Archive for May, 2012

On Blogging: 2 of 4

May 30, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (2)




When we think of the technology of movable-type print it is always in a spirit of gratitude, which is only as it should be. Yet, for all its blessings, print was also responsible for deepening the divide between words and images.

Before the invention of print words and images had usually been closely joined,

Late 18th century Arabic manuscript, Beinecke Library, Yale

no matter whether in paper or papyrus, parchment or bark. Illuminated manuscripts joined letters and images so that each added to the other.










Such was the effectiveness of this that even after the invention of print, great efforts were made to recreate the look of earlier forms of the book. Not only did typefaces mimic calligraphy,



Costanzo Felici, History of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, early 16th century


but many books continued to be illuminated by hand.
















But hand-painted books were hugely expensive: ‘plates’ quickly became the printed book’s principal means of reproducing images. But the possibilities of the plate were also governed by considerations of cost, and this meant that one of the most vital characteristics of the image – colour – was quickly leached out of it.


Printing came of age in a Europe that was convulsed by puritanical fervour and iconoclastic zealotry:


Iconoclastic riot in Holland, engraving by Franz Hogenberg, 1588; Yale Divinity Digital Image and Text Library



a strain of hostility towards images was perhaps a part of its genetic make-up.









The Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s,




was ornamented with richly coloured floral imagery;








but a century later, the Geneva Bible – ‘the Bible of the Puritans and Pilgrims‘ and Shakespeare –



featured neither colour nor imagery of any kind.





But despite that, for several centuries the image continued to command a place of respect in print. Even until the early 20th century the inclusion of plates was considered to be a virtue in a book. It was the mass-produced book that upended the criteria by which books had hitherto been judged. Affordability became the new index of a book’s appeal: everything that added to production costs came to be regarded as extravagant and unnecessary, even frivolous. This confirmed the prejudices of textual puritans who had long looked askance upon the admixture of images and text. By the mid-twentieth century the triumph of the text was complete.


For Dickens,

‘The Little Old Lady’, from the 1853 edition of Bleak House; the edition contains 38 plates




it was normal for pictures to be included in a novel; for Joyce or Hemingway this would have been inconceivable.











‘Art’ and ‘Literature’ went their separate ways and all traffic between the two came to be seen as damaging. This relationship is perfectly summed up by the print media’s preferred word for images: illustration.


How very different are the connotations of the words


The still-undeciphered Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Library, Yale




‘illuminate’ and ‘illumination’!











It is sobering to reflect on how these prejudices came to be absorbed by cultures around the world, and how powerfully they influenced ideas of knowledge and education. When I was a boy comic books were regarded as an indulgence that prevented the mind from developing fully. You could be punished for reading them. The thinking was that a mind that became accustomed to the figurative would be less able to cope with difficult or abstract ideas.


But why should this be the case?


from Galileo’s notebooks


Don’t mathematicians rely on symbols and figures?









Don’t the pictures of Caravaggio, or the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat,




have to be ‘read’ in ways that require a great deal of thought?








When we look at these pages










from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks it becomes evident






that for him text and imagery formed a single mode of thought.













On Blogging: Part 1 of 4

May 28, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (4)





[My posts having occasioned some intest in the Italian press (see ‘Tristful Post Makes News in Trieste’, March 23), I was asked to write something on blogging to coincide with the paperback publication of the Italian edition of River of Smoke. The piece – I will not call it an ‘article’ because I thought of it as a ‘post’ – was published in La Repubblica on May 13. The posts will appear here as a four-part series. This is part 1 of 4.] 




began to interest me only after it had ceased to be the hottest new thing. Until then its possibilities were obscured by the urgency that was demanded of it. Blogs were all about the Here-and-Now; they were expected to provide the equivalent of live news feeds and reality TV. Posts were streams of abbreviated words; punctuation was often ignored and the typeface was usually an unappealing sans-serif. The form seemed to be striving to mimic a conception of the ‘real world’ in which events and passions rush past the spectator like the jumbled debris of a river in flood. It might even be said that an unfinished appearance was to the blog what scansion is to certain kinds of verse: a condition of the form itself.  Its ‘look’ provided graphic proof of urgency and authenticity. Posts were often intended to be read as testimony, or acts of witnessing, and their words had to look as though they were being blurted out, under the pressure of time, or extreme emotion, or of some irresistible external stimulus.

