Archive for December, 2011

Jonathan Spence

December 8, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




The historian Jonathan Spence is one of my literary heroes, not least because he has done more than any historian of the post-war era to restore history to its proper place as a literary art.

I will never forget the excitement of reading The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci for the first time, not only because of its stylistic elegance and the utter unexpectedness of the material but also because it was published at a time when ‘history’ had all but buried itself under the dreary dust of ‘theory’ and ‘social science’. In Jonathan Spence’s hands the past came alive as it very rarely does: few novelists are his equal in creating compelling narratives and in the depiction of character; few historians possess so wide a range of scholarship and so masterful a command of the archive.

Of course Jonathan Spence is also one of the world’s great authorities on the period in which River of Smoke is set: his Search for Modern China touches upon it, and his God’s Chinese Son is one of the authoritative works on 19th century China.

For all these reasons, my event with Jonathan Spence, at the Asia Society in New York (on the 3rd of October) was a truly memorable occasion for me. I was deeply moved by by his warmth and by the generosity of his responses to River of Smoke. Here is a link to a video of the event.



I really had never thought that my work would be welcomed

‘Chai’ and Dan dan noodles

December 6, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



As described in my last post, I recently received the following message from M.V. Ramana.

Dear Amitav,

Greetings from Princeton. I am enjoying River of Smoke, but a question has popped into my head and it refuses to go away. So I thought I would share it with you. Among all the books of yours that I have read so far, this has got to be the one with the most descriptions of food. From parathas to dan-dan noodles to mutton dhansak to chai garam, there is quite a range of cuisines and dishes that enter your book. At your talk in Princeton last semester, you spoke a bit about how you traverse the twin-universes of being a journalist (and sticking scrupulously to fact) and of being a fiction-writer (where you can take some liberties). The question that comes to my mind is how much of these descriptions are fact and how much is made up? Was chai garam really drunk (invented?) by Parsis in Canton in the early 19th century? Was there a dish called dan dan noodles that was eaten by the Chinese in Canton during that period? You get the gist. Since I know that you usually back up your books with a lot of research, I suspect you have evidence for these. If so, I would be curious about what sort of sources you go to for these.

Thank you and warm regards,

Since Ramana is a physicist and a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, these queries were, I must admit, somewhat unexpected. But in a subsequent mail Ramana explains: ‘You may be onto something by positing a connection between my obsession with food (I jokingly say I spend half my waking day thinking about my next meal) and my ability to not let the dark issues I work on to interfere with my general mood. My only evidence against the proposition is that I became a foodie sometime during my Ph.D. I think I learnt more about Carnatic music and food during those years than Physics.’

Ramana: thanks for some very interesting questions. What you‘ve said about my views on the difference between journalism and fiction is spot on. Generally speaking in River of Smoke as in Sea of Poppies, I have tried to stay within the boundaries of the possible and the credible, but since these are novels I have also allowed myself certain liberties.

My descriptions of the dishes served at the Chinese banquets in Canton are based mainly on first-hand sources – travelers’ descriptions and the like. But as to the food that merchants like Bahram ate in Canton there are no records, so I had no choice but to extrapolate.

Cantonese cuisine is one of the great culinary treasures of the world. I love it and I am sure Bahram loved it too. But it must be said that to a palate accustomed to Indian fare a regular Cantonese diet can seem somewhat bland. The foods of Sichuan and Hunan on the other hand are spicy enough for the most masaledar tastes. Bahram’s mistress Chi-mei would, I am sure, have been aware of this and she would have tried to provide him with dishes that he was sure to relish – and rather than cook them herself she would have ordered them from the countless stalls and eateries of the waterfront, among which there are sure to have been many that served Sichuanese fare.

