Archive for March, 2013

From a reader in Rome

March 29, 2013 in Letters | Comments (0)


Through the marvelous works you are publishing (books and blog on the web side) I’m learning very much about certain parts of the history that were completely unknow to me untill a couple of years ago. I actually had a good school education, in Italy, so I always thought, that my knowledge of the main events in the world history were more or less complete, or, at least, superficially exaustive. Than, some years ago, I began to read your books (The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide), and I discovered, that what I learnt at school was only a very small part of the real history. I went on reading (In a antique Land, The Calcutta Chromosome), and my interest in your works grew more and more. The last two books – Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke – opened up a new, important, fascinating world for me, where asian and european history came together in a way that no school teacher in west europe ever dared to teach.
The section “Shared Sorrows” you are publishing now on your blog, added some more, really important, material to my sense and understanding of history. I guess that happened also with many other european readers. Thank you again: I will certainly go on reading your books and your blog.
All the best for you and your family
Laura Paoloni
Rome, Italy
(Please excuse my poor English)

From a Correspondent with Bhojpuri Connections

March 25, 2013 in Letters | Comments (0)



May 2012

Dear Mr Ghosh
It was a privilege to hear you speak at the Greewich Maritime Museum in late February. We spoke very briefly as you were signing books and you said I could drop you an email. I’ve been meaning to email you for months and actually started drafting this email the day after your talk. But life sort of takes over…As you probably gathered, my sister, Shruti, and I think your books are amazing and were honoured to meet our literary hero. I don’t say that lightly. I do read quite a lot, but few novels have made a difference to my life. Yours have – they have helped to fill in great gaps in my knowledge of history and thus given me a new way of seeing the World. So now if I hear people talking about (say) Indian soldiers deserting the British Army during WWII, I am able to say “well, actually…” – this is directly as a result of reading ‘The Glass Palace‘.Although I have lived in the UK since I was seven years old, and am now British by nationality, I remain fundamentally Indian. Yet I know very little about India as, despite a shared past, India is pretty absent from British history teaching. As a child and adolescent I felt this lack of acknowledgement very keenly. Your books, amongst others, have given me knowledge and improved my sense of self, who I am and where I come from. As a parent, I feel you have given me knowledge I can pass onto my children.I briefly mentioned to you that you may have come across my uncle, Satchitanand (‘Sacha’) Singh, at St Stephen’s College. He is our mother’s older brother and now lives in Orissa. Both my parents families are from Bihar and my maternal grandmother’s native language is Bhojpuri. My mother’s family are Rajput, I guess like the Thakurs in Sea of Poppies, and are originally from north Bihar. My father’s family are also Rajput, though once upon a time they were rather more grand. They were landowners in and around Darbhanga, with quite a large holding, which has gradually dwindled through mis-management and inheritances. More interestingly, they speak the ancient language Maithli.
My father is a doctor who left India in the early 1980s a a result of sheer frustration (he worked in government service) and family trauma from my maternal grandfather’s sudden death.
Although Bhojupuri is not spoken in my family homes, I am familiar with it and hear it at friends’ houses. Reading Bhojupuri in your novel was an unexpected delight its emotional impact was not something I envisaged. Actually more than a delight – deeply moving. It’s difficult to explain the impact of reading the line where Kaburti asks her mother to bing her back bangles. Reading that line, and the Bhojpuri songs, brought a lump to my throat. Reading it in English just would not feel the same.Anyway, I think I’ve said quite enough about my family history. Do let me know if you remember my uncle, as it will give me a great pleasure to tell him I met you.If you ever get the chance, I would like to know how you found studying at Oxford? I read PPE at St Hilda’s (1993-96) although my first love is history. But I found I could not study history in Britian – it was too incomplete, too partial. I want to understand India and Britain’s shared history, but as soon as the words ‘colonialism’ or ’empire’ are mentioned, all one hears is a load of babble about railways, things being not that bad, getting rid of suti etc.Finally, I hope you enjoyed the rest of your stay in Britain. I know you must have many contacts here, but if you or your family ever need anything whilst in London, where I live, or Portsmouth, where Shruti now lives – and also the birthplace of Dickens – please remember that we are always at your service.

