Archive for November, 2011

A Roman Occupation

November 14, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



On June 14 this year a group of actors, stage-workers, writers and artists took over one of Europe’s most famous theatres: the Teatro Valle in Rome.




The Teatro Valle occupation predates the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and is not directly linked to it (but it has since made common cause with Occupations around the world). It has not received much notice outside Italy but I think its reverberations will one day be felt far beyond Europe. This movement is directly concerned with matters of culture: it embraces philosophical speculation and draws no lines between action and reflection.

Although the Teatro Valle occupation is not particularly noisy or showy, I think what is happening there is potentially of great significance. It may represent the first, necessarily hesitant, stirrings of a new way of thinking about the place of the arts in the world.




I visited the Teatro Valle on November 10 and spoke with several members of the group. Sylvia de Fanti, who speaks fluent English, told me that the occupation was originally intended to last just three days. But the initiative attracted so much attention that they decided to stay on. Now they plan to stay indefinitely.

The history of the occupation goes back to 2008, said Sylvia. It was founded in response to drastic cuts in the government’s already-diminished expenditure on culture and the arts. In the beginning the group called itself the ‘0.3 movement’, after the percentage of government expenditure that was allotted to the arts. They began to think about occupations as a means of protest soon after they came together. Then in 2010 the state-funded National Agency of Theatre was suddenly disbanded, and that too in the middle of theatre season.

‘It was clear now the strategy of the Berlusconi government,’ said Syliva. ‘To cut everything that is not for profit. Everything that is not meant for profit would be put up for sale – archives, libraries. They are running public systems into the ground so that they can privatize them. And who knows where the money would come from? In Italy black money is everywhere.’  [for more on this see also my post of Nov 9].




The government responded with derision to the first stirrings of protest. ‘You don’t eat with culture,’ said Giulio Tremonti, the Minister of Finance; his colleague, Renato Brunetta, the Minister of Culture referred to young Italians as bamboccioni – ‘the spoilt-child generation’.

Such was the background to the occupation that began on July 14, 2011. It was intended to forestall the sale of Italy’s cultural heritage by Prime Minister Berlusconi and his henchmen.




Laura Verga is



an actress and  has been involved in the movement from the start (it just so happened that she was reading Sea of Poppies in Italian!). She told me that the Teatro Valle was founded in 1727 and has long been the most important public theatre in Rome. This was where Rossini’s opera, La Cenerentola, was first performed; Pergolesi and Donizetti chose to present new works here. Pirandello’s path-breaking Six Characters in Search of an Author premiered in this theatre and caused a great commotion. The spectacle of actors speaking from the well of the theatre outraged many in the audience: the dissolution of the traditional spatial barrier between cast and audience was regarded as a scandal.





‘Pirandello broke the fourth wall of the theatre’, said Sylvia,



‘and that is exactly what we are trying to do. We are trying to create a continual dialogue – ‘occupy what is ours’ is how we speak of it. When we moved into the theatre the response from the public was so strong that we could not leave as we had planned. That was when the idea of transforming the theatre into a ‘cultural commons’ came up. After all a ‘commons’ is not a gift of nature. Water for example. In order to keep it in the commons you have to fight for it. In India you know this very well, don’t you? People there have had to fight to keep their water from being privatized.’

The occupation plans to turn the Teatro Valle into a foundation, so that performers and performances can be free of governmental interference. They hope that a law will eventually be passed to that effect.

‘But we don’t want to return to the old ‘public/private’ dichotomy,’ said Sylvia. ‘We want to invent a new ecosystem of culture, a new way of thinking about the economy. You cannot put a monetary value on culture. We don’t want rules but we do want to keep some guiding principles. We don’t want a star system in the theatre – we would like the pay of the highest and lowest actors to be proportional, not disproportional. For productions too there must be some even-ness, without money being lavished on one and taken from the other. The Italian constitution says culture must be funded by the government – we want to establish a model of a new system. We are not just against certain things – we also want to propose new things. In that sense we are proposing a revolutionary system.’With a smile she added: ‘The last line of the play I am producing today is: ‘The revolution will not be televised; the revolution will be live!’

Many new communities are emerging around the movement, Sylvia told me. ‘During the Venice Film Festival this year, we occupied a theatre in the Lido [the island where the festival is held] – the Teatro Marinoni which is on the grounds of an old hospital, the Ospedale al Mare. The theatre had been abandoned and was filled with rubbish. The whole area was going to be sold off to property speculators. We cleaned it and wrote a dossier on what was going on. We staged plays and other events there annd many of those who had come to the film festival came to be with us – David Byrne, Darren Oronofsky and others. It was probably more fun for them to be with us than to go to some boring official event. [I was aware of a twinge of envy – in 2001, when I served on the Venice jury, there were no ‘Occupations’ and no escape from official tamashas].