In the Canton of the 1830s there were certainly plenty of people from Sichuan, Hunan and other parts of China. The great Chinese writer Shen Fu, who visited Canton at about the same time as Bahram, tells us in his delightful memoir Six Records of a Floating Life[i], that many cities and provinces were represented even on the flower-boats of the Pearl River:

“‘The girls on Chaochou boats dress like goddesses,’ said one of my friends. ‘We could go and see them if you like.’…Hsiu-feng said to me: ‘Across the river from Chinghai Gate there are Yangchou boats, where the girls all dress in the Soochow fashion. If we go there you are sure to find one you like.’

“Another of our friends added: ‘What the people call the Yangchou boats have only one madam, called Widow Shao; with her there is her daughter-in-law, called Big Sister. They are from Yangchou, but their girls are all from Hunan, Hupei, Kwangtung (Guangdong) and Kiangsi.’”

A place of such cosmopolitan offerings would not I am sure, have lacked for the fare of Sichuan, which is among the most popular of Chinese cuisines. Dan-dan noodles are a well known contemporary Sichuanese item: the name is probably a recent invention but I feel certain that some similar dish existed in the 19th century. From what I know of Bahram I feel certain that he would have relished these noodles (but perhaps this is only because I fully share his passion for Sichuanese food).


Leshan Buddha, Sichuan, 8th century


Chai is a more complicated matter. The name is itself of considerable significance, because the etymologies of words for tea, in many languages around the world, lead back to two places. Both are of course in China since that is where tea originated: they are Fujian and Guangdong (Canton), which are the two maritimes provinces where foreign merchants first went in search of tea and other Chinese goods.

The written character for tea is the same in all the provinces of China, but in the Fujianese dialect the pronunciation of the word is somewhat idiosyncratic (the Cantonese pronunciation is similar to the Mandarin). The English tea and the French thé, are adaptations of the Fujianese pronunciation, as are the words for tea in most European languages. Whether these languages took the word directly from the Fujianese dialect or borrowed it from an intermediary is a matter of dispute. The authors of Hobson-Jobson incline towards the view that it was taken from Malay: “Crawfurd alleges that we got this word in its various European forms from the Malay Te, the Chinese name being Chhâ… But though it may be probable that Te, like several other names of articles of trade, may have come to us through the Malay, the word is, not the less, originally Chinese, (or Tay as Medhurst writes it) being the utterance attached to the character in the Fuhkien dialect. The original pronunciation, whether direct from Fuh-kien or through the Malay, accompanied the introduction of tea to England as well as other countries of Western Europe.”

It seems unlikely to me that the English, whose trade links with Canton were so old and so extensive, would have adopted a Fujianese variant had they taken their word for tea directly from China. In my view this corroborates the Hobson-Jobson surmise of the word being borrowed from an intermediary language, perhaps Malay. I find it interesting though that many European languages have preserved slang variants of the Cantonese word – for example char in English, from which we also get charwoman and so on. For a while the two variants seem to have been battling for primacy in English. Quite possibly tea prevailed because its rival char had been widely adopted by working people. For the class that wrote dictionaries this would have counted as a mark against the word; and so ironically, the mandarins of England rejected the word favoured by their counterparts in China and opted instead for provincial variant: tea.

But the French, like the English, were relative latecomers to the China trade. The Portuguese were the pioneers and they too traded principally with Guangdong; it was in this province that they founded Macau, the first European settlement in China. This perhaps is why the Portuguese parted company with most other Europeans by adopting a Cantonese variant: chá.

In the Indian subcontinent only Sinhala, Telegu, Tamil and Malayalam preserve variants of the Fujianese original; every other language has adopted Cantonese/Mandarin derivatives such as the Bengali cha, the Hindi/Urdu chai, Assamese chah, Konkani chá etc. What does this tell us about the route by which tea – the beverage as well as the names for it – came into the Indian subcontinent? Were they imported directly from Canton via the sea routes? Or were they borrowed from an intermediary such as Portuguese, or possibly Arabic, another great seafaring language that adopted a Cantonese variant, shayy?

The latter I think is not a contender because it lacks the consonant ch (hence the sh in shayy). This pretty much rules it out as a possible parent of the Indian words which have uniformly preserved ch as the initial consonant.

