon. Not coincidentally, those major producers and emitters of Freon also contained—and were controlled by—the largest numbers of fair-skinned people on the planet.’

Some of the countries on this list, most notably Australia and the United States, have of course, led the way in resisting, and even undoing, international accords on climate change. In light of Wilson’s conclusions it is worth asking whether right wing leaders in Australia and the United States might have been less resistant to those accords if climate change had also been perceived as a major threat to White people. But global warming is not seen in that way – largely because climate change has long been presented as primarily a threat to black and brown people in poor parts of the world.

This perception is now firmly embedded in the public mind, even though it is evident today that some of the regions that are being most adversely affected by climate change are wealthy areas in wealthy countries – for example, Houston and its surroundings, southeastern Australia, parts of California, and the Po Delta in Italy. Why then is climate change so often framed by activists as a threat primarily to poor people in places far from removed from wealthy countries? I suspect that the messaging arises out of the well-meaning, liberal belief that appealing to the consciences of the wealthy and powerful will bring about a large-scale change of heart in rich countries.

This is, in my view, an entirely misplaced expectation. Centuries of colonial history have given Western elites some extremely sophisticated tools for what the historian Priya Satia calls ‘the management of conscience’. These tools have allowed them to inflict all kinds of structural violence, ranging from genocide to famine, on the poor and colonized, while persuading themselves that their actions were perfectly moral and high-minded. It is unlikely to be any different in relation to climate change: indeed the arguments offered by certain ‘denialist’ Western leaders are straight out of the toolbox of imperialist conscience management. Wilson’s conclusion in regard to the Montreal Protocol suggests that the framing of global warming as a threat mainly to poor, non-white people, although well-intended, may actually have dampened concerns among those who believe they are not directly threatened.

Nor is it the case, as Wilson also shows, that refrigerants have ceased to pose a threat to the ozone layer; far from it. For one thing the gases that replaced Freon were by no means environmentally friendly: pound for pound, their presence ‘in the atmosphere contributes significantly more to global warming than does carbon dioxide or methane or almost anything else on the planet… Their capacity to retain heat far exceeds other substances … [and they] could account for as much as 20 percent of global warming in the next eighty years.’

In effect ‘rather than lessening environmental destruction, the replacement refrigerants may have exacerbated it. In the short term, they quelled the ozone crisis. In the long term, they encouraged the habits that required world-altering chemicals, the habits of constant work, constant comfort, and individual safety within a small, enclosed space, an unwavering investment in personal, individual choice at the expense of the long-term comfort and safety of the general public.’

Some of the other effects of air-conditioning are more insidious: ‘The world before Freon was a world in which the people of the planet understood how to handle the heat—not just personally but as a community. If you were rich, the way to deal with the hottest months of the summer was easy: slow down and migrate to your summer home in the Hamptons or your vacation estate in the mountains… But even lower-income urbanites through the 1901 New York heat wave made it through without leaving, if only because they had no other choice. They slept on roofs or fire escapes or in the parks under the stars. They modified their work habits. They wore considerably less clothing. They opened fire hydrants. Some even stood under streetlamp-sized showerheads connected to the city’s water supply, once provided by the municipal government but now long gone. And they managed together. In some cases, as in 1950s Bronzeville, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Chicago, they not only managed together but thrived. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg cites one description of the pre-air-conditioning Bronzeville summer as “ ‘an unrelentingly public world’ in which ‘summer evenings were one long community festival, involving just about everybody on the block’ and ending with people ‘sleeping on fire escapes to avoid the heat’ ”—a “simple strategy,” he claims, that kept the mortality rate of one 1955 heat wave at half the mortality rate of the 1995 Chicago heat wave.’

The most important lesson of Wilson’s book is that many technological developments that are initially sold as ‘progress’ appear as exactly the opposite when placed within the wider time frame that is usually requires for their unintended consequences to be revealed. Worse still, they also have the effect of destroying the traditional coping mechanisms that have historically helped human beings adapt to difficult conditions.

