Publishers Weekly, Starred
Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Timesby Amitav Ghosh
"An uncannily honest writer." —New York Times Book Review
The novelist and journalist Amitav Ghosh has offered extraordinary firsthand accounts of pivotal world events over the past twenty years. He is an essential voice in forums like The Nation, the New York Times, the New Republic, Granta, and The New Yorker, Incendiary/i>/i>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
"An uncannily honest writer." —New York Times Book Review
The novelist and journalist Amitav Ghosh has offered extraordinary firsthand accounts of pivotal world events over the past twenty years. He is an essential voice in forums like The Nation, the New York Times, the New Republic, Granta, and The New Yorker, Incendiary Circumstances brings together the finest of these pieces for the first time—including many never before published in the Statesin a compelling chronicle of the turmoil of our times. Incendiary Circumstances begins with Ghosh’s arrival in the Andaman and Nicobar islands just days after the devastation of the 2005 tsunami. We then travel back to September 11, 2001, as Ghosh retrieves his young daughter from school, sick with the knowledge that she must witness the kind of firestorm that has been in the background of his everyday life since childhood. With a prescience born of experience, Ghosh warned decades ago of the dangerous rise of religious extremism. In his travels he has stood on an icy mountaintop on the contested border between India and Pakistan, interviewed Pol Pot’s sister-in-law in Cambodia, shared the elation of Egyptians when Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, and stood with his threatened Sikh neighbors through the riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination. With intelligence and authentic sympathy, he "illuminates the human drama behind the headlines" (Publishers Weekly). Incendiary Circumstances is unparalleled testimony of an era defined by the ravages of politics and nature.
Amitav Ghosh is acclaimed for his political journalism and his travel writing. The New York Times Book Review called his travelogue, In An Antique Land, "remarkable . . . rivals anything by the masters of social realism in modern Egyptian literature." He is also the best-selling author of four novels, including The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace, which has been published in eighteen foreign editions. Ghosh has won France's prestigious Prix Medici Etranger, India's Sahitya Akademi Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Educated in South Asia, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom, Ghosh holds a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford. He divides his time between Harvard University, where he is a visiting professor, and his homes in Kolkata, India, and Brooklyn, New York.
Advance Praise for Incendiary Circumstances
"This absorbing collection of essays by the novelist, journalist, and travel writer Ghosh . . . covers some two decades of catastrophe and upheaval, from sectarian violence in his native India during the 1980s through the September 11 attacks . . . to the recent Indian Ocean tsunami. With an eye for evocative detail, he illuminates the human dramas behind the headlines: the plight of tsunami refugees trying to rebuild their lives and finances after every bank record and piece of ID is lost to the waves; the courage of ordinary Indians protecting their Sikh neighbors from rampaging Hindu mobs . . . He is equally engaging when he turns from current affairs to literary essays on, say, the international culture of novel reading or the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. Written in luminous prose with unusual understanding . . . an insightful look at a chaotic world."Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Praise for Amitav Ghosh
"Ghosh is adept at delineating the complicated crosscurrents of emerging national independence movements. He is even more impressive at portraying the different ways in which individuals react to the turmoil, hardship, and disorientation wrought by war.” – Wall Street Journal
"A wonderful hybrid of travel writing, reporting, historical analysis, and memoir – in other words, the kind of piece [Ghosh] writes better than almost anyone else.” – Washington Times
Publishers Weekly, Starred
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Read an Excerpt
THE TOWN BY THE SEA
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are one of those quadrants of the globe
where political and geological fault lines run on parallel courses. Politically
the islands have been administered from the Indian mainland ever since their
annexation by the British; today they are Indian "Union Territories," ruled
directly by New Delhi. But geologically the chain stands just beyond the
edge of the Indian tectonic plate. Stretching through 435 miles of the Bay of
Bengal, the islands are held aloft by a range of undersea mountains that
stand guard over the abyssal deep of the Sunda Trench. Of the 572 islands,
only 36 are inhabited: the Andamans is the name given to the northern part of
the archipelago, while the Nicobars lie to the south. At their uppermost point,
the Andamans are just a few dozen miles from Burma's Coco Islands,
infamous for their prisons, while the southernmost edge of the Nicobars is
only 125 miles from the ever-restless region of Aceh. This part of the chain is
so positioned that the tsunami of December 26, 2004, hit it just minutes after
it hit the coastline of northern Sumatra.
Despite the hundreds of miles of water that separate the
Andamans from the Indian mainland, many of the relief camps in Port Blair,
the islands' capital city, have the appearance of miniaturized portraits of the
nation. Only a small percentage of their inmates are indigenous to the
islands; the others are settlers from different parts of the mainland: Bengal,
Orissa, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. If this comes as a
surprise, it is because theidentity of the islands—and indeed the alibi for the
present form of their rule—lies in an administrative conception of
the "primitive" that dates back to the British Raj. The idea that these islands
are somehow synonymous with backwardness is energetically promoted in
today's Port Blair. Hoardings depicting naked "primitives" line the streets, and
I heard of a sign that instructs onlookers to "Love Your Primitive Tribe." In
most parts of the mainland, these images would long since have been
defaced or torn down, for the sheer offensiveness of their depictions; not so
on these islands, which are more a projection of India than a part of its body
politic. As with many colonies, they represent a distended and compressed
version of the mother country, in its weaknesses and strengths, its
aspirations and failings. Over the past two weeks, both the fault lines that
underlie the islands seem suddenly to have been set in motion: it is as if the
hurried history of an emergent nation had collided here with the deep time of
The mainland settlers in the camps are almost unanimous in
describing themselves as having come to the islands in search of land and
opportunity. Listening to their stories, it is easy to believe that most of them
found what they were looking for: here, in this far-flung chain of islands, tens
of thousands of settlers were able to make their way out of poverty, into the
ranks of the country's expanding middle class. But on the morning of
December 26, this hard-won betterment became a potent source of
vulnerability, for to be middle-class, in India or anywhere else, is to be kept
afloat on a life raft of paper: identity cards, licenses, ration cards, school
certificates, checkbooks, certificates of life insurance, and receipts for fixed
deposits. It was the particular nature of this disaster that it targeted not just
the physical being of the victims but also the proof of the survivors' identities.
