BOOK REVIEW: Amitav Ghosh
Far Eastern Economic Review
Jul 30, 1998

The Past Is Now
  * By Salil Tripathi
    1119 Words

Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma by Amitav Ghosh. Ravi Dayal,
New Delhi. 125 rupees.

   In 1906, two years after succeeding his half-brother Norodom, King
Sisowath of Cambodia went on an extensive visit to Marseilles,
accompanied by the royal ballet troupe. France responded warmly to the
charming dancers and the king's entourage. The dancers so enchanted
scutor Auguste Rodin that he travelled with them and drew evocative
sketches of their fluid, graceful movements. Lamenting their inevitable
departure, a moved Rodin said: "What an emptiness they left for me! I
thought they had taken away the beauty of the world. I followed them to
Marseilles; I would have followed them as far as Cairo."
 According to chroniclers of the day, one milestone of that visit was
the signing of a Franco-Siamese treaty, which saw today's Thailand
returning the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap to Cambodia. The
latter area, where the stunning and culturally significant Angkor Wat
temples are located, was particularly meaningful for Cambodia's
   But as David Chandler has pointed out in A History of Cambodia,
Sisowath actually had little to do with the return. He was in France
more as a connoisseur. In fact, he was not vastly different from Nawab
Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Avadh in northern India in the 1850s. Known
for his poetry and fine taste in art, he watched Lord Dalhousie's
empire-building swallow his kingdom while doing nothing to prevent it.
   When Sisowath returned to Cambodia, he wrote a proclamation to his
people praising French planning and management, which he said he wanted
to use to develop his country. The tone was humble and grateful: He told
his subjects to emulate the good that France had to offer, successfully
hiding the anger he felt toward the French, who sent him a bill for
their hospitality.
   Kings being kings, Sisowath soon forgot his development plans, and
his exhortations today sound oddly like a Soviet five-year plan. But as
the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh perceptively observes in his slim
volume of fascinating reportage from Cambodia and Burma, "For all the
apparent servility of its tone, it makes no cultural or political
concessions at all: The 'emulation' it calls for is entirely within the
domain of technology and economics . . . {I}f his is the view that has
come to prevail throughout Southeast Asia, no one is likely to thank him
for it."
   What has the 1906 dance tour got to do with today's Cambodia? Plenty,
if one sees the country through eyes of Ghosh, whose novels include the
acclaimed Shadow Lines and the part-anthropology, part-literature In An
Antique Land. The author sees a link that connects stories and lives in
incredible ways. Picking up the thread of Sisowath's visit to France,
Ghosh places it in the context of the return of civil society in
Cambodia, with rare ingenuity and empathetic understanding of the
country's modern history.
   Ghosh focuses on the irony of it all: of how the protagonists are
linked; how the tragedy is -- geopolitical realities aside --
essentially a Cambodian tragedy. Travelling through the countryside with
mine-defusing sappers, Ghosh seeks out people whose memory plays tricks.
They want to forget an immediate past and yet yearn to remember a more
ancient past; they are fighting the tendency to forget everything.
   He meets Chea Samy, a dance instructor who knew Sisowath's daughter,
Princess Soumphady, a member of the 1906 French entourage. And when
Ghosh reminds her about Soumphady -- who she recalls meeting as a young
girl -- she responds with "a smile in an indulgent, misty way in which
people recall a favourite aunt."
   But the same Chea Samy is the wife of a man whose youngest brother
was Pol Pot. And it is Pol Pot's men who killed Chea Samy's dance
instructor, who also taught the royal troupe, taking over from Princess
Soumphady. These coincidences -- of evil co-existing with aesthetics --
are, among other things, what intrigues Ghosh.
   A people who have been robbed of their education, names, profession
and identity now searching for the small strands and clues linking them
back to the origins of their culture, these are the other things that
intrigue the author. Watching Cambodians responding, with tears in their
eyes, to a dance performance, Ghosh concludes: "It was a kind of
rebirth: a movement when the grief of survival became indistinguishable
from the joy of living."
   The Czech author Milan Kundera lamented the decline of central Europe
during the years of Soviet dominance of eastern Europe. Kundera used a
Czech word to describe a synthesis of grief, sympathy, remorse and
anguished longing: litost. Ghosh doesn't have a similar singular word,
but by revealing how a brutalized people are trying to reconstruct their
society, by seeking inspiration from high art, he casts light on a
similar human disposition.
   In an essay about Burma in the same volume, Ghosh follows the
well-trodden path of contemporary Burmese history. He meets Aung San Suu
Kyi twice and recalls an earlier meeting with her when she lived in
Oxford with her family during more tranquil times.
   But what sets his reportage apart are the details. Ghosh presents
fascinating vignettes about the ethnic-Indian community in Burma: about
how Indian families, now pauperized in Calcutta after leaving Rangoon in
the late 1940s, wax nostalgically about that golden land and the
fortunes they made there.
   And Ghosh goes beyond -- to the very heart of Burma's little-known
wars: the struggle of the Karenni minority, who have been fighting,
virtually uninterrupted, since 1946 for independence. He crawls with
soldiers fighting Burmese government forces and discovers an
ethnic-Indian leader committed to the freedom of the Karenni region.
While Ghosh realizes intellectually the futility of Karenni forces'
struggle and the inability of the province to survive as an independent
nation state, he admires the determination of the people fighting for
it, fully conscious of the tragedy.
   Until now, Indian writers haven't shown much interest in Southeast
Asia's history or culture. Through his reportage, Ghosh is interpreting
Southeast Asian reality through South Asian eyes. That is an important
development in post-colonial discourse.
   For instance, at the Khmer Rouge's torture chamber, the Tuol Sleng
prison in Phnom Penh, a guide once told me that she was perplexed by the
different reactions of Asian and Western tourists. Asians walked through
the exhibits with little emotion, as though they were looking at
paintings in a museum. But Western tourists, perhaps sensitized by the
Holocaust, were deeply moved and often wept. One possible explanation is
that not enough Asians have written Asia's stories in an accessible
manner for other Asians. Ghosh's essays, for their part, contribute
greatly to that effort.
   *    Salil Tripathi is the REVIEW's economics correspondent.