Portuguese is a much more likely contender. Here is what one authoritative lexicographer, M.S.R. Dalgado, has to say[ii]:

“It is not known for certain whether tea was known in India before the Portuguese arrival there, nor to what extent the propagation of the word is to be attributed to Portuguese influence, nor by what route the other form found its way to the Coromandel coast and made its entry into Ceylon. In the old Portuguese chroniclers there are not many references either to tea or coffee. The first mention of it, according to Gonçalves Viana (Apostilas) is made by Frei Gaspar da Cruz in his Tratado da China (1569): ‘Whatsoever person or persones come to any mans house of qualitee, hee hath a custome to offer him in a fine basket one Porcelane… with a kinde of drinke which they call cha, which is somewhat bitter, red and medicinall, which they are wont to make with a certayne concoction of herbes.’ [See Da Cruz in Purchas III, 180]…

“Mandelslo, quoted in Hobson-Jobson, says in 1638: ‘In our ordinary meetings (at Surat) which we had every day, we did not take anything but Thé (tea), the use of which was very common all over India.’ But this ought to be understood in connection with the Europeans, their descendants, and some indigenous Christians; for even today, the strictly orthodox Hindus abstain from tea, and Mussulmans prefer coffee.”[iii]

“John Crawfurd alleges that the word tea in its various European forms came from the Malay Te. If it did not find its way into India through the same channel, which is little likely, Sinhalese must have received it from the Dutch thee and Tamil and Telegu from the French thé. And, in this case, it is very likely that the other Indian languages received their various forms directly or indirectly from the Portuguese chá.”

I think M.S.R. Dalgado is right: in all likelihood it was Portuguese that served to introduce the Cantonese/Mandarin word into the languages of the Indian subcontinent. The elites of the Portuguese colonies in Goa, Daman and Diu would no doubt have been the first to use and propagate the word. But I suspect that the people who brought the word into popular usage across the subcontinent were lascars – who, as always with working class people, get very little credit for their cultural and linguistic innovations.

All this being said, it still does not account for the particularities of our desi chai – which is made by boiling cheap, black tea with milk, sugar and spices. This is not ‘tea’ in the sense in which it would be understood either in China or Continental Europe: it is rather a milk-based beverage of a kind that has a long history in India – a slight flavouring of tea is the only thing that sets it apart. Who invented this drink and who introduced it to the Indian subcontinent?

Here again, I think lascars were the conduit, but of a later generation.

By the late 18th century African and Asian lascars formed a large part of the global seafaring workforce. Many of them worked on British ships, where tea was a regular item of the common seaman’s diet. Like the daily ration of grog it was served at certain hours of the day, and was much looked forward to.

This seafaring beverage was made with very cheap tea, boiled and re-boiled many times. Sugar made it palatable and milk was added when available, following the usual British practice. This drink sustained British sailors and soldiers well into the 20th century. It figures in innumerable accounts of the world wars. Not till the arrival of the tea bag did it begin to lose ground.

On most ships lascars had their own kitchens and were allotted their own rations, which included rice, daal, spices and of course tea. It is easy to imagine how the usual seaman’s char would have changed in passing through lascar kitchens, acquiring spices of various kinds, including a few pinches of garam-masala. This last was eventually to lend its name to the beverage – ‘chai-garam’.


A few months ago a historian wrote me to say that his research suggested that very few Indians other than Parsis had tasted tea before the 19th century.

In dealing with the Indian subcontinent it isn’t easy to decide on the implications of words like ‘few’ or ‘many’. In relation to the total population a number like ten million (or even twenty) could be interpreted as either. In this sense my correspondent was probably right: the number of Indians who had tasted tea in the 19th century probably were ‘few’ relative to the entire population. But if we are to speak more generally of the emergence of a practice of tea-drinking, I think it happened much earlier than he suggests.

Tea was included, as far as I remember in the rations of indentured migrants in the mid-19th century – this is hardly likely to have been the case if they had not been accustomed to the beverage.

