Category Archives: U.S.

Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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Filed under Britain, disease, economics, Europe, India, language, migration, publishing, U.S.

Bengal’s New Bourgeoisie

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 560-580:

Each summer, I had returned to Calcutta for months at a time, without a project or a purpose, just to be there. The Statesman looked worse with each passing year. Most of my Statesman friends – those who weren’t lifers like Mike – had fled to the Telegraph or one of the national papers that had opened up offices in Calcutta. The times were changing. India’s corporate boom was trickling into the city. New jobs were emerging. Some friends had left journalism altogether to work in back offices, writing content and doing design for American corporations. On the verdant eastern edge of the city, a whole planned suburb called Sector Five had sprouted to accommodate them. Next to grazing fields dotted with palms and cows, the likes of IBM, GE and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers had built glittering glass temples to global capitalism. Premodern and postmodern India headbutted each other as if waiting to deliver the punchline to a cruel joke. A peasant and a programmer walk into a bar . . .

I met a friend who had found such a position in an American firm at Sector Five. As she was showing me around her glass temple, she took me to a room full of rolled-up mats. They reminded me of the mats that some of the Muslim waiters used to spread out during prayer times at the Statesman canteen.

‘Are the mats for namaz?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are for yoga.’

It was the first time I had heard anyone in Calcutta utter the word. She didn’t say joge, which is the Bengali term for the breathing exercises and body contortions that we had all been forced to practise as kids, exercises that were the realm of old geezers, much like consulting astrological charts, performing exorcisms or taking snuff. Joge to us was some grandpa forcing you to sit still for fifteen minutes and pretend to ‘meditate’. This avatar of grandpa’s joge as yuppie yoga was part of a prepackaged global lifestyle imported from America.

At six o’clock, Sector Five was lined with more coach buses than South Point School. As those glass temples emptied into the streets, throngs of twenty- and thirty-somethings all lit Filter Wills cigarettes and fired off that last text message. And new masses replaced them, for another shift would start soon enough. It may have been quitting time in Calcutta, but somewhere in New York or California, the day had just begun. Sector Five was staffed by my people, my generation of the middle class. It employed thousands of men in Moustache jeans and women in Fab India salwars, the types that in my time would idle for years, having passed their college exams, offering tutoring, writing Charminar-fuelled poetry before finally giving up or moving out of the city. Those multitudes represented something unprecedented in my lifetime. Before, I had only seen such crowds of the young middle classes at cricket matches and during student demonstrations. This was new. They were not jeering Pakistani cricketers or attacking tuition hikes. They were working. In Sector Five, on parade was Bengal’s new bourgeoisie.

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China’s Tung Oil Exports, 1918-1937

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 106-107, 109:

If tea and silk are full of history and romance, familiar to all and identified with China, tung oil is a blue-collar product few have ever heard of. But tung oil resembles these more aristocratic products because its properties, like theirs, are unmatched by any other natural substance and because it was produced almost nowhere else. Although used in China for millennia, it did not attract international attention until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The tung oil trade grew spectacularly in both volume and unit price between 1918 and 1937, with about 70 percent of the product shipped to the United States. In 1937, the first year of the Sino-Japanese War, over 20,000,000 gallons were exported (at about $1.40 per gallon), making it China’s most valuable single trade product. In just a few years, tung oil had soared past tea, cotton yarn, metals, eggs and egg products, skins and furs, and raw silk. War devastated this trade and U.S. chemical industries, impelled to invent alternatives for many products now unavailable, developed petroleum-based substitutes to take the place of tung oil in most uses. In this, too, tung oil resembles silk, which also fell victim to the chemical industry’s rayon and nylon.

Tung oil is classified as a “drying oil,” by which is meant that when exposed to air it oxidizes readily, forming a tough, hard, waterproof film. Tung oil can be applied alone as a waterproofing varnish, and this is one of its main uses in China. The Chinese also use tung oil for preparing caulking materials (chunam), dressing leather, waterproofing paper, making soap, treating skin afflictions, and producing lampblack for solid inksticks.

But perhaps its most important function is (or was) in the manufacture of paint…. For this purpose, tung oil is superior to linseed oil, traditionally the most widely used drying oil in Europe and the United States; tung oil dies faster and produces a harder, more durable film.

Tung oil (sometimes also called wood oil) is obtained from the nut of the tung tree (Aleurites cordata) [now Vernicia cordata], which is native to China. Almost all commercially grown tung trees are found in the central provinces, north and south of the Long River, particularly in Szechwan and Hunan. As the demand grew, more and more trees were planted, particularly on hilly, otherwise unproductive land along the navigable tributaries of the Long River, in order to reduce the cost of overland transport—usually by shoulder pole—which could quickly erode the profits to be made.

Had the war and war-induced substitutes not intervened, tung oil would almost certainly have had a bright future. Indeed, so valuable was the product that in the 1930s efforts were made to experiment with tung plantations along the Gulf Coast of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but DuPont’s chemists made them unnecessary just as they were beginning to produce a little oil.

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Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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Speaking Latin in Sichuan

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle p. 330:

We met Father Li and chatted in his sitting room. Politely he spoke to my father, with me serving as the translator, and I mentioned that the priest still used Latin during weekday Masses.

“Tell him that I used to be an altar boy for Latin Mass,” my father said. Father Li nodded and said that nobody else in Fuling still understood the language. I asked my father if he still remembered the traditional service, and he nodded.

