Archive for September, 2011

Echoes of Goa: São Paulo, Brazil

September 13, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (5)


Yesterday, at São Paulo University, met Prof. Dr. Lynn Mario T. Menezes de Souza.

His is a fascinating history of travel. His family hails from Salvador do Mundo in Goa (he is a ‘gaonkar’), but he grew up in Aden and was sent to boarding school in England. His was a very left-wing family (in the US he’d be called a ‘red-diaper baby’) and his political interests took him to Mozambique. Things didn’t work out as envisioned (do they ever?) and he decided to visit Brazil. He fell in love with the country and has been teaching literature in the Departamento de Letras Modernas in the Universadade de São Paulo for many years.

He told me about a novel about Goa, Os Bramanes, that was written in Portuguese by a Goan in the 19th century. He says it is regarded as a masterpiece. Unfortunately it has not been translated. I looked on the Net and could find nothing on it in English.

Considering how many writers – and Portuguese speaking writers, at that – there are in Goa, it is amazing – shocking! – that the book has not been translated yet. I hope someone is listening…




Delhi in the 1980s

September 12, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

In response to my post of September 9 (on the recent bombing of the High Court) Shernaz Italia writes from Delhi:


‘The terror of the 80s … I had forgotten.  Thinking back I know it felt different somehow. There was no means of instant communication, as you rightly pointed out. I remember being stuck in the Taj Palace hotel for two days after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. I was working on a feature film on Mountbatten as a production office runner, and could not get home to CP because of the riots. I just about managed to call my parents before their phone went dead and had to hope they were ok by the time I could get back.

The relentless media onslaught was not there either. There were still some responsible journalists who were judicious with words, judicious with time, and caring of sentiment of those affected. I knew it had changed forever when the person who had taken over an international news bureau in 1994 said to me – “I’m here for prime time news on the domestic network; unless over a hundred thousand die, I’d rather spend my afternoon playing golf”.
So who do you turn to? Finally it is only the common man who will lend a hand.’

September 11, 2001

September 11, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



In 1999, soon after moving to the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, my wife and I were befriended by Frank and Nicole De Martini, a couple whose lives were closely twinned with the towers of the World Trade Center. Both Frank and Nicole are architects. As Construction Manager of the World Trade Center, Frank’s offices were on the 88th floor of Tower 1. Nicole is an employee of the engineering firm that built the World Trade Center, Leslie E. Robertson Associates. Hired as a ‘surveillance engineer’, she was a member of a team that conducted year-round structural integrity inspections of the twin towers. Her offices were on the 35th floor of Tower 2.

Frank is forty-nine, sturdily-built, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair and deeply-etched laugh lines around his eyes. His manner is expansively avuncular and nothing pleases him more than when the conversation turns to a subject on which he can offer his expert advice. For Frank, the twin towers were both a livelihood and a passion: he would speak of them with the absorbed fascination with which poets sometimes speak of Dante’s canzones. Nicole is forty-two, blonde and blue-eyed, with a gaze that is at once brisk and friendly. She was born in Basel, Switzerland, and met Frank while studying design in New York. They have two children, Sabrina, 10, and Dominic, 8, who are unusually well-matched with mine, in age, gender and temperament: it was through our children that we first met.

Frank and Nicole’s relationship with the World Trade Center was initiated by the basement bomb explosion of 1993. Shortly afterwards, Frank was hired to do bomb damage assessment. An assignment that he had thought would last only a few months, turned quickly into a consuming passion. “He fell in love with the buildings,” Nicole told me. “For him they represented an incredible human feat; he was awed by their scale and magnitude, by the innovative design features, and by the efficiency of the use of materials. One of his most-repeated sayings about the towers is that they were built to take the impact of a light airplane.”