But those days are long past. Today the functions of bearing witness and providing live news feeds have been taken over by the social media and texting. The blog post after all, no matter how urgently composed, does require an extended use of language and some formatting. Tweets and texts are another matter altogether; the blog cannot hope to compete with them in speed or urgency. Nor can blogs compete with Facebook and Twitter as forums for public discussion. Internet trolling is well on its way to rendering the ‘Comments’ feature a luxury that only well-funded websites can afford.

St. Luke’s Secrets, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge




These changes have had a winnowing effect on the blogosphere. Some very well-known sites have shut down. One such is Sepia Mutiny (, a hugely popular, South Asia oriented site. Earlier this year, the site shocked its followers with this announcement: ‘After much deliberation we are going to send Sepia Mutiny on to retirement and cease all new posts after April 1st, 2012, almost 8 years since we first started (August of 2004)…. Although we all still love our work on SM, the blogosphere has evolved quite a bit since we first started … Most of the conversation that once took place daily on blogs now takes place on your Facebook and Twitter accounts.  To try and fight that trend is a losing proposition.’






But there were other aspects to this trend. Couldn’t it be said, for example, that the pressures of urgency had stunted the blog in some ways?



For it was only after that pressure was removed that bloggers began to pay more attention to the things that make the blog a specific kind of artefact, an object that is shaped and crafted before being put on display. And this is exactly what is most exciting about the blog: not its immediacy but the fact that it offers the possibility of a return to an older form of representation, one which permits a seamless union of words and pictures, images and text.


Kalpasutra, Sanskrit Ms Project, MS Add. 1765, Cambridge



Istanbul and Indian Soldiers of the First World War

May 25, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (28)



[The pictures and text posted here were sent to me by Vedica Kant who studied in Delhi and Oxford. She is now living in Istanbul.]  




Given how little thought India’s contribution to the World Wars gets in our collective historical memory, it is almost strange to think that in the First World War India made the largest contribution to the war effort out of all of Britain’s colonies and dominions. Close to 1,700,000 Indians – combatants and non-combatants – participated in WWI.










My own area of interest is India’s role in the Mesopotamian theatre. This was India’s main theatre of war and some 588,717 Indians were involved in the war effort there. When General Charles Townshend’s Sixth Division surrendered at Kut-el-Amara on 29th April 1916, a large number of Indians (one estimate put the number at around 10,000) were amongst those who were captured.




For some the journey hereon involved a hellish march across the desert to Ras al-’Ayn to work on the Constantinople – Baghdad railway. Others were sent across the Taurus Mountains to the POW camps at Afyon.




There is very little of the Mesopotamian Indian war experience that has survived or indeed been written about – David Omissi’s Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914 – 1918 and Santanu Das’ essay ‘Indians at home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914 – 1918’ in his edited volume Race, Empire and First World War Writing are two notable exceptions where the letters and memoirs of Indian soldiers who served in Mesopotamia are explored and discussed.




As Santanu Das has noted, the Indian war experience was not monolithic and just as Europeans, there were different wars and war experiences for Indians too. Trying to unearth soldiers’ experiences is more than an attempt at recovering wartime travelogues – “…the country here is absolutely uninhabited and desolate.”; It rains very heavily and the entire surface of the land becomes a quagmire in which the slush is knee deep. When I used to march in this slush, I used to remember God!”  It is also an important means to understand the experiences of these ordinary soldiers. What did they make of the place they were fighting in? Their enemy? Their own place in an imperial army? The loss of home? And of course, what did they make of religion at a time of war?  Mesopotamia was a front that tested the loyalty of a number of Muslim Indian soldiers, who were confronted with the choice of fighting the troops of the Caliph or remaining loyal to the King. The 15th Lancers mutinied in Basrah in 1916, refusing to march against the Turks.