Laura interjected: ‘Calvino says in his Invisible Cities that the three places you have to go to first, when you visit a new city, are the church, the market and the theatre. These are the most important public places. At the beginning of the 18th century the theatre was open from 2 in the afternoon till 2 at night. The theatre must be open always.’

In keeping with this credo the occupation organizes events through the day – seminars, lectures, readings and performances. It has quickly established itself as one of Rome’s most important cultural venues. The evening events are so popular that the queues frequently extend far beyond the theatre, winding through the surrounding streets and lanes. Many university teachers give freely of their time, holding seminars and classes. Some deal with ecological and economic issues, but there is also a great emphasis on stories and story-telling. One of the best-attended seminars is called ‘Narratives of the Present’.

Andea Barranes, was one of the many who turned up at the theatre that afternoon.



He is an economist who works with the ‘Campaign to Reform the World Bank’. [I had a long and interesting conversation with him, on Italy’s financial crisis, but that will have to wait for a later post – in the meanwhile here is one of the websites with which he is associated].








Also present was Sylvia Gallerano,



an actress who has played the lead in an Italian adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi. She told me that Mahasweta-di had attended one of her performances and had liked it so much that she had given her a big hug afterwards. ‘I will never forget that hug,’ she said [in this, of course, she differs not a whit from anyone who has ever been hugged by Mahasweta-di].









Later Laura took me on a tour of the lovely old theatre.








On stage a seminar was in progress.



It was led by a philosopher, Frederica Giardini, and the subject under discussion was the de-colonization of language.

This surprised me. ‘But Italy was never a colony, was it?’ I said. ‘At least not in the same way as India or Morocco?’






Laura explained that they were talking about freeing language from the influence of marketing and corporate power. ‘Because of television and advertising people have become accustomed to words that have no meaning. We want to restore the richness of our language.’





Then Laura led me backstage, into a Piranesian interior, filled with beams, ladders and ropes.














In the theatre’s early days the stagehands were mainly sailors, Laura told me. Only sailors could handle the ropes and wheels; only they could cope with the heights.









Climbing narrow staircases













we went up to the perches from which the stage equipment is operated.












Then Laura opened a door and suddenly we were outside, surrounded by Rome’s ancient rooftops.










The occupiers often climb up to that terrace at night, Laura told me. It is a wonderful place in which to dream and talk.









In Rome one is reminded at every step of the many ways in which the past nourishes, nurtures and rejuvenates the present. This is why the value of the past cannot be measured in cash: because it is value itself, in the sense that it generates the values through which people evaluate the meaning of their own lives.

To turn to those who have preceded us on this earth is perhaps our first instinct in times of confusion and crisis. And it sometimes happens that our ancestors do speak back – and if we listen carefully we can even hear their whispers, amidst the silent bones of the things they have left for us.

That is the significance of ‘Occupy Teatro Valle’: it is trying to restore an appreciation of value to a world that seems to have forgotten what it is.



[The occupation’s websites are here: blog and Facebook: Teatro Valle Occupato.]



Piazza of the Five Moons

November 12, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Anna Nadotti has translated my books and articles into Italian since 1988 (‘The Shadow Lines’ was the first).



She is a marvelous translator , one of those of whom it might be said, as Garcia Marquez said of Gregory Rabassa, that far from losing in translation the original gains something as it passes through their hands.






Following on my last post she sent me this: ‘Piazza delle Cinque Lune



takes its name from the Piccolomini palace, overlooking  the square. The family’s blazon is made of five waxing moons.’ The Piccolomini family produced two Popes; one of their ancestors figured in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’ and another was Galileo’s patron.


Anna also translates Anita Desai, A.S.Byatt and Mahasweta Devi.

Roman celebrations

November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



On Wednesday night celebrations broke out as a blizzard of text messages blew through Rome’s restaurants announcing Silvio Berlusconi’s imminent departure.




But the celebrations were premature – at the epicentre of Italian politics there was a strange emptiness and quiet.











Chamber of Deputies, Piazza Monte Citorio, Rome, Nov 9, 11 pm.




But this morning I came upon a very unusual demonstration




in the Piazza of the Five Moons.










The demonstrators were policemen from the Anti-Mafia Squad, (Direzione Investigazione Anti-Mafia or DIA).











This famous unit was founded by Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia crusader who was assassinated in 1992. The unit has had many notable successes in recent years.

Fabio Falcone


who is no relation of Giovanni Falcone (‘except for a relationship of ideas’ as he said), is the current Regional Secretary of Police Trade Unions. He explained the reasons for the demonstration: the DIA has fallen victim to budget-cutting. Its funds have been so drastically reduced that it will not be able to function properly. What is more the cuts were effected in a secretive fashion, the provisions being smuggled into an unrelated bill.








Without money the anti-Mafia unit will die, he said. And it makes no sense, even from a financial point of view, because the DIA annually confiscates billions of Euros in black money. They make back their expenses many times over and are very productive for the state.