With all good wishes

Smriti Singh

Dear Smriti
Thanks very much for this letter. It was nice to meet you in London, even if briefly, and I am very glad to know of your response to ‘Sea of Poppies’: it really means a lot to me that the book touched you in such a visceral way.
It’s shocking to know that the history of imperialism was taught in this fashion at Oxford in the 90s. But there are many teachers in the UK who do not take such a narrow view.
Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? Do let me know.
Dear Mr Ghosh

I’m pleased you liked my letter and don’t mind at all if you put it on your website – feel free to edit it, as it is rather long. To  be fair to Oxford, there were some excellent tutors there, and still are, but the general discourse in England about the Empire, where it exists at all, is mis-informed and self-centred. I was recently asked by a friend whether people in the ex-colonies still see Britain as great or as a declining power? Where does one begin…?

Anyway, I’m pleaed you liked my letter and will look out for it on the website.

Best wishes


István Perczel and India’s Syriac Heritage

March 22, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



I wrote about Dr István Perczel, of the Central European University in Budapest, in my post of April 9, 2012 (‘Hungarian Scholar Finds Bonanza in Kerala Archive’ – here is a link to his website ‘Project for Preserving the Manuscripts of the Syrian Christians in India’).

Recently an unexpected opportunity arose to meet István Perczel: he was in Goa with a team of archivists who are hoping to digitize Goa’s state archives. These archives have accumulated over five centuries and contain priceless materials, covering subjects that range from botany to the politics of the Mughal empire. Its earliest holdings go back to the 1490s, decades before the Mughals came to India. István describes these archives as one of the most important in the world.

Also on the team was Fr Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk who runs the Hill Centre in Minneapolis Michigan. This library has already digitized over a hundred thousand manuscripts from church archives around the world. Among these manuscripts are many from the churches of Syria – a very fortunate thing, since some of these churches may not survive the civil war.

It was fascinating to meet these remarkable scholars and to hear of their work. Here is a picture of István Perczel (right) and Fr Columba (left);





and another of their team.




[From left to right, István Perczel, Uday Balakrishnan, Fr Ignatius Payyapilly, archivist of the Syro-Malabar Major Archbishopric in Ernakulam, and Fr Columba; pictures courtesy István Perczel].

Later István wrote:

Concerning In an Antique Land I would also like to tell how fascinating I find the two-sided description of your anthropological research: you went to Lataifah/Nashawy (or the villages indicated by these pseudonyms) to study the fellaheen and they, in exchange, were doing their own anthropological research on the doktór al-Hindi. The Syriac and Malayalam material that one can find in Kerala testifies to a similar interaction. While the Europeans arrived in India, discovered the Indians and made anthropological, geographic etc. descriptions, apparently the Indians did the same: for them this was the opportunity to discover Europe and the Europeans. Several Syrian Christian priests mounted the Portuguese ships in order to travel to Europe and see the lands there. The first one, somebody called in European sources Joseph the Indian, did so as early as in 1500. He traveled to Europe on a ship of Pedro Alvares Cabral and somewhere in Europe he was interviewed, his answers constituting the first source for the Europeans about the customs of the Indian Christians. Then he went back to his land and, apparently, became one of the staunchest opponents of Westernization and Latinization (Antony Vallavanthara, India in 1500: The Narratives of Joseph the Indian, Gorgias Press, 2010). In Cambridge, the Buchanan collection, there is a miscellaneous Indian manuscript (MS Cambridge Oo.1.29) containing an astronomical-geographical treatise written in India in Syriac, datable to the 1570s, which describes Europe giving the distances between London and Paris, Seville and Rome etc. in parasangs, the Persian measure of distance. It also describes Japan and China, clearly relying on the data received from European travelers and missionaries. The same manuscript also contains a note with a text describing the odd European habit of burning heretics (in this case, Protestants) at the stakes and ends with this sentence: “This is very hard, one feels pain even to speak about it.” Definitively, burning heretics is worse than burning the dead bodies and some sixteenth-century Indians had noticed this.

He also sent me some of his articles. They are all fascinating, because they reveal a world of fluid connections, going back many centuries, when priests traveled freely between the Malabar Coast, the Middle East and southern Europe.

Perhaps the most interesting of the articles is Classical Syriac As A Modern Lingua Franca in South India between 1600 and 2006 (Aram, 21 (2009) 289-321) which demonstrates that Syriac, an ancient language descended from Middle Aramaic, was once a link language in the Indian subcontinent (it is written in a very beautiful script, derived from Aramaic, and a precursor of Arabic).

