Archive for May, 2011

Foreign Devil

May 19, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Top-hatted, tail-coated temple guardian, Phnom Penh, 1993.

Henry Mayhew

May 18, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Henry Mayhew was the Studs Terkel of the 19th century: I find his ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ (published 1851) more interesting even than Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. Particularly striking are Mayhew’s accounts of the lives of the city’s street vendors (costermongers).

‘Only one-tenth – at the outside one-tenth – of the couples living together and carrying on the costermongering trade, are married… Of the rights of ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ children the costermongers understand nothing, and account it a mere waste of money and time to go through the ceremony of wedlock when a pair can live together, and be quite as well regarded by their fellows, without it. The married women associate with the unmarried mothers of families without the slightest scruple. There is no honour attached to the marriage state, and no shame to concubinage. Neither are the unmarried women less faithful to their ‘partners’ than the married; but I understand that, of the two classes, the unmarried betray the most jealousy.’ [22]

‘The dancing rooms are the places where matches are made up. There the boys go to look out for ‘mates’, and sometimes a match is struck up the first night of the meeting, and the couple live together forthwith. The girls at these dances are all the daughters of costermongers, or of persons pursuing some other course of street life. Unions take place when the lad is about 14. Two or three out of 100 have their female helpmates at that early age; but the female is generally a couple of years older than her partner. Nearly all the costermongers form such alliances as I have described, when both parties are under twenty. One reason why these alliances are contracted at early ages is, that when a boy has assisted his father, or any one engaging him, in the business of a costermonger, he knows that he can borrow money, and hire a shallow or a barrow – or he may have saved 5 shillings – “and then if the father vexes him or snubs him,” said one of my informants, “he’ll tell his father to go to h__l, and he and his gal will start on their own account.”’ [23]

Mekong Journals – Jan 9, 2003

May 17, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a young research scholar specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas (including of course, the Sundarbans, which is why it figures prominently in The Hungry Tide).


A New Zealander by birth, Isabel Beasley was a student of the eminent Australian cetologist Helene Marsh: she got her Ph.D. a few years later and is now one of the world’s leading authorities on river dolphins.





The expedition consisted of some half-dozen people, including Isabel, myself, and a few Cambodian researchers and boatmen. Traveling in a narrow skiff, we made our way upriver to the border of Laos, from Kratie (pronounced Kra-cheh), a sleepy, picturesque little town in eastern Cambodia. From sunrise to sunset we watched the river, and at night we slept in small riverside hamlets.


It was an extraordinary experience, and, as is my habit, I kept a journal. Here is an excerpt from the entry for:



January 9, 2003.


I’m writing this as we slowly make our way through a series of ‘rapids’. The current seems very fast, and in places the water is turbulent – but apart from that the principal indication of the rocks below consists of bushes: we seem to be moving through a kind of swamp, with the whole width of the river’s surface broken by bushes. It would not be possible to cross the rapids in this season in most years, but this year the water is said to be exceptionally high. This is the reason why there are so few dolphins to be seen. Yesterday we went through four major ‘pools’ without seeing a single dolphin. From Isabel’s point of view this is very significant – because if the dolphins aren’t here, where are they? I told her that I was certain that a great discovery would be occasioned by this question. She said: ‘I hope I’m not in my sixties before I can answer it.’

The rapids extended over a mile and we are now past them, back on open water. Soon after that we stopped for lunch, at a fishing village – where they’d just caught some river fish which (Mr. Somani said) were a great delicacy. We climbed up the banks into the village, and the villagers lit a fire on which our team  roasted several fish. This, along with the packets of food we’d brought from Kratie, was our lunch.

Isabel – who doesn’t eat much apart from instant noodles and Ovaltine (anything from a packet) – looked quite sick and went away for a walk. But Mr Seng Kim, Mr Somani and I talked about many things.

After lunch, Isabel went to interview the old man of the village, taking Mr Somani along to translate. I tagged along. The old man was small and bandy-legged, with a face as wizened as a walnut. He said that in the past there were dolphins a long way up the river, but the numbers have steadily fallen. His feeling was that fishing with bombs and ‘elastic fishing’ were principally responsible for the decline. Vietnamese soldiers, in the 1979-80 period, he said, were responsible for killing a lot of fish and dolphins with bombs. Before that American bombs had also taken a heavy toll (several other villages said that American B-52s had bombed that area heavily during the war). He also said that though dolphins were never seen in his area now, he remembered seeing them when the Japanese were in the village (during the Second World War). At that time, he said, otters and elephants were also seen in these parts – but these too had not been seen there for a very long time. During the ‘Pol Pot regime’ he said, he had been sent to live in Sampot. Why? He couldn’t really think of an answer.