Wilson’s book appears at an important moment, a time when Western elites have started to forcefully advocate geo-engineering as a necessary technological solution to the climate crisis. If there is one thing we can be sure of it is that the unintended consequences of such interventions will be even more disastrous than the problems they are intended to solve. But Western elites have the power to do what they will, and in the future, as in the past, they will absolve themselves of culpability by saying ‘We didn’t know it would turn out like this; our models didn’t predict it.’ To which any humble farmer or hunter-gatherer might well respond: ‘But we could have told you.’

Meticulously researched and engagingly written, After Cooling is essential reading for the planetary crisis.

The Temple in ‘Gun Island’

March 14, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

As a writer of fiction, it has happened to me many times over the years that scenes, characters and places that I believed to exist only in my imagination have turned out to have real life counterparts. The most recent instance of this occurred a few days ago when I received a message from Dr. Michael S. Steckler, who is a Lamont Research Professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (his specialty is geophysics).

‘I just read your book Gun Island,’ wrote Dr. Steckler, ‘and thought I would write you since I have been studying an actual 17th century Hindu Temple in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. The Shakher Temple was built by Raja Pratapaditya, the last King of Jessore before he was defeated by the Mughals in 1611.’

Dr. Steckler also sent me the picture posted here.

Readers of Gun Island will understand the reference. It is to a temple in the Indian Sundarban that the book’s narrator, Deen Datta, visits. This is how the temple is described in the book:

The building wasn’t large – no bigger than the familiar thatched huts of the Bengal countryside – and time had not been kind to it. Yet the structure was so unexpected – and so lovely – that the sight fair took my breath away.

The roof had the convex outline of an upturned boat, and it was this, I guessed, that had reminded Nilima of the temples of Bishnupur. Nor was that surprising, for everything about the building – its burnt-siena colour, the shape of the roof, and the panels on its façade – spoke of Bengal’s most celebrated style of architecture, which had originated in the kingdom of Bishnupur in the 17th century.

This is a style which is perfectly attuned to the place in which it was born, in the sense that it echoes the shapes and forms of the Bengal countryside. It also makes ingenious use of the region’s most easily available materials. Rather than aspiring to the grandeur of stone (of which Bengal has very little) it relies instead on brick, made with the delta’s ample supplies of mud and silt. The rich colour of these thin, hard bricks is, to my eyes, one of the glories of the Bishnupuri style.

 At the time of writing I didn’t know of any such temple in the Sundarban. It is nothing short of uncanny then that the Shakher temple so closely fits the description: it dates back to the seventeenth century and was indeed built in the Bishnupuri style, with thin, hard bricks, and a convex roof. The only difference is that the temple in Gun Island was dedicated to Manasa Devi, the Goddess of Snakes, while the Shakher temple is consecrated to Ma Kali. Also, fortunately, the Shakher temple, unlike its fictional counterpart, has survived, and an annual puja is still held there.

The Shakher temple is said to be the only ‘standing ancient structure’ in the Sundarban and is located at ‘Shakher Tek about one kilometer away from the east bank of the Sibsa River’ in Bangladesh. [Sarker et al. 2012]

It is interesting also that the subject that Dr. Steckler and his team study is one that I have long been interested in: land subsidence in the Bengal Delta. Here are the conclusions of a paper that Dr. Steckler co-wrote in 2014:

The Ganges–Brahmaputra river delta, with 170 million people and a vast, low-lying coastal plain, is perceived to be at great risk of increased flooding and submergence from sea-level rise. However, human alteration of the landscape can create similar risks to sea-level rise. Here, we report that islands in southwest Bangladesh, enclosed by embankments in the 1960s, have lost 1.0–1.5 m of elevation, whereas the neighboring Sundarban mangrove forest has remained comparatively stable. We attribute this elevation loss to interruption of sedimentation inside the embankments, combined with accelerated compaction, removal of forest biomass, and a regionally increased tidal range. One major consequence of this elevation loss occurred in 2009 when the embankments of several large islands failed during Cyclone Aila, leaving large areas of land tidally inundated for up to two years until embankments were repaired. Despite sustained human suffering during this time the newly reconnected landscape received tens of centimeters of tidally deposited sediment, equivalent to decades’ worth of normal sedimentation. Although many areas still lie well below mean high water and remain at risk of severe flooding, we conclude that elevation recovery may be possible through controlled embankment breaches.