Recently the gifted young historian Ashutosh Kumar (see my post of July 16 ‘Life on a Plantation’) sent me a list of provisions for Indian sepoys who were setting off on a foreign expedition.


Fort William 29th May 1801, pp. 713-19.

From Charles Fraser, Garrison Store keeper

To captain Isaac Humphry,

Secretary to the Military Board

[Note: theses provisions were only on ship during voyage.]

Daily ratio of No.5 provisions for the 33 regiment for each mess of five men

Monday                        2½ tls of flour 1 tls of suit 1tls of revisions 12 of now

7 ½  tls of rice


Thursday                        6 tls of pork and 1 quart of peas



Friday                                    8tls of beef 2½ tls flour 1 tls suit and 1 tls of raising each day


Weekly to each mess of 5 men

30 tls of bread 1 tls of  TEA 5tls of sugar 12 quart of vinegar 1 tls of mustard.


From this it would seem that tea was a regular item of the sepoy’s rations as early as 1801.

So to come at last to the question: Was chai garam really drunk (invented?) by Parsis in Canton in the early 19th century?

Parsis were certainly among the first to adopt the habit of tea drinking in India (many Parsi families still possess the utensils and canisters their ancestors brought back from China). But the Bombay traders who sojourned in Canton did not live there alone: they were accompanied by large numbers of servants, household staff etc (many of whom also doubled as lascar ships’ boys and so on). These men would also have been introduced to Cantonese chah. Nor did the Canton contingent represent the entirety of the subcontinental presence in southern China. There was a sizeable Goan population in Macau from the earliest years of the settlement: they too would have experimented with tea.

But as regards the invention of chai garam, the relevant passage in River of Smoke is this: ‘Bahram’s breakfast always ended with a beverage that Mesto claimed to have invented himself: the drink was made with tea leaves but it bore no resemblance to the chàh that was commonly served in Canton.’

The operative word in this is ‘claimed’. Like many great cooks, Mesto was on occasion inclined to claim too much credit for himself: in fact he had begun his career as a ship’s cook and that was how he first learnt to make chai.

But to be fair to Mesto his claim was not entirely unfounded either, for he had added an ingredient that was not to be found in any of the usual chai recipes: star anise. He does deserve some little credit for this innovation.




[i] trans. Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui, Penguin Classics, 1983, 119-120.

[ii] Soares, Anthony Xavier.: Portuguese Vocables in Asiatic Languages from the Portuguese Original of M.S.R. Dalgado (translated into English with Notes, Additions and Comments), Asian Educational Services, New Delhi & Madras, 1988, p. 93.


[iii] The exact quote is: “Dans les assemblées ordinaires (à Sourat) que nous faisions tous les iours, nous ne prenions que du Thè, dont l’vsage est fort cummun par toutes les Indes.”-<-> Mandelslo, ed. Paris, 1659, p. 113.

M.V. Ramana and Nuclear Sanity

December 3, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


I met M.V. Ramana in 1998 when I was writing Countdown, my essay on the nuclear situation in the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the most knowledgeable of the many experts I sought out (he has a PhD in physics from Boston University and has devoted many years to nuclear issues).

To work full-time on nuclear issues is to live with anxieties and apprehensions that most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Some of those who put themselves through this ordeal become numbed and unresponsive; one learns to recognize them by the absence of affect in their demeanour. Others are scarred by what they discover: it is as if their work had given them terrifying visions, not only of impending catastrophe but also of the human capacity for folly and evil. They often seem to be teetering on the edge of hysteria – and who can blame them?

Ramana has, I am sure, had as many visions of this kind as any other member of his highly-specialized circle. In 1996 he wrote an extraordinary paper entitled ‘Bombing Bombay? Effects of nuclear weapons and a case study of a hypothetical explosion‘ in which he estimated that a single nuclear bomb attack on Mumbai could result in 860,000 deaths – and this with a small, outdated bomb of the kind that was dropped on Hiroshima (this paper was one of the most important influences on my own essay – here is a link to an interview in which Ramana talks about his essay).