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Frank and Nicole dropped their children off at their school, in Brooklyn Heights, and then drove on to the World Trade Center. Traffic was light and they arrived unexpectedly early, so Nicole decided to go up to Frank’s office for a quick cup of coffee. It was about a quarter past eight when they reached Frank’s office. A half hour later Nicole pushed back her chair and stood up to go. She was on her way out the door, when the walls and the floor suddenly heaved under the shock of a massive impact. Franks’ office commanded a panoramic southwards view, looking towards the Statue of Liberty and the harbour. Now, through the thick plates of glass, she saw a wave of flame bursting out overhead, like a torrent spewing from the floodgates of a dam. The blast was clearly centered on the floor directly above: she assumed that it was a bomb. Neither she nor Frank were unduly alarmed: very few people knew the building’s strength and resilience better than they. They assumed that the worst was over and the structure had absorbed the impact: it was now a question of coping with the damage. Sure enough, within seconds of the initial tumult, a sense of calm descended on their floor. Frank herded Nicole and a group of some two dozen other people into a room that was relatively free of smoke. Then he went off to scout the escape routes and stairways. Minutes later he returned to announce that he had found a stairway that was intact: they could reach it fairly easily, by climbing over a pile of rubble.

The bank of rubble that barred the entrance to the fire escape was about knee-high. Just as she was about to clamber over, Nicole saw that Frank was hanging back. She stopped beside him and begged him to come with her, imploring him to think of the family. He shook his head and told her to go on, without him. There were people on their floor who’d been hurt by the blast, he said; he would follow her down as soon as he had helped the injured on their way. She could tell that she would have no success in swaying her husband; his belief in the building was absolute; he was not persuaded that the structure was seriously harmed – nor for that matter was she, but now she could only think of her children. She joined the people in the stairway while Frank stayed behind to direct the line.

Frank must have gone back to the Port Authority offices shortly afterwards for he  made a call from his desk at about nine o’ clock. He called his sister Nina on West 93rd street in Manhattan and said: ‘Nicole and I are fine. Don’t worry.’

Nicole remembers the descent as quiet and orderly. The evacuees went down in single file, leaving room for the firemen who were running in the opposite direction. All along the way, people helped each other, offering water and support to those who needed them. On every floor, there were people to direct the evacuees and there was never any sense of panic. In the lower reaches of the building there was even electricity. The descent took about half an hour, and on reaching the plaza Nicole began to walk in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. She was within a few hundred feet of the Bridge when the first tower collapsed. “It was like the onset of a nuclear winter,” she recalls. “Suddenly everything went absolutely quiet and you were in the middle of a fog that was as blindingly bright as a snowstorm on a sunny day.”

It was early evening by the time Nicole reached her home in Fort Greene. She had received calls from several people who had seen Frank on their way down the fire escape, but he had not been heard from directly. Their children stayed with us that night while Nicole sat up with Frank’s sister Nina, waiting by the telephone. It was decided that the children would not be told anything until there was more news.

Next morning, Nicole decided that her children had to be told that there was no word of their father. Both she and Nina were calm and perfectly collected when they arrived at our door; although they had not slept all night, neither their faces nor their bearing betrayed the slightest sign of what they had lived through. Nicole’s voice was grave but unwavering as she spoke to her children about what had happened the day before. I was awed by her courage: it seemed to me that this example of everyday heroism was itself a small victory – if such could be imagined – over the unspeakable horror the city had witnessed the day before.

The children listened with wide-eyed interest, but soon afterwards they went back to their interrupted games. A little later, my son came to me and whispered: “Guess what Dominic’s doing?”

“What?” I said, steeling myself.

“He’s learning to wiggle his ears.”

This was, I realised, how my children – or any children, for that matter – would have responded: turning their attention elsewhere, during the age that would pass before the news began to gain purchase in their minds.

At about noon we took the children to Fort Greene Park. It was a bright, sunny day and the children were soon absorbed in riding their bicycles and scooters. In the meanwhile, my wife Deborah and I sat on a shaded bench and spoke with Nicole. “An hour passed between the blast and the fall of the building,” she said. “Frank could easily have got out in that time. The only thing I can think of is that he stayed back to help with the evacuation. Nobody knew the building like he did and he must have thought he had to do it.”

