Archive for October, 2014

Remembering the past: an unfinished conversation

October 31, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)




Last week my Twitter feed led me to a thought-provoking piece by Raghu Karnad on Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Karnad writes: ‘The subject of The Narrow Road is cruelty and survival along the ‘Burma Death Railway’, one of the worst Japanese atrocities in the Second World War.’ Pointing out that the great majority of the men who worked on the railway were Asians – including a large number of Indians – Karnad notes that these men are almost always excluded from the historical account. He concludes: ‘Had The Narrow Road been a memoir, I’d have no questions about what Flanagan chose to include, or not to. Since it is fiction, though, one can wish that he had extended himself toward those many others that were chained to those same rails. Instead, it is a troubling tale of how literature can visit an atrocity again and again, and continue to omit most of its victims.’

I disagree with Karnad on several counts. To begin with I don’t see why the burden of providing a rounded narrative should fall more heavily on a novelist than on the writer of a memoir. If anything, it should be the other way around since a memoir, being a work of non-fiction, necessarily makes certain truth-claims, which is not the case with a novel. Nor do I believe that novelists have a duty to represent every aspect of a historical situation: if that were at all possible then the task would surely fall more to the historian than the novelist. And whether literature has a special responsibility towards victims is another question that is not easily resolved.

But the broader issue that Karnad raises certainly sounded a chord with me: I have long struggled to understand why Indians, and other Asians, are so often omitted from historical accounts of events in which they played a major part. The power to narrate, and who possesses it, is of course at the heart of the matter; equally important perhaps is the ambivalence of those who participated in these events, most notably sepoys.

But there is another aspect to it too, as I discovered while working on my 2000 novel, The Glass Palace. In researching the book’s historical background I






took to the road in Malaysia,







seeking out men,













and women, of Indian origin






[Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan of the Rani of Jhansi regiment]













who had played a part in the Second World War.


Many of the men who worked on the Death Railway were Indian (mainly Tamil) workers from the rubber plantations of what was then the British colony of Malaya. I visited several such plantations, hoping to find survivors: even though the war was then more than fifty years in the past, it did not seem impossible that a few men who had worked on the railway would still be alive. But my efforts were unavailing: I met none.

On one occasion I was saddened to learn that a Death Railway survivor had died quite recently on the plantation I happened to be visiting: after the war he had returned to the only home he had ever known and had raised a family there. At the suggestion of one of the managers I went to see the survivor’s son, hoping to learn something about his father’s experiences. This man was, as I remember, in his forties, and spoke a little Hindi as well as English. He confirmed that his father had worked on the Death Railway but was unable to tell me much else. At length, trying to jog his memory, I said: Didn’t your father talk about his wartime experiences? He must surely have spoken of the horrors of the Death Railway?

He fell silent and thought about the question for a bit. His answer, when it came, was to the following effect:

You must understand – the Burma railway was of course a horror beyond imagining for the English and the other white men who worked on it. But at that time, under colonial rule, conditions on rubber plantations were also terrible. For men like my father the difference between what they had to endure there and here was not so very great.

I recall that conversation every time I read about the Death Railway: to think about the implications of those words is to confront degrees of complexity that extend far beyond ‘The War’.

Which war? When? Where?




Schooning with Dragons 2

October 27, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


Komodo is the kind of island







that inspires fantasy.



From a distance, the ridge that runs along it






has the appearance of the armoured spine of some gigantic Saurian creature.







As it happens the island did play a part in the genesis of the story of King Kong.







Merion C. Cooper, the man who is credited with inventing the idea of a ‘gigantic prehistoric ape’ is said to have been fascinated by the adventures of his friend Douglas Burden, whose travels resulted in the book Dragon Lizards of Komodo. And the mysteries of these islands are not all imaginary: it was in this region that the remains of the prehistoric  ‘hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) were found.





We on the Katharina were exceptionally lucky.










The night before our visit to Komodo





we witnessed a spectacular lunar eclipse.



















Our visit to Komodo began at the Rangers’ station of Loh Liang.






The rangers warned us that the dragons are elusive creatures and that we might not see any on our walk.







But in no time at all we came upon a large male.















A magnificent creature,















it seemed to be stalking a herd of deer.
















Dragons can sprint over short distances,
















but their usual gait is slow and stately.






photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie




This was not this hunter’s lucky day;







stalking isn’t easy when you’re the cynosure of many eyes.




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie











The trail gave us glimpses of a savannah-like landscape,







thirsty for rain at the end of the dry season.









But the conditions were just right for certain orchids.





















The waters of Komodo National Park are famous for their reefs.





photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie















I have done a fair amount of snorkeling in my time






DSC04758 but I have never seen coral reefs as fine as these; nor have I ever come across such abundant and varied marine life.










We were fortunate in having two experienced divers with us,






Jennifer Hayes, our guide,









and Joris Kolijn,






DSC04959 Sea Trek‘s manager. They are both intimately familiar with these waters and thanks to them we saw some amazing sights.