“In nomine Patris,” he said, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” responded the priest. “I will go in to the altar of God.”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” my father said. “To God, Who giveth joy to my youth.”

For a few minutes they went through the beginning of the service. I had been translating for nearly a week, and now it was strange to sit silent, listening and not understanding a word between these two men that I knew so well. The priest’s Latin was tinged with Sichuanese; my father spoke with an American accent. Theirs was a rote, formal dialogue in a rusty old language, but it was clear that something about the conversation changed the way the two men saw each other. After they were finished, Father Li kept forgetting himself, addressing my father directly in Sichuanese, as if he would understand. But as we left he used Latin once more. “Dominus vobiscum,” he said. “The Lord be with you.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” my father said.

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Satsuma at Admiral Perry’s Arrival

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 171-172:

As the twenty-eighth daimyo of Satsuma, Nariakira had been a radical reformer and one of the most progressive feudal lords of his time—even before Perry. He advocated “enrich the nation and strengthen the military” and embraced Western technology, namely warships and guns, to fortify Japan. He realized that the island country must open its ports to foreign trade to acquire that technology; and that the Bakufu and the feudal domains must pool their resources and cooperate with one another to tackle the dangerous problems of the encroaching modern age—all revolutionary ideas in pre-Perry Japan. This is not to say that he advocated abolishing the feudal system in favor of a unified Japanese nation. Such a notion would not be considered by even the most radical thinkers for some years to come. Rather, as daimyo of Satsuma, he planned to reform the Bakufu to give outside lords like himself an unprecedented voice in national affairs. Hisamitsu inherited those plans.

Nariakira began the drive for modern fortifications in his own backyard, radically modernizing Satsuma. In Kaei 5 (1852), the year after his accession, he began the construction of reverberatory and blast furnaces for the manufacture of warships, cannons, rifles, and other modern weaponry, and fortified the coastal defenses of Satsuma, planting mines in the sea approaches to his castle town of Kagoshima. In the Second Month of the following year—four months before Perry’s first arrival—Nariakira began the construction of the warship Shōhei Maru, the first modern ship produced in Japan. He arranged with the Bakufu for permission to build the triple-masted sailing vessel even before the ban on ocean-going ships was lifted—under the condition that it be used for the express purpose of defending the Ryūkyū islands in the south, nominally ruled by their own king but subjugated by Satsuma since the beginning of the seventeenth century.

During the countrywide debate on whether to accept Perry’s demands, Nariakira urged Edo to enter into protracted diplomatic negotiations with the Americans to stall them until Japan could prepare itself to repel the foreigners by military force. As a means to this end, he advised the Bakufu to abolish the ban on oceangoing vessels. When the ban was lifted, he manufactured more warships. He westernized the Satsuma military, training his troops in modern artillery methods. He modernized Satsuma, transforming it into the most militarily, economically, and industrially advanced entity in all of Japan, bar none—including the Tokugawa Bakufu.

Satsuma was no doubt spurred into action by Admiral Perry’s visit to Okinawa in 1852, a year before he first arrived in Edo.

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What Surprised Japanese POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 144-145:

Traditionally, Japanese have lived in a society that highly prizes the reciprocal giving and receiving of favors, including those exchanged between superior and inferior. Once drawn into a “human” (that is, emotional) conversational relationship with their interrogators, the prisoners realized that they had already received many favors from their captors. They had generally been treated decently. Of particular importance to the Japanese, they had not generally been insulted or humiliated. These Americans did not generally look down on them with contempt.[…]

In addition to all the material benefits they had received, some prisoners mused, the Americans had given them their life, if only by not killing them. For the Japanese, this huge imbalance of “favors” granted and received represented a serious problem. Many solved it by giving the Americans the only thing they had to give—answers to seemingly innocuous questions.

While Japanese prisoners were impressed by the material things the Americans shared with them, they were deeply affected by the more personal touches. They could not easily cast these aside saying the “rich Americans” could afford such things. It was not only that the Americans readily took out a cigarette from their own pack; more significant for them was that they were prepared to do so within plain sight of others. A few former Japanese POWs noted in their memoirs that they might have had the chance during the course of their military service to slip an American POW a cigarette. Now that the roles were reversed they were ashamed that they had lacked the courage to overcome the Japanese convention of the time, that all POWs of any nationality properly deserved total contempt. Prisoners so badly wounded that they could not even light or hold a cigarette were overcome with inexpressible gratitude when an order lit the cigarette and passed it from his lips to theirs.

Of all the many unfamiliar things the Japanese encountered in the prison camps, probably the most astounding was their medical treatment. They could hardly believe that prisoners received treatment identical to that accorded their captors. They would find themselves in hospital beds adjacent to beds occupied by their “enemy.” Even more astounding, American medical orderlies deigned to lift them up with their own hands and even clean them when they soiled their bed. That Americans gave officer status to nurses often amazed the Japanese. That these nurses would not only treat lowly enemy enlisted men but also at times give them a smile astounded them even more.

Discovering that they received the same food and in the same quantities as their captors surprised them as well. For a status-conscious Japanese prisoner who viewed himself as beneath contempt, such recognition of common humanity left an abiding impression. In this sense, the whole atmosphere of the prison camp became conducive to maintaining a civil, personal relationship with the Americans. While not designed for the purpose, in some instances this could only further American efforts to gain intelligence.

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