Archive for April, 2011

Old Montreal

April 30, 2011 in The View | Comments (1)













Le Morne Brabant, Mauritius

in Favourite Places | Comments (1)

Le Morne Brabant marks the south-western corner of Mauritius. It is a World Heritage Site, for reasons that are explained at:


Encounters: Gore Vidal in Montreal

in Encounters | Comments (3)



Encounters: Gore Vidal at Montreal


Gore Vidal’s Julian is one of the finest epistolary novels I’ve ever read. Listening to him in Montreal, I reverted to the habits of my journalistic days and took out my notebook:


“Better to expect bad behaviour than to be surprised by it.”


“If you expect the worst you’re never going to be disappointed by the United States.”


“Obama is one of the better Presidents of recent times; much brighter than the people he is obliged to represent.”


On Truman Capote: “He was a compulsive liar which made him very popular in the United States. Our journalists think lying is the ultimate truth.”


On Jackie Onassis: “Consanguinity requires me to talk of relatives only in guarded terms as they all have numerous lawyers.”


“Cemeteries are the most beautiful things in America; I know more people in them than outside.”





April 27, 2011 in Letters | Comments (1)



I am not very good with the Internet, and have only recently figured out how to put up my own posts (and that too with a great deal of help from my Webmaster). Yet I have to admit that my website,, has, over the years, evolved into an enormously valuable resource. Countless film-makers, writers, researchers, translators and others have contacted me through the site and many of them have since become regular correspondents and good friends.

Through the site I also receive many interesting, entertaining and surprising letters. One such is a letter I received a couple of weeks ago (I have changed certain details to protect the writer’s identity):

My correspondent writes: “I was greatly impressed by Sea of Poppies because I was manager of the (Ghazipur) opium factory from 196- to 196- and then Asst. Commissioner Narcotics U.P. ( commissioner is based in Gwalior). Your writings on the factory and opium growing in U.P. are realistic and reminded me of the days spent in factory and opium fields. Earlier I was Asst Commissioner of Customs Calcutta and it was touching to read of the Hoogly…”

I had never imagined that my description of the Ghazipur Opium Factory would be confirmed by someone who had actually served as its manager, and that too only a few decades ago! My description of the factory in Sea of Poppies is based partly on an account published by J.W.S. MacArthur, who was one of my correspondent’s predecessors as manager, more than a century before (MacArthur’s book Notes On An Opium Factory was published by  Thacker, Spink, in Calcutta in 1865.)

My description was based also on a volume of etchings of the opium factories of Patna and Ghazipur, made by a British artist in the 1860s. These sources presented a pretty complete picture of the factory as it was in the 19th century. In more recent times the factory has been inaccessible to visitors, but the American historian Peter Ward Fay was able to visit it in the 1950s and left a detailed account of it in his book The Opium War: 1840-42.

Only after the publication of Sea of Poppies was I to discover that the factory had been visited and photographed even more recently, in the 1970s, by Pablo Bartholomew. Looking at his pictures I discovered, to my astonishment, that the processes of production today are not much different from those described by MacArthur.

The interested reader will find some of Pablo Bartholomew’s pictures at:

In the meanwhile my correspondent has also sent me some accounts of his adventures as Asst. Commissioner of Narcotics. I look forward to reading them!


Amitav Ghosh

April 27, 2011

Current Reading: Gabriella De Ferrari’s ‘Gringa Latina’

April 22, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

As a schoolboy I was fascinated by the Atacama desert, partly because of the music of the name, and partly because my geography textbook declared it to be the driest place on earth. What would life in such a place be like? I had no inkling until I read Gabriella De Ferrari’s uniquely evocative memoir: Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds.

Although the book is indeed a story of a journey, from South America to Europe and the United States, it is centred mostly on the first of the two worlds of the subtitle: this is the town of Tacna, in Peru, which sits upon the northern tip of the Atacama desert. Gringa Latina reveals Tacna to be a completely unexpected kind of place: the stretches of sand that surround it are rich in mineral deposits, and as a consequence the town is home to many enterprising immigrants. Despite its remoteness it is strangely urbane (the fountain in the main square was designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel); even though it hardly ever rains, its markets are well-stocked and its kitchens produce mouth-watering fare. That such a place should be peopled by unusual characters; that its walls should hide many intriguing secrets, is perhaps only to be expected – but that these people, and their pasts, should linger in the reader’s memory is a tribute not just to Tacna, but to the warmth and skill with which the town is brought to life on these pages.