Other Muslim soldiers remained steadfastly loyal. At one point the Ottoman government decided to extend special treatment to a group of Muslim Indian POWs, taking them on a special tour of the Topkapi Palace and granting them a special audience with the Sultan. The British authorities were furious at this attempt to “get at” the Muslim soldiers. What the Muslim soldiers themselves made of it, we don’t know.


The fact that most of the Indian soldiers who fought in WWI came from economically less well-off backgrounds and were generally uneducated means that we have very little in terms of their textual memory – as memoirs, letters etc. – that still survives today, though there are fragments of their stories in the British archives and in the memoirs of British soldiers.





The language reforms that the Turkish Republic embarked on in 1928 has meant that any material in the Ottoman archives requires the knowledge of Ottoman Turkish to be accessible to the modern scholar (this always makes me sigh – as if learning Turkish was not torture enough!) Still apart from these textual sources, the memories of these soldiers still often survive in subtle, stubborn physical forms. In Istanbul, memorial stones can be found for a large number (around 170) of Indian POWs at the Haydarpasha English Cemetery.






The cemetery itself was first built for the British Crimean war dead but also became home to many of Turkey’s British community and WWI POWs from the British Empire. The memorial stones remind us of the names of some of those Indians – sepoys, lance naiks, drivers, cooks – who were part of the British Indian army and who died in this country.


– Vedica Kant,

Istanbul, May 2012




The View from Sir Syed’s Room

May 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




On a recent visit to London I was pleasantly surprised to find that my lodgings,















which had a fine view of Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury,
















had previously been occupied by two remarkable men.
















One was R.H.Tawney, author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism & Land and Labour in China, who was born in Calcutta and went on to become a radical social critic. His book, The Acquisitive Society, published in 1920, might well serve as a manifesto for the Occupy movement. Consider this passage on exorbitant managerial salaries: ‘When really important issues are at stake every one realizes that no decent man can stand out for his price. A general does not haggle with his government for the precise pecuniary equivalent of his contribution to victory. A sentry who gives the alarm to a sleeping battalion does not spend next day collecting the capital value of the lives he has saved; he is paid 1/- a day and is lucky if he gets it. The commander of a ship does not cram himself and his belongings into the boats and leave the crew to scramble out of the wreck as best they can; by the tradition of the service he is the last man to leave. There is no reason why the public should insult manufacturers and men of business by treating them as though they were more thick-skinned than generals and more extravagant than privates. To say that they are worth a good deal more than even the exorbitant salaries which a few of them get is often true. But it is beside the point. No one has any business to expect to be paid “what he is worth,” for what he
is worth is a matter between his own soul and God… If a man has important work, and enough leisure and income to enable him to do it properly, he is in possession of as much happiness as is good for any of the children of Adam.’ (pp. 178-79)



The other, earlier, occupant was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan,
















founder of Aligarh Muslim University.







His grandson, Syed Ross Masood, studied at Oxford and taught in Patna and Cuttack (Ravenshaw College) and was a fellow of Calcutta University. He was also a friend of E.M.Forster,




Syed Ross Masood and E.M.Forster, 1911, source: King's College Cambridge














who, while writing A Room With A View, would certainly have crossed paths with R.H. Tawney






on this very street in Bloomsbury.






Seen in the London Underground

May 21, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)
















At Euston Station













River of Smoke in paperback












Library Nation

May 18, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



British Library, 9.25 a.m., May 16.












The library will open in 5 minutes but no one wants to waste a minute of precious library time.