Nicole paused. “I think it was only because Frank saw me leave, that he decided that he could stay,” she said. “He knew that I would be safe and the kids would be looked after. That was why he felt he could go back to help the others. He loved the towers and had complete faith in them. Whatever happens, I know that what he did was his own choice.”


Amitav Ghosh

This article was first  published in the The New Yorker’s, ‘Talk of the Town: Sept 11’, section on Sept 24, 2001.

Piranha Stew

September 10, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



The Espirito Santa restaurant in Rio de Janeiro is like none  I have ever experienced.








It sits high on a slope








and commands spectacular views.



It is in the Santa Teresa section of the city, a recently bohemianized neighbourhood, with winding roads





and tram tracks that corkscrew down steep, cobbled streets.





The houses are small and brightly coloured,



and some of them give the impression of having lain long abandoned.





A favela sprawls over a nearby hill



and in years past there was a great deal of violence and crime. But, largely because of the approaching World Cup (2014) and Olympic Games (2016) things are changing again. Galleries, restaurants and bars have mushroomed along the winding streets of Santa Teresa, and at night crowds of visitors flock in from other parts of the city. This has inspired many ambitious young chefs to start new restaurants in the area – the Espiritu Santa is one such.



Here are some of the offerings listed on the restaurant’s  menu:


– Deep-fried coalho cheese ‘poppers’ served with açai chutney

– Terrine of tambaqui fish served with cupuaçu chutney

– Rice made with jambu, tucupi (a sauce made from the manioc root) and shrimp.








Who could resist a dish called ‘Mujica de Piranha’ (Piranha stew thickened with manioc flour)? And, somewhat to my surprise, it was superb, delicate in flavour and redolent of unfamiliar spices.













The fried fish ‘ribs’ provided an excellent counterpoint to the soup: crisp outside and succulent within.












But best of all  was the ‘Namorado de Cabreça’ (filet of tucumare served with a sauce of tucupi and nut flavoured rice): a sublime union of contrasting tastes and textures.










We were taken to the restaurant by Felipe Maciel



who works with Alfaguara, my Brazilian publishers)








The owner of the restaurant, Chef Natasha is a friend of his.



She is from Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon region: she has made it her mission to introduce the products and cuisine of that area to the rest of Brazil.







In a city of breath-taking vistas




and famous landmarks like the monumental statue of Christ the Redeemer


Christo Redentor


and Sugar Loaf Mountain












Espirito Santa is destined I think to become a destination of another sort.


The bomb in New Delhi

September 9, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



No matter whether it is dropped by an airborne drone or planted by a man on a bicycle, a bomb’s effects are felt not only by those who are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity at the time of the explosion, but also, to some degree, by everyone who has ever passed that way.

Having lived many years in Delhi I have often passed the spot where the bomb of September 7 was detonated; many of my friends in the city still regularly pass that way. The news of the bomb thus had the effect of transporting me not just in space, but also time, to the Delhi of the 1980s when bomb blasts, terror attacks, and riots were almost weekly events. In those days few of us had phones, so we would line up at STD/ISD booths to call our friends to make sure they were safe. Now we send e-mails – and I sent many on September 7.

The replies I received were reassuring in their stoicism. I would not have expected otherwise. Most of my Delhi friends are old enough to remember that earlier incarnation of the city; they are not easily panicked.

Decades ago, at about the same time as Delhi, London and Madrid were also coping with terror attacks. Their response was one of exemplary civic fortitude and patience. They showed the world that the best way to cope with terror is through increased vigilance, careful police work, political flexibility, and a refusal to be driven to extreme responses.

