Book Reviews

Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of Our Times by
Amitav Ghosh

Houghton Mifflin, USA

book cover

Few pinpoint and illuminate the ways in which globalization has changed the world as cogently as Amitav Ghosh, a multi-faceted public intellectual and scribe of nonfiction, fiction, and even science fiction. In essays selected for this seminal collection, he describes what we know and just as importantly, what we don’t know, about our times and the direction of the future. 

Ghosh feels strongly his responsibility as a writer to transcend voyeurism and spectacle in reporting on violent events, and to investigate the relationship between means and ends in achieving political goals. To do this he plumbs the zeitgeist of today’s twin terrors of insurgency and repression. He helps the reader to understand events in a way that make organized human behavior, however appalling and tragic, still somehow more comprehensible. He freely admits that he doesn’t know what to tell his children about the future, because to be aware of the death of one set of beliefs is not to know what will take its place. Yet, while reporting on people in the most difficult and extreme of circumstances, he finds stories of courage, grace, and defiantly normal behavior.

In an essay on his personal experiences with violence against the Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, he agonizes over the responsibility of the writer to describe such cycles of violence in ways that accommodate both the hateful acts that have taken place but also the decent actions of many people to oppose them.

Typically, Ghosh begins with an anecdote or the posing of a question, and ends with wise and sometimes unexpected words on what he has discovered—about fundamentalism, global dislocation, the history of the novel, a country’s tragic past. His best essays combine reportage, personal stories, and musings on the meaning of what he has found. 

He approaches the tragedy of Cambodia through the story of its classical dancers. Through family connections with a dancer in the royal court, a young village boy named Saloth Sar (later to take the nom de guerre Pol Pot) became the beneficiary of an education in France. Later after Pol Pot’s regime is overthrown, performances of the reconstituted dancers play an important role in the healing and rebirth of the country. Ghosh is a journalist willing to go out and get the story on the ground. In the course of researching this one, he seeks and finds the small village where Pol Pot was born and meets his brother, who bears a strong family resemblance, and his sister-in-law, who helped to raise Pol Pot and was a dancer in the royal court. 

He finds examples of courage and perseverance in the quiet refusal of the late Naguib Mahfouz to change the routines of his daily life in response to threats from fundamentalists, and in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, who stayed in Burma under house arrest to pursue her party’s goals, rather than accept safe passage back to her husband and children in England. 

In an essay titled, "The Fundamentalist Challenge" he posits that religious extremism is one form of dissent against the hegemonic functioning of the global marketplace, and that only articulate, humane, and creative dissent against the predatory effects of that marketplace, as well as against violence associated with extremism, can effectively counter fundamentalist movements that embrace destruction and intolerance. 

Through a combination of reportage and trenchant analysis, Ghosh tackles the most difficult questions of our times. 

Reviewed by Laura Lent