When the doors open, people rush inside.













But not everybody is in a hurry to get to the reading rooms; some just come to wander.





‘Not all those who wander are lost’: J.R.R.Tolkien








Recently Published…

May 16, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)





in Italy




by Alessandro Vescovi (Le Lettere, Florence, 2011)












Alessandro tells me the words on the cover are taken from The Hungry Tide: “He hunted down facts in the way that a magpie collects shiny things. Yet when he strung them all together, somehow they did become stories – of a kind.”


















Occupy Art!

May 14, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



‘Occupy Art’ might be the name by which the Arte Povera movement would be known had it been launched in this decade instead of the 1960s. Despite the gap in time the analogies are striking. Arte Povera (which is often translated as ‘Poor’ or ‘Impoverished’ art) was born in Turin, where Fiat,



The Old Fiat Factory, Lingotto, Turin



Lancia, Lavazza and many other major Italian industrial enterprises are headquartered.









The cradle of Italian industry, the city nurtured plutocratic dynasties like the Agnellis, owners of Fiat, as well as activists and philosophers like Antonio Gramsci




and Friedrich Nietzsche,











who had a fine view to console him in his exile.




The Palazzo Carignano, now the National Museum of the Risorgimento, Turin














As with the Occupy movement, Arte Povera grew out of a circumstance of deepening contrast and confrontation – which makes it peculiarly apt that the city’s present-day showplace for Arte Povera





should be a grand,









but unfinished, 18th century edifice







– the Castello di Rivoli –








which is now a museum for contemporary art













(and also a spectacular vantage point for viewing the city and its surroundings).
















An elegant 18th century room frames




Mario Merz’s ‘Time-Based Architecture – Time Debased Architecture’, 1981.










A work that brings vividly to mind the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti park, in 2011












and the shapes



Occupy San Francisco, October 2011











of its proliferating tents.











It is as if artists could look ahead




Occupy San Francisco, October 2011




from the past






into the present.














In the next room is





a haunting work by Jannis Kounellis (‘Untitled’, 2009).







Ranks of coats  lie on the polished floor of this 18th century chamber, conjuring up the ghosts of downsized workers.




Or like Occupy protesters in Seattle,









trying to find a place to sleep on inhospitable streets.















Next door is a work by one of the most elusive and intriguing artists of the late 20th century, Alighiero Boetti. He participated in some of the earliest Arte Povera shows in the 1960s, but then turned in another direction. He traveled to Afghanistan in 1971 and started a hotel in Kabul (it was called the (1) One Hotel). While living in the hotel he created a series of embroidered maps with the help of Afghan craftsmen and -women – these were to become his most famous works.



This embroidered work, titled ‘Catasta’ (Pile) was also made in collaboration with Afghans.









Boetti’s travels are said to have been inspired by an ancestor of his, Giovanni Battista Boetti dei Predicatori who left Italy in 1763 and became a Dominican monk. Later, after traveling to Turkey he converted to Islam and became a Sufi, taking the name Shaikh Mansur. Alighiero Boetti was also to change his name to Ali Ghiero.

Boetti’s reputation is undergoing a revival now, with a major retrospective at the Tate. The show will travel to several other cities – but one place it will not visit







is the National Gallery of Art in Kabul.







But Boetti’s embroidered panel is not the only object to have traveled from afar to the Castello di Rivoli. A few steps away is another panel which came much earlier and from much farther away.















It is a piece of tilework from China, probably Guangzhou, but it  looks completely at home affixed to the base of an 18th century column.












Then comes  Pier Paolo Calzolari’s mysterious installation







of speaking lightbulbs (‘Untitled’, 1970-71)







which is followed by the Duchess of Aosta’s 18th century dressing room,







transformed by the artist Lothar Baumgartner, son of an anthropologist, into a work called ‘Yurupari’ (1984).