The members of the unit (who do not look like the kind of people you would want to get on the wrong side of) feel that they have no option now but to demonstrate.











But the union’s demands are not all about funds. Fabio Falcone insisted that they were there also because they felt that the way the cuts were effected was an affront to democracy and transparency. ‘We are here for democracy’ he said.


It was interesting to hear echoes of these words in another protest, close by, staged by actors, theatre workers, writers and intellectuals.




But that will have to wait for another post….

Child abducted from tsunami refugee camp

November 9, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


Traveling to the Andamans after the 2004 tsunami I saw sights and heard stories that were almost unbearably painful (some of them are recounted in the article I wrote shortly afterwards).  A few days ago I received a reminder that for the survivors the horror is far from over. The message below contains an account of a boy, the son of an Air Force officer, who survived the tsunami but disappeared later, from a refugee camp. The family have been trying to trace the child ever since: the letter sent by his father to various government officials, asking for assistance, is posted below.

I cannot of course vouch for the facts of the case – but if any readers of this blog feel that they might be able to help they should follow this link.


Hello Amitav Ghosh,

I read your article about 2004 Tsunami Victims in Car Nicobar. It is really heart heavy and moving.

Recently, I came contact with school friend after 20yrs.  He was one of the survivor from Car Nicobar India Air Force.  He lost his son ages 12 yrs at time.  He and remain family were evacuated by AirForce.  Around May 2005, he came to know that his son was alive, when he reached Car Nicobar, the boy was abducted from the Nirmala Camp.  He is still searching for his son.  He left AirFoce job and tried all possible he can. Still he is looking for his son.

In this regards, he is looking for the photos or Video’s taken in the Nirmla Camp during Dec 26, 2004 to May 2005. That will give some more clues to locate this his son.

I am my friends look for ways to help him.

Since you have been and worked with Car Nicobar and Nirmala Camp, I am reaching out to your for suggestions, contacts and pointer to locate this missing boy.  If you know of any organization (India or Abroad)

I have attached the letter sent from with details.

I appreciate your support on this.



Jeyasankar, R




Sgt. M. Venkatraman, Air Traffic Control, Wo.413 AF Station, Tambaram, Chennai-600 059.


1) The Hon’ble Union Home Minister,
Government of India,

New Delhi.

2) The Hon’ble Union Defense Minister,
Government of India,

New Delhi.

3) The Secretary,

Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.


Sub: Tracing of my missing son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind from Nirmala School, Tsunami Relief Camp, Port Blair.

1. I was in the posted strength of Air Force Station, Carnicobar with effect from 18th April 2002. Prior to my posting at the Air Force Station, Carnicobar Island, I had served in various parts of the country including Jammu and Kashmir. I have an impeccable record in respect of my career throughout my service.

2. While this is so, during Tsunami disaster, which stuck many costal districts of India, the worst affected place was Carnicobar and other islands in Andaman and Nicobar when the .Tsunami stuck carnicobar. On 26th December 2004, my family consisting of self, my wife and two children were swept away by the tidal waves. Fortunately myself, my wife and my daughter survived the disaster. However, my only son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind was missing since then. On account of the tsunami disaster, the Air Force authorities directed all the survivors to evacuate from Air Force Carnicobar to Chennai and we had no other alternative except to leave Carnicobar on 27th December 2004. I made repeated requests to the authorities to permit me to stay back to enable me to trace out my son but it was turned down by the authorities. Since my wife and I sustained injuries and were requiring medical attention, we were constrained to leave Carnicobar on 27th December 2004 and we got ourselves admitted in the Military Hospital, Chennai. Prior to my departure on 27th December 2004, I made earnest efforts to trace out my son but it was in vain.

3. After my admission in the Military Hospital, Chennai and treatment, we were discharged. Thereafter, I was given one-month leave. During this period of one-month, I made posters of my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind with particulars of his identity, photograph among others and sent the aforesaid posters to Carnicobar and Port Blair and pasted it with contact particulars all over the island to trace out my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind but there was no information forthcoming about my son.

4. While this is so, in or around April 2005 I got reliable information that some of the missing children were sent to Kolkata for rehabilitation. I proceeded to Kolkata to search my missing son. In Kolkata I met Father Matthews George of Don Bosco Aashalayam, Kolkatta and sought his help. While I was in Kolkata I browsed the internet and from the website, I was surprised to note that at page No. 18 of the particulars mentioned therein under serial No.946 (copy enclosed for ready reference) the details of my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind was displayed. With the help of Father Matthews George I contacted Father Albinos Barla,. who was in-charge-of Nirmala School Relief camp at Port Blair. It is relevant to mention here that Father Albinos Barla was admittedly in-charge-of the relief cainp at Nirmala School Relief Camp at Port Blair. After the tsunami episode when I met Father Albinos Barla, he agreed that my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind was present in their camp at Port Blair for four days. Regarding the other details of my son. Father Albinos Barla directed me to contact Sister Phool Kumari of Nirmala School relief camp, Port Blair, who maintains the records of the victims and also the then status of my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind.

