Dances In Cambodia

View of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India

Visit View of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sunil Kumar

Human history is a strange amalgam of feelings; instincts and a mix of rational and irrational forces. In “Dances in Cambodia; and other essays”; Amitav Ghosh talks about countries usually on the fringe of the world’s mindscape; Cambodia, Myanmar(Burma) and India’s very own Andaman and Nicobar islands.

The most wonderful thing here is an evocative; etched picture of Phnom Penh; Cambodia’s flawed history and a side-glance at Angkor Wat;situated in the Siem Reap province in Northern Cambodia. Largely a result of Indian influence; Hinduism and Buddhism made an impact in the ancient kingdom of Kambuja; which transformed into Kampuchea; and after the French; into Cambodia.

Western imperialism(in this case French) was stingy as usual; and Amitav got my attention when he talked about the royal family’s trips to Paris in early 1905; the usual oriental potentate debauchery; and the interactions with Rodin; a French sculptor basically known for “The Thinking Man”. Ghosh travels in the rural hinterland to trace how Saloth Sar transforms into Pol Pot; leader of the neo-Communist Khmer Rouge; instrumental in some of the greatest genocides in human history. Much of Cambodia’s history in the 20th century came alive in vivid terms when the author talks about the contradictions in people’s psychology; oblivious to mines and other hazards in a brutal struggle for existence.

The same concerns crop up when Burma is discussed. 2016 has seen a change in this country; famously part of India until 1935. Ethnic tensions between the Burmans; the Kachins, Karens and a whole bunch of communities ripped the country apart after its independence from Britain in 1948. The assassination of General Aung San; civil war till 1962; and military rule from 1962 led to Burma; one of the most resource-rich countries in South-East Asia; becoming one of its poorest.

On an endnote; Ghosh talks about one of the least-discussed topics in India’s mainstream media; Andaman and Nicobar islands after the devastating tsunami in 2004. He praises the Indian army for its proactive contribution; and at the same time lambasts the apathetic bureaucracy. There are stories of remarkable bravery, survival and at the same time; callousness and profiteering. At his descriptive best; Ghosh recounts the story of an Oriya scientist; whose wife and daughter go missing after a huge tidal wave flattens the island. 9/11 and a personal experience round up Ghosh’s account.

In the author’s words; the life of the mind takes many forms; and there is a sad poignancy when he talks about insurgencies; both natural and man-made; and seems to stop; just for an instant; reflecting on the very nature of existence.


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