[Auerbach, L. W., S. L. Goodbred Jr., D. R. Mondal, C. A. Wilson, K. R. Ahmed, K. Roy, M. S. Steckler, C. Small, J. M. Gilligan and B. A. Ackerly. ‘Flood risk of natural and embanked landscapes on the Ganges–Brahmaputra tidal delta plain.’ Nature Climate Change, Jan. 5, 2015.]

Here are some other links to the work that Dr. Steckler and his team have been doing.



Letter from Italy

March 6, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

Dear Mr Ghosh,

I just want to thank you for the pleasure I ‘ve received from reading your books. It is always a unique experience: while enjoying the narrative and engrossed in the story, I discovered new paths in history, entire worlds, issues, phenomena and undercurrents that I had ignored before, especially as regards India and the Far East. It’s not like reading about history, which I also like,  this is much better, it feels like living history, diving into it.With Gun Island it was a quite different experience: I’m Italian and I had already lived some of the events narrated in the second part, I recognized the recent past, but then I was really moved exactly by the fact that I could perceive a meaning in what I had lived through, a sort of light thrown on the chaos of everyday life.I was curious about the name you chose for the rescue ship, Lucania, which is obviously connected to light/lux. I wonder whether there is also a connection to the Italian region Lucania and the surname of Mimmo Lucano, the mayor of Riace in Lucania, a model town for the integration of migrants, a real beacon of light in this country where migrants and refugees are either rejected or held in inhuman conditions (the mayor was  indicted for specious charges and the model dismantled according to the new law issued at the time).

Reading the Aeneid (a second time) soon after Gun Island, I was struck by this idea of a forefather of the Roman Empire coming as a migrant and a refugee, who was denied access to Latium, who had to fight a terrible war and then married the king’s daughter so starting the imperial dynasty out of an “interracial” marriage. And then the echo of Virgil’s lines (the Trojans appealing to Dido)  as a prophetic reproach when we closed our ports: “What race of men is this? What land is so barbaric as to allow/ this custom, that we’re denied the hospitality of the sand?”

Apart from the legend, Italy is the product of migrations, overlapping cultures and interethnicity, as you show in the picture of Venice.This is our true, forgotten identity,

I visited India in 1992. I remember a very decent, but extremely poor man who guided us through Jaisalmer. We were astounded by his knowledge of Italian current affairs, he knew about the assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino, he even knew the name of the Italian interior minister. And we hardly knew the name of India’s Prime Minister before getting there. I remembered the episode when I read Gun Island, it’s true, migrants know so much about our world, we know nothing about theirs. 

Waiting for your next book, I thank you again.

Best regards,

Alessandra Iommi

Stories from the Anthropocene

March 5, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

I have of late been receiving many stories, novels, poems and art catalogues that cite The Great Derangement as an influence or inspiration. It is, of course, immensely gratifying for writers to know that their work has had an impact, and I wish I could read and respond to everything that is sent to my website. But unfortunately it has become impossible to keep up.

However I am glad I made time to read an anthology that turned up unheralded on my website, for it caught my attention from the first page. It is to be published soon by the Black Lawrence Press in upstate New York.

“Fire & Water: Stories From the Anthropocene” (eds. Mary Fifield and Kristin Thiel) is an exceptionally good collection of new fiction, with stories that reflect many different aspects of the intensifying planetary crisis. What I particularly like about the stories is that they are about the here and now, mirroring the uncanny, lived reality of an increasingly unfamiliar planet.

March 5, 2021.

‘Acrobat’ Poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

February 23, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

The late poet and essayist Nabaneeta Dev Sen was a great writer and a dear friend. She was a woman of extraordinary warmth, generous to a fault and wonderfully witty. She was also a fine cook and gourmet. I treasure my memories of evenings at her house in Kolkata: they were filled not just with great food but also laughter, scintillating conversation and music. Her death on November 7, 2019, was an incalculable loss, for those who knew her, and for Bengali literature.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, 1938-2019

Even though Nabaneetadi was a towering figure in Bengali letters, very little of her work is available in English. This is all the more reason to be grateful to her daughter Nandana Dev Sen, who is a hugely talented writer in her own right, for translating a selection of her poems into English. The collection, which is to be published in April 2021 by Archipelago Books is titled: ‘Acrobat: Poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen’.