Ten years ago George Bush led the US into a response of an entirely different kind: in the eyes of some this was also an exemplary response in that it appears to have prevented another attack on American soil. To me, this is of a piece with the kind of creative accounting that was endemic to the Bush years (a procedure that played no small part in precipitating the financial crisis of 2008): it is as if the debit column had been erased from the ledger leaving only a credit column. For the debits, were they included, would have to include (to start with) tens of thousands of American casualties in the ensuing wars; hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan; a catastrophic decline in American political standing around the world; and a hemorrhaging of money that has helped push the US into a downward economic spiral.

This is why  it is astonishing to see commentators in India talking, once again, about ‘running out of patience’ and citing the US response to 9/11 as though it were a model to be followed. It is as though nothing at all had been learnt from the multiple calamities that have befallen the US, and the world, as a consequence of its reaction to the attacks of 9/11.

No doubt some commentators will also soon begin to point fingers at Pakistan – and it may well prove to be the case (although we do not know this yet) that the attack was indeed plotted by some group based in that country. But the reality is that Pakistan is now more at war with itself than with any external enemy.

It is worth recalling that on September 7 there were two things that New Delhi shared with Quetta: a place on a continuous geological fault line (Quetta suffered a devastating earthquake in 1935) and a murderous bomb blast. Both are reminders of the pointlessness of looking at events in the subcontinent in purely ‘national’ terms. The terrorists’ real enemy is neither India nor Pakistan but, pace Al-Sayyid Qutb and other jihadi theorists, the very institution of the nation-state. In this sense they are at war with institutions of governance (such as they are) in both countries and thus with the idea of citizenship itself.

Sly Company

September 6, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

Rahul Bhattacharya: The Sly Company of People Who Care, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 2011.


An account of a year in Guyana by an Indian cricket writer who was so taken by that country, on an initial sports-reporting visit, that he could not stay away. The book is not packed with incident: one of the admirable things about it is that the author is not afraid to embrace the truth of travel – which is that it is for the most part very boring. It’s the style that seizes you by the throat – alternately lyrical, abrupt, whimsical, sexy, informative, seductive and always full of surprises, most of them couched in ‘creolese’. The language works a hypnotic magic and you soon feel you’re in Guyana yourself.

This is the best travel writing I’ve read in years.

Rio de Janeiro: Churches and confeitarias

September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



Church of São Bento, 17th century



Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição e Boa-Morte, 1735



Confeitaria Colombo, 1894




















With Abraham Verghese

September 4, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (5)



at the Rio de Janeiro Book Festival




Some years ago, after reading the The Tennis Partner I wrote to Abraham Verghese to tell him how much I had appreciated the book. During our exchange of messages we talked of setting up a tennis match. Unfortunately this is never going to happen now – we have both had to cut back on tennis because of joint problems (a table tennis or badminton match however remains a real possibility).






We did an event together and Abraham had many interesting things to say about his twin careers as a doctor and writer. I had not known, for example, that it was Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage that had inspired him to study medicine.

The mention of Somerset Maugham took me by surprise: he is one of those writers who is rarely spoken of nowadays, even though he had a huge influence on readers of the generation to which Abraham and I belong, especially in Asia (I am still haunted by Maugham’s story Rain). Why do those academic critics who go on endlessly about postcolonialism, Conrad, Greene etc never utter the name ‘Maugham’? This is evidence…. of what? Better that it remain unsaid.

Abraham also said something interesting about the contrast between his medical education in India and the US. In India, he said, he had been taught to read the body as a text. In the US it was treated as something to be studied through (diagnostic) tests.

Rio de Janeiro: echoes of Goa

September 3, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)






Church and Monastery of São Bento, Don Geraldo St., 68, Downtown Rio










Interior, Monastery of São Bento












Paço Imperial











Interior Paço Imperial































Rua do Ouvidor












Arco de Telles











Travessa do Comercio










Museu Historico Nacional














Homeopathic dispensary













Santa Teresa (or Altinho?)











But nothing on earth is quite like this


Barra, Rio de Janeiro

September 1, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Barra (where the 2016 Olympics are to be held),

sometimes a bit like Miami










and sometimes reminiscent of Kolkata


ucuz ukash