Such is the apocayptic import of this essay that the mien of the author comes as a surprise when one meets him in person – for his demeanour is as calm as his manner is mild. It is instantly evident that he is one of the sanest, most reasonable of men – and this serves to make his conclusions all the more persuasive and frightening.

Ramana is associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. His forthcoming book  “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India” (Penguin India) is sure to be the definitive study of the subject: I can’t wait to read it.

Of late Ramana has been writing extensively on the Kundakulam nuclear plant and the resistance to it: here and here are links to two recent pieces on the issue (both co-authored with Suvrat Raju). Particularly notable are the paragraphs in which they deal with the theory, recently circulated by a government official, that a ‘foreign hand’ is behind the protests.

Addressing this, the authors write:

“In recent years, dreams of a nuclear-powered future got a fillip with the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The deal served as the flagship of the Manmohan Singh government’s efforts to give its foreign policy a pro-Western tilt. For the United States, the deal was, in the words of Ashley Tellis, an important adviser to the Bush administration, intended to craft “a full and productive partnership with India.” But this relationship is not one between equals. India soon fell in line with U.S. strategic objectives, for example, by twice voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and halting the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project — an important potential source of energy.

“Dr. Singh’s government is also willing to pay generously to reinforce this “partnership.” As the former DAE head, Anil Kakodkar, admitted in an article published in a Marathi daily earlier this year, India must import reactors worth billions of dollars because “we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there.” It is these imports and the larger foreign policy shift that hasten the process of “neo-age imperial subjugation.”

“So the “foreign hand” is partly behind the nuclear expansion, not the local protests that have sprung up at every site earmarked for a nuclear plant. The conspiracy theory being peddled by the NPCIL amounts to dismissing genuine local concerns out of hand. The end result of this policy is visible in Kudankulam. The villagers, who have been opposed to the project since the beginning, were ignored and ridiculed till they finally escalated their protest in desperation. The public money that has been spent on the Kudankulam plant is imperilled not by the intransigence of the local residents, but by the failure of the government to heed their concerns earlier.”

I don’t know what is more disturbing: that powerful officials should attribute legitimate environmental concerns to a ‘foreign hand’; or that such people are actually in positions where they can take decisions on matters which may mean life or death for millions of us in years to come.


Reading Ramana’s articles over the years I’ve often wondered how, knowing what he does about the perils of the future, he still manages to keep his keel so evenly balanced.

Recently I received a message from Ramana that suggested an answer of sorts: he has not allowed his awareness of horror to blind him to other aspects of the world we live in.


Dear Amitav,

Greetings from Princeton. I am enjoying River of Smoke, but a question has popped into my head and it refuses to go away. So I thought I would share it with you. Among all the books of yours that I have read so far, this has got to be the one with the most descriptions of food. From parathas to dan-dan noodles to mutton dhansak to chai garam, there is quite a range of cuisines and dishes that enter your book. At your talk in Princeton last semester, you spoke a bit about how you traverse the twin-universes of being a journalist (and sticking scrupulously to fact) and of being a fiction-writer (where you can take some liberties). The question that comes to my mind is how much of these descriptions are fact and how much is made up? Was chai garam really drunk (invented?) by Parsis in Canton in the early 19th century? Was there a dish called dan dan noodles that was eaten by the Chinese in Canton during that period? You get the gist. Since I know that you usually back up your books with a lot of research, I suspect you have evidence for these. If so, I would be curious about what sort of sources you go to for these.

Thank you and warm regards,


In my reply I told Ramana that I would answer his questions in a blog post. I would have liked to do it today but I’m out of blog-time so it will have to wait for my next post.

For the moment I am content to savour the pleasure of receiving an inquiry about chai-garam from a nuclear expert as distinguished as M.V.Ramana.




Letter from Australia

December 2, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)








Dear Jim

I wrote to the email above but never heard back, so I don’t know if you received my email. I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful letter. What an interesting and complicated life you’ve led! And not just you but your ancestors too. You deserve a Trilogy of your own.

Thanks again and all best



ucuz ukash