The true revelation of the piece is that Syriac was in use in India until very recently. ‘As far as literature is concerned, we witness an incredible blossoming of Syriac literature beginning with the sixteenth century, still very vigorous in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, declining only at the end of the same century. However, notwithstanding this decline, the latest Syriac manuscript that I have seen and photographed in Kerala is dated to 2005 and was written by Chorepiscopa Curian Kaniamparambil, the great Malankara malpan, that is, malfono – Doctor, of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, now 101, containing a devotional poem called Thousand Stanzas, a poem written in a simple and crystalline Syriac, which I find very beautiful and enjoyable, of definite literary quality. Father Curian Kaniamparampil has also rendered into verse the Gospel of St. Matthew, and has written many other works in Syriac.’ (p. 7)

Later he adds: ‘Father Kaniamparambil, now 94, learned Syriac as an autodidact when he was thirteen. Apparently he had a very great talent for this language, so much so that subsequently he began to write liturgical poetry. He also made many translations for the Jacobite West Syriac liturgy into Malayalam, used in his church…’ (19).

It strikes me as very unfortunate that this remarkable writer  is so little known in India.



Captain Frederick Marryat and the British Museum Buddha

March 18, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)


Rupert Arrowsmith is an art historian and author  of Global Modernism: Early Twentieth Century Art and Literature in Tokyo, Shanghai, Calcutta, Bombay and London (I reviewed the book on this site on 21/07/2011;  see also this earlier post on the Goan painter Angelo da Fonseca). Recently Rupert mentioned to me that a prominently displayed Buddha statue in the British Museum was brought to England from Burma by Capt Frederick Marryat. This caught my interest because Capt Marryat (1792-1848) was a pioneering writer of sea stories and I read him with much interest as a boy. I asked Rupert for more details and he sent me this:

One of the artworks I spoke about at the inaugural Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Yangon (February 4-6, 2013) was the large, very exquisite Buddha-image from Burma that now sits opposite the entrance to the Asian galleries on the second floor of the British Museum.  It is an extraordinarily subtle piece (much better than the Greek rubbish downstairs in the Elgin Room), made using the inconceivably complex hollow lacquer method.


Burmese Buddha



The sculpture hasn’t always sat opposite the entrance of the Asian galleries, oh no.  Would you believe that when the Museum acquired it in 1826, they positioned it halfway up the main staircase between two stuffed giraffes?  One struggles to imagine a more barbarous act.

And this is where the word acquire in my first paragraph ought to come in for a bit of scrutiny.  It sounds official, doesn’t it?  It sounds legitimate.  It sounds legal.  Of course this is what the museums of Europe want you to think: who today can think of an institution more respectable than that of the great European museum?

But this Buddha-image was not bought from anyone in Burma, nor was permission ever given for its removal.  It was swiped during the anarchy following the British invasion of Lower Burma between 1824 and 1825.

The person who swiped it, and then handed it on to the British Museum, was Frederick Marryat, a high-ranking naval officer who later became the author of popular sea stories.  The sculpture can only have occupied a monastery or temple, and it is unimaginable in the context of Burmese Buddhism that its pious custodians would have let it go without a fight.  We shall never know what mayhem Marryat let slip on its behalf along with the dogs of war, for on his deathbed he instructed his daughter carefully to burn any and all papers, letters and journals in his possession relating to the war in Burma.

The word acquire, then, very often just means armed robbery with violence.

The Buddha-image wasn’t the only souvenir of Burma Marryat brought back with him from the war of 1824-5.  He is now thought to have acquired more than 120 artifacts, including an important royal carriage.  He later wanted to donate all of this to the British Museum in exchange for a lifetime position on the board of trustees, but the Museum said no.  They didn’t say no because they were worried that there had been something unethical about Marryat’s methods.  In a typically British twist to the story, they said it because they thought he was the wrong class, and would probably lower the tone of the boardroom.

Though I tend to agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s idea that it is intellectually healthful to have objects from diverse regions displayed in various parts of the world, rather too many objects that have been cut loose from their original contexts seem to have been brought to rest in Europe.  With an artifact whose acquisition was as murky as that of this Buddha-image, the solution is obvious: give it back.