5. On 13th May 2005 I went to Nirmala school Relief Camp at Port Blair and I met Sister Phool Kumari and enquired about the details of my son and the then present status of my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind. Sister Phool Kumari informed me that under instructions from Father Albinos Barla, she handed over my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind to two unidentified persons aged about 45/50 years who appear to be Muslims and claimed themselves to be my son’s uncles. To a specific query by me whether Sister Phool Kumari has the details of the date on which my son was handed over, the details of the persons who claimed to be my son’s uncles, the residential address of the two unidentified persons, who appear to be Muslims among others I was shocked and surprised to note that Sister Phool Kumari nor Father Albinos Barla nor any of the authorities in the Nirmala School Relief Camp” premises at Port Blair ever bothered or cared to collect the basic details prior to handing over my minor son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind to two unidentified strangers, who appeared to be Muslims. I was also shocked to note that Nirmala school Relief Camp, Port Blair does not maintain any records regarding the details of the persons, who are handed over to the so called relatives.

6. Thereafter I filed a F.I.R. at the Aberdeen Bazaar Police Station, Port Blair against two unidentified persons, who kidnapped my son from the Relief Camp. The said F.I.R. is numbered as 627/2005 dated 19th May 2005 (copy of F.I.R. enclosed for ready reference). As no information was forthcoming regarding my son from any source I had no other alternative except to give advertisements in local Dailies and T.V. Channels at my cost.

7. Further I also made a representation to the Lt. Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands His Excellency Shri M.M. Lakhera. The Hon’ble Governor instructed the Inspector General of Police Andaman and Nicobar Islands by Note dated 28.4.2006 to furnish a detailed report on this case and in the event of my son not being traceable to take the help of the Central Agencies viz., Central Bureau of Investigation.

8. I submit that my son is missing since 26tl1 December 2004 and all my earnest efforts in tracing out my missing son by making a representation to the various authorities have been in vain. It is really shocking that my minor son was handed over to two unidentified persons who happen to be Muslims claiming to be my son’s uncles but actually they are strangers without even verifying the basic facts by the Nirmala School Relief Camp Authorities, Port Blair. How the relief camp authorities have not cared or bothered to collect the basic details about the two strangers is really intriguing and there appears to be a foul play in the entire matter.

9. In the above circumstances, I humbly request the Hon’ble Union Home Minister to hand over the matter to the CBI with directions to:

i) trace out my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind;

ii) trace out the two unidentified persons, who had
kidnapped my son Master V. srinivasan alias Aravind;

iii) probe the conspiracy angle by the Nirmala School
Relief Camp, Port Blair as to why the details
of the
persons, who are inside their camp are not maintained
and also the details
of the persons who claimed to be
of my son were not obtained particularly when
the person being handed over is a Minor.

10. I enclose herewith a photograph of the suspected kidnapper drawn by Police Artist who was aided by a lady Mrs. Sivagami, who last saw my son along with the unidentified persons in the first week of March 2005 at Garacharma, Port Blair and the said unidentified persons appear to be Muslims.

In the above circumstances, I humbly request the Hon’ble Union Home Minister to direct the authorities to trace out my son Master V. Srinivasan alias Aravind by handing over the entire matter to the Central Bureau of Investigation and ensure that my son is reunited with his parents for which act of kindness I shall be ever grateful to you.

Thanking you,

Yours faithfully.





More on Commissioner Lin’s descendants

November 8, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (17)



I met Celia Liu, a descendant of Commissioner Lin, at a reading in Brooklyn (see my post of October 28). She recently sent me the following message.


‘I’m sending you some family pictures.  Lin Zexu had three daughters, one married my father’s paternal great-grandfather C.S. Liu,








and another, Lin Puqing, married her cousin Shen Baozhen,




who were my father’s maternal great-grandparents.  C.S Liu went on to found the regional electrical company, and had sons who were scholars and businessmen – the photograph of him is from 1875.  Unfortunately I do not know much about this Lin sister.

