Archive for November, 2012

The Well-Traveled Banyan: 2 of 2

November 27, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)




Banyan, 18th century, Victoria and Albert Museum



The robes  known as ‘banyans’ were not the only garments of that name  in the 18th and 19th centuries: there was another such, just as unlikely as the British Nabob’s princely vestment.













No less an authority than Admiral W.H. Smyth, the 19th century’s pre-eminent expert on nautical terms and usages,






Tinsel print of an actor as a British sailor, c. 1830 (the banyan is presumably the undershirt). V&A Museum

was to define this incarnation of the banyan as ‘a sailor’s coloured tunic’.














In other words, at this stage of its evolution, the banyan was a prototype of the modern T-shirt and was usually worn by sailors.




Tie-dyed silk, 1880, Berhampore: ‘Continuous purple silk piece-goods with repeated tie-dyed (‘bandhana’) pattern in red and white. The fabric is designed to be cut into individual bandanna handkerchief.’ V&A Mus



It was often accompanied by an accessory that was also of Indian descent – the bandhna,

















a head-scarf that came to be absorbed






Wyoming Cowboys with bandannas, 1870-90, Wikimedia Commons.


into Western costume as the ‘bandanna’.















But the word ‘banyan’ had yet another naval association. On British navy vessels, from the 16th century to the 19th, sailors were made to do without meat one day every week (the measure was intended to conserve provisions while at sea). These meatless days came to be known as ‘banyan days’  – for banias (and Indians in general) were known to be votaries of vegetarianism.






City of London archives

These days of enforced vegetarianism (‘banyanism’) were greatly dreaded by sailors. This 1810 lithograph from the London Metropolitan Archives is entitled ‘Banyan Day, or a gloomy 9th of November.’

It is a satirical portrayal of a man depicted as a sailor contemplating a meatless day: ‘His nose is red and he weeps while his mouth waters as he thinks of the food and items which will not be present. Banyan Day was a sea term for a meatless day .’











But in time, as often happens, this usage underwent a peculiar inversion so that it came to refer to a feast. This is how it is described on the website of a well-known naval and military museum:




‘Sailors enjoying informal banyan’: CFB Esquimault Naval & Military Mus.


‘A banyan is a special kind of navy party. In spite of the changing nature of the banyan, there are three constants: it is always a fun occasion, it is held outdoors, and the emphasis is on good food, good drink and good friends – something along the lines of an old-fashioned picnic.’










How did a sailor’s tunic come to be domesticated as our beloved Indian banyan? I believe the transition was effected by lascars –



A Group of Lascars posing on the Promenade Deck of the ‘Viceroy of India’, 1930-39, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Wikimedia Commons)

the Asian mariners who formed a large part of the sea-going workforce in the age of sail. They were probably among the first South Asians to adopt the banyan as an undergarment.









These sailors may have been underpaid, but they were the earliest avatars of the global Indian and it is easy to understand why their attire might have possessed a certain kind of glamour in the eyes of their compatriots.

It may be difficult to imagine that the humble banyan ever possessed the same cosmoplitan appeal that would later lead to India’s fervent adoption of blue jeans, but it is worth remembering that denim too has returned to the subcontinent after traveling a similarly tortuous route: its colour came originally from an Indian product, indigo, and a common type of clothing made from this fabric took its name from a part of Mumbai –






Women mechanics in dungarees working on a Texan trainer, Second World War: Wikimedia Commons


‘dungarees’ are, after all, natives of the erstwhile ‘Dongari Killa’ (‘Dongari Fort’ – now known just as ‘Fort’). The difference between dungarees and denim is that the former are made of dyed yarn while the latter are dyed after weaving.








Thus did the ‘banyan’ (in the original sense of ‘Indian’) come full circle, having been reshaped and refashioned by a journey across the oceans. In my novel, Sea of Poppies, there is a character (Neel) who has a theory about the banyan: he argues that the status of this garment has risen and fallen with the fortunes of the Indian subcontinent. When India was a land fabled for its riches, the word banyan was associated with extravagantly sumptuous robes; as the subcontinent’s fortunes declined, the banyan dwindled into the humblest item of everyday wear. The implication of this of course, is that as India’s economy grows, the fortunes of the banyan will rise again, perhaps to a point where it will become once more, a finely crafted garment. Designers take note: there is no article of Indian clothing that has a richer, more varied and more cosmopolitan past, and a vaunted place in history awaits the artist who can claim authorship of the next stage in the evolution of the banyan.




The Well Traveled Banyan: 1 of 2

November 26, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)





No garment lies closer to the heart of the Indian male than the banyan.¶ Yet, despite its hundreds of millions of adherents, the ubiquitous undervestment of the subcontinent gets little attention and even less respect:



Display of banyans, pavement stall, Yangon.



designers scorn it; dudes despise it; its mere outline, were it to be glimpsed, would bring ruin upon an aspiring male model.







I confess that I, like most Indian men, am deeply attached to the humble banyan: like many of my fellow-devotees, I have never been able to rid myself of the illusion, fostered in earliest childhood, that my banyan provides a necessary layer of insulation without which my shirt would not be dry and my chest would be defenceless against all the germs, viruses and malign humours that seek to invade it.


photo: Indian Defence Board ‘Ramappa Selling Coconuts and Wearing Banyan’

But reason alone cannot explain the addict’s attachment to this garment. For a true devotee the banyan is much more than a mere article of clothing: at the deepest level it is a marker of identity, a link with the past.