Gringa Latina is a wonderful book, about an extraordinary journey, and it is written with a charm and openness that make it a delight to read. Here are a couple of memorable paragraphs:

I still remember the rains of 1956. So much water came down that the gringo Cooper’s plane could not land. For more than a week we were cut off from the world. When the rain stopped, the thin dust that was usually suspended in the desert air was gone, and everything shone with extraordinary vividness. The pale pink adobe walls of the houses turned a deep salmon shade, and the dusty palm trees glowed a brilliant green. The smell of wet adobe saturated the air with an unfamiliar earthiness, which mingled with the scent of jasmine. The wet ground felt unnaturally soft beneath our feet. Everything seemed refreshed.

A true miracle took place in the desert. The vast landscape, which had been barren and brown, was covered by a mantle of lavender-pink flowers. It was soft and lush, and every day for as long as the flowers lasted my parents took us to roll in them, just as my children rolled in the soft just-fallen snow of the New England winter.

From: Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds by Gabriella De Ferrari

Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995.

Amitav Ghosh

April 22, 2011

Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds

In A Writer’s Garden

April 16, 2011 in Encounters | Comments (3)

With Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Gardening was one of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s passions. I visited the great Indonesian writer at his home in Jakarta in 1997, nine years before his death.


He was so good-humoured, and laughed so easily, that it was hard to believe that he had spent many years of his life in a prison camp.

Posada de Coloane

April 10, 2011 in Favourite Places | Comments (3)

A small posada (inn) on the beach, a world away from the casinos and skyscrapers of Macau. It serves some of the best Macahnese food in the city and the views are spectacular. The owner, Mary Ng, was born in India, and is from Calcutta’s Chinese community.

view from the terrace
The Posada from the beach
The terrace

Amitav Ghosh
April 11, 2011

‘Em and The Big Hoom’ by Jerry Pinto

in Current Reading | Comments (8)

Em and the Big Hoom

(unpublished ms)
Jerry Pinto
Having followed Jerry Pinto’s work for many years I’ve long believed that he would one day produce a great book. Two years ago, when he promised to send me a manuscript I wondered whether that day might not be at hand. But the manuscript never came and nor was any mention made of it again. Then, a couple of days ago, there it was.
‘Em and The Big Hoom’ is the story of a boy growing up in Mumbai with a mentally afflicted mother (she is the ‘Em’ of the title; ‘The Big Hoom’ is the father). Whether it is a memoir or a bildungsroman I do not know and I don’t think it particularly matters. What is important is that it is utterly persuasive and deeply affecting: stylistically adventurous it is never self-indulgent; although suffused with pain it shows no trace of self-pity. Parts of it are extremely funny, and its pages are filled with endearing and eccentric characters. It also gives us vivid glimpses of rarely-seen facets of Mumbai life: the world of Goan Catholics; of the city’s institutions for the mentally ill; of children who read Adorno and Brendan Behan while coping with a suicidal parent…
‘Em and The Big Hoom’is a profoundly moving book: I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this. I don’t know what Jerry’s plans for it are, but I hope it appears soon and has the success it deserves. In the meanwhile, as a foretaste, here are a few paragraphs.
One day, under the huge mango tree that stood in the schoolyard, with a bunch of schoolboys standing around me, mocking me for being the son of a mad woman, I thought suddenly and automatically: “I want to go home.” And then I thought as suddenly, “I don’t want to go home.” I remember thinking, “If I go on like this, I will go mad.” I tried not to think too much about home, as a concept, after that.
But each time Em came home, we all hoped, for a little while, that the pieces of the jigsaw would fall into place again. Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother. Four Pintos, somewhat love-battered, still standing.
I grew up being told that my mother had a nervous problem. Later, I was told it was a nervous breakdown. Then we had a diagnosis, for a brief while, she was said to be schizophrenic and was treated as one. And finally, everyone settled down to calling her manic depressive. Through it all, she had only one word for herself: mad.
Mad is an everyday, ordinary word. It is compact. It fits into songs. As the old Hindi film song had it, M-A-D mane paagal. It can become a phrase, “Maddaw-what?” which began life as “Are you mad or what?”. It can be everything you choose it to be: a mad whirl, a mad idea, a mad March day, a mad heiress, a mad mad mad mad world, a mad passion, a mad hatter, a mad dog…
But it is different when you have a mad mother. Then the word wakes up from time to time and blinks at you, eyes of fire. But only sometimes for we used the word casually ourselves, children of a mad mother. There is no automatic gift that arises out of such a circumstance. If sensitivity or gentleness came with such a genetic load, there would be no old people in mental homes.”
Amitav Ghosh
April 11, 2011

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