The other picture is a lithograph made as a memorial of Lin Puqing and Shen Baozhen after their deaths.  Shen was an imperial official like Lin; he led Imperial troups against the Taipings, was a Minister of the Navy and was responsible for founding the Chinese naval college.  During the Taiping Rebellion, Shen was the prefect of the city of Guangxin.  While Shen was away with his troops, the city was threatened by 10,000 Taiping troops. Lin Puqing refused to leave the city, writing a plea for reinforcements to the Regional Commander in her own blood – a medium that surely emphasized the dire situation.  Shen returned to Guangxin in time and the reinforcements arrived, saving the city.
The Lin’s, Liu’s and Shen’s all lived in the same neighborhood in Fuzhou city, now called Sanfang Qixiang or three lanes seven alleys.  This neighborhood, its houses and business district have been restored in the last few years, kind of a historic Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village but in southern China and much older.  It is a strange, but picturesque island of stone, stucco and timber traditional courtyard houses and shops in a sea of concrete high-rises.   I went to Fuzhou and Fujian this past August and visited two Liu family homes and Lin Zexu’s house which is now a museum.  The Shen Baozhen house has not been restored, however some Shen descendants still live in the house and refuse to give it up to the government.’


tribute to the late Shrilal Shukla

November 7, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Here is a link to a fine tribute to the late Shrilal Shukla by Amitabha Bagchi. Shrilalji was a great writer and a delightful man: I only met him once but will never forget that evening. The world is much poorer for his loss.

Churning the Earth

November 5, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



For everyone who is perplexed by the peculiarly schizophrenic state of India’s economy, here is some good news: you will shortly be able to read a book that cuts through the hype to tell you what is going on, and where it is leading. The book is called Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, (forthcoming from Penguin India in 2012) and it is the only work I know of that provides a comprehensive account of the enormous social and environmental costs of the developments of the last fifteen years.

The writers are Aseem Shrivastava, an economist, and Ashish Kothari, a prominent environmentalist. Early in the book, they write: “Queried about his impressions of the Indian economy in recent years, a visiting overseas economist replied: ‘Imagine a puppy which is fed a special kind of diet which distorts his growth so that one of his legs grows astonishingly fast, while the other three get stunted to various degrees. Now imagine that the puppy grows into a dog of sorts, gets drunk and begins to spin around the house in ecstasy – the hangover and the diseases lying in wait…”.

Staying a little longer with this image, think of the bloated dog stamping on everything in sight with that one overgrown leg and you will have a fairly accurate idea of the picture that emerges from the book.

Churning the Earth is densely argued, and substantiated with a great deal of data. It becomes obvious fairly quickly that the story we are usually told about foreign direct investment is deeply misleading: ‘It is crucial to note the parasitic character of most of the capital inflows into India. The bulk of it is not used for real investment in the Indian economy. According to the GoI’s Economic Survey, the gap between domestic saving and domestic investment was close to zero between 2002 and 2008, suggesting that India’s investment was financed almost entirely from domestic sources. This means that the net capital inflows from abroad during these five years, amounting to over $120 billion, actually drew massive returns from India without contributing in any way to the creation of new productive capacity. What were these surplus foreign funds used for? They added to the dollar reserves of the RBI, helping finance surplus imports. India was, in effect, seduced into living beyond its means.’

The authors cite a large body of evidence to show that the figures for poverty are hugely understated and that the economic changes of the last few years have made things worse for the poor, in many important respects. ‘A very large section of India’s population is going through severe and multiple crises: food insecurity, water shortages, inadequate fuel availability, and dislocation of livelihoods with limited alternative options. In some form or the other, these have all existed prior to the current phase of globalization, and even prior to modern forms of ‘development’. But such deprivations are precisely what ‘development’ and globalization are meant to have alleviated; on the contrary, they have been exacerbated, or have stayed as severe, for many people and regions.’

The authors’ summation is alarming: ‘Even if a lot of well-meaning businessmen and policy-makers in powerful decision-making positions wish it to, the benefits of the unprecedented economic growth that India has been experiencing over most of the past decade can never trickle down to the mass of the people. Based as it fundamentally is on a “club membership” system, it will keep further enriching the already rich and fail to make any dent in poverty. Unless its pattern and direction are radically changed by conscious, collective, ecologically sensitive democratic political processes, growth will continue to be exclusive and will create more unemployment. It will continue to worsen the destructive social tensions, the growth of corruption, crime and insurgency that we have already been witnessing. It will resemble the growth of dying cancer cells rather than that of a healthy child, leading possibly to a violent dismembering of the Indian nation as we have known it.’

Ashish Kothari was at Delhi University when I was teaching there in the 1980s. I remember him as one of the brightest students ever to cross my path. He has since become an important figure in the environmental movement so it comes as no surprise that the chapters on the environment are amongst the strongest in the book. They are also the most alarming. The problems are so numerous as to be almost impossible to grasp: soil degradation, forest clearance, water insecurity, the unrestrained looting of natural resouces by corporate interests – and so on.

The authors do not neglect to point to the ecological costs of tourism. In a section called: ‘Tourism: Nothing ‘Eco’ About It,’ they write: ‘Even areas supposedly under strict protection for wildlife are not spared. Tiger reserves and other protected areas like Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Periyar, Ranthambhor, Bandipur, and Nagarahole, are ringed by resorts that put enormous pressure on the staff and facilities of the reserves, repeatedly violate both the letter and spirit of regulations meant to minimize tourism impact, and contribute virtually nothing to the upkeep of the reserves. Ironically, these are often the same areas from where villagers have been evicted or their access stopped.’