This is why it annoys me when marketers attempt to rebrand the banyan as a ‘sleeveless undershirt’, ‘singlet’ or ‘vest’. To call it anything other than a banyan is to demean and disparage a garment that has every right to be proud of its distinctive name and lineage.


The destiny of a word can sometimes hinge on a tiny shift of emphasis. Notice how the word banyan, when it refers to a humble article of clothing, is pronounced with the stress on the last syllable – banyán. Move the emphasis to the first syllable – bányan (as in banyan-tree) – and we have a word that is infused with spiritualism and freighted with overtones of ecological benevolence: a word so eminently fashionable in fact, that hundreds of thousands of products, from soaps to spas and restaurants, have incorporated it into their brand-names.






Banyan tree on the banks of Khadakwasla Dam: Wikimedia Commons


Indeed it may well be one of the most popular brand-names in existence – a brief googling produces over four million entries.









The words bányan and banyán may appear to be as unlike in their fortunes as prince and pauper, but they are actually twins and share exactly the same parentage: both are derived from the name of a caste – the ‘vania’ or ‘bania’ merchant community.

The transition from ‘bania’ to ‘banyan’ began some eight or nine hundred years ago, the process being set in motion by Arab and Persian travelers and scholars, some of whom used the word baniyân as a generic term for Hindu merchants (the final consonant ‘n’ was probably added to indicate a collective noun).

While writing In An Antique Land I frequently came across the word baniyân in Arabic geographical texts. Abraham Ben Yiju, the 12th century merchant from North Africa whose letters provide much of the material for the book, had close connections with the merchant communities of the Malabar coast. He refers on at least one occasion to the ‘baniyân Manjalûr’ (‘banias of Mangalore’). §

When Europeans arrived in the Indian Ocean, they adopted the Perso-Arabic usage, and ‘banyan’ became a general term for things associated with India: the banyan-tree is thus merely the ‘Indian tree’. In matters of costume similarly, the word ‘banyan’ probably once referred to an item of clothing that was distinctive of India. This may have been an ancestor of a vest like those that Mahatma Gandhi used to wear – but it is hard to know for sure, because nothing could be more unlike the Mahatma’s simple angarkho than the earliest surviving examples of the garment that went by the name ‘banyan’.


Several of these, dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:



Victoria and Albert Museum Collections


they are sumptuous, heavily-embroidered ankle-length robes that look like ornate dressing-gowns. They were typically worn by nabobs – that is to say, Britons who had made their fortunes in India.









These two (from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Website) are described as having been made on the Coromandel Coast, India, between 1750-177.



The accompanying legend says: ‘The loosely cut style of this banyan (a man’s informal robe) is based on that of the Japanese kimono, although the word itself is derived from the Indian word, banya, for a merchant or trader. Robes like this became popular in England and Holland from the mid-17th century, and were often made up of imported Indian chintz fabric, as in this case. Banyans could also be made of Chinese, or sometimes French, silk. Their generically ‘oriental’ air was part of a wider taste for exotic designs that formed part of the Chinoiserie style.’







The fabric was painted and dyed cotton chintz





and the garment was lined with block printed cotton.










¶ A version of this was published in 2009 by Vogue India under the title: ‘Confessions of a Banyan Addict

§ Taylor-Schechter Manuscripts, Cambridge University Library, N.S. J 1, verso, line 14.



Letters from Venice

November 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




Dear Mr Ghosh,

I honestly “discovered your name” only few weeks ago, just by and for a lucky
While walking in front of bookshop window, a cover photo attracted my vision,
Mandaly wood bridge, I entered into shop, read the brief story in back of
cover book, and because I have been in Burm few years ago I decided to buy the
book “The glass palace” hoping to be teletransported into Burma again with the
usage of memories.
You did even better then just teletransport me in there, I couldn’t stop to
read the book, and I “drunk” the book  in a week-end of full reading

Same happened with the next book I went to buy, this time in purpose, “The
Calcutta chromosome”.

So yesterday I went to buy all the remaining books your wrote in block,  as I
am sure I’ll refind the same magical atmosphere, not forgetting the fact that
I lernt lot of things from the fact narrated in these two single books I read
till now.

Due to my poor English language I can’t avoid to be direct-speeching  and
focus only to the intention of the mail itself, which is, as per mail-title
itself, a Compliments mail.

I want to write and express all my best and warmest compliment for your way of
conducting mind-reader of other countries, directly into the dust and smells
and sounds and noises and appeals of Asia. The words written by the drops of
your penn-ink, aren’t just black words on white paper, these black words draw
on paper a rainbow of colours that vividly and  impressively narrate stories.
I just want to write you all my warmest and sincere compliment, for your way
of narrating, writing and describing stories.

I honestly can’t say I read your books in English, just translated into
Italian, but I believe that a translater can provide a good attracting,
interesting book only if the provided material has a good, solid, impressive,
fantasious, rich soil, and I wished to let you know you have now a a “brand
new” close fan from Italy.

Please be kind to forgive my poor English vocabulary, my mail would have been
much more longer if written in my native language, so at the end less boredom
for you or your personaly secretary  in reading it.

