The many varieties of natural and manmade catastrophe are catalogued and mined for sightseeing opportunities in this absorbing compendium-cum-travelogue.
The author is not only a medical doctor with a scientific turn of mind and a lifelong fascination with disasters, but an inveterate traveler with a knack for showing up amid the ruins. (When he can’t, his daughter and son-in-law, both BBC reporters, often send him dispatches from the wreckage.) He deploys all these penchants to good effect in investigating every kind of mass calamity one can think of. (This second edition includes a new section on global warming.) His chapter on volcanoes, for example, includes tours of Iceland, where frozen glaciers and boiling eruptions clash in a seething brew; of Mediterranean islands bubbling with toxic gas; and of a Hawaiian volcano where fiery lava plunges steaming into the sea to create new land. A chapter on hurricanes features the harrowing story of a friend who waited out Ivan in his attic while the ocean swept through his living room. A section on starvation includes Dasgupta’s boyhood memories of the Bengal famine of 1943, while the chapter on industrial accidents includes his first-hand impressions of the Union Carbide chemical factory in Bhopal and a sad, evocative reminiscence of surviving one of India’s frequent train crashes. And a chapter on floods takes him on a river cruise up the awesomely beautiful but polluted Ganges that results in an intestinal ailment that is itself an almost epic disaster. Dasgupta fills the book with interesting statistics and lucid expositions of the mechanisms behind plate tectonics, solar cycles and other natural phenomena, but his meandering, omnivorous curiosity leads him into digressions on everything from the construction of igloos to the stalking tactics of tigers. The result is a page-turning assemblage of scientific lore illuminated by rapt personal observations.
A fine disaster tour-guide, replete with interesting factoids and vivid reportage.