Incendiary Circumstances

Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The word incendiary was used to describe firebombs that dropped from planes during World War II. It sprang often from Edward R. Murrow’s lips during his broadcast sorties from London. Amitav Ghosh has chosen this word from another time to title his recently published anthology of essays. Intended or not, it’s a stroke of irony. These 17 pieces penned over the last two decades are devoted to the conflicts and dislocations peculiar to our own time, one in which the comfortable binaries of clear right and wrong no longer seem to apply.

The writer, a criss-crosser of the globe born in Calcutta, takes us to little-observed corners of the developing world in order to shed some light on the “incendiary circumstances” there. As Murrow brought the Blitz into American living rooms, so Ghosh transports us – and our consciences – to places that could be described as contemporary front lines. But the conflicts there are no longer between nation-states. They are within countries and among ethnicities, cultures and religious ideologies.

Ghosh treks across mountainous terrain with camouflaged guerrillas shouldering M-16s. They are dissidents, former university students who live in bamboo huts near the Thai-Burmese border as they carry forward a five-decade-old struggle by the Karenni ethnic minority to break away from Burma.

In the dissidents’ jungle camp, Ghosh sleeps on a pallet on the floor of a hut. The camp leader devises a makeshift pillow for the writer by wrapping books in a towel. One book, The Transformation of War by Martin Van Creveld, falls out. It predicts a shift from wars waged by states to those conducted by more chaotic elements. The author strikes Ghosh as a kind of oracle of insurgencies.

In a way, so is Ghosh. Long before Osama bin Laden brought terror onto U.S. soil and into U.S. consciousness, Ghosh was chronicling its dispossessing, widowing, orphaning presence and roots elsewhere. He describes, for instance, Sikhs burned alive in the streets of New Delhi in 1984, in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by Sikh bodyguards sympathetic to insurgents in the Punjab.

But Ghosh’s first-person chronicles – ranging from Brooklyn after the twin towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, to the wrecked shores of the Andaman Islands after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 – are not macho dispatches from a Kevlar-vested correspondent in disaster zones.

Ghosh, a creative writing teacher at Harvard University, is no such thing. He is an intellectual, albeit the kind unafraid to speed past minefields on a scooter to the wooden house on stilts where Pol Pot was born. His essays are alive with the immediacy of the best reporting. But ideas also animate this collection. Some of the essays are thought arcs – not just narratives, but meditations crafted with a reporter’s attention to detail and a poet’s attention to metaphor and meaning.

So, Ghosh writes of the Burmese dictator Gen. Ne Win’s impact on his country: “He slammed the shutters and switched off the lights: Burma became the dark house of the neighborhood… .”

“Dancing in Cambodia,” the essay that peers into Pol Pot’s origins, begins in 1906, with the arrival of the Francophile monarch King Sisowath in the port of Marseilles with a troupe of classical dancers. Ghosh weaves the story of the dancers – immortalized in sketches by a smitten Rodin during that very same trip – with his own observations about Cambodia nearly 90 years later.

The salience of the dancers is withheld until the essay’s end. Ghosh is clearly exploring the theme of the fraught love affair between the colonizer and the colonized. He expresses curiosity about Pol Pot’s own days as an electronics student in Paris and mentions that many of the leaders of the country’s Communist revolution studied there. Then, Ghosh illuminates, with a description of the first postwar dance performance in Phnom Penh in 1981.

The audience sobbed from beginning to end.

“You could have sailed out of there in a boat,” one observer recalled.

“We thought everything was lost,” survivors of the war said, “that we would never hear our music again, never see our dance.”

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