An earthquake would have left remnants to rummage through; floods and
hurricanes would have allowed time for survivors to safeguard their essential
documents on their persons. The tsunami, in the suddenness of its
onslaught, allowed for no preparations. Not only did it destroy the survivors'
homes and decimate their families; it also robbed them of all the evidentiary
traces of their place in the world.
On January 1, 2005, I went to visit the Nirmala School Camp in
Port Blair. The camp, like the school in which it is housed, is run by the
Catholic Church, and it is presided over by a mild-mannered young priest by
the name of Father Johnson. On the morning of my visit, Father Johnson was
at the center of an angry altercation. The refugees had spent the past three
days waiting anxiously in the camp, and in that time no one had asked them
where they wanted to go or when; none of them had any idea of what was to
become of them, and the sense of being adrift had brought them to the end of
their tether. The issue was neither deprivation nor hardship —there was
enough food, and they had all the clothes they needed. It was the uncertainty
that was intolerable. In the absence of any other figure of authority, they had
laid siege to Father Johnson: When would they be allowed to move on?
Where would they be going?
Father Johnson could give them no answers, for he was, in his
own way, just as helpless as they were. The officials in charge of the relief
effort had told him nothing about their plans for the refugees. Now time was
running out: the schools in which the camps were located were to reopen on
January 3. Father Johnson had no idea how his school was to function with
more than 1600 refugees camping on the grounds.
Realizing at last that Father Johnson knew no more than they did,
the inmates reduced their demands to a single modest query: could they be
provided with some paper and a few pens? No sooner had this request been
met than another uproar broke out; those who'd been given possession of
pens and paper now became the center of the siege. Crowding together,
people began to push and jostle, clamoring to have their names written down.
Identity was now no more than a matter of assertion, and nothing seemed to
matter more than to create a trail of paper. On this depended the eventual
reclamation of a life.
Standing on the edges of the crowd was a stocky thirty-year-old
man by the name of Obed Tara. He was, he told me, from the island of Car
Nicobar and a member of an indigenous group whose affiliations, in language
and ethnicity, lie with the Malay peoples to the east. But he himself was a
naik (corporal) in the Tenth Madras Regiment of the Indian Army and was
fluent in Hindi. On December 10 he had set off from Calcutta, where his unit
was currently stationed, to travel to Car Nicobar. Like most Nicobarese
people, he was a Christian, a member of the Anglican Church of North India,
and he'd been looking forward to celebrating Christmas at home. But this
year there was something else to look forward to as well: he was to be
married on the first day of the New Year—the very day of our conversation.
On December 26, despite the celebrations and merrymaking of
the night before, Obed Tara, like most members of his extended family, rose
early in order to attend a Boxing Day service at their church. Their house was
in the seafront settlement of Malacca, just a few hundred yards from the
water. Their neighborhood was the commercial heart of the township, and
their house was surrounded by shops and godowns. They were themselves a
part of the market's bustle; they owned a Maruti Omni and operated a long-
distance phone booth in their house. In other words, theirs was a family that
had been swept into the middle class by the commercial opportunities of the
That morning, as the family was gathering outside the house, the
earth began to heave with a violence that none of them had ever experienced
before; it shook so hard that it was impossible to stand still, and they were
forced to throw themselves on the ground. Then the ground cracked and
fountains of mud-brown water came geysering out of these fissures. Like all
the islanders, Obed Tara was accustomed to tremors in the earth, but neither
he nor anyone else there had seen anything like this before. It took a while
before the ground was still enough for them to regain their footing, and no
sooner had he risen to his feet than he heard a wild, roaring sound. Looking
seaward, he saw a wall of water ad- vancing toward his house. Gathering his
relatives, he began to run. By the time he looked back, his house, and the
neighborhood in which it stood, had vanished under the waves. Two elderly
members of the family were lost, and everything they possessed was gone—
the car, the phone booth, the house. The family spent a couple of nights in
the island's interior, and then the elders deputed Obed Tara to go to Port
Blair to see what he could secure for them by way of relief and supplies.
By the time he finished telling me this story, there was a catch in
his voice, and he was swallowing convulsively to keep from sobbing. I asked
him, "Why don't you go to the army offices and tell them who you are? I am
sure they will do what they can to help you."
He shook his head, as if to indicate that he had considered and
dismissed this thought many times over. "The sea took my uniform, my
ration card, my service card, my tribal papers—it took everything," he said. "I
can't prove who I am. Why should they believe me?"
He led me to the far side of the camp, where another group of
islanders was sitting patiently under a tent. They too had lost everything;
their entire village had disappeared under the sea; saltwater had invaded their
fields and taken away their orchards. They could not contemplate going
back, they said; the stench of death was everywhere, and the water sources
had been contaminated and would not be usable for years.
The leader of the group was a man by the name of Sylvester
Solomon. A one-time serviceman in the navy, he had retired some years ago.
He too had lost all his papers; he had no idea how he would claim his
pension again. Worse still, the bank that had custody of his family's money
had also been swept away, along with all its records.