Sincerely Yours.
Luana Zardinoni
(Venice – Italy)




Dear Luana
Thanks very much for this wonderful letter – I am really glad to know of your response to my books! Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog (
I will be in Venice for the Incroce conference in March. Maybe you could attend some of the sessions?
With my best wishes
Amitav Ghosh
Dear Mr. Ghosh,
I have no words, one of the few occasion in which someone has been able to let me remain mute and silent for a while.  I had your email at work and astonished I almost “jumped” on the chair for the unbelieving eyes while thinking you read what I wrote and that you decided to answer to it.
Do you really mean copy/paste my letter into your blog? wow yes
…….up to you then the hard “job” to correct all my grammar mistake and typing mistake, and shame on me for having done them all.
May I copy your answer into my webiste ? (
I would be proud to take a day off from work to be at the conference in case it is an open public session, if not, could you send me an invitation?
Are you sure about the March date, as per your blog it is written it will be on April 10-13, 2013 Incroci di civiltà (Crossings of Civilizations) Venice
Thanks again for your kind attention
Luana Zardinoni




Armenian retreats

November 21, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (6)








In 301 C.E. Armenia became the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as the religion of the realm. This history has endowed the country with some spectacularly beautiful monasteries.




One of the oldest is Khor Virap, which played an important part in the country’s conversion.









St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint and first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church,





was imprisoned on the site for 13 years by King Tiridates III, whom he eventually converted.











‘Khor Virap’ means ‘deep pit’ and it refers to the underground dungeon where the Saint was incarcerated –






which is said to be below this chapel.





The other major chapel on the site was first built in the 7th century of the Common Era







but has been re-built many times since then.







It is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Armenia.

















Noravank (or ‘New Monastery’) is about 122 km from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. The road runs through a spectacularly austere landscape, with vast slabs of geological time being laid bare to the eye, as if by the incisions of a titanic scalpel.

















The monastery is situated high up a slope and it stands guard over the defile of the Amaghu River.






The Surb Astvatsatsin (or Holy Mother of God Church) dominates the complex.












Nearby is a more modest but equally intriguing church, Surb Karapet.
















The picturesque Geghard monastery is said to have been founded by St Gregory himself.







The name means ‘spear’ and it refers to the weapon that is said to have pierced Jesus Christ during the Crucifixion.










The relic is stored in the monastery.














Hidden inside the vaulted interior
















are some curious motifs.
















Around the Church, there are trees with fluttering prayer ribbons.





They reminded me of a Tibetan-Buddhist monastery










I had visited in Yunnan, China, a couple of years ago.







It was a reminder that there are certain continuities and connections that extend through the entire Central Asian landmass – and of the fact that Armenians had established trading posts in Lhasa at least as early as the 12th century.








Not far from Geghard is the village of Garni,














where an elegant Hellenistic temple maintains a lonely vigil over the gorge of a rushing river.














Sadly I found no trace of an important phase of Armenia’s pre-Christian past – the centuries during which the country was Zoroastrian. But Zoroastrianism is a curiously tenacious faith, and it has a way of leaving traces of itself in unexpected places:





as for example in the name of this hair-dressing salon in Yerevan.

The name invokes the Zoroastrian angel of the waters (not to speak of the ship Anahita in River of Smoke).









‘Crossing the Bay of Bengal’ with Sunil S. Amrith

November 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants

Sunil S. Amrith

(to be published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 2013)



I am frequently asked why the Bay of Bengal figures so often in my work. These two paragraphs from Sunil Amrith’s Crossing The Bay Of Bengal may explain why the bay is of such enduring fascination to me.

PICTURE the Bay of Bengal as an expanse of tropical water: still and blue in the calm of the January winter, or raging and turbid with silt at the peak of the summer rains. Picture it in two dimensions, on a map, overlaid with a web of shipping channels and telegraph cables, inscribed with lines of distance and depth. Now imagine the sea as a mental map: as a family tree of cousins, uncles, sisters, sons, connected by letters and journeys and stories. Picture the Bay of Bengal even where it is absent—deep in the Malaysian jungle, where Hindu shrines sprout from the landscape as if washed up by the sea, left behind. There are many ways of envisaging the Bay of Bengal as a place with a history—as rich and complex as the history of any national territory. This is a story of the rise and fall of empires and the movement of peoples across the water. It recounts the changes in land and sea that millions of journeys brought about (6)

Today, one in four people on Earth lives in the countries that border the Bay of Bengal; over five hundred million people live directly on the coastal rim that surrounds it. This is a region that has long been central to the history of globalization: shaped by migration, as culturally mixed as anywhere on earth, and at the forefront of the commodification of nature. It is also, now, transformed by global warming. The coastal frontiers of the Bay are among the most vulnerable in the world to climate change; they are densely-populated, ecologically fragile, and at the fault-lines of new dreams of empire. (7)

In Amrith’s portrayal, the Bay of Bengal is not a barrier but a crossroads: ‘Its distinctiveness within the wider Indian Ocean comes from the sheer scale of movement that tied its coasts together, and in the nineteenth century this movement underwent a step-change. Far more people crossed the Bay of Bengal than any other part of the Indian Ocean… The migration of labor, in turn, made the region the most economically important segment of the Indian Ocean world.’ (29)