These translations of Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poems capture her quirky yet profound voice so beautifully that I felt I could hear her reading them aloud.  These are the poems of an adventurous and indefatigable traveler, observing the world with deep understanding and sympathy, through the prism of a sensibility that is securely rooted in the culture of Bengal.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare’s ‘Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health’

January 27, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health (Hachette India, 2020) is a compelling first person account of the struggle to bring India’s air pollution crisis to the forefront of the country’s policy priorities. Packed with information, this well-written book also bears witness to the appalling personal losses caused by the subcontinent’s poisoned air. 

Particularly striking are the author’s descriptions of the many forms of denial that India’s air pollution activists have to deal with: assertions that ‘you’re over-reacting’, or that Indians have developed immunities to bad air, and so on. As Lavakare points out: ‘inhaling even small amounts of microparticles reduces immunity rather than building it. Simply put, inhaled microparticles cause inflammation and oxidative stress on every organ they touch, beginning with the lining of the nose all the way to the lining of the lungs and beyond, releasing free radicals and reducing overall immunity. Unlike immunity to bacteria and viruses, the build-up of particulate matter over the years probably explains reduced immunity, greater sickening, faster aging and many other symptoms. People confuse immunity with endurance.’ 

In recent years the world’s focus, so far as air pollution is concerned, has been on China, not India. In the mainstream media narrative, it was China that had the worst air quality problem in the world. Yet, the data shows that through much of this time New Delhi’s air quality was much worse than that of Beijing. Yet, India’s air pollution crisis was ignored, by the local media as well as by foreign journalists. 

Why the disparity? Lavakare’s book suggests that there were two reasons for this. One was that there was much more public concern about pollution in China than in India. The second was that Western diplomats and journalists generally avoided talking about India’s air quality even though they knew very well how bad the situation was. The reasons for this are not hard to discern; they are the same as those that shield India from international criticism on many other counts as well. It is because India serves as a convenient ideological counterweight to China, as a different model of development. In effect, it was for ideological and strategic reasons that India’s air pollution problem was long overlooked, at immense cost to ordinary Indians. The silence was not broken until the New York Times’s South Asia correspondent, Gardiner Harris, began to write about the subject in 2014. 

The rise to dominance of neo-liberal ideologies also has much to do with India’s failure to confront the pollution crisis. Lavakare is by no means a critic of neoliberalism, but her book provides a telling example of its effects. Over the last decade, vast clouds of smoke have been descending on the region around New Delhi in late October, making the area’s already catastrophic air quality even worse. This annual plague of smoke is caused by the burning of crop stubble, by farmers. Lavakare quotes the journalist Arvind Kumar, who has traced the problem back to a series of decisions taken by the government of Punjab, between 2007 and 2009, when a law was passed that effectively forced farmers to change their patterns of cropping such that they were left with a very small window between the harvesting of one crop and the planting of the next. Hence the hurry to burn the remnants of a harvested crop, in October – at exactly the time when the prevailing winds carry the smoke in the direction of New Delhi and its environs, which are home to 46 million people. 

But there is a further twist to the story: the primary beneficiary of the change in cropping patterns is none other than the mega-corporation Monsanto, which has long sought to control the world’s supply of food. ‘The push for Punjab’s law came from another source,’ writes Arvind Kumar, ‘the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has acted as a shill for Monsanto around the world.’ Kumar’s conclusion is that ‘the people of Delhi have two choices. They could either take to the streets and march against Monsanto and evict the corporation from India and restore the previous cropping pattern, or they can wait to get suffocated when Delhi once again becomes a gas chamber this year.’

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that post-war American policy interventions in India, such as its advocacy of the ‘Green Revolution’ have been largely responsible for creating the compounding environmental disasters that underlie the currently ongoing farmers’ protests. These protests are said to be the largest in human history, yet the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains unmoved in its determination to impose a set of laws that will benefit mega-corporations that are close to his party. 