I told him that by law the bank was obliged to return his money,
and he smiled, as if at a child. I wanted to persuade him of the truth of what
I'd said, but when I looked into his eyes, I knew that in his place, I too would
not have the energy or the courage to take on the struggles that would be
required to reclaim my life's savings from that bank.
In the same camp I encountered a Sikh woman by the name of
Paramjeet Kaur. Noticing my notebook, she said, "Are you taking names
too? Here, write mine down." She was a woman of determined aspect,
dressed in a dun-colored salwar kameez. She had come to the islands some
thirty years before, by dint of marriage. Her husband was a Sikh from
Campbell Bay, a settlement on the southernmost tip of the Nicobar island
chain, less than 125 miles from northern Sumatra. Like many others in the
settlement, her husband belonged to a family that had been given a grant of
land in recognition of service to the army (to distribute land in this way is a
tradition that goes back to the British Indian Army and its efforts to engage
the loyalties of Indian sepoys). But Paramjeet Kaur's in-laws came to the
Nicobar Islands well after independence, in 1969, at a time when agricultural
land had become scarce on the mainland. They were given 15 bighas of land
and a plot to build a residence. The settlement that grew up around them was
as varied as the regiments of the Indian army: there were Marathis,
Malayalis, Jharkhandis, and people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
"There was nothing there but jungle then," said Paramjeet
Kaur. "We cleared it with our own hands, and we laid out orchards of areca
and coconut. With God's blessing we prospered, and built a cement house
with three rooms and a veranda."
The strip of land that was zoned for residential plots lay right on
the seafront, providing the settlers with fine views of the beach. It was no
mere accident, then, that placed Paramjeet Kaur's house in the path of the
tsunami of December 26: its location was determined by an ordering of space
that owed more to Europe than to its immediate surroundings. The sea poses
little danger to the smiling corniches of the French Riviera or the coastline of
Italy; the land-encircled Mediterranean is not subject to the play of tides, and
it does not give birth to tropical storms. The Indian Ocean and especially the
Bay of Bengal, however, are fecund in the breeding of cyclones. This may be
the reason that a certain wariness of the sea can be seen in the lineaments
of the ancient harbor cities of southern Asia. They are often situated in upriver
locations, at a cautious distance from open water. In recent times the pattern
seems to have been reversed, so that it could almost be stated as a rule that
the more modern and prosperous a settlement, the more likely it is to hug
the water. On Car Nicobar, for example, the Indian Air Force base was built a
few dozen yards from the water's edge, and it was laid out so that the more
senior the servicemen were, the closer they were to the sea. Although it is
true that no one could have anticipated the tsunami, the choice of location is
still surprising. Cyclones, frequent in this region, are associated with surges
of water that rise to heights of 40 or 50 feet, and their effect would have been
similar. Surely the planners were not unaware of this? But of course it is all
too easy to be wise after the event: given the choice between a view of the
beach and a plot in the mosquito-infested interior, what would anyone have
chosen before December 26, 2004?
On the morning of that day, Paramjeet Kaur and her family were
inside their sea-facing house when the earthquake struck. The ground rippled
under their feet like a sheet waving in the wind, and no sooner had the
shaking stopped than they heard a noise "like the sound of a helicopter."
Paramjeet Kaur's husband, Pavitter Singh, looked outside and saw a wall of
water speeding toward them. "The sea has split apart [Samundar phat gaya],"
he shouted. "Run, run!" There was no time to pick up documents or jewelry;
everyone who stopped to do so was killed. Paramjeet Kaur and her family ran
for more than a mile without looking back, and were just able to save
"But for what?" Thirty years of labor had been washed away in an
instant; everything they had accumulated was gone, and their land was sown
with salt. "When we were young, we had the energy to cut the jungle and
reclaim the land. We laid out fields and orchards and we did well. But at my
age, how can I start again? Where will I begin?"
"What will you do, then?" I asked.
"We will go back to Punjab, where we have family. The
government must give us land there; that is our demand."
In other camps I met office workers from Uttar Pradesh, fishermen
from coastal Andhra Pradesh, and construction laborers from Bengal. They
had all built good lives for themselves in the islands, but now, having lost their
homes, their relatives, and even their identities, they were intent on returning
to the mainland, no matter what.
"If nothing else," one of them said to me, "we will live in slums
beside the rail tracks. But never again by the sea."
How do we quantify the help needed to rebuild these ruined lives? The
question is answered easily enough if we pose it not in the abstract but in
relation to ourselves. To put ourselves in the place of these victims is to know
that all the help in the world would not be enough. Sufficiency is not a
concept that is applicable here; potentially there is no limit to the amount of
relief that can be used. This is the assumption that motivates ordinary people
to open their purses, even though they know that governments and big
companies have already contributed a great deal. This is why no disaster
assistance group has ever been known to say, "We have to raise exactly this
much and no more." But when it comes to the disbursement of these funds,
the assumptions seem to undergo a drastic change, and nowhere more than
in out-of-the-way places.
In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, although the manpower and
machinery for the relief effort are supplied largely by the armed forces, overall
authority is concentrated in the hands of a small clutch of senior civil
servants in Port Blair. No matter the sense of crisis elsewhere; the attitude of
the officials of Port Blair is one of disdainful self-sufficiency. On more than
one occasion I heard them dismissing offers of help as unnecessary and
misdirected. Supplies were available aplenty, they said; in fact, they had
more on their hands than they could distribute, and there was a danger that
perishable materials would rot on the runways.