Of the many groups that have used the Bay as a thoroughfare, perhaps the most numerous were the Tamils. Their journeys, especially those undertaken in the colonial period, form the core of Amrith’s book. Indeed, his book began, as he explains, as ‘a history of the migration of Tamil labor to the Malay Peninsula… From these beginnings, I have ended up trying to write a history of the sea… For me, the question is: can we see South India as part of the Southeast Asian world—as closely linked to the coasts across the Bay of Bengal as it was to the centers of power in India? We have become so accustomed to national histories, and nationalist maps, that it is difficult to put the Bay of Bengal—its traffic of people, ideas, and things—at the heart of our story. But to do so opens new perspectives on the past and the present.’ (5-6)

Diasporic Tamil sources form an unusually rich archive for the history of the Bay, and to my knowledge they have never before been used as extensively as they are in this book. Along with the usual documentary sources Amrith uses novels, memoirs and interviews to chart the journeys that linked emigrants from the Coromandel coast to Malaya, Singapore, Aceh and the Arakan coast. His account confirms my own conviction that the links that bound people across the Bay were stronger, in many ways, than those that tied them to their hinterlands.

Although Amrith’s account is rich and varied, there is one important group of travelers who find no place in his story –  the coastal peoples of what is now Odisha. In this, unfortunately, Amrith extends a long tradition of neglect.

One of the reasons why Odiya boatmen and lascars are so often written out of history is that 19th century sources identify them with archaic place-names – one example is the term ‘Cooringhee’. Amrith is right, for example, to say that the Chulia boatmen of 19th century Singapore were from the Coromandel coast – but that coast extended further north I think than he allows. There were certainly many Odiya boatmen among the Chulias.

But it is inevitable perhaps, considering the vastness and variety of the Bay of Bengal, that its history will be told cumulatively, in a succession of tellings that shifts the point of view to different parts of the bay’s littoral. The publication of this book will, I hope, encourage someone to embark upon a corresponding chronicle told from the point of view of Odisha’s travelers and migrants – that too is a story that is long overdue.

The Bay of Bengal is a protagonist of such outsize dimensions that omissions are inevitable perhaps in telling its story – but still, I cannot help regretting the absence of certain plotlines. The story of the ship-building and ship-repairing for instance – in reading accounts of Calcutta and Singapore in the early 19th  century I am often struck by the salience of shipyards, both as a geographical feature of these cities and as economic hubs for their growth. The owners of the shipyards (Mr Kyd of Calcutta and Mr Tivendale of Singapore for instance) often moved from one port to another: their peregrinations would make an interesting narrative in itself.

Similary, even though Amrith pays unusually close attention to geology he does not I think give the undersea faultlines of this stretch of ocean the attention they deserve. He does indeed mention the tsunami of 2004, but I wish he had also included an account of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa (which similarly resulted in a tsunami that ricocheted around the Bay). What, for example, was the effect of the disappearance of Anger, a Javan city which had for centuries been one  of the most important ports of the Indian Ocean?

Yet another story that needs to be told is that of the sudden decline of Calcutta, which was the Bay’s major port through much of the 18th, 19th and eary 20th centuries. This too has had profound and yet-unchronicled consequences on the flows of goods and people across this waterway (some of these effect are alluded to in Thant Myint-U’s recent Where China Meets India, but the subject needs more comprehensive treatment).

But to regret these omissions is not in any way to detract from the scope of Amrith’s achievement in Crossing the Bay of Bengal. Not the least of his contributions is to restore a balance in Indian Ocean studies, in which the Bay has been relatively neglected in relation to its counterpart to the west, the Arabian Sea. As he notes: ‘Surprisingly, most histories of the Indian Ocean have ignored the Bay of Bengal in favor of the ocean’s northwestern quadrant; surprising, because the coasts of the Bay were more closely linked than any other part of the Indian Ocean.’

Perhaps the greatest strength of Amrith’s book is that he makes a serious effort to integrate social history with natural history. Not only does he deal with cyclones, geology, fish-stocks and so on, he also takes seriously Dipesh Chakrabarty’s dictum that historians need to radically re-evaluate their methods in the face of climate change. All the indications suggest that the coming environmental changes will have a greater impact on the heavily populated littoral of the Bay than on any other part of the world. For those who write in the shadow of the approaching catastrophe, ‘history as usual’ is as indefensible as ‘business as usual.’

‘Let us be clear,’ writes Amrith, ‘the policies and ideologies of European imperialism bear a heavy burden of responsibility in humanity’s path towards environmental crisis. British imperial policy dragged the Bay of Bengal region into a central role in global capitalism for a half-century after 1870: the forces of empire and capital energized the life of the sea, and sowed the seeds of its slow death. The elevation of private profit over public good, of environmental destruction over preservation, was integral to Victorian imperialism, notwithstanding its occasional communitarian urges and the stirrings of early environmentalism. Despite a few dissenting voices, post-colonial states learned these lessons well, and tried to apply them better. Alternative ideas of common wealth were crushed by colonial and post-colonial states with equal force, wedded as they were to a “developmental project” that transcended political divisions. We must not forget the very close association between human suffering and ecological harm. In the history I have told, moments of the most intensive environmental destruction—the land clearances on the Southeast Asian forest frontier in the 1870s; the wartime attempts to hack a jungle path around the Bay of Bengal— rested on the exploitation of labor at its most unfree. In collective memory, trauma and the transformation of landscape are in intimate embrace. With few exceptions, struggles for political freedom in the twentieth century failed to make that connection.’ (339)

Crossing the Bay establishes beachheads on several new shorelines – in using water as a means of dissolving ‘national’ (read ‘terrestrial’) histories in Asia, for example, and in taking account of climate change in telling the story of the past. Admirably ambitious yet eminently readable, this is one of the most engaging works of history to come my way in a long time.