India’s failure to adequately address its air pollution problem is a grim portent for the future: it suggests that the country will be similarly unable to deal with other aspects of the intensifying planetary crisis, such as climate change. It is perfectly clear now that India’s government, and its political class, have been captured by corporate interests to such a degree that they have become incapable of acting in the public interest. 

Amitav Ghosh 

January 27, 2021

‘Powershift’ by Zorawar Daulet Singh

January 24, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Given recent developments, few will deny that the increasingly adversarial relationship between India and China is one of the most important factors in the emerging geopolitics of the 21st century. Zorawar Daulet Singh’s Powershift; India-China Relations In A Multipolar World (MacMillan, India, 2020), is therefore a timely addition to the literature on a subject of compelling urgency.

            Daulet Singh’s most interesting contribution lies, I think, in his analysis of the larger geopolitical picture, particularly in his examination of the Sino-Indian relationship through the contrasting perspectives of two of the founding fathers of strategic theory: Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), who believed that strategic power depended on the control of the oceans; and Halford Mackinder (1861 – 1947) who saw the Eurasian heartland as the ‘geopolitical pivot of history’, on which strategic dominance depended. ‘India’s geostrategy,’ writes Daulet Singh, ‘is being contested by two somewhat competing images: the Mackinder image – or the idea that continental spaces are what really matter in power politics – and the Mahanian image – or the idea that maritime spaces in the seas are what ultimately account for the power of states.’ (185)

            After Independence India’s leadership adopted a Mahanian view of maritime power, a vision that was essentially borrowed from the Anglosphere. ‘In the 1950s,’ writes Daulet Singh, ‘India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had remarked, ‘To be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea’. This assertion reflected an uncritical acceptance of an old British adage despite a vastly different geopolitical context. Separated from continental great powers, the British and Americans could shape the balance of power at sea without worrying about their land frontiers.’ (198). But this Mahanian view, Daulet Singh points out, is completely inadequate to India’s current circumstances: ‘For India, continental geopolitics can never be compensated by a maritime geostrategy.’(198).

            In terms of global geopolitics what is truly epochal about the rise of China is that it has begun to move the locus of strategic power away from the oceans and back to the continental heart of Eurasia. This is indeed the aim of the Belt and Road Initiative, which inaugurates, for the first time in five hundred years, a strategic shift initiated by a non-Western power. In opposing this initiative, Daulet Singh suggests, India has more to lose than to gain: ‘India’s main concern has been that the BRI is designed to stamp China’s geopolitical dominance. Some argue that such a fear might be misplaced for “all great infrastructure and  connectivity ventures – throughout history – have altered the prevailing geoeconomics matrix, and hence the resulting geopolitical balance. While the geopolitical effects are short-lived, the geo-economic benefits survive over time”. Or put simply, new trading linkages eventually trump geopolitics.’(242)

            In cutting itself off from a major geo-political and geo-economic shift, Daulet Singh suggests, it is India that risks isolation within its region: ‘In an ideal world, a South Asia in splendid isolation, and, an India with the economic and institutional capacities might have produced an order for the entire region. But India’s internal preoccupations, a lop-sided growth model with a weak state, and, China’s rise has exposed the idea of South Asia as an exclusive sphere of influence. It is no longer a viable venture.’ (253).

            A better alternative, Daulet Singh argues is for India and China to ‘learn to sensibly manage their complex relationship and evolve their existing modus vivendi to incorporate a framework where a gentler rivalry or competition is handled maturely and at the same time does not inhibit the pursuit of their common or overlapping interests.’ (ix).

            Despite its strengths Daulet Singh’s book also has some major weaknesses, due mostly to the fact that his book is written within the shallow historical frame that is characteristic of strategic studies. He makes no reference, for instance, to the Qianlong Emperor’s intervention in South Asia in the late 18th century, even though it was largely responsible for the continued existence of Nepal as a sovereign state. Astonishingly he makes no reference to the most important work on Qing xenology and the evolution of the dynasty’s foreign policy: Matthew Mosca’s From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy: The Question of India and the Transformation of Geopolitics in Qing China (Stanford University Press, 2013). Nor does he make any reference to the First Opium War, which was largely fought by Indian soldiers and financed by Bombay merchants. India may have chosen to forget this chapter of the past, but I am sure Daulet Singh is well aware that in China this war is seen as the beginning of its ‘century of humiliation’. I am sure he is aware also that according to the theorist Dominique Moïsi, humiliation is one of the key emotions for the analysis of contemporary geopolitics. The Chinese view of the Opium War can be contested of course, but to omit it entirely from an assessment of Sino-Indian relations in the modern era, is, frankly, unconscionable.