This argument is of course entirely circular: logically speaking,
bottlenecks of distribution imply a need for more help, not less. But for the
mandarins of Port Blair, the relief effort is a zero-sum game in which they are
the referees. What conceivable help could their subjects need other than the
amount that they, the providers, decide is appropriate to their various
Are supplies really available aplenty, throughout the islands? The
tale told in the relief camps is of course exactly the opposite of that which
echoes out of the lairs of officialdom. Most of the refugees had to wait several
days before they were evacuated. Forgotten in their far-remote islands, they
listened to radio broadcasts that told them their nation was rushing aid to Sri
Lanka and had refused all outside help as unnecessary. For the thirsty and
hungry, there was little consolation in the thought that these measures might
help their country establish itself as a superpower. In Campbell Bay,
according to several reports, refugees were moved to such fury by the
indifference of the local officials that they assaulted an officer who was found
ushering in the New Year with a feast. Accounts of this incident, confirmed
by several sources in the coast guard and police, were, characteristically,
denied by the civil authorities.
In Port Blair, relief camps are the main sources of aid and
sustenance for the refugees. These are all sustained by private initiatives:
they are staffed by volunteers from local youth groups, religious foundations,
and so on, and their supplies are provided by local shopkeepers,
businessmen, and citizens' organizations. I met with the organizers of
several relief camps, and they were unanimous in stating that they had
received no aid whatsoever from the government, apart from some water.
They knew that people on the mainland were eager to help and that a great
deal of money had been raised. None of these funds had reached them;
presumably the money had met the same bottlenecks of distribution as the
supplies that were lying piled on the runways. That it should be possible for
the people of a small town like Port Blair to provide relief to so many refugees
is the bright side of this dismal story: it is proof, if any were needed, that the
development of civil society in India has far outpaced the institutions of state
and the personnel who staff them.
The attitude of the armed forces is not the same as that of the
civilian authorities. At all levels of the chain of command, from Lieutenant
General B. S. Thakur, the commanding officer in Port Blair, to the jawans
(privates) who are combing through the ruins of Car Nicobar, there is an
urgency, a diligence, and an openness that are in striking contrast to the
stance of the civilian personnel. Indeed, the feats performed by some units
speak of an exemplary dedication to duty. Consider, for example, the case of
Wing Commander B.S.K. Kumar, a helicopter pilot at the Car Nicobar
airbase. On December 26, he was asleep when the earthquake made itself
felt. His quarters were a mere hundred feet from the sea. Not only did he
manage to outrun the tsunami, with his wife and child; he was airborne within
ten minutes of the first wave. In the course of the day he winched up some
sixty stranded people and evacuated another two hundred and forty. His
colleague, Wing Commander Maheshwari, woke too late to escape the wave.
As the waters rose, he was forced to retreat to the roof of his building with his
wife and daughter. Along with twenty-nine other people, he fought for his
footing on the roof until all were swept off. He managed to make his way to
land but was separated from his family; two hours passed before they were
found, clinging to the trunk of a tree. Of the twenty-nine people on that roof,
only six survived. And yet, despite the ordeal, Wing Commander Maheshwari
flew several sorties that day.
Considering the diligence of the armed forces and the enthusiasm
and generosity of ordinary citizens, how is the attitude of the island's civilian
administration to be accounted for? The answer is simple: a lack of
democracy and popular empowerment. As a Union Territory, the Andaman
and Nicobar Islands have no legislature and thus no elected representatives
with any clout, apart from a single member of Parliament. Elsewhere in India,
in any crisis, officials have to answer to legislators at every level, and a failure
to act would result in their being hounded by legislators and harried by trade
unions, student groups, and the like. As Amartya Sen has shown in his work
on famines, these mechanisms are essential to the proper distribution of
resources in any situation of extreme scarcity. In effect, the political system
serves as a means by which demands are articulated. The media similarly
serve to create flows of information. These are precisely the mechanisms that
are absent in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. There are no elected
representatives to speak for the people, and the media have been excluded
from large swaths of territory. It is not for no reason that on the mainland,
where these mechanisms do exist, the attitude of administrators in the
affected districts has been more sensitive to the needs of the victims and
substantially more open to the oversight of the press and to offers of help
from other parts of the country.
It is common for civil servants to complain of the perils of political
interference. The situation on the islands is proof that in the absence of
vigorous oversight, many (although certainly not all) officials will revert to the
indifference and inertia that are the natural condition of any bureaucracy.
Clearly the central government is aware that there is a problem,
for the relief operation was restructured on January 2, reportedly at the
personal intervention of Sonia Gandhi. What is more, several senior members
of the ruling party have been dispatched to the outlying islands, not just for
token visits but to make sure that supplies are properly distributed. These are
welcome first steps, but it is essential for the central government to move
quickly to create a more responsive and efficient disaster relief operation in
this region, not just for the management of this disaster but for the long term.
If anything can be said with any certainty, it is that the tsunami will not be
the last seismic upheaval to shake the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
In 1991, after lying dormant for two hundred years, the volcano of
Barren Island became active again, and there are reports that it erupted
around the time of the earthquake of December 26. On September 14, 2002,
a 6.5 magnitude earthquake occurred near Diglipur in North Andaman Island;
now there are unconfirmed reports of a minor eruption in the same area. The
signs are clear: no one can say the earth has not provided warnings of its
In Port Blair I found that the tsunami's effects on the outlying islands could
only be guessed at. The refugees in the camps spoke of apocalyptic
devastation and tens of thousands dead; the authorities' estimates were
much more modest. There were few, if any, reliable independent
assessments, for the civil authorities had decided that no journalists or
other "outsiders" were to be allowed to travel to the outlying islands. The
reason given was that of the battlefield: too many resources would be spent
on their protection. But no battle was under way in the islands, and the
dangers of the tsunami were long past. Public ferry and steamer services
linking Port Blair to the outer islands were in operation and had plenty of
room for paying passengers. And yet journalists, Indian and foreign, who
attempted to board these ships were forcibly dragged off.