Ends and Beginnings

May 13, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


Today, with the Left Front being voted out in West Bengal, after thirty-four years in power, there is much being said about the bloodletting at Singur and Nandigram and how those events spelled the beginning of the end. But the genealogy of those two events goes directly back to the Sundarbans, when thousands of impoverished refugees from Bangladesh were evicted from the island of Morichjhãpi, with great violence: how many lives were lost we will perhaps never know. That was in 1979 and it was not an end but a beginning.

I am reminded of Nilima, in The Hungry Tide, talking about Nirmal: “…ever since his retirement, my husband, having little else to do, has chosen to involve himself in the fate of these settlers, in Morichjhãpi. He does not believe that a government such as the one we have now would act against them. He is an old leftist, you see, and unlike many such, he truly believed in those ideals; many of the men who are now in power were his friends and comrades. My husband is not a practical man; his experience of the world is very limited. He does not understand that when a party comes to power, it must govern, it is subject to certain compulsions. I am afraid that if he learns of what is going to happen he will not be able to cope with the disillusionment, it will be more than he can bear.”

Some of those words have the sound of a warning: “when a party comes to power, it must govern, it is subject to certain compulsions…”




from my Agha Shahid Ali journal

May 12, 2011 in Journals | Comments (0)


The death of the poet, Agha Shahid Ali, was a terrible loss – for poetry, for Kashmir, and for me personally for he was a close friend.

Nine months before his death (he died on Dec 8, 2001) he had asked me to write about him: this resulted in my essay The Ghat of the Only World. In writing the essay I drew upon notes made in the last months of Shahid’s life. Yesterday, while rummaging through my archives, I came upon that notebook.

Here is an entry from mid-May 2001, almost exactly ten years ago:


‘Yesterday Shahid told a story about his family’s origins. His earliest known ancestors to settle in Kashmir were two brothers who came from Central Asia. They were poor – they possessed so little that they had to manage by sharing a single cloak between them. To earn a living they set up a stall on a river-bank – they were both hakims in Yunani medicine. It so happened that the then Maharajah of Kashmir had developed a terrible stomach-ache – some kind of colic. All the kingdom’s doctors had tried but no one had been able to cure him. So the two brothers decided to try their hand. They gave the Maharajah a concoction that brought him sudden (and explosive) relief. The Maharajah was so happy he made the two brothers his court physicians. And thus began the family’s rise to prosperity.

‘“So you see,” Shahid said, “my family’s fortunes were founded on a fart!”’


Shahid is still so vividly alive, in the memories of all who knew him, that it is hard to believe that so much time has gone by since his death.

India’s Birthplace

May 11, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Geology is full of surprises. Who would have guessed, for example, that the undersea feature that marks the birthplace of the Indian subcontinent would be named after a brand of beer? But so it is.

India began its northward journey a mere 83 million years ago, when it was torn from its neighbours to the west by the opening of the Carlsberg Ridge: it was this event that launched the subcontinent on its solo voyage towards its present resting place. The ridge was named after the Danish brewing company that funded its exploration (this is true and can be googled!).

The opening of the Carlsberg Ridge was a very recent development: it came about well after the breaking up of Pangaea; well after the separation of South America and Africa and well into the age of dinosaurs. Of all the major sections of the earth’s continental crust, the Indian subcontinent was the latecomer. But once it began its journey, India moved quicker than any landmass ever had before; it was the hare among the tortoises of the earth’s surface. Halfway along, its tectonic plate attained the astonishing speed of sixteen centimetres per year – a remarkably rapid rate of advance, being almost eight times quicker than that of the Pacific plate today.

As it travelled the subcontinent wrote a detailed log of its journey and stored it in the archive of the ocean floor’s magnetic anomalies. This record tells us that at first India’s trajectory was in an easterly direction: in other words, when it first broke free of Africa and Madagascar, its northern prow was pointing in the direction of southern China. But then, 35 million years ago, another great fissure, the Chagos Fault, opened between India and Australia, and this in turn was torn apart by a series of transform faults. This stairway of cracks changed the course of India’s journey, turning it in a northwesterly direction, pointing it towards the soft underbelly of Asia’s pliable crust.

What would have happened if the subcontinent had kept traveling on its original course? There are so many possibilities…

In the meanwhile maybe someone should start agitating to rename the Carlsberg Ridge. I can see the headlines: ‘Beer Stains Birthplace of Mother India!’ ‘Furore in Lok Sabha!’

Bird Prevents Ship Murder

May 10, 2011 in Lascari tales,Uncategorized | Comments (0)


A tale of a lascar and an unidentifiable bird: the ‘minka’ mentioned in the news report was probably a ‘myna’.


From, The Washington Post, Feb 20, 1908.


Dateline: New York, Feb 19, 1908.


Bird Prevents Ship Murder


‘Hi! Hi! Hi! Look at ‘em ye lubbers,’ shrieked a voice from the bridge of the Inbrafamba as she made her way through the waters of the Mediterranean.


‘Look at the knife,’ was the next shriek. It was the shriek of a bird, a strange bird from Japan, with a fairly good English education and an observant eye.