This is one matter in which they have, if anything, under-stated the case: what has happened in India (as in many parts of Africa) is that a kind of ‘ethnic cleansing’ has been effected in the name of forest conservation, with the people who live on the land being shunted out to make room for the tourist industry (for more on this see Raymond Bonner’s remarkable study of the World Wildlife Fund, At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife. New York: Knopf, 1993).

Aseem and Ashish make it clear that they have no interest in grinding the usual ideological axes. ‘This book makes an argument not just against market capitalism, in which TNCs compete for political influence and economic dominance. We stand as much against state socialism, in which nation-states compete for economic influence and political dominance. Under the competitive conditions of industrial modernity, the race towards a socialist utopia paves the way to ecological dystopia no less than the paradise dreamt by enthusiastic neo-liberals. The ecological debris left behind by the carcass of communism after its official end in 1990, stands as testimony to this observation. It is also all but inevitable that if societies and their leaders are devoted to maintaining or obtaining dominance, and power becomes the overarching value, justice and sustainability are casualties. Vulnerable populations – both within and outside a country – pay for this, often with their very lives.’

The best thing about Churning the Earth is that it is not merely an exercise in doom-saying. The last part is called : ‘Dawn: There are many alternatives’, and here the authors provide innumerable examples of small-scale initiatives that have succeeded in making things better, for people as well as the environment. Here is one example: ‘In the low-rainfall region of Zaheerabad, Andhra Pradesh, Dalit women have brought about an agricultural revolution in 75 villages. Mobilised under the banner of the Deccan Development Society, an organization started with the purpose of promoting sustainable agriculture, women’s sanghas (assemblies) have used a mix of strategies to achieve food security, economic independence, and social transformation. Organic farming and pastoralism, with a diversity of seeds and livestock, is one fulcrum of their work. Others include economical water-use, community grain reserves, celebration of biodiversity as part of cultural events and festivals, and outreach through locally generated media.’ (246)

Their conclusion: ‘We are learning that small is not just beautiful, it may be the only thing sustainable and ecological, and may be more consistent with the requirements of human freedom. If one thinks of the viability of democracy, for instance, face-to-face neighbourhood assemblies are far more conducive to it, than mass societies living off a technologically over-developed edifice of unsustainable mass production. And regionally and locally grounded economies – as opposed to globally networked ones – may be both the precondition and the result of such a grassroots democracy.’

Churning the Earth is not without its faults. The prose is often turgid and it does not help that the pages are bedeviled by the twin Shaitans of Indian publishing: abbrevations and acronyms. I will never understand why editors, even at the best houses, allow writers to use so many of these: they betoken nothing but laziness and worse still, they create the impression that the authors are writing only for the initiated, people who are already in the know. If so why bother with another such book?

I don’t for a moment doubt that Aseem and Ashish are broadly correct in their diagnoses and prognostications – yet I do think that they paint a picture that is, in some respects, too monochrome in its darkness. Take the Information Technology sector of the Indian economy for example: this is a non-polluting, knowledge-based industry; the compensation is usually fair and the working conditions are generally safe. This sector has been a godsend for hundreds of thousands of young people and it has served to decentralize economic power in India, moving it away from its traditional locations to other towns and cities. It is also a fact that the people who run this industry are on the whole much more thoughtful and socially conscious than other industrialists. I see nothing to bemoan in the success of this sector, limited though it may be: on the contrary I think it offers much cause for celebration.

In today’s India it is very rare to hear a word spoken in defence of what is often derisively called ‘the socialist era’, meaning the period between the 1950s and the late 1980s. The cheerleaders of liberalization always point to the ‘reforms’ of the early 90s as if they marked the advent of a new world, one that had no connection to the old. It does not seem to occur to them that there would be no high-tech industries in India today if not for state-supported institutions like the Institutes of Technology, all of which were founded and nurtured precisely in the ‘socialist era’. It is also remarkable that the cheerleaders of liberalization seem not to notice that the Indian sub-continent of the post-independence era offers a perfect case-study for the comparison of contrasting economic models. While India was doing boring things like creating a public sector and setting up technological institutions, Pakistan opted for a joyful embrace of a free-enterprise oriented system…

Well, that turned out nicely, didn’t it?

Aseem and Ashish offer a spirited defence of some of the policies of that earlier era: they point out for example that it is the regulatory regime of that time that has shielded India from the current recession in the West. They are certainly to be commended for swimming against the tide – but I can’t help feeling that the effort may have occluded their view of the waters as they appeared to those who were upstream at that time. They were perhaps too young to fully appreciate how dismal the outlook was in the 1970s and 80s for those of us who came of age then. There was a besetting sense of stagnation, a widespread feeling of despair. Every doorway was guarded by gatekeepers; if you didn’t have the werewithal, or the connections, to win their favour, you were locked out.