On January 1 there was an unexpected parting in this curtain of
exclusion. A couple of senior members of the ruling party came to Port Blair
with the intent of traveling farther afield. It was quickly made known that an air
force plane would be provided to take the ministers, and a retinue of
journalists, to Car Nicobar the next day. This island, which is positioned
halfway between the Andaman and Nicobar chains, is home to some 30,000
people, and it houses an air base that makes it something of a hub in relation
to the more southerly islands.
Hoping to get on this plane, I duly presented myself at the airport,
only to find that a great many others had arrived with the same expectation.
As always in such situations, there was considerable confusion about who
would get on. After the ministers had boarded, a minor melee ensued at the
foot of the ramp that led to the plane's capacious belly. Knowing that I stood
little chance of prevailing in this contest, I had almost resigned myself to
being left behind when a young man in a blue uniform tapped my elbow and
pointed across the airfield. "You want to go to Car Nicobar? That plane over
there is carrying relief supplies. Just go and sit down. No one will say
I sought no explanation for this unsolicited act of consideration; it
seemed typical of the general goodwill of the military personnel I had
encountered on the islands. As if on tiptoe, I walked across the tarmac and
up the ramp. The plane was a twin-engine Soviet-era AN-26, rusty but
dependable, and its capacious fuselage was lined with folding benches. The
round portholes that pierced its sides were like eyes that had grown rheumy
with age; time had sandpapered the panes of glass so that they were almost
opaque. The cargo area was packed with mattresses, folding beds, cases of
mineral water, and sacks of food, all covered with a net of webbing. Some
half-dozen men were inside, sitting on the benches with their feet planted
askew beside the mass of supplies. I seated myself in the only available
space, beside a short, portly man with thick glasses and well-oiled, curly
hair. He was dressed in a stiffly ironed brown safari suit, and he had an air of
irascibility that spoke of a surfeit of time spent in filing papers and running
offices. He was muttering angrily when I came aboard: "What do those
people care? What have they ever done to help anyone . . . ?" Of all the
people on that plane, he was perhaps the last I would have chosen to sit
beside. I was keen to make myself as inconspicuous as possible, while he
seemed determined to draw attention to himself. It could be only a matter of
minutes, I thought, before the airmen evicted him. Inexplicably, they did not.
When the engines started up, my neighbor turned his attention to
me. "These big people think they are so great, but what help have they
given?" I assumed this to be a general expression of disgust, of the kind that
is to be heard on every train and bus in the country. But then he added
suddenly, "Let them go through what I have gone through. Let them suffer—
then they would see . . ."
This hit me with the force of a shock. His well-laundered safari
suit, his air of almost comical self-importance, his irascibility— there was
nothing about him that bespoke the victim. But I understood now why the
airmen had ignored his rants; they knew something about him that I did not,
and this was their way of showing compassion.
In the meanwhile the tirade continued: "If those politicians had
suffered as I have, what would they do? This is the question I want to ask."
I winced to think of my first response to his mutterings. "What
exactly has happened?" I asked. "Tell me."
He did not want his name published, so I shall call him "the Director." This
indeed was his official title: he had been posted to Car Nicobar in 1991, as
the director of the island's Malaria Research Centre and had lived there ever
since. He was originally from Puri, in Orissa, and had been trained at the
University of Berhampore. During his tenure in Car Nicobar, he had married
and had two children, a son, who was now thirteen, and a daughter, who was
ten. His home was in Malacca—the seafront township I'd heard about in the
camps—and his office was just a few minutes' walk from where he lived. In
this office he had accumulated a great wealth of epidemiological knowledge.
Car Nicobar had once been rife with malaria, he told me. In an island with a
population of just 30,000, the annual incidence had been as high as 3810,
even as recently as 1989. But during his time there he had succeeded in
bringing the rate down to a fraction of this number. It was clear, from the
readiness with which he quoted the figures, that he was immensely—and
justly—proud of what he had achieved during his stay on the island.
On December 25, 2004, the Director was in Port Blair, on his way
to New Delhi. Since he was traveling for official reasons, he had left his family
in Malacca. He spent the night of December 25 in a government
guesthouse—the Haddo Circuit House, which stands close to the water. On
the morning of the twenty-sixth he was woken by the shaking of his bed. He
stepped down to find the floor heaving and realized that an earthquake had hit
the town. As he was running out of the building, his mobile phone rang.
Glancing quickly at the screen, he saw that his wife was calling from
Malacca. He guessed that the earthquake had struck Car Nicobar too, but he
was not unduly alarmed. Tremors were frequently felt on the island, and he
thought his wife would be able to cope. The guesthouse, meanwhile, was still
shaking, and there was no time to talk. He cut off the call and ran outside; he
would phone back later, he decided, once the tremors stopped.
He waited out the earthquake outside, and when the ground was
still at last, he hit the call button on his phone. There was no answer, and he
wondered if the network was down. But he had little time to think about the
matter, because a strange phenomenon had suddenly begun to take place
before him: the water in the harbor had begun to rise, very rapidly, and the
anchored ships seemed to be swirling about in the grip of an unseen hand.
Along with everyone else, he ran to higher ground.