‘Sea of Poppies’ in Chinese/Memories of Hangzhou

November 15, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



‘Sea of Poppies’ has just been published in Chinese, by the publishing house Shanghai 99. The translators are Dr Guo Guoliang and Dr Li Yao.






Seeing the cover reminded me of a trip  in 2011 when Debbie and I






visited Dr Guo Guoliang in Hangzhou, where he teaches.









A friend, the writer Ming Lu, had recommended a pre-revolutionary Art Deco hotel








called the New Hotel.







It is right on Hangzhou’s renowned West Lake and



the rooms offer breathtaking views.











Created over a thousand years ago, the West Lake is one of the most beautiful urban landscapes on earth –





when you’re there it’s hard to believe that Hangzhou is a sprawling industrial city







(it was a vast city even when Ibn Battuta visited it, in the 14th century – he said of it: “it is the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth”).





On an island at the centre of the lake




is the hundred year old Lou Wai Lou (‘Tower beyond Tower’) –







a restaurant which is famous for its views





and its clay-baked













‘Beggars Chicken’.














At the northwest end of the lake is the Lingyin temple (‘Temple of the Soul’s Retreat’)






which is one of the most famous in China.










The temple is said to have been founded in 326 C.E. by an Indian monk, known as Hui Li in China.






It is one of the largest Zen temples in China.










As often in Chinese temples, there is an arresting image of the Bodhidharma,






who is said to have been a monk from southern India (he is credited with introducing tea to China – the bush is said to have sprouted from his eyelids).









Magnificent rock-cut friezes






depict the journeys







of  Buddhist monks






who traveled from India to China,






over the Himalaya.












We were lucky to be shown around by two of Dr Guo’s students




from the Dept of English at Zhejiang University.








And afterwards we had a memorable dinner with Dr Guo




and some of his students.










Hangzhou’s Zhejiang  University is one of the most prestigious in China –















it is like a city in itself.





We had a terrific interaction with Dr Guo Guoliang’s students –








it was interesting to learn that many of them are fans of Aamir Khan’s ‘Three Idiots’ (the film was a huge hit in China).







And afterwards we had another memorable meal in a nearby restaurant.







Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of Dr Li Yao – the birth of her first child was imminent so she couldn’t be with us through most of this. But she later sent me a lovely picture of her newborn daughter –






who  will be growing up with the Ibis Trilogy for a couple of years yet: I just heard from Guoliang that he and Dr Li Yao are now working on the translation of River of Smoke.




Yet another Indian First World War memoir found!

November 14, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)


A couple of weeks ago Murali Ranganathan wrote to let me know that he had found a First World War memoir in Gujarati (see my post of  Oct 15 Murali Ranganathan does it again – an amazing new find!)

I have long felt that a First World War memoir in Marathi must exist  (the expeditionary force that was sent to Mesopotomia in 1915 consisted largely of the 6th Poona Division and many of the soldiers and auxiliaries were from Maharashtra). A week ago Murali wrote to let me know that he had indeed found a First World War memoir in Marathi! Here is his account of it.


Capturing the war:

The Marathi War Memoirs of Captain Gopal Gangadhar Limaye.



An introductory note by MR.


Published in February 1939, nearly two decades after the events they recalled, the War Memoirs of Captain Limaye, start from early 1918 when he received a temporary commission in the Indian Medical Service and continue through to 1921 when he was discharged from the army. As part of the 87th Punjabis, he saw action in Mesopotamia and was involved in operations against the Kurdistanis in 1919 and in quelling the Arab Rebellion in 1920. While both these operations are from a period after the armistice (11 November 1918) and technically may not form part of the First World War, they can be viewed as an extension of that war and as the foreword suggests, “in many ways conditions during these operations were more trying than those during the period of the Great War proper.”


Originally written in the period immediately following his return, parts of the memoir first appeared in the Marathi monthly magazine, Masik Manoranjan in 1923-24. In many ways, the book is an unique artifact. It is based on the notes Dr. Limaye kept during the war and the letters he sent home. It contains over fifty photographs, most of them taken by the author. And all that could not be photographed, is sketched or painted, with the book having over fifty sketches, small and large. Wherever his narration required maps, he drew them himself; the maps provide a distinctive pictorial representation of the war front.  To top it all, there are his cartoons related to his war experiences, some of which originally appeared in the Bombay Chronicle in the 1920s. As he confidently declares in his introduction, the world of Marathi literature had never before seen a book like this. And sadly, never since!