It must be acknowledged I think, even by those who are not indifferent to the ills of liberalization, that it has also led to an enormous upwelling of human energy in India. As a writer I see this most clearly in the part of the economy that I happen to be connected to: the book world. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there were hardly any bookstores; nor did people have money for books. We considered ourselves lucky if we could afford the tattered second-hand paperbacks that were sold by pavement booksellers. Publishers were very few and mostly dealt in textbooks. Translations from regional languages were difficult to find. Book readings were unheard of, as were festivals.

So greatly transformed is the Indian book world of today that it might well be on another planet: publishers abound, readership is growing exponentially, there are bookshops everywhere and every week brings news of a yet another festival – and, most of all, there has been a great outpouring of creative energy, in many languages and many different fields. I see nothing to mourn in any of this: walking into bookshops in India now, I often marvel at the contents of the shelves.

All this being said, I have no doubt that Ashish and Aseem are broadly correct, in their general description of the Indian economy and in pointing to the possibility of a bubble. I am no economist but I keep my eyes open and talk to a lot of people: I have no doubt at all that a massive bubble has already formed at the heart of the economy, in the property market. Friends in New Delhi speak of being offered fifty crore Rupees (about ten million US Dollars) for houses in middle-class neighbourhoods. Those sums would buy not one but two or three apartments in some of the most expensive parts of London and New York. Indeed a back-of-the envelope calculation suggests that the land values of a few New Delhi suburbs, put together, would exceed all of New York or London. These are of course exactly the sorts of things that used to be said of certain streets in Tokyo before the crash of the 90s.

In Mumbai the values are even higher. I know people there who inherited thriving businesses and have now lost interest in them: there is much more money locked up in the land values of their derelict old godowns than they could ever hope to generate by running their firms. You don’t have to be a businessman to know that this is not how a productive economy functions.

Where is all this money coming from? A lot of it is loot of course, siphoned off through corruption. But a significant proportion of the foreign investment that is flowing into India is probably also pouring into the property market. This is why it has become common to hear people in Delhi and Mumbai repeating the phrases that were often on American lips in the years before the crash: ‘real estate prices will never fall’ etc.

What will happen when the bubble bursts? What can be done?

You’ll have to read Churning the Earth.

letter from a soldier of the Burma campaign

November 4, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



Bagan, 1996


Dear Mr. Ghosh,

I am writing to you to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your book, The Glass Palace.

Having volunteered for the army in 1943, thinking I would be fighting the Germans, as soon as I reached the age pf 18 years I was sent abroad to India.   After some jungle training I journeyed to Shillong in Assam to become a member of the 36th British Division.   From Ledo we flew into Burma, landing at Michikinia airport.

Marching down the railway line in the Mogong valley, via Mogok, we ended up in Mandalay, camping by the moat that surrounded Fort Duffrin.   I had, on occasion, to go one top of the Fort and had to go down the steep slopes to explain to the locall residents that rice for them would be distributed as quickly as possible.   As we only had mules for transport, we marched approx. 400 miles.

Having been on active service in Burma for nine months, we were flown out for leave.  I chose Bombay and had occasion to see Mr. Jinah at a hill station 50 miles out of town.

After a stop-off in Poona, we went south to Madras to join an invasion fleet to land at Port Swettenham in Malaya.  Luckily for us, before this invasion took place, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs  on Japan, and the enemy surrendered.

My unit, The 9th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, were sent to Butterworth to distribute food to various towns, such as Ipoh.

Having left school at the age of 14 years, and very ignorant of the world, I ended up seeing India, Burma and Malaya – receiving three shillings and sixpence a day for my trouble.

It was easy to understand the various Movements wishing  to gain freedom from the British Empire, and your book vividly showed how the other half lived during the British retreat and the invasion of the Japanese Army.

Yours truly, a fellow human being.   Gerald Shindler


A pattern of ripples?

November 3, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


There are few things in the world as beguilingly enigmatic as the rivers of the Sundarbans.




Underneath the surface there are titanic currents and counter-currents; there are billions of creatures, large and small; there are thousands of micro-environments, some hanging in place like tethered balloons, and some joining together to form continuous ecosystems; even the composition of the water changes continually with the flow, the salinity varying from place to place.

Yet all that can be seen of this hurtling universe is an illegible pattern of ripples and striations on the surface. If you stare at the water long enough the markings will assume a certain kind of predictability, a sort of ‘normalcy’, and you’ll forget that what you are looking at is exactly turbulence, which is by its nature unpredictable. Only very rarely do the patterns suggest a cumulative movement – it is almost impossible to know when a huge whirlpool will suddenly appear, or when a river will break through some jutting mud-bank, thereby changing its course.

The flow of human events is similarly deceptive. That which is ‘historic’ never reveals itself in its earliest stages except through tiny, almost invisible ripples and eddies. Over the last few days, reading about all that is going on in the world, I’ve sometimes had the feeling of being in a boat in the Sundarbans, heading towards a bend in the river, running into ripples that suggest the presence of something unknown ahead.