From a Trinbagonian reader

March 15, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



Oy good sir,

As a lover of Naipaul and a London-born Trinbagonian, I think your article on Naipaul is note-perfect. I had to write immediately to tell you so. It bears mentioning that despite my name, I am neither Muslim nor Indo-Trini. In fact, being half Nigerian, am definitely Black, and find on paper Naipaul is racist, sometimes acutely so. He is condescending toward his root culture and particularly unforgiving of his African characters and I love him still. His fiction is truth. And truth hurts.

Let me share my childhood Naipaul nugget: I moved (back) to England for a few months the year I turned ten, already a Naipaul enthusiast. The scene: 1989. East Indians had overtaken the better London restaurants (thank the Lord) and the English though grateful, were nationally bemoaning the influx of straight haired darkies (don’t wince).

I was in school in Kent, one of two foreign students that term. I remember being struck by how ignorant my classmates were of my part of the world. These people who were the reason we spoke English. I felt insulted every time someone called me ‘Jamaican’. I knew their moors, their enchanted woods and terraced houses, I knew of Bath and Cornwall, of Shakespeare, of Dickens and Jane Austen, of Churchill and Enid Blyton and the bastards had never heard of us. I was outraged. I wanted to hand out copies of Miguel Street.

The other foreign student was a mute (by choice and culture shock) East Indian boy. I thought I had more in common with him than the English, because coming from Trinidad, I am a lover of roti and channa is channa not chickpeas. I knew Divali, Phagwa, and Eid as well I knew Christmas, but the boy refused to talk to me. I knew then that these things (these things which were in no way connected) were signs: I must write and give voice to our people as Naipaul did, so that my peers would be properly illumined.

Having lived outside of Trinidad and Tobago for more than half my life, Naipaul’s voice in his early work is quintessentially Trinidadian. As a New Yorker, for years now, when I want to go home I go to Miguel Street,  I visit the Mystic Masseur and remember Hanuman House and grander days. After the Nobel, after gaining popularity for piling on the derision on our parts so successfully, so lovingly, he should have said, this is for you Trinidad.

Thank you,



Shared Sorrows – 18

March 10, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (2)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 18


On November 26th Sisir and his comrades reached Tripoli; and on December 4th they embarked on a ship that took them to Port Said.

But before they could embark, there ensued one of the strangest episodes in this story. At the centre of it was one of the BAC’s ‘camp-followers’, a sweeper called Jumman. It’s best that Sisir tells the story himself:



Indian soldiers with Armenian orphans*

Indian soldiers with Armenian widows and orphans*




When we were marching [northwards] from Mosul, Jumman saw an Armernian child on the banks of a stream near Ras al-‘Ain and picked him up. His mother must have died, and his father must have been killed… Jumman took on the responsibility of looking after the boy and named him Babulal. He used to call Jumman father (‘Baba’).’ (p.175)[i]

This story would be hard to believe if it were not confirmed by other sources. But E.A. Walker, an English oficer, came upon a group of Indian sepoy prisoners in a holding camp at Ras-el-Ain’ in 1916. He noted in his diary, which is now in the Imperial War Museum, that they ‘had with them a ‘small Armenian boy of about ten or so’ who was the sole survivor of thousands of Armenian women and children who had been massacred.’’[ii]

Sisir notes that Babulal soon began to speak Hindi and that once he was old enough he began to work as a fifer for the Bengal Ambulance Corps [iii]. This was a job that by long tradition of British Indian army, had been performed by orphaned Eurasian boys – so the tale is not as unlikely as it may sound.

But at Tripoli a problem arose: ‘Before embarking on the ship to Suez Jumman was told that he would not be allowed to bring Babulal with him. An Armenian padre came to take Babulal away. But why would Babulal go to him? He made a huge fuss and cried up a storm of tears; and Jumman wept too, holding on to the boy. In the end Jumman was allowed to take Babulal home with him.’ (p.175)

Babulal, Jumman, Sisir and their surviving comrades reached India on January 8th, 1919.


[i] In the text this story is told out of chronological sequence.

[ii] Heather Jones, op. cit. I am very grateful to Santanu Das for bringing this reference to my attention. The catalogue number of E.A.Walker’s diary is: IWM 76/115/1 Diary of E.A.Walker, 17/7/16.

[iii] In the British Indian Army, by long tradition, fifers and drummers were recruited from orphanages for Eurasians. The recruits were often children.