The memoirs are preceded by by a foreword (in English) by Lt. Col. J. M. Hunt of the 5th Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment (which was the new avatar of the 87th Punjabis). He was a colleague of the doctor during this period and was the senior-most officer who could be traced after 20 years, others having died or otherwise disappeared. Hunt tries to jog his memory of events and imagines a Dr. Limaye committed to his work, liked and admired by the injured soldiers, and an enthusiastic spark. The Marathi text has a prefatory note by General Nanasaheb Shinde, retired chief of the Baroda Army.[1]


In his stolid preface, General Shinde laments the complete dearth in Marathi of memoirs and autobiographies by soldiers who had seen action during the First World War. He remarks that the thousands of Marathi soldiers who ventured to the battlefields and lived to tell the tale must have had minimal powers of observation and registration, not to mention narration.


From the author’s introduction onwards, one gets a distinct feeling of perkiness which seems to permeate the character of Dr. Limaye. In the few photographs not taken by himself, he comes across as diminutive, almost elfin, charmingly mischievous and sprightly. Born in 1895, he was 23 when he first went to East Africa in 1918. And for the next three years, he seems to have maintained the same lightheartedness of character with which we are first made acquainted. The introduction contains a meticulous account of how and when the memoirs were written, the antecedents of the photographs, maps and sketches, the notes and letters which he referred to, and the publication history of some of the material.


The memoirs start from his joining the army at Peshawar, which he says is as foreign to him as Africa. His brief stint in East Africa, based in Zanzibar and Dar-es salaam, and his interaction with the natives are described with anthropological fervour. On a two-month furlough in India, he was suddenly recalled and asked to report to the Middle East. By way of Basra and Baghdad he joined his battalion which was involved in the quelling of the 1919 Kurdish revolt in Chamchamal and then found itself caught in the Arab Rebellion of 1920. The 87th Punjabis saw action in Hillah and was part of the harried withdrawal of the British forces from Diwaniya. During the relief of Kufah, he was injured in the foot by a bullet on 12 October 1920 while ministering to the injured at the battlefront. He was informally reprimanded for venturing right to the head of the battlefront to attend to the injured instead of keeping to the rear. There is even a long-shot photograph of him sitting injured on the ground next to his ambulance lines, soon after he was shot.


There are the usual accounts about the excessive heat, lack of water and the adverse conditions (but thankfully, no trenches!) in which they had to live for much of the period. However, his enthusiasm never seems to flag. A lot of the confidence which comes across in the writing can be linked to his work, in the most trying circumstances, as a medical practitioner amongst men who need him most urgently.


Besides the main narrative of his war experiences, there is a separate note on each period where he particularizes his daily schedule of activities, the places he stayed in, the food he ate, the salaries and allowances which he received, the transport which was available to him. An appendix contains a detailed calendar of the three years giving his location and the principal events which occurred during this period.


Last but not the least, there is a section on war ditties (in English) which Dr. Limaye composed as the war situation demanded. They were to be sung at the mess-table. The longer ones narrate the activities of the 87th Punjabis and the idiosyncrasies of the various officers, including their one-armed General. Two of the shorter ditties are reproduced by way of example.



March of the 87th Punjabis.


Flies to the right of them

Mosquitoes to the left of them

Sand-flies beneath them

Bullets in front of them.


Dust inside them

Heat outside them

Into the Marsh of Hillah

Marched the sturdy PUNJABIS.

Soliloquy of a B. O. R. (British Other Rank)


To drink or not to drink, that is the question!

To abstain – to die; to drink – to trot.

Whether ’tis nobler in the Heart

To suffer the pangs of thirst

Or by drinking to quench them!


HILLAH, August 1920. (when there was severe shortage of water.)


Part of the good humour which permeates the book can be traced to the reputation he had developed in the 1920s and 1930s in the Marathi world as a writer of wit and humour. Before these memoirs appeared, he had already published six collections of short stories, mainly humorous (whose reviews are listed in the dust cover). Perhaps some more appeared later.


Dr. Limaye sets out to provide his reader with a vivid portrait of what fighting in a war might be like. Using all the media available to him, and marshaling all his resources most competently, Limaye certainly succeeds in ‘capturing the war’.



Book details


Sainyatil Athavani [War Memoirs]

By Captain Gopal Gangadhar Limaye, MBBS, BHY (Gold Medalist)

Foreword: Lt. Col. J. M. Hunt, 5th Battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment

Preface: General Nanasaheb Shinde, ex-chief of the Baroda Army


Publisher: Kemkar ani mandali, Mumbai

February 1939.

xvi, 201 pages, illustrations, plates and maps.


Copy seen at the Mumbai Marathi Granthsangrahalaya, Mumbai.

Should be available in all good Marathi libraries.

[1]   The choice of General Nanasaheb Ganpat Shinde (1875-1951) was probably influenced by the fact that he had, four years back in 1935, published the first military autobiography in Marathi. Titled the Autobiography of a Soldier, or From Lieutenant to General, [Eka Sipayanche Atmavrutta] (Mumbai: Damodar Savlaram ani Mandali, 1935), the general rues the fact that he never saw action in forty years of service. It documents his close association with the royal Gaikwad household at Baroda, and his administrative activities. Though he was in harness during the period, the First World War does not get a mention in his 500-page autobiography.


     But the General does have an independent arm-chair book on the First World War published in the immediate aftermath of the War titled the History of the Indian Army and the Allied Forces, [Hindustancha Lashkari Itihas ani dost rashtrancha fouja], (Varodara: M. C. Kothari, 1922), that I have not seen.




Can people from the past ‘channel’ themselves into contemporary fiction?