‘The artist began with pieces,’ says the sign, ‘that refer to the German anthropological practice, initiated by Goethe, to tell about a place without ever having seen it…Adopting this method Baumgartner exposes its absurd pretext of understanding and studying the ‘other.”‘












Perhaps the most powerful work of all is Guiseppe Penone’s ‘Breathing the Shadow’, 1999,















in which thousands of bay leaves are attached to the walls, contained by wire mesh.







The room is suffused with the scent of the leaves, which courses through the viewers’ bodies







and into their lungs.











This after all, is what Occupying is about: to remind us that there are more important things than streets and walls.







World’s First Oil Tanker, Built by Nobel Bros., was called ‘Zoroaster’

May 11, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



From Shernaz Italia, a curious tale of ‘connectedness’, taken from: ‘Stansberry’s Investment Advisory,’ November 2011. The article is titled ‘America’s Oil Boom’.




‘Robert Nobel (Sir Alfred Nobel of Dynamite fame & Nobel Prize founder!) surely knew about Zoroastrianism and its flaming temples before he arrived in Baku in 1876. As a wealthy, highly educated Russian it’s likely he read The Travels of Marco Polo. But whether or not he went to Baku specifically for oil, remains a matter of historical debate. His younger brother, Ludvig, had been placed in charge of the remnants of his father’s business – an arms and heavy equipment manufacturer that was best known for its mining operations. It was his younger brother who banished him from the relative luxury of St Petersburg to the wilds of Azerbaijan – reportedly in attempt to go in search of  high quality walnut forests, not oil.


‘The dirt rich famous “Nobels Family” who migrated to Russia from Sweden had long been one of Russia’s most prosperous arms merchants … until their fortunes declined in the 1860s. First, Russia’s Czar stopped buying the firm’s legendary mines. Then the Czar cut back on steam engines, too. By the end of the decade, creditors had seized the firm and had sent Robert’s father back home to Sweden in shame.There, Ludvig was trying to revive his father’s company by manufacturing rifle stocks. And he needed more timber. This is the reason, according to most historical accounts, he ordered Robert to travel to Azerbaijan. But Robert Nobel didn’t find any trees…In fact, there’s almost no natural vegetation whatsoever in Baku. It’s extremely dry and windswept. The timber he found wasn’t alive any more. It had been lumbered for oil derricks. Hundreds of them. Robert Nobel claimed he “stumbled” onto perhaps the greatest oil boom in history, by accident … while shopping for timber Robert Nobel decided on the spot that derricks were better than living trees. He began buying leases on the spot. Over the next few years, the Nobel brothers invested heavily in Baku. In 1872, the oil boom took off when the Russian crown auctioned off the rights to hundreds of leases. Refineries built dozens of factories to transform the heavy crude into easier burning kerosene. Demand for which was insatiable. By 1880, the Nobel’s were the leading oil producers in Baku. And by 1900, just 20 years later, Baku was producing half of all the oil in the world.That may be the one of the reason Hitler was attracted to Russia – Oil.When big new resources like this are discovered, the resulting increases to production are often unimaginable. As production greatly increased, the difficulties of storing and transporting Baku’s oil became paramount. At first, refineries simply put the kerosene in wooden barrels and shipped it on barges across the Caspian and up the Volga River to markets in Russia. But this wasn’t as easy as it might seem. First of all the wooden barrels were expensive, there wasn’t any timber in Baku. Additionally, they leaked. That made the process difficult, dangerous and inefficient. Before production could be economically increased further, the challenges of distribution had to be tackled.’Ludvig Nobel became the “King of Baku” primarily because he figured out how to distribute oil – not because he discovered it. His solution?  Pump it directly into the hull of a ship that was specially designed to navigate the Volga. Then, and this is an interesting historical fact, It took oil from Baku, across the Caspian and up the Volga, where it could be distributed across Russia. A fleet of such ships made Baku the world’s busiest port. The Oil Tanker ‘Zoroaster’ was launched in 1878.’