            But the book’s most important oversight, in my view, lies not in its approach to the past but rather in its assumptions about the present and the future. Daulet Singh treats time as linear, assuming that the geopolitical constraints under which nations make strategic calculations will remain substantially unaltered in the future. This is a cardinal error: the Earth is now in the grip of a planetary crisis that is unfolding in a non-linear fashion, changing everything, including geography, and therefore also geopolitics. Daulet Singh mentions, but does not take proper stock of one of the most momentous of these changes: the opening up of a new maritime passage through the Arctic. This route will not only lessen China’s strategic dependence on the Straits of Malacca, it will also create an entirely new maritime choke-point in the Bering Straits. Similarly, non-linear changes are now unfolding rapidly on and around the Himalayan plateau, the ‘Third Pole’ from which both India and China receive much of their water. These changes are sure to transform Sino-Indian relations in totally unpredictable ways.

In short, Daulet Singh writes as though we were still in the stable Earth of the Holocene – but alas, we are on a different planet now. It is perhaps unfair to single him out for an oversight that is all too common. But he would do well to heed the words of his fellow geostrategist, Brahma Chellaney, when he warns that security and geopolitics ‘need to be thought of differently now that we are beginning to understand the new context of the Anthropocene.’

            That being said, Powershift remains an insightful and timely re-examination of the increasingly volatile relationship between India and China. Zorawar Daulet Singh asks some important questions about India’s interests and capabilities in relation to China, and makes some sensible suggestions for de-escalation.

            Daulet Singh is right, I suspect, to suggest that entrenched attitudes within India’s strategic communities are an impediment to fresh thinking on these issues. It is to be hoped that a new generation of strategists, like Daulet Singh, will expand the discussion. This publication is itself an important step in that direction.

Amitav Ghosh

[This review appeared in The Wire on November 13, 2020]

Ben Ehrenreich’s ‘Desert Notebooks’

March 12, 2020 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

It’s been a long time since I read anything as exciting and illuminating as Ben Ehrenreich’s superb new book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2020). Very few writers have addressed the current planetary crisis as powerfully and insightfully.

Ehrenreich’s book is extraordinary as much for the rigor of its thinking as for the manner of its writing; its form both narrates and performs the crisis, while also exploring its antecedents. It is, among other things, a remarkable venture in intellectual history, especially in its juxtaposition of the pre-Columbian mythologies of the Americas with the post-Enlightenment mythologies of progress that remade the continents.

“Before it was anything else,” writes Ehrenreich, “the doctrine of progress was a theory of white supremacy… a cocksure expression of what even then was a highly parochial and amnesiac variety of chauvinism, a way of celebrating European dominance by anchoring it in time, and rendering Europe, and specifically Bourbon France, the very apotheosis of human achievement.”(211)

Desert Notebooks is also an extended meditation on the very nature of writing and thought, words and images, and their relationship with a world in torment. This is a powerful, urgently necessary examination of the civilizational roots of the planetary crisis.

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar

December 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Megha Mazumdar’s soon-to-be published A Burning is the best debut novel I have come across in a long time. In telling the story of a young Muslim girl whose life is undone by a single social media post, it creates a kaleidoscope of contemporary urban India, with its internet-driven hysteria, religious fanaticism, rampant corruption, poisoned air, random violence, enraged mobs and pervasive misogyny. The interconnected stories seem to leap from the headlines and the picture is often horrifying – yet somehow Mazumdar also succeeds in capturing the boundless energy and starry-eyed hopefulness of the country’s youth. A Burning signals the arrival of a new voice of immense talent and promise.

US: Knopf, June 2, 2020
India: Hamish Hamilton, June 2020.
Canada: McClelland & Stewart, June 2, 2020
UK: Scribner, January 2021

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