The islands of the Andaman chain rise steeply out of the sea, and
the harbor and waterfront of Port Blair are sheltered by a network of winding
fjords and inlets. Such is the lay of the land that the turbulence that radiated
outward from the earthquake's epicenter manifested itself here not as an
onrushing wall of water but as a surge in the water level. Although this
caused a good deal of alarm, the damage was not severe.
It was not long, however, before it occurred to the Director that the
incoming swell in Port Blair's harbor might have taken a different form
elsewhere. The Nicobar Islands do not have the high elevations of their
northern neighbors, the Andamans. They are low-lying, for the most part, and
some, like Car Nicobar, stand no more than a few yards above sea level at
their highest point. Already anxious, the Director became frantic when word
of the tsunami trickled down to the waterfront from the naval offices farther up
The Director knew of a government office in Car Nicobar that had a
satellite phone. He dialed the number again and again; it was either busy or
there was no answer. When at last he got through, the voice at the other end
told him, with some reluctance, that Malacca had been badly hit. It was
known that there were some survivors, but as for his family, there was no
The Director kept calling, and in the afternoon he learned that his
thirteen-year-old son had been found clinging to the rafters of a church some
200 yards behind their house. Arrangements were made to bring the boy to
the phone, and the Director was able to speak to him directly later that night.
He learned from his son that the family had been in the bedroom when the
earthquake started. A short while later, a terrifying sound from the direction of
the sea had driven the three of them into the drawing room. The boy had kept
running, right into the kitchen. The house was built of wood, on a cement
foundation. When the wave hit, the house dissolved into splinters and the boy
was carried away as if on a wind. Flailing his arms, he succeeded in taking
hold of something that seemed to be fixed to the earth. Through wave after
wave he managed to keep his grip. When the water receded, he saw that he
was holding on to the only upright structure within a radius of several hundred
yards. Of the township, nothing was left but a deep crust of wreckage.
"And your mother and sister?" the Director had asked.
"Baba, they just disappeared . . ." And now for the first time the
boy began to cry, and the Director's heart broke, for he knew his son was
crying because he thought he would be scolded and blamed for what had
"I was strict with him, sir," the Director told me, his voice trailing
off. "I am a strict man—that is my nature. But I must say he is a brave boy, a
very brave boy."
Having spent thirteen years on the island, the Director was well
acquainted with the local administration and the officers on the air base.
Through their intervention he was able to get on a flight the very next day. He
spent the day searching through the rubble; he found many possessions, but
no trace of his daughter or his wife. He returned to Port Blair with his son the
same evening, and the two of them moved in with some friends. Every day
since then he'd been trying to go back, to find out what had become of his
wife and daughter, but the flights had been closed—until this one.
"Tell me," he said, his voice becoming uncharacteristically
soft. "What do you think—is there any hope?"
It took me a moment to collect my wits. "Of course there is hope,"
I said. "There is always hope. They could have been swept ashore on another
part of the island."
He nodded. "We will see. I hope I will find out today, in Malacca."
With some hesitation I asked if it would be all right if I came with
him. He answered with a prompt nod. "You can come."
I had the impression that he had been dreading the lonely search
that lay ahead and would be glad of some company. "All right then," I said. "I
At the airfield in Car Nicobar, the Director arranged a ride for us on a yellow
construction truck that had been set to the task of distributing relief supplies.
The truck went bouncing down the runway before turning off into a narrow
road that led into a forest. Once the airstrip was behind us, it was as though
we had been transported to some long-ago land, unspoiled and untouched.
The road wound through a dense tropical jungle, dotted at intervals with
groves of slender areca palms and huts mounted on stilts. Some of these
had metamorphosed into makeshift camps, sprouting awnings of plastic and
tarpaulin. It was clear that the island's interior was sparsely inhabited, with
the population being concentrated along the seafront.
Earlier, while the plane was making its descent, I had had a
panoramic, if blurred, view of the island in the crisp morning sunlight. No
more than a few miles across, it was flat and low, and its interior was covered
by a dense canopy of greenery. A turquoise halo surrounded its shores,
where a fringe of sand had once formed an almost continuous length of
beach; this was now still mainly underwater. I saw to my surprise that many
coconut palms were still standing, even on the edge of the water. Relatively
few palms had been flattened; most remained upright and in full possession
of their greenery. As for the forest, the canopy seemed almost undisturbed.
All trace of habitation, in contrast, had been obliterated. The foundations of
many buildings could be clearly seen on the ground, but of the structures
they had once supported, nothing remained.
It was evident from above that the tsunami had been peculiarly
selective in the manner of its destruction. Had the island been hit by a major
cyclone, not a frond would have survived on the coconut palms and the forest
canopy would have been denuded. Most human dwellings, on the other hand,
would have retained their walls, even if they lost their roofs. Not so in this
instance. The villages along the shore were not merely damaged; they were
erased. It was as if the island had been hit by a weapon devised to cause the
maximum possible damage to life and property while leaving nature largely
We came to an intersection that was flanked by low whitewashed
buildings. This was the administrative center of the island, the Director
explained; the settlement of Malacca lay a good distance away, and we
would have to walk. After getting off the truck, we came to the district library,
a building of surprising size and solidity. Like the surrounding offices, it was
unharmed, but a medical camp, manned by the Indo-Tibetan Border Force,
had sprung up on its grounds, under the shade of a spreading, moss-twined
The Director spotted a doctor sitting in a tent. He darted away and
slipped under the tent's blue flap. "Doctor, have you heard anything about my
family?" he said. "I've come because I heard some survivors had been
found . . ."
The doctor's face froze, and after a moment's silence he said, in a
tone that was noncommittal and yet not discouraging, "No news has reached
me—I've not heard anything."