More on this at:


Letter from a Photographer

May 9, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)




[The photographs in this post were taken by Krunal Palande: he sent them to me after I replied to this letter. The photographs are posted here with Krunal’s permission.]





Dear Amitav,
I’d been planning to write a letter to you for quite a while but either I was being too lazy or I just couldn’t think of exactly what to write, but then I realized that it is always better to speak your mind than keeping it shut.
I can now definitely start this letter by saying I am your big fan and I’ve read all your novels (though I am yet to read your non-fiction books and having recently developed interest in reading non-fiction, I guess that day is not far when I’d have read all your books).
Well I hope I’m not boasting and in any case I’d want you to treat me as just another fanboy.
I also had the honour to meet and talk to you when you came down to Mumbai for the launch of “River of Smoke” at the Trident.
I picked up The Hungry Tide back in 2008 and I found it so enthralling, I am an avid reader and having read so many books I could easily say I’d never quite read a book like The Hungry Tide. It was probably the first ever multi-protagonists book that I had read.
What I found so fascinating about The Hungry Tide was that you never refrained from getting into details which many authors would generally avoid so as to not hinder the flow of the story. I loved these details, by the time I finished reading The Hungry Tide I knew so much about the Irrawaddy dolphins, the deadly Bengal tigers and the The Morichjhanpi massacre. And of course I went about asking all my Bengali friends about Bon bibi, unfortunately most of my Bengali friends are Calcuttans and none of them had even heard about it.
The next book I picked up was The Calcutta Chromosome and to tell you the truth I had never in my life read such a Fantastical Science Fiction novel. Science Fiction to our generation is mostly Space and Aliens and amidst such culture reading The Calcutta Chromosome was very refreshing and I could easily say that The Calcutta Chromosome is my favourite Sci-Fi book after H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. Well I wouldn’t go in details with each of your books because I like every one of them for some or other reason.
But speaking of Science Fiction, they say books are the best time travelling machines; I must say that this phrase suits perfectly to all your novels. And I must definitely thank you for taking me to such places I could never even imagine, be it the 19th century Mandalay where Rajkumar worked at the food-stall or Deeti’s house on the outskirts of Ghazipur or the Thirteen Factories area in Canton.

I hope I have kept you engaged in this letter so far, and if I successfully have, then let me quickly ask you a question.  Why is it that you have never written a book with a single protagonist? It’s not that I don’t like them, in fact I love them, and it gives them this epic feel, but I’m just curious to know the reason why you refrain from using a single protagonist.

I would not agree if you reply saying The Circle of Reason or The Shadow Lines had single protagonists. Of course the stories revolved around the characters of Alu and the Narrator in The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines respectively but they certainly weren’t the only protagonists, for that matter even Bahram Modi wasn’t the only protagonist in River of Smoke.

Okay now that I’ve hopefully reached the end of this letter; I’d like to mention a few moments that I really enjoyed in your books and I often cherish them.
  •  Phulboni’s experience at the Renupur Station in The Calcutta Chromosome. The most thrilling piece I’ve ever read.
  •       Tha’mma’s visit to Jethamoshai in Dhaka in The Shadow Lines. Oh and I forgot to mention, The Shadow Lines is my most favorite book written by you.
  •       Zachary looking at Deeti’s face (and her beautiful eyes) at the end of Sea of Poppies. It’s such a wonderful, magical moment.
  •       Dinu taking Alison’s pictures in the wilderness near Morningside in The Glass Palace. Being a photographer, I quite loved this moment and I also quite admired your knowledge in Photography too.






Well there are so many things from your novels that I have always cherished. The chrestomathy, the history, the characters and so on, I’d like to thank you for each and every one of these things that are a part of my life now and I hope to see lot more.
Also I’m eagerly awaiting the final part of the Ibis trilogy.
Warm Regards,
Krunal Palande

ucuz ukash