IndiaStar Review of Books

Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma

by Amitav Ghosh

New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1998
                                114 pages)

Reviewed by Meenakshi Mukherjee
[Editor's note: "Prof. Meenakshi Mukherjee
is India's leading literary critic."-- c.j.s. wallia]


By a curious coincidence the publication of this book and the death of Pol Pot happened around the same time. The report of the death jogged public memory, bringing back images of brutal extermination of a quarter of Cambodia's population when the Khmer Rouge was in power between 1975 and early 1979. Even in India, where normally east Asian countries are peripheral in the national consciousness, this death made front-page news. The irony inherent in the fact that barely twenty persons attended the funeral of the man who had once masterminded the most systematic liquidation of the entire middle class of a country, was duly noted.

But newspapers deal with facts and statistics. Amitav Ghosh, with a novelist's grasp of the personal lives of individuals, writes a moving human account, weaving together stories of actual survivors in Cambodia who coped with their rupture with the past and rebuilt their ordinary lives "like rag-pickers, piecing their families, their roofs ... together from the little that was left.'

We have now come to expect each new Amitav Ghosh book to be different from what has appeared before. The wistful evocation of memory to reflect on divisions of land and people in The Shadow Lines (1988) had nothing in common with the disjointed magic realism of his apprentice novel, The Circle of Reason (1986). Neither, however, prepared any reader for the febrile frenzy of The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) where the history of malaria research is spliced with this story of subaltern subversions of western science. The conflation of genres in the present slim volume is quite unlike what was tried out in Ghosh's other nonfiction work, In An Antique Land (1992). In Dancing in Cambodia, travel, history, cultural commentary, political reportage shade into one another, the whole permeated with ruminations on freedom, power, violence and pain. Other histories and other geographies come alive and align with our own through Ghosh's transluscent prose.

Towards the end of The Shadow Lines an exercise done with a pair of rusty compasses on a tattered copy of Bartholomew's Atlas alerted us to the author's concern with the gap between actual distances on maps and psychological distances between countries. The present book is a logical extension of that concern: "Calcutta is closer to Burma's principal urban centres, Rangoon and Mandalay, than it is to New Delhi--and yet for three decades Burma remained virtually non-existent for us, dark and impenetrable. Amitav Ghosh's desire and curiosity--sometimes also courage--to penetrate these barriers have resulted in this book of three essays.

Sandwiched between two long pieces on Cambodia and Burma (not Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi told the author it was saner to retain old names) is a brief essay on Angkor War. It illustrates the kind of historical paradox that Ghosh can capture so succinctly--how the great twelfth-century temple, instead of Cambodia's medieval history "becomes a symbol of the modernizing nation-state"--an icon stamped on civil and military uniforms, factory produced commodities like beer, a design on the national flag, a logo for banks and airlines. When the French "discovered" Angkor War it was a functioning religious shrine, but the archeologists restoring the temple insisted on "separating the monument as far as possible from the untidy uses of its present day inhabitants." The stone needed to be sanitised from local contact to be truly monumental.

A similar mordant irony marks Ghosh's description of the refugee camps along the border between Burma and Thailand. The Karennis are a small ethnic group who have for fifty years waged a guerilla war for separate statehood. Reduced to homelessness, they now live in camps, becoming exhibits for tourists who come for "hill tribe trekking." Ghosh observes: "In effect tourism has transformed these camps, with their tragic histories of oppression, displacement and misery into counter. feits of timeless rural simplicitywaxwork versions of the very past their inhabitants have irretrievably lost."

In that provocative essay in The New Yorker last year, Salman Rushdie had said "Literature has little or nothing to do with a writer's home address," He might see Ghosh's new book as a vindication of his claim, but to me Amitav Ghosh's home address (not the current American one, but the permanent one in India) anchors his perspective of looking at the world. What drives the Karennis to go on with their hopeless fight for a homeland? Echoes of this question resonate in different regions of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. One of the characters in The Shadow Lines had wondered: "Why don't they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little piece a new name? What would it change?" In this book the author reflects in his own voice: "All boundaries are artificial: there is no such thing as a 'natural' nation, which has journeyed through history with its boundaries and ethnic composition intact.

Ghosh's original readers in Granta, The Observer Magazine and Vie New Yorker (where the essays first appeared) may not have noticed, but for the Indian reader, the author's family connections in Burma, the chance meeting at the edge of a Cambodian minefield with a Bangladeshi sergeant who had an ancestral district common with Ghosh, and the encounter with a guerilla fighter originally called Mahinder Singh, in the forests of eastern Burma--all provide points of intersection with our history.

The essay on Burma darkens as it proceeds. Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest seemed to the author more ebullient than in freedom. There are more questions facing the country than can be answered easily. In contrast, the essay on Cambodia ends on an epiphanic note, celebrating the resilience of its people. Dance becomes the metaphor for resistance to violence, the triumph of the human spirit. It is a curious choice of metaphor because by Ghosh's own account, dance in Cambodia seems "to have been mainly a palace art, to which the common people rarely had access. Only a few girls were chosen for training in classical dance out of thousands who aspired to the privilege it conferred on their families. From the well-researched and beautifully documented report with which the book begins, we know that when King Sisowath of Cambodia took his entourage to Marseille in 1906, the people of France, including the great sculptor Rodin, had a chance to see their performance, and they went into raptures. Rodin's sketch of a Cambodian dancer is on the cover of this volume, and five other sketches appear inside.

But Rodin, who found the perfection of these dancers "equalled only by the Greeks," and the relayed enthusiasm later of Rilke, tell us only of the European perception of the Orient. In Cambodia the common people hardly saw royal dancing "except in pictures." Yet the author uses dance as a symbol of the continuity of culture in Cambodia and a harbinger of its rebirth after devastation.

To me, it is not these symbols, but the acutely observed human details in their ordinariness, beauty, incongruity or horror that make the book remarkable and of course the lithe prose in which these details are recorded. Take for example the description of a dancer in Phnom Penh teaching a class of forty boys and girls: "Occasionally she would spring off the bench and bend back a dancer's arm, or push in a waist, working as a sculptor does, by touch, moulding the limbs like clay.

Or the guerilla insurgents in their forest camp in Burma: "Two freshly bathed teenage fighters sat playing a quiet game of chess on a tree stump, with their M-16s across their knees. In a nearby bunker off-duty soldiers were strumming guitars and singing what sounded like a hymn. Salman Rushdie in the above mentioned infamous essay may have been wrong about many things, but he was right in believing that an important dimension of literature is that "it is a means of holding a conversation with the world." In order to do that one must of course write in a language the world understands. His insistence about "parochialism being the main vice of the vernacular literature" ("vernacular" is his word, not mine) I would have been happy to disregard, but the fact is that only a writer in English can have the resource and hence the mobility to travel globally at will. Inveterate readers of travel books and indefatigable travellers within India-- the Bangla writers for example--can hardly afford to undertake unusual journeys to less-travelled parts of the world with the sole purpose of writing about them. The economics of the book industry in their languages will not permit such adventures. I am glad therefore that Amitav Ghosh writes in English because otherwise this book would not have come into being -- a book that dissolves distances in time and space magically to bring new worlds within our reach.