A dozen Lascars beneath the bridge heard the shriek and knew it was a warning from the minka. Within a yard of them, unnoticed save by the minka, was a crazed sailor, another Lascar, armed with a long weapon, half knife, half sword. Another instant and some one would have gone down before the maniac’s blow.


Mara Binmohab, who had been a prime favourite with the minka, had become insane. The bird, which is as black as a raven or crow, and distinguishable from either only by a yellow circlet around the throat, saw him crawling toward the group beneath the bridge. With eyes fixed on him the bird watched every movement and shrieked the warning just in time to save life.


Capt. Evans and Chief Officer Charles Charters, who were on the bridge with the minka, then took a hand, and, revolver in hand, began pursuing the pursuer. Round the deck they went until at last the man made a dash for the bridge. Then a body shot through the air, there was a splash and a shriek, and then the mocking laugh of the minka as it called out ‘look at him’. But the Lascar had gone out of sight forever.


The Bhukailash Rajbari, Kolkata

May 9, 2011 in Favourite Places | Comments (33)


This is the seat of one of Bengal’s oldest zamindaris. The grounds are right in the crowded heart of Kidderpore, which is a blessing in a way, for it makes the place very difficult to find.




Many Bhojpuri-speaking people live in the surrounding area and the atmosphere is reminiscent of Benares.  Outside Kidderpore very few people seem to know about the Bhukailash Rajbari.



Leaping dolphin: Goa

May 8, 2011 in Snapshots | Comments (1)





This snapshot was taken near Aswem, Goa, on a fine February morning in 2010. It is actually a freeze frame from a Flip recording. The dolphin did several complete somersaults. It was an amazing show, with several other members of the pod joining in.


A house in the Sundarbans

May 7, 2011 in Snapshots | Comments (10)



This being the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth, it feels propitious to have chanced upon this photograph now. The picture is of the little house that Tagore stayed in when he went to visit Gosaba, in the Sundarbans, in December 1932. The house was built especially for him by Sir Daniel Hamilton, the Scottish shipping magnate who founded the settlement. Note the little stilts: Sir Daniel’s own house in Gosaba was also built on stilts, and there are many who believe that this feature is responsible for the preservation of these structures. The Sundarbans are a famously cyclone-prone area and Gosaba has been hit many times by storms of extreme violence: while many, apparently more solid, buildings were swept away, these fragile wooden structures somehow withstood the winds. The theory goes that the gap between the earth and the floor allows the winds to pass through without causing serious structural damage.




Sir Daniel had many odd and interesting ideas  (some might call him a visionary crackpot).  He envisaged Gosaba as an agricultural (and educational) co-operative and Tagore was influenced by his ideas. In a 1930 letter to Sir Daniel, Tagore wrote: ‘I have not much faith in politicians when the problem is vast needing a complete vision of the future of a country like India entangled in difficulties that are enormous. These specialists have the habit of isolating politics from the large context of national life and the psychology of the people and of the period. They put all their emphasis upon law and order, something which is external and superficial and ignore the vital needs of the spirit of the nation…’ [from Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, p. 382 – by an interesting co-incidence the letter is addressed to Sir Daniel Hamilton at Dartington Hall in Devon, England, where a huge Tagore Festival is being held this year].


My father’s ‘middle-elder-brother’ (my ‘mejojethamoshai’) was the last manager of the Hamilton estate in Gosaba – thus arose my own connection with the Sundarbans. I was especially close to one of my uncle’s sons, Subroto Ghosh. ‘Kajolda’, as we called him, was much older than me: he grew up in Gosaba in the 1940s and ‘50s, and was radicalized by the extreme poverty of the area. He became a political activist and broke with his father. After getting into trouble with the authorities, he somehow ended up in Berlin, in the 1960s – he used to tell wonderful stories about marching in demonstrations with Daniel Cohn-Bendit (known as ‘Danny the Red’ to people of my vintage – he has since become ‘Danny the Green’ and is a leader of the Green Party).


For many years Kajolda ran a little souvenir shop in Berlin. But he wasn’t much of a businessman and people sometimes took advantage of his generosity. The shop failed, but Kajolda lived on in Berlin, in a little room in Charlottenburg. When the weather permitted he would walk down to a little park where retired migrants gathered, mainly Turkish, and tell stories in German about the Sundarbans and the Sixties. He was eccentric in the way of solitary men, but he was also kind-hearted and good-natured: what’s more, he was a wonderful story-teller. When book tours took me to Germany I spent a lot of time with him: I think this picture was taken when the German translation of The Glass Palace was released.









Some years ago Kajolda came to Kolkata on a visit and we went to Gosaba together: he had not been back in some fifty years. It was a moving occasion, and I remember vividly that he especially wanted to visit the house that Tagore had lived in. That was when I took the picture above.


Kajolda died in 2009.

ucuz ukash