November 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


‘Tell me whom you haunt,’ André Breton famously said, ‘and I’ll tell you who you are.’

It’s always disconcerting when a character or a scene in a novel turns out to have an unsuspected ‘real life’ counterpart. The experience is strangest of course when the character or scene in question is one that you had imagined to be  completely ‘fictional’. I had thought that Benjamin Burnham (a character who figures in Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke) was one such. But on October 17 this year, I received this letter.


Namaste Amitav,

My name is RM Allen and I live and work in Exeter, New Hampshire, USA. I am planning a trip on Jan 1-8 to visit friends from Exeter who are in Chennai India – for the next three years with the husband’s job.
I remembered reference to Madras in my family tree. I looked it up last night and saw that my relative is Thomas Burnham of Essex, Massachusetts ( my hometown), brother of Benjamin Burnham of the East India Trading Co (1635-85).
Upon further internet research, I cam across your trilogy, and see that Benjamin is a character in your series. Probably not a pleasant character, as for a man to amass such wealth signals to me that he did it off the backs of others. Also, by reading his will I was struck by his passage in which states his other relatives should “die with me”. Hmmmmm. I wonder if he ever heard of Karma? I am pretty sure he did. This perhaps explains why in the end NONE of his wealth went to his family.
My hosts in Chennai do plan on bringing me to the Fort George Museum, and am sure I will see some artifacts of Benjamin there.
I have ordered Sea of Poppies from the Exeter library, and am looking forward to reading of my ancestor. I am assuming with your meticulous research, that you have painted a pretty realistic portrait of the man. If not, could you reply with some context?
R.M. Allen
 ps. I am also an author, but not quite as well-read as you 🙂
Dear RM Allen
This is very interesting – because although there are many characters in my Trilogy who are taken from history, Benjamin Burnham is not one of them! He is completely fictional.
But then fiction is sometimes all too real…
I would like to post your letter on my blog (which is on my website). Do let me know if that’s okay with you.
Best wishes
Hello again Amitav,

I hope you enjoyed your weekend.
This is all very interesting. Perhaps you were channeling my relation and did not know it? Very odd indeed.

Yes, you may use my email. I am also attaching the page from my family tree about the Burnhams. The will of Benjamin Burnham is easily viewed online. ( you can add this bit as a post script to the blog if you want)


RM Allen


Who, I wonder, was haunting whom?



Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 7 of 7

November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]


Where then can leadership on climate change come from? It is clear that it will come neither from the United States nor from ’emergent nations’ like India, China and Brazil. This leaves only one other possibility: Europe. If there is a silver lining in this grim scenario, it is that Europe happens to have arrived at a point where it is singularly well-suited to take the lead. Here are the reasons why:

Firstly, if there was ever a transnational issue then it is climate change – the weather has no respect for national boundaries and borders. Yet in the face of this dire crisis, many nations, especially the larger and more powerful, are pursuing their national interests ever more aggressively. Nationalism is indeed one of the most pernicious threads in the helix of disaster.

Europe, where nationalism was born, and which has endured its worst excesses, is the only part of the world that has succeeded in articulating and acting upon a vision of political organization that goes beyond the nation-state. Its progress down that path has been slow and fitful, it is true, but I think deep down Europeans understand and appreciate the world-historical significance of the project they have embarked upon (the recent Dutch elections are proof of this). A few other parts of the world have also moved towards transnational co-operation – South-East Asia and the Andean countries are two examples. If these pockets of post-nationalism could join hands they could have a significant impact.

Secondly, experience shows us that if climate change is to be tackled effectively then it will require stringent regulation and oversight by national and transnational bodies. That the issue has burst upon us at a time when much of the world is in thrall to an ideology of laissez-faire is but another aspect of the catastrophic convergence that we are now faced with. In the United States, in India, and in many other countries the domain of the public interest has narrowed to a sliver, and corporations have effectively captured the machinery of government, including regulatory bodies.

In this too Europe is an exception: the public good continues to be a cherished ideal, and regulatory oversight is accepted to be one of the most important functions of government. This perhaps is why corporations have not been able to create an industry of climate denial in Europe. As a result the European public is far better informed about climate change than people elsewhere.

Thirdly, climate change cannot be addressed without a historical reckoning. We are, as I have said, at a moment when what once seemed like success is revealed to be folly; when old remedies are seen to be the causes of the disease. To move ahead will require a massive change of expectations amongst people. Unfortunately, in most countries around the world, this is politically speaking, an impossible message to communicate. In China and Russia, political stability is premised on the delivery of rising standards of living; in the USA, India and many other democracies, elections depend on stoking expectations. This is yet another thread in the helix of disaster.

Here again Europe provides cause for hope. Europe knows what it means to disavow the past: this was one of the impulses that led to the founding of the European Union. But even here, it will not be easy to educate people into a realistic awareness of what lies ahead – but this is one place where it could succeed and if it does it will set an example for the world.

Fourthly, most European countries still continue to provide a high level of basic education. This is in marked contrast to (for example) the United States and Canada, which both have high levels of functional illiteracy. For this reason too, the public culture of Europe has not yet retreated into a world of celebrity-worship, spectacle and fantasy, as is the case in most English-speaking countries and in India. Europe is one (perhaps the only) part of the world where the populace at large could understand the nature of the changes that confront us.

