Travels in antique—and heavily armed—lands, many of them on a collision course with the American Empire.
Calcutta-born novelist (The Hungry Tide, 2005, etc.) and journalist Ghosh opens this collection of essays with a report that will seem all too immediate: In the wake of last year’s Christmas tsunami, he arrives in the Andaman Islands to discover that the place, a sort of virtual museum of tourist-oriented primitivism, has been devastated, of course—but also that no one was prepared, and no one in charge has the least idea of what to do next. As government officials make themselves scarce, stand-ins are pressed into service: priests, scientists, anyone who can write. “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 unharmed,” Ghosh writes. The author’s meditation on the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center may be one of the most sensitive in the literature, as he wrestles to reconcile enormity with his credo “that nothing human should be alien to me.” At the center of the book is its most memorable piece, a tour of the front lines in a wildly alien place, a vast glacier in the Himalayas over which Pakistani and Indian troops have been warring for years. Even though it has “no strategic, military, or economic value whatsoever,” Siachen Glacier has become its own cause; returning from duty on the ice, a reputedly sane Indian officer proposes that it be melted with a nuclear device so as to flood Pakistan, sweep its inhabitants away and allow his troops to go home. Everywhere Ghosh travels he finds confusion and conflict—even, sad to say, in the republic of books that marks his graceful reminiscence of youth in Calcutta, “an oddly bookish city.”
Thoughtful, sometimes mournful essays on the state of the world, with little good news in sight.