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Authors: Amitav Ghosh

Incendiary Circumstances


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Copyright © 2005 by Amitav Ghosh

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ghosh, Amitav.
Incendiary circumstances : a chronicle of the turmoil
of our times / Amitav Ghosh.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
-13: 978-0-618-37806-7
-10: 0-618-37806-5
1. Ghosh, Amitav. 2. Authors, India—20th century—Biography. 3. Journalists—India—Biography. 4. History, Modern—1945– I. Title.
466 2005
823'.914—dc22 2005012175

Book design by Melissa Lotfy

Printed in the United State of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For details of previous publication and permissions, see

To Barbara and Jeffrey J. W. Baker


For believing in this collection and bringing about its publication, I would like to thank Barney Karpfinger, my agent, and Janet Silver, publisher, of Houghton Mifflin. However, this volume would not have found its present form but for Meg Lemke, who edited and oversaw it, and even suggested the title. I owe her a great debt of gratitude.

My thanks are due also to the editors who first published these pieces: Leon Wiesletier at the
New Republic,
Katrina Vanden Heuvel at
The Nation,
N. Ram at the
Michael Neumann at
Die Zeit,
and most of all, Bill Buford, who as the editor of
and then as the fiction editor of
The New Yorker
was responsible for seeing many of these pieces into print.

My wife, Deborah Baker, assisted at the birth of many of these essays, and my gratitude to her, is, as always, beyond measure. I am grateful also to my children, Lila and Nayan, not least for providing me with the hours of wakefulness in which many of these pieces were written. Finally, I am glad to be afforded this opportunity to thank Barbara and Jeffrey Baker, not just for being the most welcoming of in-laws, but also for personifying the openness and generosity of America at its best.


Although these essays were written over a period of twenty years, some issues, themes, and concerns echo through all of them. The most important of these is stated, if only obliquely, in the passage from which the collection takes its title: "The deadly logic of terrorism is precisely to invite repression: it is thus that it brings into being the social gulf on which its existence is predicated. To write carelessly can all too easily add to the problem by appearing to endorse either terrorism or violent repression. In such incendiary circumstances words can cost lives, and it is only appropriate that those who deal in them should pay scrupulous attention to what they say."

These words were written not today or yesterday but ten years ago, as a meditation on an event that had occurred even earlier, in 1984: they are from "The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi," which was published in
The New Yorker
in 1995. But the passage owes its origins to a Gandhi other than that of the title: the Mahatma, who was for my generation of Indians what Freud had once been to Central Europeans—that is to say, a ghost who was proof against all attempts at exorcism. His ideas had to be contended with, precisely because they were so strangely at variance with the disorder and violence of the world we lived in. For me, the aspect of Gandhi's thought that has been most productive perhaps is his insistence on the identity of means and ends. There is no such thing, Gandhi tells us, as a means to an end: means

André Breton once wrote that a ghost is "the finite representation of a torment." It is in this sense that Gandhi's ideas shaped the question that haunts these essays: is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject?

No doubt the reason that this question had a special urgency for me was because the "incendiary circumstances" of the title have been a part of the background of my everyday life since my childhood. Until recently it was possible to believe that there was something unusual or exceptional about those circumstances—that they were merely an aspect of what V. S. Naipaul has called "half-made worlds." But not the least of the many momentous changes that have followed upon the tragedy of September 11, 2001, is the realization that the half-made world has become, as I write elsewhere in this collection, "the diviner of the fully formed."

It affords me no satisfaction that the "incendiary circumstances" of these essays are no longer exceptional anywhere in the world. But their contemporary relevance lies, I hope, not merely in the circumstances they address but also in the renewed urgency of the question of means and ends. For if there is anything instructive in the present turmoil of the world, it is surely that few ideas are as dangerous as the belief that all possible means are permissible in the service of a desirable end.


Brooklyn, New York
February 14, 2005


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 the identity 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 geology.

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
(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 past decade.

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