Finally, Europe is equipped to lead on this issue because it is the one part of the world that has already undertaken large-scale preparations for climate change. No country is a better example of this than Holland. As a non-European it is with awe and envy that I follow reports on the preparations that Holland has already made for dealing with sea level rise – the sea gates, the floating dwellings that have been made available to people; the plans for evacuating a third of the country, and so on.

The project of Europe has been flawed in many ways: it was excessively bureaucratic; it placed the interests of business above those of people; it was half-hearted in some respects and over-reached in others. But let us not forget Europe’s successes. Along with Japan, it was Europe that took the lead in the negotiations for Kyoto; Europe has also tried in good faith to find a way towards an equitable solution to the problem of climate change. Europe’s credibility on this issue is such that it is in a position to lead, not as it has in the past, by dominance and coercion, but by example.

Through most of the journey that has brought the world to this fork in the road, Europe has led the way. In doing so it has created an immense continent of carbon in the atmosphere, a dark shadow wholly out of proportion to its size. Now that we have arrived at this turn in the road it is clear that what lies ahead is not a fork but an unbridgeable, steadily-growing chasm. We can only hope that Europe will now take the lead once again, in showing us how best to turn back.





Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 6 of 7

November 7, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]


For a century the West has held up its way of life as the standard of living to be aspired to by everybody. It was assumed that the whole planet would be a happy place if only everyone on it could share a Western lifestyle and participate in Western patterns of consumption. The United States has for decades offered this as a mantra of deliverance for the world at large.

But just for a moment let us consider what it would mean if this actually came about. Britain, for example, has 22 million households and 31 million cars. If India, with 247 million households were to move towards the same ratio of car ownership, then the country would have 345 million cars. If we add China to this picture, as well as Indonesia and the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America then we have a doubling or tripling of the one billion cars that are already on the road around the world. Just to look at the numbers is to know that the planet would asphyxiate long before this pattern of consumption could become ‘universal’.

What can be said about this trajectory except that it is powered by a dangerous delusion?

How then do we break free of this delusion? Where does the solution lie?

The United States is by far the world’s most powerful and important nation. It is also the nation that has contributed the most to our knowledge of climate change. Most of the leaders in this field of study are American; much of the research on the subject has been conducted in American institutions and the country probably has more environmental activists than any other. The government of the USA, at its highest levels, has been aware of these issues long before other parts of the world: President Jimmy Carter was speaking of it in the 1970s. What is more, the US has already begun to feel the effects of climate change: large parts of the country are now in a condition of permanent drought, forests are dying in the mountains and many regions have been hit by severe floods and catastrophic storms.

For all these reasons, the United States should, by right, be taking the lead in addressing climate change. But instead of an awakening, what we see in the United States is a determined, well-orchestrated effort to suppress public awareness of climate change. This effort presents a perfect example of how the feedback loop of carbon emissions amplifies and sustains itself at a political and cultural level. Over the last twenty years many factors  – corporate money, an economy founded on fossil fuels, a political system that is open to manipulation by lobbyists, a powerful industry of persuasion, an ethos of nationalist ‘exceptionalism’; a culture that glorifies profit-seeking and regards regulation with suspicion – have come together to form a tornado-like spiral that has effectively swept aside the country’s once-powerful environmental movement. At a time when the notions of the collective interest and the public good are more necessary than ever before, these values are increasingly imperiled in the world’s most important country.

Given these circumstances, is it possible, realistically, to imagine that the America of today might  elect a leader who would have the courage to tell the world that the era of continuous economic growth will have to end soon, one way or another – either at the behest of human beings or of the planet they inhabit?

The answer is self-evidently no.

Inasmuch as there is any plan for the future in the US, it would seem that some kind of silent consensus has been reached that the country will adopt a ‘lifeboat’ approach to climate change – that is to say it will seal its borders, prepare militarily, and tackle problems as they arise, trusting that its highly developed economy and infrastructure will see it through. As for the rest of the world it will be up to everyone to sink or swim according to their abilities.

As critics have pointed out, such a course will of course have genocidal effects, resulting in the death of great numbers of people around the globe. Nor will America’s own population be unaffected: a large part of the 47% of the population that Mitch Romney describes as ‘moochers’ will also find no place on the lifeboat.

Where else then are we to look for leadership on this issue? Could it perhaps come from newly-emergent nations like India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa? These countries certainly have much to lose in the sense that many of the people who are most vulnerable to climate change live in them. Yet to hope that they will take the lead on this issue is both unrealistic and unjust. The emergent powers are all striving to raise the living standards of their own people; they are all motivated, to a greater or lesser degree, by a desire to ‘catch up’ with the West, in all things, including carbon emissions. Even though two of them, China and India, are already among the world’s top three polluters, it is still true that at this point in time, their per capita contribution to the net stock of carbon in the atmosphere is small.

The rapid increase of emissions from these countries thus has a dual aspect: in one sense it represents a new level of intensification in the globe’s collective rush towards disaster. But in another sense it is also a challenge, a clear declaration that if there is to be any cutting back, if sacrifices are to be made, then they must come, in the first instance, from the West, which has gobbled up far more than its fair share of the world’s resources. In other words the emergent countries have taken the stand that history has absolved them of taking the lead in this matter: they are rather looking to be led – not by coercion, but by example.



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