One unforgettable morning we swam with giant manta rays,





Wikimedia commons




with wingspans of three metres or more.








The mantas circled playfully around us,






Wikimedia commons


coming back again and again, as if to check us out, even making eye contact.











One day Joris and Jennifer took us to a channel






where marine life abounds because of a rich supply of nutrition, brought in by a powerful current.








The current swpet us along like birds in a gale, carrying us past reef-sharks, barracudas and




photo Summa Durie

photo Summa Durie



schools of fish, with the brilliant colours and fantastical shapes



of a hallucination.
















Photo Summa Durie

Photo Summa Durie




these fish end up in fishermen’s nets.














at a market in Lombok,







I came upon







some of these species of fish laid out on display.








Even there,







long dead,








their colours







and shapes seemed unreal.









One afternoon, I found myself swimming some twenty feet above a green turtle.






Wikimedia Commons


It was a clear day and a bright funnel of sunlight was focused upon the turtle’s emerald-tinted shell.










It was gliding effortlessly along, like an eagle on an updraft. The slow, undulating motion of its limbs, as much as the penumbra of radiance that surrounded it, gave it the appearance of an angel.





Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly a school of fusilers appeared, encircling the turtle in a halo of flashing colours.











It was as though I had been granted a vision of something not of this world: it was perhaps the most beautiful sight I have ever seen; no human creation could come close to rivalling it; no picture could do it justice.







And when we weren’t swimming with rays or walking with dragons, there was wonderful food to sample.





UWRF-SeaTrek Bali - Komodos Oct 14 - Summa Durie (70 of 111)




Janet de Neefe, who runs two of the finest restaurants in Bali – Casa Luna and Indus









was on board, to explain Indonesian cooking techniques:






how spices and herbs are combined and ground;










how a Sumatran fish curry is made;















and how to serve prawn fritters.

















Janet is the author of  Bali: Food of My Island Home – one of the best, most user-friendly cookbooks ever written. I love it and use it all the time.






DSC04463It has inspired me to grow my own turmeric, ginger, galangal, chilies and lemon grass.









In Indonesian cookery







these spices are always used fresh, never dried, as is usually the case in India. This makes for an enormous difference in taste










and vastly enhances the medicinal and health-sustaining properties of these spices.












And to top it all, there were many wonderful conversations. Most of the Katharina‘s passengers were writers and every evening we talked of writing and reading.




But  the most wonderful thing about the Katharina









was her crew.






DSC04950Efficient yet fun-loving













they were the most cheerful group of seamen






I have ever come across.







Whether singing,





or playing the guitar














or rattling the rigging DSC04739










they threw themselves wholeheartedly into everything they did.





To them goes the credit for turning their vessel into a ship of dreams.











Schooning with Dragons 1

October 25, 2014 in Schooning with Dragons | Comments (0)


The Bugis (or Buginese) are one of the great seafaring peoples of the Indian Ocean. Like those other great mariners, the Greeks, they are also great story-tellers: their epic, Sureq Galigo or La Galigo, is longer than the Mahabharata. The Buginese were converted to Islam in the 17th century and except for a few sub-groups of Christians and Hindus they are predominantly Muslim today. One interesting aspect of Bugis culture is that it recognizes five gender categories including a ‘meta-gender’.






Bugis seafarers have long been associated with a distinctive kind of sailing vessel: a fore-and-aft rigged craft known as a Phinisi or Pinisi schooner (the words are said to be derived from the Dutch ‘pinas’ or pinnace). These vessels are still constructed by traditional methods in Sulawesi.








Phinisi schooners are an old interest of mine (a Bugis vessel makes a brief appearance in River of Smoke); I have also long wanted to visit the Komodo Islands. The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is surely one of the most fascinating creatures in existence – the planet’s largest  living species of lizard, it was not ‘discovered’ till the 1910s. So when an opportunity arose to sail around Indonesia’s Komodo National Park in a Phinisi schooner I could hardly believe my luck: needless to say, I jumped at the chance.



The journey began with a flight to the port of Labuan Bajo, at the western end of Flores, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region.



On the way there we sighted smouldering volcanoes, rising out of the sea.







Labuan Bajo’s airport is picturesque













and of impressive size,













for a quiet little town.















It’s harbour is spectacular,








especially at sunset.








After nightfall little warungs














appear along the waterfront,















offering a colourful assortment of fish,
















which go straight to the grill,















brushed with a little oil and a few spices.

















They are ready for the table

















in a few minutes.




















Our vessel, the Katharina,






was at anchor in the harbour: a sleek 40 metre Phinisi,







she is operated by a company called Sea Trek Sailing Adventures, which also owns another, slightly larger, Phinisi, the Ombak Putih.









From Labuan Bajo we sailed to an island called Rinca, one of the largest of the 29 islands of Komodo National Park.







Surrounded by mangroves and coral reefs, Rinca has some 1,300 Komodo dragons.






An elaborate gateway














leads to the ranger station of Loh Buaya.