* Photograph courtesy the Armenian Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia (thanks to Anna Aleksanyan). The picture did not have a title as such but I was told that it was of Indian sepoys with Armenian widows and orphans in 1917-18 period. Unfortunately I was unable, for technical reasons, to post another picture from their collection with the title ‘Young Armenian Orphans Rescued by Indian Officers’.



Shared Sorrows – 17

March 6, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 17


Sisir Sarbadhikari went to the station early to wait for the train that was to carry the Indian POWs out of Ras al-‘Ain. Along with four friends from the Bengal Ambulance Corps, he was able to get a covered wagon. They occupied it at about nine that night.

After an hour or so,’ writes Sisir, ‘we heard Yakob’s voice whispering to us from the outside. When we went to him he said that we had to make space for him somehow in our wagon.’ (p.198) We said have you gone mad? How can that be done? To take you into our wagon will be dangerous not just for you but for us too. If the Turks find out they’ll give you such a beating that you may die of it; and who knows what will happen to us? There’ll probably be a court-martial. We can’t do anything like that.’ (pp. 198-9)


'Orphan refugees, who are hoping to reach some town where there is bread.' Nat Geog: Volume XXXVI, Number Five, November 1919, p. 410

Orphan refugees, who are hoping to reach some town where there is bread.’ Nat Geog: Volume XXXVI, Number Five, November 1919, p. 410



















But Yakob was stubborn, he began to weep. He said the blame would be his alone; if the Turks caught him then there was nothing to be done; he would die anyway if he remained in Nisibeen; if he was going to die then he might as well make an attempt to get away. In the end we let him in. It was only the four of us in that wagon– Phoni, Jagdish, Bhola and I. Had there been anyone else we wouldn’t have dared.

Although we let him in, we couldn’t of course let him sit on a bench where anybody could see him; he had to be hidden. The only hiding place was under the bench. Here lay the problem. Yakob may have been young but he had a big belly; it was impossible to get him under the bench. In the end Bhola pressed his belly and somehow shoved him in. Yakob’s pants’ buttons popped open and his chest and stomach were grazed and bloody. He remained there that whole night and the next day and night as well. After that he got off at a station; he said he would be all right from there on.’ (p.199)




Shared Sorrows – 16

March 3, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 16


Aroundthe end of  October 1918, when it was clear that Germany and its allies were facing defeat, the hospital in Ras al-‘Ain was abandoned by the German doctors who had been running it. The Indian POWs and Armenian refugees were left to subsist on the hospital’s remaining stores of food. (p.191)


British and Indian troops were known to be advancing northwards but there was still no sign of them. This created great confusion.


10 October 1918, 2nd Battalion Black Watch (7th Meerut Division) arrive in Beirut after marched 96 miles (154 km) in 8 days from Haifa (Wikimedia)

10 October 1918, 2nd Battalion Black Watch (7th Meerut Division) arrive in Beirut after marched 96 miles (154 km) in 8 days from Haifa (Wikimedia)

We run into our Armenian colleagues every day,’ writes Sisir. ‘They’re in despair. But what can we do for them? If the British arrive soon, they’ll be safe.’ (p.193)









At the beginning of November 1918, Sisir writes: ‘I’m overjoyed at the thought of going back home, but in the midst of that I am despondent at the thought of the [Armenian] mohajers and their fate. We’ve worked together for so many days; we’ve shared sorrow and joy. 




Armenian refugees (Lib of Congress)

Armenian refugees (Lib of Congress)

They have become like our own. I wonder, even if the Turks don’t kill them, what will they find when they get home? Who will they return to? Who knows if they even have any homes left!’ (p.194)









On November 17th, all of a sudden, the POWs were informed that a train would come for them that night. Sisir and his companions went to the station well ahead of time because they were concerned about finding a covered wagon. Sisir explains that this was because Turkish trains ran on firewood, there being a shortage of coal in the country: the engines couldn’t work up much steam: ‘At the slightest incline the engine would wheeze as if it had run out breath, and flames would shoot out of the chimney burning everything nearby.’ (p.198)



This was a hazard in an open wagon, because cinders and flames would be blown back, and would often cause fires.








Sisir recounts that he was once traveling in an open wagon, with one of the Bengal Ambulance Corps’ camp followers, a sweeper by the name of Jumman. A flaming cinder happened to fall on Jumman’s turban and flames shot up from it. Between the two of them they managed to put out the fire, but Jumman said afterwards, ‘lucky that I’m not a Sikh or my hair would have been burnt.’




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