August 03, 2020
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Shadow Dancing

Journalism as an art form

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Shadow Dancing
Dancing In Cambodia, At Large In Burma
By Amitav Ghosh
Ravi Dayal Publisher Rs 125, Pages: 114
IN the quixotic—and flagging?—world of serious reading, there are few things than can match the pleasure of reading a terrific piece of non-fiction by a fine writer of fiction. Journalism, catering to a low denominator mass, milestones itself in cliches and daily jargon, easily digested porridge needing no mastication. The novelist, rejecting the vacuity of these pointers, off-roads through all kinds of terrain, unearthing in his freewheeling, material and patterns not available on the media highway. But writing extended journalism is not everyone's cup of tea; and of the much lauded new generation of Indian writers, Amitav Ghosh is perhaps the only exemplary practitioner of this genre.

One reason could be that it entails hard work. The two long pieces in this volume—they originally appeared in Granta and The New Yorker—provide ample evidence of that. They deal with a part of the world that gives the lie to easy homilies about 20th century progress and well-being. Though tucked conveniently in a dusty corner of most people's consciousness, Burma and Cambodia have become over the decades synonymous with misery, deprivation, suffering, and the abuse of human rights. But once they were also known for other things.

For example, the land of Pol Pot's killing fields was once best known in Europe for the sheer grace and luminosity of its dancers: among its great admirers was the peerless Rodin, who was so captivated by the adolescent dancers on their first visit to France that he followed them around, sketching them and indulging them. Moving the narrative back and forth adroitly, Ghosh recounts Cambodia's colonial past and his own travels through its civil war-damaged present. He goes looking for the stories behind Pol Pot and his aides, and unearths tales of great sadness, bewilderment and nullity. He also finds tenuous connections between winsome palace dancers and ideological mass murderers. But all this is very subtle and nuanced—no heavy-handed conclusions, no thin-stretched deductions. Good novelists, after all, possess the gift of doubt. In contrast, a newspaper reporter would have summed up all of Cambodian history and civilisation in 800 words.

The piece on Burma is no less enthralling. A British colony of some wealth and dynamism, its future collapsed in one short morning in 1947, when on the eve of attaining independence, General Aung San, the 32-year-old undisputed leader of Burma, was gunned dead, along with several of his aides. In the ensuing years, Burma descended into crippling civil wars and eventually brutal totalitarian regimes, becoming one of "the most impoverished countries in the world's fastest developing region", "a byword for repression, xenophobia, civil abuse".

Ghosh in 1980 met General San's daughter at Oxford, and he goes back to meet her when he visits Rangoon. She has, since the late '80s, become a global symbol of peaceful resistance, with a Nobel Peace Prize in her cupboard. But meeting Aung San Suu Kyi is only part of Ghosh's attempt at understanding Burma; more impressive still is his visit to rebel guerrilla camps on the Thailand border. He treks through inhospitable jungle, experiences artillery shelling, and—the unexpected magic of travel—encounters an expatriate Sikh, Ko Sonny—Mahinder Singh—commanding a guerrilla contingent. Here again, Ghosh keeps his narrative shorn of all glibness, providing no reassurances of optimism or easy analysis.

The one thing that can be carped about is Ghosh's austere need to keep himself so completely out of the narrative. There are moments—as when he says he first met Suu Kyi in '80—when you want him to go on and crack open the stories within stories, to tell us how his material sparks him off. You want the novelist to step forward a little bit more, but he doesn't. What does work at full throttle is the researcher in him: with both pieces, though borne lightly, there is the assured air of precise scholarship. At the end one is left wondering: why doesn't someone get him to write on India?

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