We continued on our way, walking past the airy bungalows of the
island's top officials, with their well-tended gardens. Soon we came upon two
men who were sitting by the road, beside an odd assortment of salvaged
goods. "That's mine," said the Director, pointing to a lampstand of turned
wood. "I paid a lot for it—it's made of padauk wood." There was no rancor in
his voice, and nor did he seem to want to reclaim the object. We walked on.
A few steps ahead the road dipped toward a large clearing fringed
by thick stands of coconut palm. It was a maidan, a space for people to
promenade and forgather, and as with many small town maidans, there was
a plaster bust of Mahatma Gandhi standing in its center. So far on our
journey from the airport we had seen no outward sign of the damage caused
by the tsunami, but now we had arrived at the periphery of the band of
destruction. Mounds of splintered planks and other building materials lay
scattered across the clearing, and the red, white, and green fence that
surrounded the bust of Mahatma Gandhi was swathed in refuse and dead
coconut fronds. Everywhere, evidence of the tsunami's incursion could be
seen in pools of water that had turned rank over the past few days.
At the far end of the maidan, a fire was blazing among the
coconut palms. The warehouse that supplied the island with cooking gas had
stood at that spot. The tsunami had swept the warehouse away, leaving the
canisters exposed to the sun, and a fire had ensued. Every few minutes the
ground shook with the blast of exploding canisters.
Oblivious of the fire, the Director stepped away to accost a
passerby who was wheeling a loaded bicycle. Over his shoulder, he said to
me, "This is Michael. He worked in my office." Michael was a sturdy, grizzled
Nicobarese dressed in green shorts and a gray shirt. Laying his hands on the
bicycle's handlebars, the Director said in Hindi, "Michael, listen—has there
been any news of madam? You know what she looks like. Have you seen
any trace of her?"
Michael dropped his eyes, as if in embarrassment, and answered
with a tiny shake of his head.
Lowering his voice, the Director continued: "And have you heard
anyone speak of a girl roaming in the jungle?" When this too failed to elicit an
answer, he went on. "Michael, I need your help. Bring some men and come. I
need to dig through the rubble to see if I can find anything." Even as he was
speaking, his attention shifted to the contents of the plastic bags that were
hanging from Michael's handlebars. Flinching, he let go of the
handlebar. "Michael!" he cried. "What is all this stuff you've picked up? You
should know better than to take things from over there—they may be
Michael hung his head and wheeled his bicycle silently away.
"They're all looting," said the Director, shaking his head. "I've
heard the bazaar in Port Blair has received three sackfuls of gold from the
islands . . ."
In the clump of burning palm trees, yet another gas canister
exploded. It was close enough that we could feel the rattle of the blast in the
debris under our feet; a shard of metal struck an onlooker, fortunately without
injury. Oblivious of the flames, the Director hurried toward a spot where a
mound of mangled household objects lay piled, having been pushed through
the screen of coconut palms like dough through a sieve.
"Look, that's mine," he said, pointing to a blue Aristocrat suitcase
made of molded plastic. It had been hacked open with a sharp-bladed
instrument and its contents were gone. The Director picked it up and shook
it. "I saw it the last time I was here," he said. "It was already empty.
Everything had been looted." His eyes moved over to a steel trunk lying
nearby. "That's mine too. Go and look." Stepping over, I saw that the trunk's
lock had been forced open. On the side, written in large black letters, was
the Director's name and designation. "You see," the Director said, as if in
vindication. "Everything I've been telling you is true. These things were all
A short distance away a wooden cabinet lay overturned, and
heaps of paper could be seen spilling out of its belly. The Director beckoned
to me. "See—there are all the records from my office. Thirteen years of
research, all gone." We went to kneel beside the cabinet, and I saw that the
papers were mimeographed data sheets, with the letterhead of the Malaria
Research Centre printed on top.
Somewhere among the papers I spotted a few old photographs.
Somehow it was a matter of great relief to me to come upon a retrievable
memento, and I was quick to draw the Director's attention to the pictures. On
examination it turned out that most of them had been defaced by the water,
but I found one where he, the Director, could be seen standing among a
group of people. I held it out to him, and he took it with an indifferent
shrug. "That photo was taken at the air base, I remember." He let go, and it
fluttered into a puddle of stinking water.
"Don't you want to keep it?" I said in astonishment.
"No," he said simply. "It means nothing. These are just work
Then suddenly his eyes lit up. "Look," he said, "my slides . . ." A
drawer had come open, shaking loose several decks of whiterimmed
photographic slides. Most were sodden, but some were dry and had
preserved their images. To my untrained eyes, the pictures appeared to be of
bacteria, hugely magnified by the lens of a microscope. The Director sorted
quickly through the slides and chose a dozen or so. Close at hand there lay
a roll of unused plastic bags that had been washed out of a drowned shop
and dried by the sun. Peeling off one of these bags, he placed the slides
carefully inside before fastening his fingers on them.
"Your home must have been nearby?" I said.
"No," came the answer. "The wave carried these things right out of
the town. My house is still a half a mile away, over there."
I had imagined that his possessions were bunched together
because his house had stood nearby. This was an indication of how little I
understood of the power of the surge. Its strength was such that it had
tossed the Director's house aside, picked up his belongings, and punched
them through a half-mile-wide expanse of dense habitation.