There are a half-dozen or more dragons around the rangers’ quarters;






they are apparently drawn there by the smell of cooking








(the guards never feed them and visitors are forbidden to do so,







although this does not, unfortunately, always stop them from trying).






We were led into the island by a group of rangers –




they all carried forked sticks, like this one, to fend off the dragons.










With the dry season drawing to a close the landscape was reduced to its stark essentials.








Only a few of the rangers are of Bugis heritage but many are good story-tellers: it is easy to imagine that story-telling helps while away many a long hour, when the visitors are gone and there is not much to do.





They explain that the dragons eat nothing but (dead) meat: mainly buffalo and deer.









Apart from hooves and horns,








they will consume







every bit of their prey




DSC04564 – with the exception of the innards, which are usually filled with vegetable matter.










A Komodo dragon’s bite is lethal:





it was previously thought that their saliva contained a toxic community of bacteria but it has now been confirmed that the animals possess venom glands.








Once bitten, a deer or buffalo will die a slow, lingering death, sometimes over a period of weeks. Komodo dragons do not hesitate to attack spitting cobras, which are abundant on these islands (as in this video).

Attacks on human beings are rare but not unknown.








A ranger tells a rather gruesome tale of a tourist who strayed from his group and was never seen again









– all that was found of him was some undigested clothing and hair.






Komodo dragons are not good parents, says another ranger, with a laugh.














They are cannibalistic and love to feed on their children. The females have an advantage in this regard since they know exactly where their eggs are hidden.








In an interesting twist to the phrase ‘expectant mother’, this young female is keeping vigil beside her nest so she can make a meal of her hatchlings when they emerge .







Fortunately for the species, some of the young usually manage to make a getaway. The lucky few must spend the first three years of their lives on trees, where they subsist on lizards, birds’ eggs, insects – and of course other juveniles.




DSC04567Life isn’t easy for baby dragons.










Our rangers were a cheerful lot





but their stories gave rise to a disturbing question: in years to come, when climate change and sea-level rise have forced a generation of human beings to retreat to higher ground, will they come to think of their forebears as dragons whose unbounded appetites resulted in the devouring of their young?










From Yangon

October 23, 2014 in Letters | Comments (1)



Dr Thant Myint-U is one of Burma’s leading contemporary historians.


DSC04035His book River of Lost Footsteps is essential reading for anyone interested in Burma. His 2011 book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia has also been widely acclaimed: he was recently named one of the world’s ‘One Hundred Leading Thinkers‘ by Foreign Policy magazine (he has an excellent twitter feed: @thantmyintu ).











Many years ago Thant, as he is known to his friends, gave me a copy of View from the UN,


51byxSyYYOLa memoir written by his grandfather, U Thant. As Secretary General of the UN from 1961 to 1971, U Thant was once a household name around the world. He played a part in many important events and his memoir is, to my mind, a major historical document: it also makes for compelling reading.










Much of Thant ‘s childhood was spent in his grandfather’s house in Westchester, New York. He studied at Harvard and the University of Cambridge, where he earned a doctorate in history. He taught history at Cambridge for a few years and has held fellowships at several leading universities around the world. He has also worked at the UN in various capacities. But he is now back in Burma, doing many things: he helps to run a trust commemorating his grandfather; he is the Chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust; he is a member of the President of Myanmar’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council; and as if that were not enough he is also participating in the ongoing talks between the government and Burma’s ethnic minorities.


I recently met up with Thant in Rangoon,




and we had a long talk about the current situation in Burma: suffice it to say that he is cautiously optimistic.










Shortly after our meeting he wrote me this:

I received the message below just now from U Kyaw Thein Lwin, a former navy officer in his late 80s, and thought you might be interested.  He’s an old friend of the family and he knew I had seen you this morning. U Kyaw Thein Lwin is a treasure house of information on 20th century Burmese history.  His father was the distinguished educationist U Ba Lwin who founded the Myoma National School in the 1920s and who was a key figure in the country’s fight for independence.




I wanted to tell Amitav Ghosh that his Book  [The Glass Palace] is not all fiction, and perhaps I’m am the only living person in Myanmar who is actually connected with some of the characters and plots in the Book. For example , the ship he hired to bring coolies from East India , named the DUFFERIN was converted as a training ship in Bombay in 1927 and I spent three long years on it, from 1941-43. I also remember a Mr. Dinanath , who was a Rotarian and a close friend of my father and we often visited their residence before Japanese invasion. The other family. Arjan Singhs , connected with the story, were also prominent teak exporters and Boat builders who lived in Moulmein and were friendly with my in-laws. Of course I could vividly follow his stories about pre-war Rangoon commercial life. Pegu Club etc. and and the part played by Subhas Chendra Bose, whom my Dad knew during the war and the exploits of the I.N.A. Lastly, DA Ahujas and TN Ahujas were the two leading photographers dealing with studio photography during pre-war years as mentioned in his story. Hope I will have the chance to meet him somewhere.
[these messages are reproduced here with the permission of Dr Thant Myint-U and U Kyaw Thein Lwin]

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