Today, with Europe’s future pivoting upon Greece, the leaders of the G-20 are meeting in Cannes; next door, Italy is heading towards a major crisis (never a good sign for the world at large); yesterday a small group of protesters in Oakland, California, were able to shut down, against all the odds, the fifth largest port in the United States. They carried signs calling for a ‘General Strike’ – a phrase that harks back to the most turbulent years of the last century.

At the other end of the US there was a ripple of a different kind, much smaller, but in its own way perhaps equally significant. In a show of support for the ‘Occupy’ movement a large group of students walked out of Harvard University’s flagship economics course, taught by N. Gregory Mankiw, a leading theoretician of the right and one-time advisor to George Bush.

“Harvard graduates have been complicit [and] have aided many of the worst injustices of recent years. Today we fight that history,” said one student. “Harvard students will not do that anymore. We will use our education for good, and not for personal gain at the expense of millions.”

In their letter of protest the students wrote: ‘We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.’

While writing Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke I often wondered why the doctrines of  ‘Free Trade’ and the ‘Free Market’ are treated as if they have no history, no past. How is it that unlike all other ideologies these have been absolved of any burden of guilt for what has been done, historically, in their name? One reason perhaps is that mainstream economists like Mankiw have somehow succeeded in persuading the world that these are not doctrines at all but akin to forces of nature, a kind of ‘natural law’ (this was of course, exactly what opium traders believed).

It is both heartening, and in a sense, astonishing, that a protest in a park has provided these students (amongst the world’s best) with an insight that was denied to them by their education – an education which is widely vaunted to be the best in the world. Was it Bertrand Russell who described education as the chief obstacle to intelligence and freedom of thought?

As a prelude to the event I will be doing tonight with Jonathan Spence, at the Asia Society in New York, I have been re-reading The Gate of Heavenly Peace, his masterly study of the Chinese Revolution (I have admired his work for more years than I can count and am immensely excited at the prospect of meeting him).

When I came to Spence’s chapter on the May 4 movement of 1919 I was struck by this manifesto, also written by idealistic young students who were defying their teachers:




‘We believe that the moral progress of mankind should expand to a standard above the life based on animal impulse; therefore, we should extend a feeling of friendship and mutual assistance to all peoples of the world….Although we do not believe in the omnipotence of politics, we recognize that politics is an important aspect of public life. And we believe that in a genuine democracy, political rights must be distributed to all people. Even though there may be limitations, the criteria for the distribution will be whether people work or not, rather than whether they own property or not.’

In the first weeks of May 1919 I am sure that very few people in China noticed the small bands of students rippling through the streets.

Alexandria Now

November 2, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



I met Lisa Goldman at a reading in Toronto on Oct 25th. She said some very nice things about In An Antique Land and added that she had been in Egypt recently, covering the Tahrir Square demonstrations.The next day she sent me this:



Dear Amitav

I wanted to tell you about an Egyptian journalist I met in Cairo; he also read and enjoyed In An Antique Land, and told me he had the idea of revisiting Lataifa to write a piece that compared it to your description of the village in the 1980s. That conversation took place during my first week in Egypt; later, I traveled to the Nile Delta to do a story about factory workers and saw that it was, indeed, no longer a rural place of water wheels and donkeys. Instead, there were multi-floor residential buildings and motorcycles, and few of the fellaheen were making their living off the land.
I also spent a bit of time in Alexandria, which is quite a sad city these days – though signs of its former elegance are everywhere, particularly in the once-grand apartment buildings. Attached are three photos I snapped there – one of the beach (terribly polluted)
and one of an ordinary cafe on a side street near the sea. In the latter you’ll see that no-one is smoking shisha;
I was told that the local authorities wanted to ban public smoking for women only, but there was such an uproar that they decided to ban it
The third photo shows a woman named Sally Zahran, who was killed during anti-Mubarak demonstrations at Tahrir Square.
In the original memorial photo she was unveiled; later, her mother said that her daughter had gone against the family’s wishes in choosing to stop veiling shortly before she was killed. At the Alexandria site for memorials to the revolution, her photo was crudely doctored so that her hair was covered to look as though she were veiled.
But still, I am cautiously optimistic for Egypt.
I found Lisa’s article on the factory workers of Shebin el-Kom (linked above) very interesting, partly because I remember the town well from my days in Egypt, and partly because the mainstream media has said so little about the  role of factory workers in the recent upheavals in Egypt (Joel Benin and Hossam el-Hamalawy were writing about this as early as 2007: see Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Egyptian Textile Workers Confront the New Economic Order,”Middle East Report Online, March 25, 2007).

After reading Lisa’s letter I looked for some pictures from my own Alexandria days. Very few of them have survived unfortunately, but I did find this (in this case I still have the contact sheets but not the prints).

ucuz ukash