The place the Director had pointed to was on the far side of the
burning coconut palms, and it was evident that to get there we would have to
pass quite close to the fire, which was now spreading rapidly. We set off
almost at a run and soon came to a point where our path was blocked by a
fallen tree. He clambered over, hanging on to his slides, and I followed. The
fire was now about a hundred yards to our right, and as I was climbing over,
there was another detonation, followed by a crackling, whooshing sound. I fell
quickly to the ground and shut my eyes. When I looked up, the Director was
still standing, gazing down at me with puzzled impatience. "Come on, come
on—that's where we have to go, over there."
When I rose to my feet, I had my first glimpse of the seafront
where the town of Malacca had once stood; till now it had been largely
screened from view by the coconut palms. On a stretch of land about a mile
long, there were now only five structures still standing: the staring, skull-like
shell of a school that had lost all its doors and windows; a single neatly
whitewashed bungalow in the distance; an arched gateway that had the
words "Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Park" painted on it; a small, miraculously
unharmed Murugan temple, right beside the sea; and, last, the skeleton of a
church, with a row of parallel arches rising from the rubble like the bleached
ribs of a dead animal. This was the structure that had saved the life of the
Director's son. The palms along the seafront were undamaged and upright,
their fronds intact, but the other trees on the site had lost all their leaves, and
a couple had buses, cars, and sheets of corrugated iron wrapped around their
trunks. If not for the tree trunks and the waving palms, the first visual analogy
to suggest itself would have been Hiroshima after the bomb: the resemblance
lay not just in the destruction but also in the discernible directionality of the
blast. But there the parallel ended, for the sky here was a cloudless blue and
there were no wisps of smoke rising from the ruins.
The Director led the way across the debris as if he were following
a route imprinted in memory, a familiar map of streets and lanes. Despite a
stiff breeze blowing in from the sea, an odor of death flowed over the site, not
evenly, but in whirls and eddies, sometimes growing so powerful as to
indicate the presence of a yet undiscovered body. Stray dogs rooting in the
ruins looked up as if amazed at the sight of human beings who were still on
We came to a point where a rectangular platform of cement shone
brightly under the sun. The Director stepped up to it and placed his feet in the
middle. "This was my house," he said. "Only the foundation was concrete.
The rest was wood. My wife used to say that she had moved from a white
house to a log cabin. You see, she was from an affluent family—she grew up
in a bungalow with an air conditioner. She used to teach English in a school
here, but she always wanted to leave. I applied many times, but the transfer
never came." He paused, thinking back. For much of the time that we had
been together his voice had carried a note of sharp but undirected
annoyance; now it softened. "There was so much she could have achieved,"
he said. "I was never able to give her the opportunity."
I reached out to touch his arm, but he shook my hand brusquely
away; he was not the kind of man who takes kindly to expressions of
sympathy. I could tell from his demeanor that he was accustomed to
adversity and had invented many rules for dealing with it. The emotion he felt
for his family he had rarely expressed; he had hoarded it inside himself, in
the way a squirrel gathers food for the winter. Loath to spend it in his hectic
middle years, he had put it away to be savored when there was a greater
sense of ease in his life, at a time when his battles were past and he could
give his hoarded love his full attention. He had never dreamed—and who
could?—that one bright December day, soon after dawn, it would be stolen,
unsavored, by the sea.
I began to walk toward the gently lapping waves, no more than a
hundred yards away. The Director took fright at this and called me
back: "Don't go that way, the tide is coming in. It's time to leave."
I turned to follow him, and we were heading back toward the
blazing palms when he stopped to point to a yellow paint box peeping out of
the rubble. "That belonged to Vineeta, my daughter," he said, and the
flatness of his voice was harder to listen to than an outburst would have
been. "She loved to paint; she was very good at it. She was even given a
prize, from Hyderabad."
I had expected that he would stoop to pick up the box, but instead
he turned away and walked on, gripping his bag of slides. "Wait!" I
cried. "Don't you want to take the box?"
"No," he said vehemently, shaking his head. "What good will it do?
What will it give back?" He stopped to look at me over the rim of his
glasses. "Do you know what happened the last time I was here? Someone
had found my daughter's schoolbag and saved it for me. It was handed to
me, like a card. It was the worst thing I could have seen. It was unbearable."
He started to walk off again. Unable to restrain myself, I called out
after him, "Are you sure you don't want it—the paint box?"
Without looking around, he said, "Yes, I am sure."
I stood amazed as he walked toward the blazing fire with his
slides still folded in his grip. How was it possible that the only memento he
had chosen to retrieve was those magnified images? As a husband, a father,
a human being, it was impossible not to wonder, What would I have done?
What would I have felt? What would I have chosen to keep of the past? The
truth is, nobody can know, except in the extremity of that moment, and then
the choice is not a choice at all but an expression of the innermost
sovereignty of the self, which decides because nothing now remains to cloud
its vision. In the manner of the Director's choosing there was not a particle of
hesitation, not the faintest glimmer of a doubt. Was it perhaps that in this
moment of utter desolation, there was some comfort in the knowledge of an
impersonal effort? Could it be that he was seeking refuge in the one aspect of
his existence that could not be erased by an act of nature? Or was there
some consolation in the very lack of immediacy—did the value of those
slides lie precisely in their exclusion from the unendurable pain of his loss?
Whatever the reason, it was plain his mind had fixed on a set of objects that
derived their meaning from the part of his life that was lived in thought and
There are times when words seem futile, and to no one more so
than a writer. At these moments it seems that nothing is of value other than
to act and to intervene in the course of events. To think, to reflect, to write,
seems trivial and wasteful. But the life of the mind takes many forms, and
after the day had passed I understood that in the manner of his choosing, the
Director had mounted the most singular, the most powerful defense of it that I
would ever witness.
Copyright © 2005 by Amitav Ghosh. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
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